Perhaps one of the most quintessentially American rights that we have is the right to freely exercise our religious beliefs. But how many people take the First Amendment and what it says about religion and completely ruin the context and meaning behind it?
So, I’m going to clear the air today with this article.
Madison and Religion
James Madison, commonly referred to as the “Father of the Constitution”, was instrumental in penning the First Amendment, so analyzing his understanding of the relationship between government and religion is essential to understanding the First Amendment.
One of Madison’s most influential mentors, John Witherspoon, was a highly religious man. Madison, therefore, was very partial towards religion and this influenced his reasoning behind the language of the First Amendment. He was not at all comfortable with a state mandated religion. So, every word of the First Amendment was intentionally and carefully thought out.
First Amendment and Religion
“Congress shall make NO LAW respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…”
Historical context is important here. Madison fought for religious freedom in his state, Virginia, before writing the Constitution. Many states did the very opposite of what the states were establishes to avoid. They established state mandated or funded religions. Many Americans, primarily Baptists (and Presbyterians), who felt that religion could only be the result of personal and individual conviction, fought against this type of government overreach.
Madison, who had his own religious convictions and understanding, agreed with the Baptists. Religion is a personal conviction issue, not a government one.
Madison says: “Every new and successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”
By this, he meant religion should never be established by law. He dispels the fallacious belief that religion must be mandated or forced upon individuals by government. He emphasizes that mixing the two actually dilutes pure religion.
“We are teaching the world the great truth that governments do better without Kings and Nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of government”.
So, the key here is that not only did Madison think that government would dilute religion, he thought that religion would flourish without government interference. He argued that the more government interfered with religion, the more that religion would suffer. He used examples of many countries who persecuted Christians in the past and yet Christianity grew more under persecution than it did with the support of government.
“It was the Universal opinion of the Century preceding the last, that Civil Government could not stand without the prop of a religious establishment; and that the Christian religion itself, would perish if not supported by the legal provision for its clergy. The experience of Virginia conspicuously corroborates the disproof of both opinions. The Civil Government, tho’ bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability and performs its functions with complete success; whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the TOTAL SEPARATION OF THE CHURCH FROM THE STATE.”
Get that? So, Madison held the belief that both government and religion fared better when they were not entangled. Bloodshed was the result of various religious clashes. Madison did not want such entanglement in the United States. And as a religious man, he also had a vested interest in the survival and growth of religion.
The lie that I want to abolish with this post is that Madison (the key author of the First Amendment) wanted religion and Christianity completely thrown out of society and out of government operations. Madison in no way intended for religion to become anathema to government. He wanted to preserve the purity and growth of religion by keeping government out of it, and didn’t want religion quarrels to become government quarrels.
“…Freedom arises from the multiplicity of sects, which prevades America and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.”
If anything, he was in favor of religion growing and flourishing and therefore wrote the first part of the First Amendment with the intention of keeping government out of religion and religion out of government.
Finally, and more simply, Madison did not desire that government prohibit in anyway a individuals freedom to practice whatever religion they wanted. As he puts it, government abusing this freedom is an offense against God, not man.
“If this freedom be abused, it is an offense against God, not against man:To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered.”
There’s so much more I could unpack with this, but for now, digest the simplicity of what I have laid out here. The First Amendment was not written to extinguish or remove religion from society or government. If anything, it was written with the hopes and intentions of helping pure religion flourish and grow.
While many of liberties are being threatened, from speech to gun rights, some of our anscestors came to the United States with the primary goal of practicing religion freely.
Government needs to stay out religion for religion to flourish. That does not mean that government must expel religion at all costs. It means anything but that.
Let’s be careful to never confuse the two.
The Liberty Belle