Quote Files: James Madison on Christianity: ‘Superstition, Bigotry, and Persecution’

The Founding Fathers are always everyone’s top choice when looking to bolster their argument, and despite being a generally skeptical lot (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Paine, and Franklin were deists), they are frequently and inaccurately invoked by the religious to support the claim that “America was founded as a Christian nation.”

But despite so many irreligious writings to choose from, alas, even atheists aren’t blameless when it comes to misquoting the Founders, and here is one popular example:

What has been the fruits of Christianity? Superstition, bigotry and persecution.
– James Madison

This one is slippery because Madison said something very similar in a 1785 speech to the Virginia General Assembly, regarding a bill “establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion.” He spoke passionately against it, declaring, “If finally armed with the sanctions of a law, [it] will be a dangerous abuse of power, [and we] are bound as faithful members of a free State to remonstrate against it, and to declare the reasons by which we are determined.”

Among these excellent reasons:

Because the establishment proposed by the Bill is not requisite for the support of the Christian Religion. To say that it is, is a contradiction to the Christian Religion itself, for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world… Nay, it is a contradiction in terms; for a Religion not invented by human policy, must have pre-existed and been supported, before it was established by human policy. It is moreover to weaken in those who profess this Religion a pious confidence in its innate excellence and the patronage of its Author; and to foster in those who still reject it, a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits.

Everyone should expect the Spanish Inquisition.

Because experience witnesseth that eccelsiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lustre; those of every sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy. Propose a restoration of this primitive State in which its Teachers depended on the voluntary rewards of their flocks, many of them predict its downfall. On which Side ought their testimony to have greatest weight, when for or when against their interest?

A more damning indictment of mixing church and state is probably not to be found, and his clear articulation at the end of the public choice problems of clergy lobbying for state support is timeless.

But notice the important distinction between what Madison actually said and what the clipped quote has him saying: in the original, Madison is clearly talking about the results of the legal establishment of Christianity, not the religion as a whole. This isn’t a small difference, because the argument for secularism being made here is not that Christianity, per se, creates bigotry and persecution, but that establishing and supporting religion by law invariably does.

Madison repeatedly and eloquently defended the importance of separating church from state, concluding in his 1822 letter to Edward Livingston that, indeed, they would both be better off because of it:

Notwithstanding the general progress made within the two last centuries in favour of this branch of liberty, & the full establishment of it, in some parts of our Country, there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Govt. & Religion neither can be duly supported. Such indeed is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded agst.

And in a Govt. of opinion, like ours, the only effectual guard must be found in the soundness and stability of the general opinion on the subject. Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.

And to that, believer and atheist alike should say “amen.”

Mr. Madison, Mr. Jefferson, build up that wall!