Mr. Madison's Momentous Missive: Correcting That 'Old Error' About Religion And Government

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On July 10, 1822, James Madison sent a letter to Edward Livingston about the appropriate relationship between religion and government. Writing 186 years ago today, the Father of our Constitution insisted that church-state separation has been a triumph for democracy and a boon to religious devotion.

Almost two centuries after Madison's missive, church-state separation is under tremendous attack in America. President George W. Bush is still touting his misguided "faith-based" initiative and pushing for voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools. Congress is considering continued public funding for a religious school voucher program in the District of Columbia. This fall, the Supreme Court will decided whether local governments can display the Ten Commandments in a public park and then turn down minority religious groups that want to display their credo in the same fashion.

Religious Right groups rail unceasingly against church-state separation, producing a stream of books, videos and pamphlets assailing the "myth" of separation.

Therefore, class, it's time for a little history lesson from Professor Madison.

In his letter, Madison said that in some parts of America "there remains...a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between government and religion neither can be duly supported. Such indeed is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded against.

"Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters is of importance," he continued. "And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together."

Madison noted that many people had once thought a government could not function without an alliance with religion. The American experience, he said, proved otherwise.

"The example of the colonies, now states, which rejected religious establishments altogether, proved that all sects might be safely and advantageously put on a footing of equal and entire freedom," he said.

"I cannot speak particularly of any of the cases excepting that of Virginia," he added, "where it is impossible to deny that religion prevails with more zeal and a more exemplary priesthood than it ever did when established and patronized by public authority."

Concluded Madison, "We are teaching the world the great truth that governments do better without kings and nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of government."

When modern-day politicians, prelates and pundits rail against the separation of church and state, urge them to read some American history. Madison's 1822 letter would be a good start.