MADISON, JEFFERSON, AND MASON;
THREE VERY DIFFERENT VIEWS ON RELIGION FOR A NEW AMERICA.
Julio Gonzalez, M.D., J.D.
In the first installment of our "Sunday Thoughts" page, we explored George Mason's view of religious freedom and governance, a view that was closest to the Framers' consensus. We saw the importance Mason held for Christian forbearance and the role of Christianity in American life. For him, American society and social customs were inherently Christian in nature and based on Judeo-Christian moral presumptions. This reality was not to be denied in governmental design, but revered and utilized for society's benefit.
But Mason's view, although the prevailing one, was by no means universally accepted. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, most notably, viewed the concept of religious freedom and its nexus with governance differently. For example, Madison did not place a great deal of importance upon Christianity as the guiding force in a republic. His greater quest was for equal standing for all, regardless of the observed religion.
Madison's reasoning was based on the presumption that if there is a direct and intimate relationship between an individual and his Creator, a relationship not to be corrupted by the influence of the state, then there ought to be no room for the government to influence the person in regards to his or her religious beliefs. This prohibition, Madison argued, would not be limited to the selection or preference of a particular Christian sect, but applied equally to the selection of any religious belief, Christian or not.
As it were, history gave us the opportunity to test whether Madison's more sterilized view of religious freedom in governance was the prevailing view. During the run-up to the nation's founding, Madison presented his version of religious freedom in the form of an amendment to Article 16 of the Virginia Bill of Rights on which Mason had worked. His version would strike out the words "Christian forbearance" from the religious freedom provision, but the delegates to the Convention would have none of it. Although the delegates to the Virginia Fifth Convention accepted some of Madison's additions, they held dear to Christianity, and the words "Christian forbearance" were ultimately retained.
The person who was arguably the leading thinker and writer of the day, Thomas Jefferson, did not participate in the Fifth Convention's discussions as he was serving in Congress. Consequently, although he was aware of the results of the Fifth Virginia Convention, he was not nearly as familiar with its actual discussions and deliberations.
Generally, Jefferson's primary concern was the condition of man. Jefferson's view on the immiscibility of religion and governance was even stricter than Madison's. For Jefferson, any interference with religious worship and liberty must be avoided.
Jefferson was not only an ardent follower of natural law but also of the uncorrupted pursuit of truth. For as Jefferson articulated as one of his assumption in his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, ". . . truth is great and will prevail if left to herself;. . . she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them."
Clearly, Jefferson's scrubbing of governmental influence goes beyond the issue of religion and the belief in God. It goes to the matter of each man's pursuit of a greater truth. And if truth is to be sought free from obstructions, then government interference cannot be allowed.
In this light, Jefferson would write within the substance of the Religious Freedom Bill, "That to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty."
Despite the stated strictness of his position, Jefferson's call was not for a complete abstention from moral or ethical governance as he expressly allowed for interference in the beliefs of an individual "when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order."
So, even though Jefferson advocated for strict avoidance of interference by government with the religious beliefs of men, neither one's religious beliefs nor conscience could be employed for the purposes of disrupting the safety of the citizenry or to disrupt the social order. In 1779, at least, Jefferson's focus was not on a complete separation of church and state, but rather on a prohibition of interference by government in the person's pursuit of truth; religious or otherwise.
With these three diverging views, the stage was set for a colossal collision between giants, and the force that would induce the confrontation was yet another foundational American icon and the greatest orator of the day, Patrick Henry.
But for that, we will have to wait until next week.
Have a very Happy, Peaceful, and Blessed Thanksgiving Day.
Dr. Julio Gonzalez is an orthopaedic surgeon and lawyer living in Venice, Florida. He is the author of The Federalist Pages and serves in the Florida House of Representatives. He can be reached through www.thefederalistpages.com to arrange a lecture or book signing.