What Ever Happened to Jefferson and Madison?

Tom Shipka

The most recent book of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Garry Wills, is Head and Heart: American Christianities. The chapters on religion during the Revolutionary Era show how far the USA today has drifted from the plan of our founders (1).
Wills explains that the founders believed that to build an enduring republic they would have to minimize the impact of religion on government. They were keenly aware of the blood that was spilled in the Crusades, the Inquisition, the persecution of the Jews, and the religious wars in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, and they saw first hand religious intolerance in the colonies. They also agreed with British philosopher, John Locke, (2) that human beings have a natural right to form their own beliefs on religion based on reason and conscience, that the duly-constituted government must possess a monopoly of power, that churches are subordinate to the State and its laws, and that churches may use only admonitions and exhortations, and never coercion, in dealing with their members or non-members.
Wills tells us that Jefferson and Madison led the battle to build a lasting new republic based on the separation of government and religion. Jefferson's insistence on this is found in his "Bill to Establish Religious Freedom" in Virginia, his Letter to the Danbury Baptists, and his behavior as President. The Virginia statute disestablished the Anglican Church and ended the practice of taxing Virginians to support it (3). In his Letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson characterized the Virginia statute, and the Constitution, as erecting "a wall of separation between Church and state." During his presidency, he refused to issue prayer day proclamations (4). As for Madison, Father of the Constitution, the Constitution, his essay against compulsory taxation to support churches (5), the "Federalist Papers," and his behavior as President show his agreement with Jefferson. Madison insisted on religious liberty for all and required churches to tolerate one another. He also opposed a religious test for public office and government support for a particular church or for religion in general. Like Jefferson, he opposed prayer day proclamations (6). He also opposed paying chaplains with public funds, tax exemptions for churches, government-endorsement of religious charities, and allowing churches to acquire extensive wealth (7).
Thus, our founders were deeply fearful of sectarianism and they aimed to disentangle religion and government (8). Although contemporary political leaders pay lip service to Jefferson and Madison, few follow their lead. Today most politicians pander to religious groups and their leaders. The White House sends hundreds of millions of dollars to religious charities, the Justice Department hires only applicants who pass an evangelical litmus test, atheists or agnostics are unelectable to high office, pastors openly defy IRS rules about partisan political activity, forty states exempt parents who subscribe to faith-healing from prosecution for denying medical care to their sick children, embryonic stem cell research is halted, and Genesis myths trump science in many classrooms. The list goes on and on (9). Today, religion rules. Whatever happened to Jefferson and Madison?


  1. See "Part Two: Enlightened Religion," Chapters 7-14, pp. 121-249.
  2. Locke's writings had a powerful influence on our founders. The doctrines of natural rights, limited government, government by consent, majority rule, the separation of powers, the legitimacy of revolution or rebellion against an illegitimate government, the separation of church and state, and others, are found in his First Treatise of Government, Second Treatise of Government, and Letter Concerning Toleration.
  3. Jefferson's "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom" provides, in part, that "...no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, workplace, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall (he) be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall (he) otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; ...all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." (Quoted in Wills, p. 196)
  4. Wills, p. 237.
  5. "Memorial and Remonstrance." See Wills, pp. 207-222.
  6. Madison reluctantly issued a prayer day proclamation during the War of 1812, a decision he later regretted.
  7. Wills, pp. 242-247. On the issue of church wealth, Madison was fearful that wealthy churches would attempt to exert political influence.
  8. Wills shares two "laments" with readers by individuals who recognized, and apparently regretted, the secular origins of our nation.
  9. a. In 1812 Timothy Wright wrote:
  10. "We formed our Constitution without any acknowledgement of God, without any recognition of His mercies to us as a people, of his government, or even of his existence. The Convention by which it was formed never asked, even once, his direction or his blessing upon their labors. Thus we commenced our national existence, under the present system, without God." (Quoted in Wills, p. 223)
  11. b. In 1813 Chancey Lee wrote:
  12. "Can we pause and reflect for a moment, with the mingled emotions of wonder and regret, that that public instrument which guarantees our political rights and freedom and independence - our Constitution of national government, framed by such an august, learned and able body of men, formally adopted by the solemn resolution of each state, and justly admired and celebrated for its consummate political wisdom - has not the impress of religion upon it, not the smallest recognition of the government or the being of God, or the dependence and accountability of men - be astonished, O Earth! - nothing by which a foreigner might certainly decide whether we believe in the one true God, or in any God." (Quoted in Wills, p. 223-224)
  13. Other examples include vouchers and other forms of government support of religious schools, displays of nativity scenes on public property, allowance of Christian proselytizing in the military academies, support of proselytizing by Christian ministries in jails and prisons, prayer breakfasts sponsored by public officials, legislative prayers, office holders and candidates closing speeches with "God bless you and God bless America" or a variation, newly-elected presidents utilizing a Bible during their oath and adding "So help me God" to the presidential oath provided in the Constitution, highly publicized efforts by office-holders to block the disconnection of life support systems from individuals in persistent vegetative states, such as Terri Schiavo, stacking boards of education with evangelicals, evangelical opposition to bills promoting children's rights, state referenda defining marriage as the bond between one man and one women, "In God We Trust" on currency, "One Nation Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, government "sex education" programs promoting abstinence only and ignoring condoms and the pill, the White House and others promoting the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution, opposition to casino gambling by evangelicals and their political patrons in some states, the placing by the State of Utah of 12-feet crosses at the sites of state highway patrol officers who died in the line of duty, a 36-year old "Free Day Away" program at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri where trainees may leave base provided that they participate in a religious program conducted by the Tabernacle Baptist Church of Lebanon, Missouri, incorporation of religion into the health care programs of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, etc.

© 2008 Tom Shipka