The “faith-based” initiative may seem like a relatively newfangled notion, but it’s really not. James Madison faced a similar proposal 200 years ago — and firmly rejected it.
In February of 1811, Madison, fourth president of the United States, had to deal with a bill Congress had passed officially incorporating an Episcopal church in the District of Columbia. Acting on constitutional principle, he reached for a pen and promptly vetoed the measure.
In a message dated Feb. 21, 1811, Madison – widely considered to be the Father of the Constitution – told Congress that he considered the bill a violation of the First Amendment.
The proposed legislation was no mere symbolic measure. In fact, it contained 11 sections and included detailed information about how the church was to be organized and what steps were to be taken if the minister resigned. It also authorized the congregation to help the disadvantaged and to offer schooling to poor children.
All of this state-sponsored entanglement in ecclesiastical affairs was too much for Madison.
“[T]he bill exceeds the rightful authority to which governments are limited, by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions,” wrote Madison, “and violates, in particular, the article of the Constitution of the United States, which declares, that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.’”
Madison went on to criticize the measure because “the bill vests in the said incorporated church an authority to provide for the support of the poor and the education of poor children of the same, an authority which, being altogether superfluous if the provision is to be the result of pious charity, would be a precedent for giving to religious societies as such a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty.”
In other words, Madison believed that churches don’t need approval from Congress to help the poor and to educate poor children if those projects are being paid for with private donations. And granting congressional sanction for such charitable endeavors, he feared, might set a precedent for public funding of them.
Madison’s veto isn’t as well known as some other incidents in church-state history – but it should be. Historians say his action is significant because it demonstrates that Madison, the primary author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, held an expansive view of the scope of the First Amendment’s church-state separation provisions.
Religious Right revisionists who promote bogus “Christian nation” concepts of American history are fond of claiming that the First Amendment language barring laws “respecting an establishment of religion” was intended only to prevent the designation of a national church.
Madison’s veto shows that he believed otherwise.
The House of Representatives apparently saw the wisdom in Madison’s action. Members briefly deliberated the veto after Madison sent the bill back to them. Two days later, they returned to the matter and upheld the veto by a vote of 79-21.
A month later, on March 2, 1811, Madison struck again, vetoing a House bill granting a plot of federal land to a Baptist church in Mississippi. He told Congress the bill “comprises a principle and precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.’”
Congress failed to override this veto as well. The House vote was 55-33.
Madison’s low-key persona and troubled presidency – he was in office during the unpopular War of 1812 when the British burned Washington – lead some today to overlook his contributions to religious freedom.
That’s unfortunate. A strong supporter of religious liberty, Madison celebrated “the total separation of the church from the state.”
What would Madison think of today’s faith-based initiatives? We don’t have to guess. Evidence from his own pen tells the story.