Forgotten Founder?: Happy (Belated) Birthday, James Madison!

James Madison believed that hundreds of years of established churches had crushed liberty and felt society could do well without them.

It has been surprisingly busy on the church-state front this week with a new flare-up in the South Carolina license plate case and the stories about President Barack Obama's religious advisors.

But I didn't want the week to go by without wishing James Madison a happy birthday – admittedly belated. Madison was born on March 16, 1751. Most Americans don't know that, which is a shame.

Madison is often called the "Father of the Constitution," and indeed his influence on that document and the subsequent Bill of Rights is considerable. You would think that achievement would have earned Madison a place of honor in American history. That hasn't happened. In fact, there is no prominent public monument to Madison in Washington, D.C. That has always bothered me.

It bothers Steve Waldman as well. Waldman, editor of the popular religion Web site, penned an article for The Wall Street Journal on Madison's birthday, reminding us that we have yet to give our fourth president his due.

Waldman points out the key role Madison played in securing religious liberty.

"James Madison is more responsible than any other single American for one of the nation's greatest characteristics – religious freedom," Waldman writes. "At a time when we're fighting over faith-based initiatives and the proper role of religion in politics, it's worth appreciating that America's experiment with religious liberty has largely succeeded, thanks largely to James Madison."

I agree with that, although I might quibble with some of Waldman's other conclusions. He asserts that Madison's main reason for promoting the separation of church and state was to "help religion." I'm not so sure about that. I think Madison simply believed that hundreds of years of established churches had crushed liberty and felt society could do well without them.

This view shines through in Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," one the greatest attacks on government support for religion ever written.

Consider this passage: "[E]xperience witnesseth that eccelsiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution."

Unfortunately, Madison's genius as an architect of government tends to be overlooked. His presidency was plagued by increasing tensions with Great Britain, culminating in the War of 1812. The new nation suffered the humiliation of seeing portions of its capital (including the White House) burned by the British. If Americans remember anything at all about Madison, it's that.

That's a shame, because Madison gave us so much. See here for more great Madison quotes on religious freedom and church-state separation.

And by the way, if there are any Religious Right trolls reading this, don't even bother to bring up that phony quote about Madison lauding the Ten Commandments as the foundation of the U.S. government. Even the notorious Religious Right historical revisionist David Barton admits that it's bogus.