Sunday, October 2, 2022

Arnold's Article on James Madison, Anti-Christian Nationalist

This is is very thorough and well argued article from a brilliant young scholar, Gordon Dakota Arnold. He sympathizes with the perspective of more accommodation of traditional, conservative Christianity in public life. The article is a good reminder that America's Founders weren't always on the same page. But we can make observations like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson had a particular vision of church-state relations that was more secular and "separation of church and state" oriented. This has been called the "Virginia view" because Madison and Jefferson were both from Virginia and saw their vision validated in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

But there were other perspectives; the "Massachusetts view" was most notably articulated by George Washington and John Adams and permitted more expression of religion in public life and more interplay between church and state. 

But onto Arnold's article. A taste:

Was Madison a Christian?

It is quite likely that the beginning of Madison’s rejection of Christian nationalism is found in a rejection of orthodox Christianity more generally. Like George Washington, Madison was meticulous in his effort to keep his precise religious beliefs private, and he shied away from discussing theology or religious doctrine in all of his private correspondence. Whereas Thomas Jefferson and John Adams left ample evidence in their writings that they rejected the divine origins of orthodox Christianity, Madison’s papers never explicitly denounced doctrines such as the divinity of Jesus Christ or the resurrection.11 And yet, it is a mistake to rely upon arguments from silence as a means of bolstering Madison’s claims to orthodoxy. In 1774, when Madison the youth was studying under the Rev. John Witherspoon and considering a career in ministry, he praised the “advocates of the cause of Christ.”12 But after this, references to Jesus Christ in his private correspondence disappeared and he appeared to approach religion with more indifference. As an adult, Madison is said to have refused to kneel for prayer, and though he sometimes attended an Episcopal Church, he never joined it and never participated in holy communion.13 Friends of Madison, such as the Bishop William Meade, attested to his unbelief,14 and George Ticknor recounted a conversation he had with the President in 1815 wherein he “intimated to me his own regard for Unitarian doctrines.”15

But more disturbing than Madison’s apparent shift away from the evangelical theology of his youth is the sense one gets while reading his corpus that his final position entailed more hostility towards traditional Christianity than has often been acknowledged. As early as 1772, Madison included a striking note in his Commonplace Book, quoting from the Cardinal de Retz: “Nothing is more Subject to Delusion than Piety. All manner of Errors creep and hide themselves under that Veil. Piety takes for sacred all her imaginations of what sort soever.”16 Throughout Madison’s long career, he often returned to this theme about the political dangers of piety and religion. “Religious bondage,” he said to his friend William Bradford, “shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprize every expanded prospect” [sic].17 While Madison in one instance referred in passing to Christianity as the “best & purest religion,” it is likely that he, like his friend Thomas Jefferson, primarily praised it with a view towards its ethical precepts—precepts accessible to unaided, natural reason—and emphatically not its doctrinal claims uncovered within divine revelation.18 In fact, Madison thought that doctrinal orthodoxy needed to be eliminated in order to further the cause of progress and enlightenment. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Madison complained about “Sectarian Seminaries” in Virginia—almost certainly alluding to Calvinist or Reformed institutions of learning—and their incorporation into the Virginia state charter on the grounds that this would empower churches of “any creed however absurd or contrary to that of a more enlightened age.”19 Doctrines must shift and change with the times, and any attempt to ground the nation in a static doctrine of Christianity is a threat to progress.


Madison and the Great Divorce of Christianity and Politics 

Because he believed that religion is essentially a passion that causes rather than discourages faction, Madison also contended that it needed to be pacified for liberty to be preserved. The primary method of solving the political problem of Christianity was to encourage religious diversity and foster disunity. As Madison’s friend, neighbor, and first biographer William Cabell Rives reported, the President was fond of quoting Voltaire’s maxim that “if one religion only were allowed in England, the government would possibly be arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut each other’s throats; but, as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.”30 And Madison himself left no doubt that these were exactly his sentiments. He spoke in Federalist no. 51 of how the “multiplicity of sects” was the only security for the preservation of “religious rights.”31 In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Madison celebrated the fact that the “mutual hatred” of Virginia’s Christian denominations “has been much inflamed.”32 He added: “I am far from being sorry for it, as a coalition between them could alone endanger our religious rights.”33 Where the Apostle Paul spoke of the need for harmony, unity, and love within the body of Christ, Madison preferred that the church be characterized by disarray, discord, and faction. Only then would Christianity fail to mobilize itself as a political force, and only then would the natural rights of individuals be safe from a majority faction. Madison’s view, too, contrasts with the more Pauline beliefs of George Washington, who celebrated the “harmony and Brotherly Love which characterizes the clergy of different denominations” because it further substantiated his conviction that “Religion and Morality are the essential pillars of civil society.”34 


Tom Van Dyke said...

Of academic interest but the real story is how Madison's view did NOT prevail. It is odd [or perhaps not] how the majority view occupies such a minority of books on the subject.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tall weeds here. I think Walter Berns would agree with your assessment of what "prevailed" but would note that whereas we need to take the Constitution very strictly (to the letter) we need to take the Declaration of Independence -- especially its ideals -- with a grain of salt. Because Jeffersonian-Madisonian "thought" on Church/State relations is pregnant therein.

As he writes in Making Patriots:

Liberty of conscience was widely accepted at the time of the Founding, but this did not prevent some jurists and legislatures from insisting, at least for a while (and given our principles it could be only for a while), that Christianity was part of the law, meaning the common law. So it had been in England, and so, it was assumed by some (but not Jefferson), it would continue to be in America. But there was no disagreement about the place of the common law. Indeed one of the first things done by the states after independence was to declare (here in the words of the New Jersey constitution of 1776) that “the common law of England, as well as so much of the statute law, as have been heretofore practiced in this Colony, shall remain in force, until they shall be altered by a future law of the Legislature; such parts only excepted, as are repugnant to the rights and privileges contained in this Charter [or constitution].”

But if the “rights and privileges” contained in the various state charters or constitutions included the right of liberty of conscience, and if, in turn, this right required, in Madison’s words, “a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters,” what did it mean to say that Christianity was part of the common law? Very little, as it turned out; and it turned out as it had to turn out. Consider, for example, the case of blasphemy in America…. pp. 32-33.

Berns then notes how blasphemy laws remained on the books, but in post-Founding America, the judges, in maintaining their consistency with the rights of conscience, had to “redefine the offense” to include utterances against any religion that would tend to cause a breach of the peace. In other words, the policy behind the offense was now to protect the peace, not the Christian or any religion. These state courts had effectively “stripped blasphemy of its religious character.” Leading Berns to ask, rhetorically, “who can quarrel over a blasphemy law that protects one and all [religions] alike”?

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Liberty of conscience" is a Protestant innovation, not a secular one. With denominations [read: "heresies"] multiplying like jackrabbits, the alternative was civil war.

Indeed the Peace of Westphalia is mirrored in the Founding: Each state could have its own official state denomination/church!

As for blasphemy, the bar had to be raised quite high or everything would be blasphemy. By the time you get to People v Ruggles it's an academic question. Ruggles was not lynched. Or even punched. He was guilty of being an asshole.

Today he'd be convicted of a hate crime.

On September 2, 1810, John Ruggles, speaking in a loud voice in a crowded tavern in Salem, New York, said "Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother must be a whore." He was arrested, charged with blasphemy and tried in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, Washington County, on June 11, 1811. Ruggles was found guilty and Justice Ambrose Spencer sentenced him to three months in prison and fined him $500.

Our Founding Truth said...


This is a familiar post isn't it. Madison's Christian nation, as he wrote about below, was an enlightenment rationalist Christian nation, which is not Christian at all because the Bible does not elevate rationalism over the clear teaching of its text. The words are to be taken as they are unless obvious symbols are used. Jesus is a person, not a door, a vine, a gate or a piece of bread, etc. Those are symbols.

Is not the evidence that GW viewed Church with tradition, like a club for stoics? Given this viewpoint, the rationalists' animus against the pietists is towards Catholicism; looking fancy and holy in all their garb and all corruption inside.

JM's "Religious bondage" quote is addressed to William Bradford, therefore JM is referring to Catholicism, not obedience to the Bible.

"If the public homage of a people can ever be worthy the favorable regard of the Holy [Holy in regard to what, the Law? What Law?] and Omniscient Being...those who join in it are guided only by their free choice [nothing is ever free choice if your being is Omniscient, knowing before what that free choice is], by the impulse of their hearts and the dictates of their consciences [the heart and conscience is corrupted by the sin nature]; and such a spectacle must be interesting to all Christian nations as proving that religion, that gift of Heaven [only Christian nations are the gift of heaven?] for the good of man, freed from all coercive edicts, from that unhallowed connection with the powers of this world which corrupts religion [JM never said how this happened]..."

Our Founding Truth said...

"Liberty of conscience" is a Protestant innovation, not a secular one.""

I don't think so. "Liberty of conscience is a rationalist innovation, therefore a secular one, not Protestant. Protestants didn't care about Catholic persecution. The rationalists did. Calvinists tried to show Catholics what true Christianity with the example of the early church fathers.

Roger Williams was a rationalist. You don't need to be a Christian to realize you can't force someone to believe something by the edge of a sword or a torch. That has nothing to do with liberty of conscience or believing rituals not found in the Bible; just plain persecution.

Liberty of conscience is not in the Bible. "Whosoever believes" is only the practical understanding of how faith is acquired.

As far as Roger Williams goes, he was counting his blessings Massachusetts Bay Colony only banished him; the Catholics would have burned him at the stake. He was a pagan who allowed anything, including idolatry.