No cause was dearer to James Madison’s heart than the cause of conscience. And no founder of our country was more responsible for what is now the world’s boldest and most successful experiment in religious freedom, or liberty of conscience, for all.
Madison’s vision of religious freedom was shaped as a young man growing up in Orange County, Virginia. At an early age, he was outraged by the imprisonment of Baptist preachers for the crime of “publishing their religious Sentiments.” In 1774, Madison wrote to his friend William Bradford, describing the jailing of Baptists as “that diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution,” and asked him to “pray for Liberty and Conscience to revive among us.”
Two years later, in 1776, a 25-year-old Madison traveled to Williamsburg to represent his county at the convention called to declare Virginia’s independence from Great Britain. At a key moment in the proceedings, young Madison successfully called for an amendment to the venerable George Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, changing “toleration in the exercise of religion” to “free exercise of religion.”
With that small change in language, Virginia moved from toleration to full religious freedom — a precedent that would greatly influence the new nation’s commitment to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. No longer would government have the power to decide which groups to “tolerate” and what conditions to place on the practice of their religion.
Ten years later, in 1786, Madison led the successful battle to disestablish the Anglican Church in Virginia by enacting the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, drafted by Thomas Jefferson. Under Madison’s leadership — and with the support of Baptists and other dissenting groups — the Virginia General Assembly became the first legislative body in history to disestablish religion.
“The Religion then of every man,” Madison wrote during that bitter fight, “must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”
In Madison’s vision, religious freedom is an inalienable right that must be protected for people of all faiths and none, including the smallest minorities and least popular beliefs. Commitment to the cause of conscience means little unless government takes seriously all claims of conscience — and then works to provide accommodations whenever possible.
When the matter of enumerating rights was debated at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison — who provided the template for the “checks and balances” in the Constitution — was at first unconcerned about the absence of a bill of rights. To list some rights, he believed, might leave others unprotected and imply that the federal government had power to determine which rights to guarantee.
Jefferson — and popular opinion in his home state — persuaded Madison otherwise. “A bill of rights,” Jefferson wrote to his close friend, “is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth and what no just government should refuse.”
As a result, Madison drafted the Bill of Rights in 1789, including what was to become the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Based on that draft, Congress adopted and the states subsequently ratified two principles — “no establishment” and “free exercise” — that protect one freedom: religious freedom, or liberty of conscience, as a fundamental, inalienable right for every person.
Madison was convinced that separating church from state and protecting the right of all people to follow the dictates of conscience was an arrangement in freedom that would endure for the ages. After enacting the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786, Madison wrote to Jefferson in Paris: “I flatter myself that with this statute we have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”
Madison was, to put it mildly, overly optimistic. The United States did not live up to the full promise of religious freedom in the 18th century — and we have struggled to do so ever since, as Native Americans, African Americans, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and now Muslims can attest.
Nevertheless, 225 years after the ratification of the First Amendment, the religious liberty clauses still stand as a barrier to those on one extreme who would reimpose their religion on others and those on the other extreme who would banish religion from the public square altogether.
At a time when division and distrust poison our body politic, can we overcome the ignorance and contention surrounding the First Amendment? Can we fulfill the Madisonian ideal by reaffirming liberty of conscience for all people, including those with whom we deeply disagree?
• Charles C. Haynes, Ph.D., is vice president of the Newseum Institute, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, and senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. His column, “Inside the First Amendment,” appears in newspapers nationwide, and he is author or co-author of six books, including “First Freedoms: A Documentary History of First Amendment Rights in America” (2006) and “Religion in American Public Life: Living with Our Deepest Differences” (2001). He is a founding board member of Character.org (https://character.org), serves on the steering committee of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, and chairs the Committee on Religious Liberty.
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