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Jefferson, Madison, and the Separation of Church and State
At the time of the framing of the Constitution in 1787, Virginia and several other states had rejected all establishment of religion. No state any longer had a European-style establishment of a single denomination, but several retained a form of establishment in which multiple denominations received government support. Many people, including such prominent leaders as Patrick Henry, argued strongly for some form of government support of religion, feeling that failure to acknowledge God, or Christianity in particular, in the new nation's founding document would doom its chances of success. Others, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, disagreed. Looking back on the destruction religious wars had caused since the Protestant Reformation, they believed that the surest way to achieve the domestic peace necessary for free and orderly economic activity and to avoid the oppression and injustice caused by various forms of religious establishment, was to separate the religious and civil realms.
Jefferson and Madison had been arguing for this latter position for some time. In 1779, Jefferson wrote and submitted to the Virginia legislature a Bill to Establish Religious Freedom, which he later considered among his finest accomplishments. His bill argued for the following:
• The government should not compel people to support a religion in which they do not believe, and that to do so “is sinful and tyrannical.”
• There should be no religious test for holding public office.
• The magistrate should not enter into the field of religious opinion, but should interfere only when religions violate the public peace.
• Religious establishment bribes (and thereby runs the risk of corrupting) religion when it offers it rewards from the public coffers.
Jefferson's bill failed that year, but so did a bill proposing that all churches receive some government support. Not long afterward, Madison composed and circulated anonymously the important document, Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments. “Who does not see," he asked, "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….that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever.”
Madison was not concerned solely with oppression. Government support of religion, he insisted, would lead inevitably to the corruption and weakening of religion itself. Fifteen centuries of governmental entanglement with Christianity had made clear that neither institution benefited from the relationship. He noted that ecclesiastical establishments “have [in some instances] been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people....A just government...will be best supported by...neither invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another.”
When Jefferson's bill came up again in 1786, it passed by a vote of 60 to 27. In an attempt to give some kind of official recognition to Christianity, some assemblymen tried to insert an acknowledgment of “Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.” Jefferson took pleasure in the fact that “the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel of every denomination.”
With their religious convictions and civil duties kept in separate realms, good citizens may believe whatever they wish to, as long as they do not violate the peace. In later years, Jefferson would write [in his Notes on the State of Virginia] that "the legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injuries to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say There are twenty gods, or no God. It neither breaks my leg, nor picks my pocket."