James Madison Understood Religious Freedom Better than Jefferson Did

Portrait of James Madison by John Vanderlyn, 1775–1852 (The White House Historical Association)
One emphasized the freedom to think; the other, in effect, the freedom to pray.

The musical Hamilton captures a common perception about the relative importance, and sexiness, of Thomas Jefferson compared with James Madison. Jefferson is tall and hot, and arrives to the beat of swing music. Madison is short and serious, the dutiful sidekick.

And for years now, Jefferson has been deemed the Founding Father most associated with championing religious freedom. On the wall of the Jefferson Memorial is his quote “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” On his tombstone, Jefferson listed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom as one of his three greatest achievements, along with the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia.

In fact, when it comes to religious freedom, James Madison was more important than Jefferson — in part because Madison had a more nuanced view of religion.

Let’s start with their accomplishments. Jefferson’s main achievement was the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. He wrote it in 1779 but, alas, it died in the legislature. While Jefferson was off in Paris, Madison resurrected the bill and got it passed in 1786. Madison then went on to play the lead role in drafting, and ratifying, the Constitution, and then shepherded through the First Amendment.

Madison’s success, politically and philosophically, came in part because he bridged Jefferson’s Enlightenment impulses with the views of the Baptists he got to know in Virginia. As a young man, Madison witnessed a shocking wave of persecution against local Baptists, who in our day might be called Evangelical Christians. (By the time of the revolution, about half of the Baptist ministers had been arrested.) In addition, Madison owed his subsequent election to Congress to the votes of Evangelicals, which he secured by promising them he would advocate for a Bill of Rights that would protect religious freedom.

He imbibed, and agreed with, the Baptist argument that church and state should be separated — not to make America secular but rather to make it religiously vibrant.

In 1819, nearly two decades after the passage of the First Amendment, Madison was asked to assess whether the separation of church and state had worked well. Unsurprisingly, he offered a positive verdict, but the nature of his evidence was revealing. He pointed not to the decline in religious persecution but to the rise in enthusiasm:

On a general comparison of the present & former times, the balance is certainly & vastly on the side of the present, as to the number of religious teachers, the zeal which actuates them, the purity of their lives, and the attendance of the people on their instructions. . . .

The number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State.

Jefferson, by contrast, focused on the threat that organized religion posed to freedom of thought. Unlike Madison, Jefferson in his writings exhibits a deep hostility to organized religion, both its modern and its ancient varieties. In Jefferson’s view, Christianity was ruined almost from the start. “But a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in church and state,” he wrote. The authors of the canonical gospels laid “a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications.” The apostle Paul made matters worse. “Of this band of dupes and imposters, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.”

The Protestant Reformation did not reform much, according to Jefferson. John Calvin’s idea of predestination — that God chose some to be saved and that their actions couldn’t alter their fate — disgusted him. By detaching salvation from behavior, it undermined morality. “Calvinism has introduced into the Christian religion more new absurdities than its leader [Jesus] had purged it of old ones,” he explained. Driven by the conviction that history had obscured the moral teachings of Jesus, Jefferson created his own Bible by cutting out all the miracles, including Jesus’s divine birth and resurrection, rescuing the “diamonds” of Jesus’s true teachings from the “dung” that littered its pages.

For Jefferson, spirituality was primarily an individual quest, while Madison believed that organized religion, too, was valuable and must, for the sake of the republic, be purified and strengthened. Jefferson wanted religious freedom in order to end persecution and remove limitations on intellectual creativity; Madison believed that liberty would lead religion to flourish. Jefferson emphasized the freedom to think; Madison, in effect, the freedom to pray.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that Jefferson was unimportant on the subject, or that Jefferson and Madison were at odds. Their views were highly compatible. But Madison better harnessed the religious impulses of Americans and was able to create a winning coalition, drawing together true believers and Enlightenment intellectuals, to advance the cause. But that doesn’t fit so easily on a tombstone.

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