Research Proposal: James Madison and the Separation of Church and State

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James Madison: Separation of Church and State

The Constitution of the United States attributes its existence to the efforts of many thinkers over many years. In its current form, the Constitution is hailed as the most important document of democracy and liberty in the history of the country. While many contributed to the Constitution, authors such as Alan Brinkley (2009:167) views James Madison as one of the most creative and most important. Madison strove to recognize the importance of public input in government, and a concomitant recognition of the fundamental rights of citizens in this regard. As such, Madison's ideas stand at the basis of the spirit of the Constitution: not only freedom of speech and living, but also freedom of thought and belief. One of the main elements of the Constitution that Madison regarded as particularly important was the Separation of Church and State, or in other words the freedom of religion.

According to Brinkley (2009:167), Madison was instrumental in resolving two fundamental issues in the debate surrounding the Constitution during 1787; the question of sovereignty and that of limiting power. The question of sovereignty was resolved by Madison's recognition of the seat of democratic power within the citizenry. In other words, the government, whether at state or federal level, draws all its power from the people electing it. Hence the opening phrase of the Constitution: "We the people of the United States…" (Brinkley, 2009:167). This is also the basis upon which Madison continued to argue for the separation of church and state.

In addition to the philosophies underlying the development of the Constitution, other influencing factors included the religious evolution of the citizenry. According to Brinkley (2009:189), the American Revolution was instrumental in detaching religious institutions from the government. Many traditional forms of religious practice were challenged or at least weakened by ideas surrounding individual liberty and choice. An increasing following for philosophies and new religious ideals such as deism, universalism and Unitarianism, began to necessitate increasing attention to religious freedom and tolerance. Madison-based many of his philosophies and writings upon the dynamics of the religious views of his time.

In working for the separation of the church and state, Madison promoted this idea both in private letters to powerful politicians and in public writings such as newspaper articles. In 1832, Madison for example wrote a letter to Jasper Adams, the president of the College of Charleston. The letter was written in response to a pamphlet that Adams sent to Madison regarding the former's views on Christianity and how it related to the government. The pamphlet was also sent to other statesmen such as John Marshall and Justice Joseph Story. Both Marshall and Story agreed with Adams' views, that Christianity should be integrated with the government of the United States. Madison, however, disagreed, believing that religion should not be imposed by the government, and indeed that it is more likely to flourish if uninterrupted by government

Madison uses historical examples to prove the viewpoint that the government is none the worse affected by a lack of religious imposition. He says of the Southern American states that "…the legal support of Religion was withdrawn sufficiently prove that it does not need the support of Govt and it will scarcely be contended that Government has suffered by the exemption of Religion from its cognizance, or its pecuniary aid." (Madison, 1832)2

It is significant that Madison also acknowledges the opposite viewpoint, that religion that is not state regulated could devolve into chaos for both the religion itself and for the state. Once again, Madison draws upon historical examples to refute this viewpoint, along with his belief in the fundamental human tendency towards reason rather than chaos.

In his more public writings, Madison argues for the separation of church in state in more general terms. In his "Detached Memoranda," (Madison)

for example, he contends that the United States in general should pay more attention to the danger of too much power in what he terms "Ecclesiastical Bodies." He warns against imposing religious liberty to such an extent as to simply constructing another form of oppression. Madison's concern is that an excessive governmental interference in… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"James Madison and the Separation of Church and State."  Essaytown.com.  May 2, 2009.  Accessed December 6, 2019.
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