Nature’s God And The Founding Fathers

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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.