It’s 1784, and James Madison has a problem: the General Assembly of Virginia has just proposed a bill that would establish a special tax to pay for “teachers of the Christian Religion.” The bill has wide support because the Episcopal Church—the dominant church—will benefit greatly from having taxpayers pay for its teachers. Madison, however, knows better. He knows the bill is an attack on the principle of freedom of conscience and a threat to the liberties so recently wrenched from King George III.
So what does he do? What does the future Founding Father, Father of the Constitution, Father of the Bill of Rights, and fourth president of the United States do? He sits down and writes out a list of fifteen reasons that Virginians should reject the bill and any other attempt to mix religion and government. Then he puts it in a petition and sends it all over the Commonwealth.
Remarkably, Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” and dozens of other petitions collected over ten thousand signatures. When the General Assembly gathered again in 1785, the bill died before it even made it to the floor.
The success of Madison’s petition set the stage for the passage of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Then, in 1787, when the Constitutional Convention met to create a new American system of government, the language of the Virginia Statute became the law of the nation and inspired the first secular republic in history.
This is our history—unless of course you’re one of countless people who think America is a Christian nation founded on biblical principles.
Right now, millions of Americans are convinced that our society is in the midst of a steep moral decline. To slow the decay, many right-wing political and religious leaders and their followers are demanding a “return” to the foundation of American virtue, which they believe to be the Bible and Christian doctrine. They believe that, if we just do what God tells us to do, he will make it all better. Alarmingly, they also believe that if we don’t do what God tells us to do, he will punish us. In their minds, there is a causal link between secular government and societal decay, so—“to protect our country”—they’ve been hacking away at what Jefferson called the “wall of separation” between church and state. For them, goodness comes from God, so if we are to be a good country, we must be a godly one.
It’s 2014, and, like Madison, we have a problem. There is a dangerous problem with the desire to base our national morality on Christian beliefs—or any religious beliefs. Of course it’s a good idea to have a strong moral foundation, but morals don’t need religion to be sound. In fact, history is replete with examples showing that morality does horrific damage when it is based on the authority of a god. God’s laws are absolutes, and the things that make people want to cling to absolutes are the very things that make them dangerous: absolutes shut down critical thinking. They do not allow debate. They allow no reflection. There is no moderation. There is no reason.
When people attach the authority of God to moral precepts, they turn good ideas into bad ideology and corrupt theology. “Love thy neighbor” gets hijacked by “The ends justify the means because God said so.” Ideology is amenable to branding and is particularly useful during political campaigns, but it is a disastrous basis on which to make decisions. It is a disastrous way to govern a country.
People who believe the United States can somehow be saved by a rebirth of religious piety miss the most profound lesson American history has to offer. The most unique and significant characteristic of our national experiment was not its dedication to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The genius of the American example was the method our founders used to conclude that those things should be the foundation of their new republic. They dismissed the political and religious ideologies of the day and used reason to come up with better ideas.
When the colonists came together to draft the Declaration of Independence, it was not because “God said so.” Instead, our founders appealed to reason—no fewer than twenty-seven reasons—and painstakingly explained to King George and the rest of the world why “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States.”
When delegates to the Constitutional Convention gathered to form a more perfect union, establish justice, and ensure domestic tranquility, they didn’t write the authority of God into the administration of government. They studied world history and political philosophy; they compared dozens of governing systems; they reviewed centuries of human experience; and they reasoned—after much strenuous debate—that “We the People” would be the best guardians of liberty. Not God. Not king. Not priest. We the People. They concluded that ten amendments would do far more to ensure the general welfare than the Ten Commandments.
And so it was with Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance.” When the General Assembly tried to pass a bill that would infringe upon religious liberty, Madison didn’t try to justify his disagreement with an appeal to faith. He didn’t fire back at his adversaries with a Commandment, with a “because God said so.” He looked to reason and found fifteen of them—more than enough to persuade his fellow Virginians to change their minds and choose the better way.
Our leaders and fellow citizens are right to claim that America has strayed from its original values, but our value system was never about commandments. Liberty, equality, tolerance and respect, fairness, freedom of conscience and speech, distribution of power, and checks and balances—the civic virtues and democratic values that have sustained us are secular values born of human experience and free thought. They are the legacies of founders who understood that happiness is more dependent on freedom than on faith, that reason is a better judge than religion, and that revolutionary ideas work better than religious ideology.
America cannot be saved by a return to religion because America was not founded on religion. America is the child of reason. If we wish to return to our founding principles—if we wish to regain our moral footing and work toward a better day—this is where we should begin.
James Madison’s ‘Memorial and Remonstrance’
Madison’s reasons of 1785 are still relevant today and remain a compelling argument against the impulse to mingle church and state. To paraphrase (with apologies to the most eloquent Madison):
1. A person’s relationship with God is between that person and God, so a majority of people should not be able to impose its religious opinion on individuals.
2. Government gets its power from the people. Since people should not impose their religious opinions on one another, government should not impose religion on individuals either.
3. We just fought really hard to win our liberties from England—why would we want to start giving them away again?
4. If we expect to be free to worship God in our own way, we have to let everyone else do the same thing. A just God is more offended by inequality than by uncertainty.
5. The president isn’t an authority on religious truth, and the state is not the means of salvation.
6. Are you worried that religion will fail without the support of the government? Isn’t your faith stronger than that?
7. Anyway, religion flourishes when it’s oppressed by the state as
surely as it turns corrupt when joined with it.
8. History lesson: the quickest way to destroy a peaceful society is to give its rulers the authority of God.
9. Besides, how are we going to explain a state church to a world of people expecting America to be the “land of the free”?
10. If we start revoking liberties, all the good people who value freedom will leave and then what will we have?
11. Relax. Remember: every time we try to make everyone believe the same thing, lots of people get killed.
12. If we start acting like a backward theocracy, no one will like us and they won’t believe a word we say—as a church or as a state.
13. It’s hard enough enforcing laws that we agree on. How are we going to enforce a law that no one likes? Besides, stupid laws only damage our credibility.
14. Okay, this is a democracy. How many people really want the government to tell them how to worship God? Not enough.
15. If we start to think it’s okay for the majority—the state—to take away our religious freedom, what freedom will we let it take away next?
Lauren Becker is associate director of the Council for Secular Humanism, an associate editor of Free Inquiry, and the marketing director of the Center for Inquiry. This article is adapted from an essay posted to the Center for Inquiry’s blog Free Thinking.