James Madison the Father of Religious Liberty


Madison had a deep, albeit somewhat untraditional, faith in God. He complemented that faith in God with an abiding faith in the country he did so much to help found and a deep faith in and commitment to family and friendship.

Written by Rodney K. Smith, author of James Madison the Father of Religious Liberty.

In today’s world, such values have lost some of their luster in some sectors of the population, particularly in academic circles. In all respects, however, Madison remains an example of the kind of leader and public servant who was seemingly called to fulfill a central role in securing liberty.

Madison believed rights were natural or gifts of God, and he was thoroughly committed to the goal of the founding generation to establish a nation conceived in liberty, the liberty to pursue happiness freed from a naturally overreaching national government. The Declaration of Independence, in many ways, served as the spirit of the American Revolution, a revolution fought to secure liberty, freedom from tyranny of a king or a tyrannical majority. Thomas Jefferson put it well when he noted that he had “sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”3 Madison surely shared his dear friend’s opposition to tyranny in all forms.

Many who visited with Madison throughout his lifetime were struck by his reverence for the work that he was blessed to be a part of. Those visitors observed a religious quality to Madison’s devotion to the American founding and its governing documents. Nevertheless, some writers believe Madison was, at most, a person of limited religious faith. It is often claimed that Madison was a deist, one who believed in a God who can be known through reason but not revelation.

Deists also generally believe in the existence of God, a supreme being, but they do not believe that God intervenes in the affairs of human beings. As such, deists do not believe in the concept of a God of miracles, a God who is directly involved in the lives of His children.

As Madison’s own words and deeds amply demonstrate, however, he firmly believed in a God of miracles. His faith was deeply personal; but he never affiliated with any particular sect. He was generally reluctant to discuss his faith openly, except with very close friends, and he abhorred the idea of using his faith as a tool to secure political support. Nevertheless, minority religionists and sects, particularly the Baptists, provided the votes necessary to place Madison in critical public positions during a determinative time in the history of the United States of America (United States).

Madison was a man of quiet faith, a very spiritual man, who was also intellectually inspired in miraculous ways. He saw the finger of the Divine Providence in his efforts to draft and secure adoption and ratification of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. As Madison’s life and writing amply evidenced, the right of conscience was intended to be secured as “the most sacred of all property,” the preeminent natural right, the right placed furthest from the touch of any just government.

It is also true that Madison feared control of the government by any religious sect. As previously noted, he feared tyranny in any form. This is the Madison whom I have come to revere through years of study. It is the Madison I want to share with readers. In doing so, it is my sincere hope, even prayer, that learning more of the depth and breadth of the faith of the “father” of the Constitution and Bill of Rights will deepen the reader’s faith in the miracle of the Constitution and will be a forceful reminder of the grave importance of protecting liberty, including the sacred right of religious conscience during a time of declining faith, a time of increasing assaults on the right of conscience from segments of the progressive left and the conservative right.

Some scholars and laypeople claim that religious liberty is little more than a pernicious myth, a fraudulent means of obtaining an exemption from the majority’s conception of the public good and a pretext to discriminate against others. This book takes the life of the greatest American proponent of the right of religious conscience as a response to those who believe religious liberty is a lesser or antiquated right or no right at all. More significantly, it is anticipated that this book, and the life of James Madison, will help rally those who believe in the cause of conscience and liberty. Without such an understanding of the importance of the right of conscience and its preeminent place in the panoply of rights, the siege against the right of conscience will persist until the right is no longer anything more than an antiquated parchment barrier.

A few years ago, when I was serving as president of a small, faith-based liberal arts college, I attended a luncheon with many other presidents. The luncheon speaker was David Gergen, who codirects the Center for Public Leadership the Kennedy School at Harvard and who served as an advisor to four presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. In his address, Gergen shared his belief that the two primary ingredients of a great leader are authenticity and transparency. He acknowledged that the presidents he served did not fully embody those characteristics. An authentic and transparent leader engenders trust, and such trusted leadership is critical to good government. Madison was just such a president.

Such authenticity and transparency, which are a form of honesty, were reflective of Madison’s own finely tuned conscience. Even when they attacked Madison for his policy choices, the citizenry respected him as a leader, who was motivated by his conscience and a love of the nation he helped found.

It is also not surprising that Madison believed that a firm moral and religious conscience is a critical ingredient in effective leadership. Without it, a government was destined to fail. He started his public career by trying to ensure the right of conscience in Virginia, as a young delegate to Virginia’s constitutional convention, and he ended his service as president by vetoing a bill, the substance of which he liked, because it was unconstitutional.

In reading of Madison’s life, you will sense an ever-active conscience at work, the actions of a true leader, the kind of leadership that is desperately needed in today’s world in which political expediency and populism seem to rule at the expense of the kind of transparency and authenticity that are founded in an active commitment to conscience.



3. Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800, in PTJ, 32:168. Transcription available at Founders Online.