Madisons experience in Congress convinced him of the need for a stronger central government, leading him to participation in the Mount Vernon Conference (1785), the Annapolis Convention (1786), and finally the Constitutional Convention (1787).His knowledge and dedication enabled him to make a tremendous contribution to the drafting of the new constitution (text), earning him the title "Father of the Constitution." Madison also was active in the ratification effort, collaborating with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in writing The Federalist Papers, a penetrating analysis of the Constitution (narrative).Prompted by Baptist leaders and others, Madison penned his now-famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments in July 1785.
Conservatives, when not trying to Christianize him, invoke Madison's faith-friendly rhetoric to justify the latest attempt to reinsert religion in the public square. What is nearly indisputable is that his religious instincts fueled much of his political activity.
In the fight to pass the Virginia Bill for Religious Liberty, he shamed Christian conservatives--who tried to insert the words "Jesus Christ" in an amended preamble--with these words: "The better proof of reverence for that holy name would be not to profane it by making it a topic of legislative discussion...." In 1795, during a congressional debate over naturalization, he bluntly repelled anti-Catholic prejudices: "In their religion there was nothing inconsistent with the purest Republicanism." At age 65, in retirement at his estate in Virginia, Madison praised the separation of church and state because, by it, "the number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood, & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased...." In the twilight of his life, Madison wrote that "belief in a God All Powerful wise and good, is so essential to the moral order of the World and to the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources." Only in a culture that "bristles with hostility to all things religious" (as Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist recently put it) could such a common-sense view fall into controversy--or neglect.
The point is that, thanks largely to Madison, free exercise replaced toleration as the national standard for protecting religious liberty, a standard he first raised in Virginia and sustained throughout his political career.
Liberals make Madison into an anti-religious rationalist, determined to quarantine the republic from the disruptive influence of faith.
Madison would pick up the fight again during the drafting of the First Amendment.
As chairman of the House conference committee on the Bill of Rights, Madison's original draft was among the most ambitious: "the civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship..shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed...." Though somewhat less expansive in its protections, the final version--"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" --clearly bears the Madison stamp.In Virginia, Madison was effective in countering the anti-Federalism of Patrick Henry.In a short essay that appeared in January 1792, Madison wrote: In every political society, parties are unavoidable.Today is a good day to consider the cost of that neglect and, perhaps, once again become attentive. Simon Fellow for Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation and a regular commentator on religion for National Public Radio.James Madison, letter to William Bradford, April 1, 1774 That Religion or the duty we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, being under the direction of reason and conviction only, not of violence or compulsion, all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it according to the dictates of Conscience.Madison's substitute--"all men are entitled to the full and free exercise" of religion--essentially won the day.This put Madison far ahead of John Locke, who generally mustered no more than grudging toleration for religious belief.He called religious belief "precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society." By placing freedom of conscience prior to and superior to all other rights, Madison gave it the strongest political foundation possible.Hard-core separationists and others disagree, claiming that the Memorial's pious rhetoric masks an antipathy to religion. He voices concern that the misuse of religion would lead to "an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation." He reasons that government support would "weaken in those who profess this Religion a pious confidence in its innate excellence and the patronage of its Author." He recalls that ecclesiastical establishments of the past have done great damage to the "purity and efficacy" of religion." Are these the arguments of a religious scoffer?One of the assigned topics in Madison's senior year was to defend the proposition that "every religious profession, which does not by its principles disturb the public peace, ought to be tolerated by a wise state." Madison's lifelong zeal for religious freedom began in May 1776 when state lawmakers wrote a new constitution for the newly independent Commonwealth of Virginia.The document contained a Declaration of Rights with a clause on religious liberty, penned by George Mason.