Champion of Religious Freedom
When the American Revolution began, Madison was “under very early and strong impressions in favour of Liberty both Civil & Religious,” as he wrote in an autobiographical sketch. He worked extensively for the freedom of Baptist preachers who had been jailed for dissenting from the established church. “Happily it was not long before the fruits of Independence and of the spirit & principles which led to it, included a complete establishment of the Rights of Conscience,” he wrote, “without any distinction of sects or individuals.”
Madison played an important role in establishing the rights of conscience during the 1776 Virginia Convention. Acutely aware of his youth and inexperience compared to the “distinguished and experienced members of the Convention,” Madison did not join in the debates. He did, however, propose a small but profound change in George Mason’s wording of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Rather than guaranteeing mere religious “toleration,” Madison successfully argued that the Declaration of Rights should be amended to express the right to “free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” This subtle change recognized that the freedom of conscience was a right that belonged to all citizens, not a privilege that the government could choose to tolerate.
Madison further explained his position on religious liberty in 1785 when a bill before the Virginia legislature called for a general assessment to support Protestant churches. Instead of using the tax for a single state-supported church, the amount collected was to be divided among the churches selected by taxpayers. Madison wrote an anonymous petition entitled Memorial and Remonstrance which provided fifteen arguments against the general assessment bill. Madison emphasized that religion was a matter of individual conviction and could not be directed by the government in any way. He warned that the bill opened the way for majority suppression of minority rights. He believed that religion did not need or benefit from government support, and that government did not need support from religion.
As a member of Congress, Madison opposed paying military chaplains with public funds, explaining later that “The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.” While as President he opposed the tradition of government proclamations for days of prayer, fasting, or thanksgiving, Madison compromised by presenting his proclamations as suggestions rather than directives.
"Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprize."
James Madison to William Bradford, April 1, 1774
"Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?"
James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance, June 20, 1785