Did James Madison Encourage Abandonment of Christian Religion?

By:  Joe Wolverton, II, J.D.
Did James Madison Encourage Abandonment of Christian Religion?

A recent commentary claimed that in his “Memorial and Remonstrance,” James Madison encouraged his fellow citizens to abandon the Christian religion.

On May 1, Lauren Becker, director of marketing at the Center for Inquiry, declared that “we need to lose religion to save America.”

As part of her plea, Becker makes several significant mistakes in her review of history of the supposed irreligiousness of our Founding Fathers.

Becker’s primary source of support is a proposal to the Virginia General Assembly written in June 1785 by James Madison.

As so many leftists do when they try to hide behind the skirts of the Founders, Becker takes one step too many in her interpretation of the intent of the speaker she summons from history.

In describing what compelled Madison to write “A Memorial and Remonstrance,” Becker claims:

It’s 1784 and James Madison has a problem: the General Assembly of Virginia has just proposed a bill that would establish a special tax to pay for “teachers of the Christian Religion.” The bill has wide support because the Episcopal Church — the dominant church — will benefit greatly from having taxpayers pay for its teachers. Madison, however, knows better. He knows the bill is an attack on the principle of freedom of conscience and a threat to the liberties so recently wrenched from King George III.

So what does he do? What does the future Founding Father, Father of the Constitution, Father of the Bill of Rights, and fourth president of the United States do? He sits down and writes out a list of fifteen reasons why Virginians should reject the bill and any other attempt to mix religion and government.

Well, that’s partially correct. Madison did indeed oppose the establishment of a state religion. This advocacy for the principle of religious liberty was not something Madison developed after learning of the General Assembly’s attempt to continue subsidizing the Episcopal Church. This event was not at all the catalyst Becker claims.

In fact, James Madison played a prominent role in drafting Article XVI of the Virginia Declaration of Rights passed nearly a decade before the events listed by Becker. In this influential statement of rights, Madison (and George Mason) wrote:

That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.

That hardly sounds like the angry, reactionary rant of a man determined to keep religion out of the public marketplace of ideas, or, as Becker writes, to establish “the first secular republic in history.”

To her discredit, Becker goes on to springboard from the “Memorial and Remonstrance” to a setting straight of the “countless people who think America is a Christian Nation founded on biblical principles.”

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