The Islam hearings: What would James Madison do?

There are many reasons you can think of James Madison as the Jiminy Cricket of the Founding Fathers:

  • diminutive size
  • preference for black coats
  • voracious student with an encyclopedia in his brain
  • belief that conscience should be your guide.

Photo by Flickr User bestbib&tucker

Madison was born 260 years ago today. As we wish him a happy birthday, there is a great deal about his life and work for which to be thankful. But it’s our belief in freedom of conscience, which Madison did so much to establish, that commands particular attention today. It’s one of the reasons emotions have run so high about last week’s congressional hearing on the radicalization of American Muslims.

Before he gave us the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Madison gave us a radical vision of freedom of religious conscience. Madison is the most scholarly of the Founding Fathers, and he formulated his ideas about religious liberty early in life, as a student at Princeton and from the prodigious reading he did on his own.

In 1776, when he was 25, he was elected to the convention that was drafting Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. The proposed article on religion said that “all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience,” a view that reflected the liberal thinking of the day.

But Madison’s studies had led him to a more radical position that questioned the very principle of “toleration.” The government, he reasoned, has no more right to tolerate someone’s religious beliefs than it does to interfere with them.

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What he proposed instead, and what the Virginia Convention enacted, was that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience.’’ In other words, you were born with the right to your own religious beliefs, a freedom beyond government’s reach.

That principle was echoed in the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, which Madison collaborated with Jefferson to enact in 1786. And it later entered the Constitution in the form of the First Amendment – mainly Madison’s work.

All of which is a long way of saying that we owe our religious liberty in large measure to Madison’s thinking and legislative accomplishments. And that brings us back to Jiminy Cricket and his admonition to a generation of youngsters (mine) that we should always let our conscience be our guide.

What would Madison have thought of the hearings on radical Islam called by Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who chairs the House Homeland Security? I don’t pretend to know how he would have weighed the threat of homegrown terrorism from the extreme views of some against the patriotism and peaceful religious faith of most Muslim Americans. But I’m pretty sure he would have gone out of his way, as former President Bush and President Obama have done, to dispel any notion that the deeply pluralist society he did so much to establish was in any sense hostile to Islam.

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