Belief  /  Debunk

James Madison Understood Religious Freedom Better than Jefferson Did

One emphasized the freedom to think; the other, in effect, the freedom to pray.
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The musical Hamilton captures a common perception about the relative importance, and sexiness, of Thomas Jefferson compared with James Madison. Jefferson is tall and hot, and arrives to the beat of swing music. Madison is short and serious, the dutiful sidekick.

And for years now, Jefferson has been deemed the Founding Father most associated with championing religious freedom. On the wall of the Jefferson Memorial is his quote “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” On his tombstone, Jefferson listed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom as one of his three greatest achievements, along with the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia.

In fact, when it comes to religious freedom, James Madison was more important than Jefferson — in part because Madison had a more nuanced view of religion.

Let’s start with their accomplishments. Jefferson’s main achievement was the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. He wrote it in 1779 but, alas, it died in the legislature. While Jefferson was off in Paris, Madison resurrected the bill and got it passed in 1786. Madison then went on to play the lead role in drafting, and ratifying, the Constitution, and then shepherded through the First Amendment.

Madison’s success, politically and philosophically, came in part because he bridged Jefferson’s Enlightenment impulses with the views of the Baptists he got to know in Virginia. As a young man, Madison witnessed a shocking wave of persecution against local Baptists, who in our day might be called Evangelical Christians. (By the time of the revolution, about half of the Baptist ministers had been arrested.) In addition, Madison owed his subsequent election to Congress to the votes of Evangelicals, which he secured by promising them he would advocate for a Bill of Rights that would protect religious freedom.

He imbibed, and agreed with, the Baptist argument that church and state should be separated — not to make America secular but rather to make it religiously vibrant.