U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Would Madison Do?

Billboards will soon go up around Indianapolis, along the highway that circles the city, expressing a message the video above also attempts to make: “you don’t need God–to hope, to care, to love, to live.” The campaign is part of the Center for Inquiry’s struggle to make a case for “living without religion.” The organization wants to address and presumably undue “common myths about the unreligious.” Among the most popular (and damaging) according to the group is that “the nonreligious are immoral–or at least they can’t be relied upon to be as good as those with religious beliefs.”


This campaign is the latest in a centuries long struggle in this country over the role religion plays in American life–remember George H.W. Bush’s view in the 1988 campaign that atheists were really not citizens. Our colleague David Sehat has contributed mightily to the analysis of this story with The Myth of American Religious Freedom, a book a great historical sweep and rigorous thought. It was in light of reading David’s book along side another that I assigned for a class that I struck up a conversation with my students. After I showed them the video above, I asked, what would James Madison make of this campaign?

The course that they are taking with me is called “The Long Revolution,” and it looks at how ideas that led to the American Revolution of the mid-18th century were addressed over time and in some very distinct ways set on a new course by the mid-19th century. Among those ideas is religious freedom–or, more precisely, the role that religion played in the framing of American ideas about the nation. To understand how Americans came to view their new nation through the lens of religion, I contrasted two interpretations of Madison’s view on religious freedom: one from David’s book and the other from Thomas S. Kidd’s God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution.

Kidd asked a question that my students ask me every semester: “If the Constitution…included no overtly Christian language and banned religious tests, and if the delegates declined to hire a chaplain to mark the proceedings with Christian piety, is the Constitution a secular document?” To this, Kidd explained: “Some of its framers said no.” And the person he points to is none other than James Madison who as “the Constitution’s chief architect, believed that God had helped the convention achieve unanimity. He thought it was ‘impossible, for the man of pious reflection, not to perceive in [the outcome of the convention] a finger of that almighty hand, which had so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.'” Kidd concluded from this passage that “to Madison and the Federalists, the Constitution represented America’s greatest providential deliverance since the military victory over Britain.”

The citation for Madison’s passage come from Federalist #37. I copied the paragraph for my students and had them read it:

Would it be wonderful if, under the pressure of all these difficulties, the convention should have been forced into some deviations from that artificial structure and regular symmetry which an abstract view of the subject might lead an ingenious theorist to bestow on a Constitution planned in his closet or in his imagination? The real wonder is that so many difficulties should have been surmounted, and surmounted with a unanimity almost as unprecedented as it must have been unexpected. It is impossible for any man of candor to reflect on this circumstance without partaking of the astonishment. It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.

I asked if they would conclude from this passage that

“to Madison and the Federalists, the Constitution represented America’s greatest providential deliverance since the military victory over Britain.” Or did it misrepresent what we had read earlier is Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” from 1785 in which Madison made the following argument:

We remonstrate against the Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion because the establishment in question is not necessary for the support of Civil Government. If it be urged as necessary for the support of Civil Government only as it is a means of supporting Religion, and it be not necessary for the latter purpose, it cannot be necessary for the former. If Religion be not within the cognizance of Civil Government how can its legal establishment be necessary to Civil Government? What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society?

With Kidd’s interpretation of Madison from Federalist #37 alongside excerpts from Federalist #37 and Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance, I then gave the students David Sehat’s assessment of Madison’s view of the religion clause in the First Amendment. David concluded that far from a consensus among Madison and the Federalists over religion and the Constitution, “the lack of definition in its essential terms reflected a deep conflict among the legislators. The result was confusion about the amendment’s basic purpose. What was the point of protecting religious liberty, however understood? Was it that it formed an individual and essential right, as Madison would have it? Or was it that such protection was a means of encouraging religious expression to shore up social morality and thereby strengthen the state, as others suggested?”

My students especially liked David’s final point in this section: “Rather than providing a clear institutionalized form of religious liberty, the First Amendment created an ambiguous legal framework in which religious partisans could use the levers of law and politics to create a moral establishment while claiming religious freedom. It was exactly the result that Madison had feared.”

It was fairly easy for my students to see where Kidd had offered misguidance, to put it mildly, on where Madison stood. But the larger point of Kidd’s argument went directly to the campaign by the Center for Inquiry–if the Founders saw providential influence in the passage of the Constitution, then we indeed live in a society that does not allow freedom of conscience. In other words, to my students, David and Madison won the debate, but Kidd carried the day. And thus the billboards.

My students understood why the Center for Inquiry would find it necessary to make the claim that those who are unreligious can be good, moral people too. That might sound like a mundane realization, but for the most part, my students came into the class with views on the role of religion in American history that accorded with Kidd’s reading of Madison. So now, maybe, they’ll drive by those billboards and say to the person next to them, well if Madison has his way, that wouldn’t be necessary. Yes, my students will engage freely in Madisonian debate!

One Thought on this Post

  1. Ray: I love lessons wherein students see historians arguing—reasonably and passionately (in that order)—with each other. Of course this is yet another argument for me to read David’s book. – TL

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