Jeff Broadwater: James Madison, Secular Humanist

We welcome a guest post today from Jeff Broadwater, whose most recent book, James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation, has recently been published. James Madison is remembered primarily as a systematic political theorist, but Broadwater’s book shows that this bookish and unassuming man was also a practical politician who strove for balance in an age of revolution. From Broadwater’s perspective, no single figure can tell us more about the origins of the American republic than our fourth president. Read our interview with Broadwater to learn more about the book.

In the following post, Broadwater explores Madison’s ideas about religious freedom, particularly the separation of church and state.


James Madison won the presidency in a landslide in 1808, prevailed in a closer race in 1812, and left office as a revered elder statesman four years later. Among his most appealing traits was a lifelong commitment to religious freedom, but if we could raise him from the dead—never mind the Twenty-Second Amendment limiting presidents to two terms—his views on the separation of church and state might well keep him out of today’s White House.

Unlike modern candidates, Madison avoided public professions of faith, and he openly expressed an idea that would be heresy today: on the critical problems of democratic politics—maintaining political stability while balancing majority rule and individual rights—religion offered little help. European history taught him that where one faith dominated a society, it would form an oppressive alliance with the state. Where two religions of comparable strength existed, they could rip a society apart. Liberty could only flourish where, as in the United States, a variety of religious factions could check and balance one another.

But even in America there were limits to the political usefulness of religion. How, Madison asked in Federalist No. 10, could arbitrary majorities be disciplined? “We all know,” he wrote, “that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control.” Extending the political sphere to encompass an array of different factions in a way that would diffuse power offered a more plausible alternative. Even in his extended republic, however, religion could often be used to incite dangerous prejudices. Madison had his own encounter with a religious opposition; he blamed a partisan clergy for inflaming passions in New England against the War of 1812.

Personally, he was a nominal Anglican, not a Jacobin. On the eve of the American Revolution, Madison complained bitterly about Virginia’s practice of jailing Baptist ministers for preaching without a license. He fought to separate church and state in part to expand the rights of religious minorities.

During the debate over the Bill of Rights, he proposed that conscientious objectors be exempt from military service and that states be barred from interfering with the free exercise of religion. Madison disagreed with Thomas Jefferson’s suggestion that, in the interest of liberty of conscience, ministers be banned from legislative service. Madison argued such a ban would discriminate unfairly against religion. In retirement, Madison expressed satisfaction that religion had flourished in Virginia since the disestablishment of the Anglican Church.

At the same time, Madison believed governments should embrace a strict neutrality in matters of faith. As a young lawmaker in Virginia, he helped defeat a bill to funnel tax dollars to “teachers of the Christian religion.” As president, he signed legislation authorizing mail delivery on Sunday; he did not want to honor one religion’s holy day over another’s. He vetoed a bill incorporating an Episcopal church in the District of Columbia; he said the bill improperly interjected the state into issues of church government. He also objected to language authorizing the church to aid the poor; he thought it improperly placed the state’s imprimatur on “faith-based” charity. During the War of 1812, he reluctantly proclaimed days of prayer and fasting, but he tried to make his proclamations as ecumenical as possible. He privately questioned the propriety of using taxpayers’ dollars to pay military and congressional chaplains.

Jefferson’s enemies attacked him as an infidel. Somehow Madison, another eighteenth-century thinker who challenged sacred cows, avoided similar assaults. We can only wonder how he would fare in our (allegedly) more secular society today.

Jeff Broadwater is professor of history at Barton College. In addition to James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation, he is author of George Mason, Forgotten Founder and Eisenhower and the Anti-Communist Crusade.