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James Madison: Modern Debates

Just a quick glance at the front page, and it’s easy to tell what issues are heating up Washington these days: the separation of church and state, states' rights, and the limits of presidential power.

Some things, as they say, just don’t change.

Wednesday on Up to Date, Steve Kraske talks with historian Jeff Broadwater about the very origins of these debates and the person behind many them. James Madison, our fourth president, set the bar on a lot of the discussions we’re having today. So what did one of our founding fathers have to say about the issues we still can’t resolve today?

HEAR MORE: Jeff Broadwater speaks this evening at 6:30 at the Kansas City Public Library Plaza branch, 4801 Main Street, Kansas City, Mo. The talk is part of the Library's "Hail to the Chiefs" series. Click here for more information.

Jeff Broadwater is professor of history at Barton College. In addition to James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation, he is author of George Mason, Forgotten Founder and Eisenhower and the Anti-Communist Crusade.

In April, Jeff Broadwater posted this entry about his book, James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation on the UNC Press blog:

James Madison won the presidency in a landslide in 1808, prevailed in a closer race in 1812, and left office as a revered elder statesman four years later. Among his most appealing traits was a lifelong commitment to religious freedom, but if we could raise him from the dead—never mind the Twenty-Second Amendment limiting presidents to two terms—his views on the separation of church and state might well keep him out of today’s White House.

Unlike modern candidates, Madison avoided public professions of faith, and he openly expressed an idea that would be heresy today: on the critical problems of democratic politics—maintaining political stability while balancing majority rule and individual rights—religion offered little help. European history taught him that where one faith dominated a society, it would form an oppressive alliance with the state. Where two religions of comparable strength existed, they could rip a society apart. Liberty could only flourish where, as in the United States, a variety of religious factions could check and balance one another.

But even in America there were limits to the political usefulness of religion. How, Madison asked in Federalist No. 10, could arbitrary majorities be disciplined? “We all know,” he wrote, “that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control.” Extending the political sphere to encompass an array of different factions in a way that would diffuse power offered a more plausible alternative. Even in his extended republic, however, religion could often be used to incite dangerous prejudices. Madison had his own encounter with a religious opposition; he blamed a partisan clergy for inflaming passions in New England against the War of 1812.

Personally, he was a nominal Anglican, not a Jacobin. On the eve of the American Revolution, Madison complained bitterly about Virginia’s practice of jailing Baptist ministers for preaching without a license. He fought to separate church and state in part to expand the rights of religious minorities.

During the debate over the Bill of Rights, he proposed that conscientious objectors be exempt from military service and that states be barred from interfering with the free exercise of religion. Madison disagreed with Thomas Jefferson’s suggestion that, in the interest of liberty of conscience, ministers be banned from legislative service. Madison argued such a ban would discriminate unfairly against religion. In retirement, Madison expressed satisfaction that religion had flourished in Virginia since the disestablishment of the Anglican Church.

At the same time, Madison believed governments should embrace a strict neutrality in matters of faith. As a young lawmaker in Virginia, he helped defeat a bill to funnel tax dollars to “teachers of the Christian religion.” As president, he signed legislation authorizing mail delivery on Sunday; he did not want to honor one religion’s holy day over another’s. He vetoed a bill incorporating an Episcopal church in the District of Columbia; he said the bill improperly interjected the state into issues of church government. He also objected to language authorizing the church to aid the poor; he thought it improperly placed the state’s imprimatur on “faith-based” charity. During the War of 1812, he reluctantly proclaimed days of prayer and fasting, but he tried to make his proclamations as ecumenical as possible. He privately questioned the propriety of using taxpayers’ dollars to pay military and congressional chaplains.

Jefferson’s enemies attacked him as an infidel. Somehow Madison, another eighteenth-century thinker who challenged sacred cows, avoided similar assaults. We can only wonder how he would fare in our (allegedly) more secular society today.


Up To Date history
Stephen Steigman is director of Classical KC and chief of broadcast operations for KCUR 89.3 and 91.9 Classical KC. You can email him at stephen@kcur.org.
When I host Up To Date each morning at 9 a.m., my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. My email is steve@kcur.org.