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Nature’s God and the Founding Fathers

July 2024
24min read

Jefferson and Madison led a revolutionary fight for complete separation of church and state. Their reasons probed the basic relation between religion and democracy

From his pulpit in Christ Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Dr. James Abercrombie looked out at a congregation that included the first President of the United States. He had good reason to feel some nervousness on this particular Sunday morning, for he was about to perform an act of ecclesiastical daring. He was about to scold George Washington, in public, for his religious behavior.

Dr. Abercrombie mentioned no names as he pitched into a sermon on the grave responsibility of “those in elevated stations” to set good examples for lesser folk, but only the children in his pews that day could have missed the point. He focussed on the celebration of the Lord’s Supper; and everyone knew that President Washington habitually joined those who walked out of church, on communion Sundays, just before the sacrament was to be administered. The rector’s target was embarrassingly dear.

No doubt Dr. Abercrombie hoped to achieve the pious triumph of persuading the President to take holy communion at his altar. But, although his message had not passed the presidential ears unheeded, the outcome was disconcerting. Washington never again left the church just before the Lord’s Supper— from that time forward he did not come at all on communion Sundays.

The minister swallowed his disappointment as best he could. Writing, years later, to someone who had inquired about Washington’s religion, he said that according to one of the President s acquaintances—he could not remember precisely whom—the great man preferred to stay away rather than become a communicant because, “were he to become one then, it would be imputed to an ostentatious display of religious zeal.” This was a relatively consoling explanation, but there are signs that it failed to convince Dr. Abercrombie himself. “That Washington was a professing Christian,” he added to his correspondent, “is evident from his regular attendance in our church, but sir, I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion.…”

What were Washington’s reasons for refusing to partake in the Lord’s Supper? Exact answers are lost to history, concealed behind the reticence he steadily maintained where his private beliefs were concerned. In terms of reasonable inference, however, it is possible to offer an explanation. He had long been exposed to the ideas of the European Enlightenment, and his behavior suggests that his religious views were considerably shaped thereby. It was an intellectual atmosphere not favorable to symbolic rites, among other things. In his exposure to it, Washington was of course far from unique among the Founding Fathers of the American republic. Inevitably, all of his educated contemporaries were to some extent children of the Age of Reason (as Tom Paine called it); and among them several of the acknowledged political leaders were certainly its eminent sons.

Still, there was no great uniformity of opinion among the Founding Fathers on specific religious or philosophical questions. Whether one considers the signers of the Declaration of Independence or the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, or both, it is easy to find a diversity of sects and creeds. But the broad spectrum of denominations is itself a reminder that a prime characteristic of the Enlightenment was respect for dissenting opinions. The famous remark attributed to Voltaire, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” catches the spirit of the era. While full freedom of belief was not legally protected in any of the colonies at the start of the Revolution, and most of them had an established church supported by the government, minority groups and nonconforming individuals were in fact granted considerable leeway. Catholics were strong in Maryland; Quakers, in Pennsylvania. In New England, the evolution of Congregational doctrine had moved toward freedom of conscience for more than a century, so that there was a kind of paradox in the legal establishment of a church so nearly democratic in its organization. The supremacy of the Anglicans in the South, moreover, was weakened by the fact that theirs was the official church of England in a period when independence from the mother country was about to become the paramount fact of current history. For, whatever their doctrinal differences in religion, all of the Founding Fathers were political revolutionaries, determined to enact a new formulation of the idea of government by consent of the governed.

Even Washington’s most ardent admirers have never claimed that he was, philosophically, a deep thinker. Thomas Jefferson, by contrast, was as philosophically inclined, and gifted with as keen an analytical mind, as any American of his time. His interest in religion and its proper relationship to government was intense, and it persisted throughout his long life. During his second term as President (1805–1809) he sought relief from the tremendous pressures of his office by composing, for his own satisfaction, a version of the New Testament which he called “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” It would have interested Washington, for among many other significant omissions it pointedly left out the story of the Last Supper. This was as good a clue as any to Jefferson’s idea in undertaking the work, which was, in his own sharp language, to rescue from “the speculations of crazy theologists” the moral teachings of Jesus, “abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried.”

In his own terms, Jefferson claimed to be a Christian —but he assuredly was not one according to Dr. Abercrombic’s standards, or for that matter according to the doctrine of any organized Christian church, unless it was the fledgling Unitarian. He rejected, he wrote, “the immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, etc.” He thought of Christ as a great reformer, author of “a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man”—but human rather than divine. To be a Christian, for Jefferson, was simply to follow the system of ethics taught by Christ, uncontaminatecl by what he considered the additions, adulterations, and distortions of those who came after. And Jefferson thought he had an easy touchstone for distinguishing Jesus’ original teachings from the dross. All that was needed was the “free exercise of reason”: with that, the genuine precepts of the Master would never be found to disagree.

To orthodox clergymen and theologians this was heresy; it was, many of them angrily charged, a mere disguise for atheism. As a prominent political figure, Jefferson often suffered from his refusal to accept traditional Christianity, even though he tried to keep his religious views largely to himself. His skepticism toward anything alleged to be supernatural was misunderstood, and his high regard for Christian ethics was usually ignored. Shocking stories circulated long before he became a presidential candidate, and their currency grew with his fame. John Trumbull, the great painter of the Revolution, told one about a dinner party at Jefferson’s home in 1793, when the future President sat “smiling and nodding approbation” while Congressman William Giles of Virginia—a fellow skeptic—”proceeded so far … as to ridicule the character, conduct and doctrines of the divine founder of our religion.” This was unquestionably an exaggeration, but it suggests Jefferson’s reputation at the time. When he was presidential runner-up in 1796, a minister in Connecticut took note of the event in a prayer before his congregation: “O Lord! wilt Thou bestow upon the Vice President a double portion of Thy grace, for Thou knowest he needs it.” In the campaign of 1800 Jefferson’s “infidelity” was an easy target for Federalist orators and pamphleteers.

Yet there is little doubt that Jefferson held a profound belief in a Supreme Being. In a fashion typical of eighteenth-century intellectuals, he held it not on implicit faith, but as a reasoned conclusion based on evidence and deduction. “I hold (without appeal to revelation),” he once wrote to John Adams, “that when we take a view of the universe, in its parts, general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition.” Newton and his contemporaries in the seventeenth century had magnificently demonstrated that man lived in a universe of precise mathematical law and order; it seemed scientifically evident to most thinkers in the following era that such a cosmic design could come only from the hand of a divine Creator.

It was a long way from the theology of traditional Christianity, this idea of an invisible but demonstrable God whose existence was proved only by His handiwork; for “He” was now a nearly impersonal power, responsible for the origin and laws of the universe, but not interfering in its operation once the myriad wheels of the great machine had been set in motion. This was “Nature’s God,” as Jefferson phrased it in the Declaration of Independence; and to him and many others the religion appropriate to Nature’s God must be natural, not supernatural, in its foundations. Deism, or “natural religion,” expressed their theological creed, not a Christianity based on revelation, mystery, and miracle.

Some men—notably a prominent group in France including Diderot, d’Alembert, Condorcet, and the Baron d’Holbach—went further, postulating an automatic universe, operating by inexorable natural laws, but utterly devoid of God or God’s purpose. Jefferson was inclined to resist this surge toward atheism, yet it is only justice to the true character of his mind to emphasize that his attitude was far from fanatical. He was never an absolutist, even on the question of God’s existence. His creed of intellectual freedom was much too firm for that, and at worst he saw no alarming threat in atheism. Before he went to France to be United States minister from 1784 to 1789, he had already considered the effects of full disbelief. “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty Gods, or no God,” he observed in his Notes on Virginia (1782). “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” And writing to his young nephew, Peter Carr, from Paris in 1787, he urged him to make reason his guide: "… call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

Jefferson’s vital disposition toward freedom of thought was strengthened by his five years in France. Not only was he there a first-hand observer of the moral and material degradation resulting, as he saw it, from the combination of religious persecution and tyrannical government. In that cosmopolitan air he also made familiar contact with many of the most brilliant figures of the age. The political, philosophical, and religious ideas of the Enlightenment now reached him not just in books, but in absorbing conversations across his own dinner table. Voltaire had written that atheists, deplorable as they might be, would still make better neighbors than religious fanatics. Jefferson came to know some of the leading French atheists as friends and acquaintances, and he found them anything but monsters. “Diderot, D’Alcmbert, D’Holbach, Gondorcet,” he wrote to a friend years later, “are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.”

This crucial question of the basis of human morality, bearing as it does on the relation between religion and government, intrigued Jefferson all his life. He early formed an opinion consistent with the natural religion of the Enlightenment, and from it he never swerved throughout the remainder of his eighty-three years. Its essence was natural morality. “Man was destined for society,” he wrote to his nephew in 1787. ”… He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong, merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality.… The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm.” And while Jefferson firmly believed that this moral sense was the gift of a divine Creator, he was equally certain that acknowledgment of its source was not necessary to its function. If young Peter Carr, having fully considered the evidence, were to become an atheist, still, Jefferson assured him, “you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you.”

Jefferson’s theory of natural morality was for him the cornerstone of the democratic faith which he did so much during his lifetime to make a living reality. The church doctrine of original sin was anathema to him. Human nature could be trusted: all normal men were endowed by their Creator not only with unalienable rights, but with unalienable instincts, including a natural moral sense. Except under bad social conditions—ignorance, poor education, poverty—the mass of men, he felt, would surely gravitate toward what was right on fundamental issues, if only they were allowed complete freedom of conscience. The principle of majority rule—a sacred principle to Jefferson—depended on the premise of a well-informed public, each member of which could choose among moral or political alternatives with absolute freedom from mental coercion.

This is the key to Jefferson’s lifelong insistence on complete separation of church and slate. While it was a matter of democratic principle with him to champion full freedom of voluntary association, so that any number of divergent sects could thrive without government interference, he had no sympathy for their dogmatic approach to questions of moral truth. An organized church, he thought, was unlikely to leave men’s minds completely free. Whatever the denomination, each claimed a special revelation of God’s will, imparted directly to its prophets or priests, or recorded in the Bible. (Franklin, whose views were much like Jefferson’s, said that religious sects reminded him of “a certain French lady who, in a dispute with her sister, said, ‘I don’t know how it happens, sister, but I meet with nobody but myself that’s always in the right!’ ”) Few were therefore willing to relinquish moral (and, by implication, political) choices to the untrammelled conscience of the individual citizen.

Jefferson had the good fortune to live long and to compose his own epitaph after much deliberation. It was a modest statement for a man who had been among the foremost in establishing the American nation. He wished his tombstone to cite him in three capacities only: “Author of the Declaration of American Independence; of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom; and Father of the University of Virginia.” The order was chronological, but in a most important sense the three accomplishments were one and indivisible. The Declaration of Independence envisaged a free society ruled by consent of the governed. But informed decision and consent could be based only on good public education; and good education, in turn, could be based only on complete freedom of the mind. In the history of the new republic the first fundamental challenge to freedom of the mind came in the area of religion.

It is a curious fact of American history that the man who was inseparably associated with Jefferson in his fight for religious freedom, and who was to become his closest friend for nearly half a century, grew up only thirty-odd miles from Monticello, yet never met him until late in 1776. James Madison of Montpelier, in Port Conway, Virginia, came to the capitol at Williamsburg in May of that year, an elected delegate to the state convention. By that time, Jefferson was off to his appointment with fame in Philadelphia, and so the two did not meet until the following autumn—and even then their contact was slight. But in the meantime something had happened at Williamsburg to form a bond between them no less strong for its resting temporarily unperceived.

The government of Virginia was in process of being overhauled in the spring of 1776, and although young Madison, a relatively unknown delegate, did not have a great deal to do with the new state constitution, he was a member of a committee appointed to draw up a bill of rights. The great George Mason of Gunston Hall was chief author of the articles in this bill, which was to become the prototype for similar manifestoes in other states as well as, eventually, for the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.

It must have cheered Jefferson to see that prominent among the Virginia articles was one on religious freedom. Madison was instrumental in giving that article its final and significant form when the committee proposal went before the Virginia convention on June 12, 1776. Only five years out of college at Princeton, he was already an accomplished student of constitutional law, a man cast very much in Jefferson’s mold. As he saw it, Mason’s expression of the principle of religious freedom was deficient in two respects: it allowed for continuation of a state-supported church, and it spoke of “toleration in the exercise of religion” rather than absolute freedom of conscience. Recognizing that it was not quite time to push for disestablishment in Virginia, Madison let that go, but proposed a rewording that would move forward from the idea of mere toleration (which implied the right of the state either to grant or withhold religious freedom) to that of freedom of conscience as an unalienable natural right. The convention was not willing to go quite that far, but, in its permanent form, the article pronounced that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” It was a quiet yet important triumph in the struggle for complete liberty of thought in America.

When he began to become well acquainted with Madison, in the summer of 1779, Jefferson was fresh from a half-successful effort to abolish state sanction of religion in Virginia. Government salaries for Anglican ministers had been suspended, but their church was still functioning as the official one in the state, and other impediments to religious liberty persisted. It was impossible to be legally married, for example, unless the ceremony was performed by an Anglican clergyman, and heresy against the Christian faith was still a crime. Jefferson’s comprehensive “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom” would have swept aside all such restrictions, as well as forbidding government support of any church. But it ran into fierce opposition in the Virginia legislature when it was introduced in June, 1779, and failed to pass.

Nevertheless, the Bill for Religious Freedom must have exerted a strong attractive force between Jefferson and Madison. They were now often in close consultation, Jefferson as newly elected governor, Madison as a member of his executive council; their personal friendship was also growing fast. Although Madison had been, from his college days, more skeptical and less orthodox than he has been painted by many biographers, his commitment to absolute freedom of thought as the undergirding of a free society was henceforth more intense. By the time Jefferson left for France, Madison was well prepared to carry on their campaign not only in Virginia, but in the first Congress, to which he would go as a representative in 1789.


In Virginia, Madison’s skill finally brought victory for Jefferson’s disestablishment bill, but not without a tough running battle against an opposition headed by the redoubtable Patrick Henry. By 1784 the state Anglican hierarchy was vociferously pressing for new tax funds to support the church, and Henry proposed an annual assessment for “the support of the Christian religion or of some Christian church,” without naming any particular sect. This attempted shift from the traditional, single-church form of establishment to the multiple, embracing several denominations, was part of a trend now apparent in more than one of the states of the new nation. It was a type of defensive strategy which would continue for nearly two centuries, as efforts to retain government sanction for religion moved to an ever broader and less sectarian base. In Virginia in 1784 the Presbyterians, hitherto enemies of establishment, now joined the phalanx demanding it in the broader form. They seemed as ready, Madison noted to his friend James Monroe, “to set up an establishment which is to take them in as they were to pull down that which shut them out.”

Meanwhile, Madison was by no means impotent on the other side of the issue. He anonymously wrote his now famous “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” (1785), which was circulated wide and far in Virginia as a petition to which thousands signed their names in protest against the renewed prospect of religious establishment. As copy after copy of the petition, crowded with signatures, streamed into the Virginia Assembly, it became very clear that the majority of the people were in no mood to forsake the religious freedom they had been promised by the 1776 Declaration of Rights. The surprised proponents of the assessment bill never even bothered to bring it to a vote.

Madison’s “Remonstrance” was a piece of shrewd political propaganda. It struck a chord more in harmony with the orthodox Christianity of those to whom it was addressed than his private views might have sustained, yet it echoed the rationalist strain of his religious discussions with Jefferson.

In fifteen paragraphs, many of them harking back to the popular article on religion in the 1776 Declaration of Rights, he argued against government support of the church. Every man’s religion, he wrote, must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right … because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men.… We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society, and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.… Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? … Whilst we 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 yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.…

It is noteworthy, since it bears on the meaning of the First Amendment to the Constitution, that to Madison and the thousands of Virginians who signed his petition, “establishment of religion” meant any government sponsorship of any or all religions, and not just the European pattern of an exclusive, official state church. (The “Remonstrance” refers repeatedly to Henry’s general assessment bill as “the proposed establishment.”) They wanted a solid “wall of separation between church and state,” to use a phrase Jefferson invented later. Acting on the theory that a good time to dispatch an enemy was when he was on the run, Madison and his friends in the legislature now took Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Liberty off the shelf where it had seasoned since 1779, and this time saw it voted in by a substantial majority. In principle it was a twin to Madison’s “Remonstrance,” but even more trenchant in its rhetoric and forthright in its defense of absolute freedom of thought and expression —a forerunner, as well as, in a sense, an interpretation of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

A last-minute effort by the opposition to confine the benefits of the law to Christians instead of protecting even (as Jefferson noted) “the Infidel of every denomination,” failed. Early in 1786, Madison was able to send his friend the news that through their collaboration the most sweeping guarantee of freedom of conscience in the history of the western world had become a statute of Virginia. He felt that its provisions, he wrote Jefferson, “have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.” Fervently sharing this sentiment, Jefferson saw to it that the new statute was translated into French and Italian, widely published, and “inserted in the new Encyclopedie.” He reported “infinite approbation in Europe.”

The example of Virginia—by far the largest of the thirteen states in population, and home of a cluster of distinguished men headed by the revered Washington—could hardly be ignored in the rest of America. The winds of revolution already had blown away much restrictive custom and legislation by 1786. Most of the other states had recently passed bills of rights honoring religious freedom, even though, with the exception of Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New York, they still had church establishment in at least the multiple form, embracing several sects. It was to be a number of years before any of them matched Virginia, yet it was natural that her action greatly strengthened the general current toward increased freedom of thought and an accompanying separation of church and state.

But it was to be almost by accident that the question of religious freedom first arose at the national level. The Constitutional Convention, gathering at Philadelphia in the spring of 1787, ignored it for many weeks—not because it was felt to be unimportant, but because it was considered the business of the states rather than of the central government. But as a hot August steamed into a hot September, it became obvious that the federal machinery designed by men like Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Roger Sherman was far more powerful than the old Articles of Confederation. What about the rights of the people under such a government? They ought to be, asserted George Mason, “the pole star of political conduct.” The state governments were, in 1787, the guardians of those rights; but the new Constitution greatly reduced the power of the states. With Mason at the center, a small nucleus of delegates began to agitate for specific guarantees, to be built into the Constitution itself. Charles Pinckney, of South Carolina, urged a ban on religious tests for federal officeholders, and the Convention—thinking, no doubt, of their own wide spread of religious opinion—quickly adopted it (Article VI).

Still, the movement for a full bill of rights, similar to those prevailing in a majority of the states, found little support. Mason was deeply disturbed, and announced that he would “sooner chop off his right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands.” But Roger Sherman expressed the more general feeling when he said that “the State Declarations of Rights are not repealed by this Constitution; and being in force are sufficient.” The tired delegates brought the Convention to a close on September 17, 1787, and the Constitution was submitted to the states without a bill of rights. Mason did not chop off his hand, but he did quit the Convention without signing.

As the contest over ratification swung back and forth in the various state legislatures during 1787–88, the federalists were forced to admit that a compromise was in order. From New England to Georgia there was intense pressure for a national bill of rights as a condition of ratification. Some federalists at first viewed this as nothing but camouflage for an attempt to frustrate ratification altogether. Alexander Hamilton was angry and contemptuous. It was the plan of the antifederalists, he declared, “to frighten the people with ideal bugbears, in order to mould them to their own purposes. The unceasing cry of these designing croakers is, My friends, your liberty is invaded!” Washington, choosing somewhat milder language, was inclined to agree.

There doubtless was some basis for this opinion; yet it became more and more difficult to hold it unequivocally. Pamphlets and newspaper articles sprouted on both sides of the question, but the antifederalist clamor for a bill of rights clearly had a grass-roots origin. The issue of religious freedom, while not at this time an agitated question, drew some attention. As a committee of Baptist leaders in Virginia saw it, the new Constitution did not make “sufficient provision for the secure enjoyment of religious liberty”; and an imaginative antifederalist writer in Massachusetts complained that although there was no guarantee of freedom of conscience for the people, the ban on religious tests might result in the election of a Mohammedan President.

Concern over individual liberty, of course, was by no means the exclusive property of antifederalists. Indeed, there were many on the other side (including Madison and Jefferson, both of whom must be counted as federalists at this early stage) who were as deeply devoted to liberty as anyone in the antifederalist ranks. Madison had been somewhat wary of a federal bill of rights for fear that specifying what the central government might not infringe would imply that it could suppress other rights, not enumerated. But reconsideration plus advice from Jefferson changed his mind; and numerous other important federalists finally conceded the expedience if not the need of such a bill. The upshot was that as the state conventions one by one ratified the Constitution, most of them did so with a strong recommendation for the addition of protective amendments. Madison found himself, in March of 1789, setting out from Virginia as a representative to the First Congress, pledged to introduce a large batch of amendments. Among them were, in substance, the ten that now make up the Bill of Rights.

With long congressional debates developing over such urgent matters as new revenue laws, and such intriguing ones as whether the Chief Executive should be called “His Highness” or just “the President,” it was June before Madison was able to get any action on the proposed amendments. Even then there was some reluctance to discuss a national bill of rights in preference to questions of greater sectional interest, and he was obliged to lecture his House colleagues on what their constituents expected of them—particularly “those safeguards which they have been long accustomed to have interposed between them and the magistrate who exercises the sovereign power.” He then presented his list of amendments and gave a long speech defending them. One prophetic point he made was in the form of a quotation from Jefferson saying that the federal courts would “consider themselves in a peculiar manner the guardians of those rights” stipulated in such amendments to the Constitution.

The congressional history of Madison’s amendment on religion throws some interesting illumination on the question of just what it meant in its final form, when after much rewording it became part of the First Amendment. He first introduced it as, “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, abridged.” Against the background of the Jefferson-Madison view of religion in its relation to democratic government, the emphasis here is unmistakable. It goes straight to what they conceived to be the heart of the matter: absolute freedom of thought for the individual citizen without government pressure toward any system of belief whatever. It seems likely that, had Madison’s original wording been adopted, official sanction for even the vague theism suggested by the motto first engraved on United States coins in 1864 (“In God We Trust”), or by the interpolation in 1954 of “under God” in the national oath of allegiance, would have been considered unconstitutional. (Both resulted from acts of Congress.) Certainly his wording would have buttressed the recent Supreme Court decision against the devotional use of prayers or Bible reading in public schools. Whether it would have thrown light on other controversial church-state issues—for example the payment of chaplains for service in the armed forces--is more problematical.

There is no doubt, however, where Madison and Jefferson stood when it came to practical applications. They were meticulous. In 1789 Madison opposed (unsuccessfully) the appointment of official chaplains for Congress because “these are to be paid out of the national taxes”; and Jefferson, as President, refused to follow the practice of Washington and Adams in proclaiming certain days for religious observance (“I do not believe,” he explained, “it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines.… Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline …”). To Madison and Jefferson and their followers the word “establish” meant what it had in Virginia: any government support, by taxation or otherwise, of any religious program.

Madison’s original amendment on religion, however, was soon altered. It was referred to a committee of which he was vice-chairman, and evidently caused much discussion—although no exact committee records, unfortunately, were kept. On August 15, 1789, the House as a whole took up the question, considering it in a shorter and less explicit form (“No religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed”). Although this wording was less forthright, some members were apprehensive of its effect: Peter Silvester, of New York, said that he “feared it might be thought to have a tendency to abolish religion altogether.” The amendment was sent forward to the Senate as, “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience.” There can be little question that the phrase “or to prevent the free exercise thereof” indicated a desire that the prohibition against establishment should not be interpreted as hostile to religion. The conventional forms of Christianity were still overwhelmingly in use in America, despite significant inroads by deism.

As for Madison, his own sharp focus on utter freedom of thought and expression as the essence of what is now the First Amendment is shown by his introduction, at this time, of an additional amendment specifically forbidding any state to infringe the rights of conscience, freedom of speech, and a free press. This addition was, he thought, “the most valuable on the whole list.” Somewhat surprisingly (in view of the antifederalist feeling against domination of the states by the central government), it was sustained by the House, and went to the Senate together with the article on religion and fifteen other amendments.

The twenty-two members of the Senate, which in general was more conservative than the House of Representatives, combined some of the House amendments and dropped others, including Madison’s “most valuable” one. Nevertheless, they rejected several motions to amend the House statement on religion to make it prohibit government support of “any particular denomination of religion in preference to another.” This was important, for it implied that their intent was to impose a neutral policy on the government with respect to religion in general—not merely to prevent one sect from gaining government favor at the expense of others. Such an intent was suggested further in the rewording arrived at by the Senate on September 9: “Congress shall make no law establishing articles of faith, or a mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.” Here the emphasis of “establish” leans toward the idea of government infringement on “the rights of conscience”—even though that phrase was dropped from the House version. The potential application to such matters as public school prayers, for instance, seems obvious.

Yet it was not clear that the Senate’s version of the religion clause prohibited tax support, and perhaps for that reason the House refused to accept the revision. A joint committee, with Madison as chairman of the three House members and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut as his counterpart for the Senate, then considered the difficulty—again without leaving us minutes of their discussion—and came up with the wording that has become part of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Madison could not have been pleased to see the key phrase about “the rights of conscience” abandoned—for him that clarified the basic intent of the amendment—but he was convinced that in its final form the first article of the Bill of Rights could be reasonably interpreted as prohibiting federal support of religious activities in any form.

That, as has been noted, was the way he and Jefferson interpreted it during their terms as President, and for the rest of their lives. At the same time, both of them realized that while they had led a successful campaign for separation of church and state as an essential footing in the structure of democracy, their theoretical reasons for doing so were grasped by relatively few of their countrymen. They knew their ideal was still remote: a society so free that its only ideological commitment would be to freedom of the mind. Much of the support they had been able to rally for a barrier between church and state had other sources. True, it sprang in part from a native intellectual current against absolutism which has never failed to flow in America despite counteracting currents of great force. But in part it came from the mutual and competitive mistrust of the various religious sects toward one another. Always pragmatic, Jefferson and Madison saw the value of this, despite their own rejection of revealed religion. Variety of belief was a useful insurance against tyranny.

The history of the First Amendment since 1791, when the last of the necessary eleven states ratified the federal Bill of Rights, has been one of fluctuating interpretation. This has been most notable during the last fifty years, during which, for the most part, the Supreme Court has found that the Fourteenth Amendment enjoins the guarantees of the First upon the states, for the protection of every citizen. There has been some confusion and inconsistency: schoolchildren swear allegiance to one nation “under God,” yet cannot be led in official school prayers, however nondenominational. Over a period of years, however, the trend of Court decisions has been toward strict separation of church and state, in a manner that assuredly would please Jefferson and Madison if they were here to see it. Indeed, the Justices have shown a strong penchant for citing these champions of freedom in explaining and supporting recent Court decisions.

There is nothing sacred about the reasoning of any of our ancestors, on this or any other matter. But whether one agrees with Jefferson and Madison or not, with regard to how high and impassable the wall between church and state ought to stand in a free society, they deserve to be remembered and understood, as the two among the Founding Fathers who devoted more of their minds and lives to this great problem than anyone else. They were an intellectual avant-garde whose probing of the relationship between religion and democracy went beyond the more or less traditional attitudes of most Americans between 1776 and 1791. Yet they were the center of a high-pressure area in the climate of opinion of their time, and their conclusions were strongly reflected in the Constitution as it finally was adopted.

Their thinking, moreover, can be fairly understood only as emerging from the matrix of the Enlightenment, of which—with such men as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, James Monroe, and even George Washington and John Adams—they were indubitably the intellectual offspring. The impact of “natural religion” on the genesis of democratic liberty, through their influence, has too often been ignored.

Writing to Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1800, shortly before he became President, Jefferson alleged certain clerical “schemes” to breach the religion clause of the First Amendment. He would oppose them with all his power, he said, “for I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” It was “Nature’s God” that he was thinking of; and for that vow above all others the altar was not to be found, he believed, within the limits of any dogmatic creed.

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