It has become fashionable for politicians and pundits to talk about America as a Christian Nation. When President Obama said we are not a Christian Nation in a speech in Turkey, he received a lot of criticism from the right. Perhaps as a consequence, today almost 1 in 5 Americans think he is a secret Muslim and only 34% believe he is a Christian. Unfortunately, the idea is even the subtext for much of the new found opposition to the building of mosques around the country. In reflecting on this notion of a Christian Nation, it is instructive to review the political writings of James Madison, the principle author of both the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. One of his writings, protesting a Bill to enact a public tax to put teachers of Christianity on the government payroll, best summarizes his views on the topic. In this writing he makes the following main arguments that I have simplified to make them easier to for a modern audience to understand:
1- The duty that every person owes to his Creator, and the manner of implementing that duty, must be determined by a person’s reason and conviction, and it cannot be determined by force or violence. Our Creator demands sincere obedience, and the only way for a person to be sincere in his obedience to his Creator is if he is personally convinced of what he is doing. Therefore, our Creator’s right to be obeyed with sincerity by His creation, creates a right in each person to fulfill his duty to his Creator according to his or her own personal conviction and conscience. Force or violence only creates hypocrisy as people submit outwardly out of fear but inwardly reject because their minds are not convinced.
A person’s right and duty to obey his Creator according to the dictates of his mind and conscience is superior to the claims of society and government. Before people come together to form a society and a government they must be considered the subjects of the Governor of the Universe. People become members of society and government while retaining their superior rights, duties and allegiance to their Creator. Therefore, every human being retains certain civil rights that are exempt from the authority of government. Among these civil rights is the individual right to obey and worship his creator as his mind and conscience dictate. Because religion is exempt from the authority of society, it is even more so exempt from the authority of the legislature as the legislature derives its power from the consent of the governed. The rulers who overstep their authority and encroach on the civil rights of the people exceed the commission from which they derive their authority and therefore they are Tyrants. People who submit to such laws are therefore slaves.
While we each assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet submitted to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom is abused, it is therefore an offense against God. This bill violates the equal rights of each citizen by subjugating the religious beliefs of some to tax burdens while granting the beliefs of others to tax benefits.
2- The first duty of every citizen is to jealously defend against the slightest encroachments on their civil rights. This was the case with America’s Revolutionary War. The free men of America did not wait till power unjustly taken strengthened itself and confused the issue with bad precedents. They saw all the consequences when the principle was violated, and by fighting for the principle, they avoided the consequences. We honor this lesson so we do not forget it.
Who cannot see that once government takes the power to establish and enforce Christianity to the exclusion of all other religions, it may establish and enforce with the same ease any particular sect of Christianity to the exclusion of all other sects? Who cannot see that if the government can force a citizen to contribute three pennies to support a religion he does not believe in, it has the power to force the citizen to practice all aspects of the religion he does not believe in?
3- Public tax money is not necessary for the support of the Christian religion. To say that it is contradicts the religion itself which claims its support directly from God. It also contradicts history, as it is known that Christianity not only existed and flourished without the support of government, it flourished when government directly opposed it. Furthermore, government support of a particular religion weakens the belief of its adherents because they lose confidence in its inherent excellence and its divine support when they see that it needs the support of the state to survive. Such support also fosters in those who still do not believe in that religion a suspicion that its followers are too conscious of their religion’s fallacies to trust it to live on its own merits.
4- Experience has shown that when the politics of government establish and support religious orthodoxy, they have actually harmed the purity of the religion. For almost fifteen centuries we have seen the results of the legal establishment of Christianity. What has been its fruits? More or less in all places, arrogance and intellectual laziness in the religious leaders, ignorance and intellectual slavery in the followers, in both the leaders and the followers a prevalence of superstition, bigotry and persecution of others.
5- In history, what was the result of making governments dependent on a religious clergy? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of society and in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny. In no instances have they been the guardians of the rights of the people. Rulers who want to suppress the rights of the people have found convenient support in an established clergy. A just government, instituted to secure and protect the rights of the people, does not need the support of an established clergy. A just government finds its support by protecting every citizen in the enjoyment of his religion with the same equal hand which it protects his person and property.
6- Our country was established offering a place of asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every nation and religion, which has drawn people to expand the ranks of our citizenry. This bill is the first step in degrading the citizenship of those whose religious views differ from those of the legislature. While the current bill is distant in its present form from the Inquisition, it differs from it only in degree. The one is the first step, the other the last in the career of intolerance. Those who suffer from religious persecution in other lands will see this bill as a warning of what is to come and as a result they will turn away from our country and go elsewhere.
7- This kind of law destroys the harmony and mutual respect between the various religious sects of our citizenry. Much blood has been spilt in history as people have tried to use the arm of government to get rid of religious differences by enforcing one orthodoxy. Time has shown that every relaxation of laws that support one sect over another have resulted in greater peace and harmony. The very appearance of this Bill has transformed the Christian forbearance, love and charity which prevailed until recently into animosity and jealousy between our citizens.
8- The first wish of those who enjoy the precious gift of Christianity ought to be that it is imparted to all of mankind. Unfortunately, this Bill at the same time discourages followers of false religions from coming to live in our Christian country while at the same time encourages countries that continue in darkness to adopt the policy of shutting out those who would bring Christianity to them. Instead of leveling as far as possible every obstacle to the victorious progress of truth, the Bill, with a shameful and unchristian timidity would limit the progress of truth with a wall of defense against the encroachment of error. For all of the forgoing reasons we oppose and protest against this Bill.
A number of points jump out from Madison’s writing:
First, that civil rights are not granted by the U.S. Constitution as many people think today. They are rather protected by the Constitution from the Legislature because their existence predates and is superior to the Constitution. Our rights are not rooted in the reinterpretation of the Constitution as a living document on the basis of a morphing modern humanist value system. The principle author of our Constitution and our Bill of Rights is saying that our civil rights are given to us by God and the Constitution exists to protect those rights. How many American politicians think or talk like that anymore?
Second, notice how different the Christian Nation James Madison envisioned is compared to the Christian Nation that some modern politicians seem to want to build. Madison’s Christianity is based on reason, conviction and knowledge not blind faith, religious bigotry and ignorance. He is knowledgeable and concerned about learning from the mistakes of history in order to better guide the actions of the present instead of being completely ignorant of world history. He is concerned about maintaining a Christian society based on forbearance, love and charity and avoiding at all costs that which turns citizens against each other in the name of religion. Compare that to the voices today that rally people around their brand of Christianity by demonizing other faiths. Madison’s nation does not maintain its Christian identity by adopting policies designed to expel or turn people of different faiths away from coming here. Rather he wants a society of good Christians that attract the suffering and oppressed from around the world to join ranks as equal citizens in building a great nation. Madison is also concern for the international implications of the example set by his fellow citizens. If we oppress or limit any religion in the name of advancing the cause of Christianity here, he argues, it gives justification and sets the bad example for other nations and countries to oppress and limit the rights of Christians in the name of advancing a false religion.
Notice also that the real power behind Madison’s arguments is that there is very little that is uniquely Christian about them. One could just as easily substitute the world “Islam” for the word “Christian” and they would have a revolutionary and inspiring speech to give to the Muslim World about establishing a Muslim Nation. Madison’s genius is in his ability to combine an argument directed towards the educated intellectuals from all faiths to come together under a government dedicated to the advancement of Truth and Justice, while at the same time packaging the argument in religious terms to win over the hearts of the masses. His timeless and revolutionary ideas laid the foundations of a great nation. It is about time that we remember what made us great in the first place.
*To view the actual document written by James Madison and a copy of the Bill he was opposing Click Here.