Thursday, October 04, 2007

Don't Get Madison

[posted by Callimachus]

While I'm sympathetic to sincere people of faith, I caution them against arguing that the Founders intended to make America a Christian nation. Especially if they are going to do it with a set of cherry-picked quotes and no deep reading of the sources. Especially if they're going to let someone else pick the cherries for them.

As Michael Medved seems to have done here. His argument is built from disconnected snippets; ten-word half-sentences from men who wrote millions of words of pubic discourse. And when the snippets turn out to be flimsy, the argument becomes a house of cards. For instance:

Jefferson’s friend and colleague, James Madison (acclaimed as “The Father of the Constitution”) declared that “religion is the basis and Foundation of Government” ....

I believe Medved wrote honestly and sincerely. But I suspect he had some less-than-honest book of history or quotations open in front of him. They are out there. The Christian bookstores are full of them. And they are mine-fields for an honest writer. They are full of mangled, out-of-context, or outright bogus quotations.

Here's the full paragraph of the Memorial and Remonstrance from which Medved's first Madison quote was plucked:

15. Because finally, "the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his Religion according to the dictates of conscience" is held by the same tenure with all our other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us; if we consult the "Declaration of those rights which pertain to the good people of Virginia, as the basis and foundation of Government," it is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis.

Emphasis added by me, to show how badly you have to torture Madison to make him say what Medved wants him to have said.

So what is Madison really talking about here? Well, read the introduction to the "Memorial and Remonstrance."

We the subscribers, citizens of the said Commonwealth, having taken into serious consideration, a Bill printed by order of the last Session of General Assembly, entitled "A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion," and conceiving that the same if finally armed with the sanctions of a law, will be a dangerous abuse of power, are bound as faithful members of a free State to remonstrate against it, and to declare the reasons by which we are determined.

It takes a willful disregard for truth to take that document and employ any part of it as an argument for the Founders wanting America to be a Christian nation.

When Madison took his place in the Virginia legislature after the Revolutionary War, a bill stood in the General Assessment, sponsored by Patrick Henry, that would funnel tax money to support religious education in all denominations.

Henry justified this as a way to curtail the sin and immorality of young people. But the General Assessment bill would have hatched the monster Madison feared most: a "tyranny of the majority." If the ministers from all the major Protestant denominations were paid from the state treasury, a coalition of Protestant groups would relegate minority views to a "tolerated" status or worse.

Madison scholar Robert Alley writes that, "toleration presumed a state prerogative that, for Madison, did not exist." Madison wrote that "the right to tolerate religion presumes the right to persecute it." Instead Madison argued for "liberty of conscience." The "natural rights of man," centering in the concept of "liberty of conscience," stand, without question for Madison, above and before any other authority.

The legislature was on the verge of passing the bill, but Madison convinced his colleagues to postpone a vote until the next session in 1785. Madison used the postponement to take his case to the public, writing a broadside critique, the "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," which has become the classic statement for religious freedom in North America.

His sole concern was protecting the individual conscience from the intrusion of state power.

The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.

Madison insisted government keep its hands absolutely off religion.

Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man's right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.

Madison, in his Virginia pamphlet, addressed a God-fearing audience. Probably there's a degree of sophistry in his painting Patrick Henry's bill to provide public funds for religious education as an anti-Christian bill, because "it at once discourages those who are strangers to the light of revelation from coming into the Region of it; and countenances by example the nations who continue in darkness, in shutting out those who might convey it to them."

But in the course of his central argument Madison makes statements that, though he comes down on the secular side, show as high a respect for religion as you can find anywhere.

As I've written in many places before, the Founders had a complex and shifting set of attitudes toward religion overall, religion as they found it in America, and religion as they felt it personally. They by no means agreed on any of these things. But to act as though they had a single, simple, clear vision, and to attempt to prove it by quotes picked by dubious pickers, only makes you look foolish.

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