Understanding American Religious Freedom—beyond James Madison https://mosaicmagazine.com/picks/history-ideas/2019/12/understanding-american-religious-freedom-beyond-james-madison/

December 5, 2019 | Mark David Hall
About the author:

In Sacred Liberty, Steven Waldman provides a history of religious liberty in America from colonial times to the present. In doing so, he provides a more nuanced picture than that normally on offer. Mark David Hall writes in his review:

Jurists and scholars often act as if James Madison and Thomas Jefferson are the only Founders who matter when it comes to religious liberty and church-state relations. Refreshingly, Waldman cautions that Madison “did not alone invent the general concept of religious freedom,” and he notes that even the major Founders differed regarding the extent to which governments should encourage religious practices.

Waldman identifies Madison as a separationist; but this misunderstands the extent to which he was committed to strictly separating church and state. For instance, Waldman writes that Madison “opposed the appointments of congressional and military chaplains, on the grounds that using tax dollars to pay ministers was creating a religious establishment,” and that he “objected when Presidents Washington and Adams issued prayer proclamations.”

As a member of the confederation and federal congresses, Madison voted to pay chaplains, and as the nation’s fourth president, he issued four calls for prayer. After he left the presidency, he questioned the constitutionality of these practices, but he did so in a private document that was not published in his lifetime. Even if these were views he had held earlier, he did not act on them, and there is little evidence that other Founders (except Jefferson) shared them.

For Waldman, as for his reviewer Hall, freedom of religion was something that continued to evolve, often if not always in a beneficial direction, in the years since the Bill of Rights was ratified:

An overlooked landmark in the rise of religious liberty in America is the National Conference of Christians and Jews, founded in 1927. In 1933, three of the group’s leaders, a Protestant minister, Catholic priest, and Jewish rabbi, embarked on a 38-city tour to promote interfaith understanding. Their journey was covered by Time magazine, and their endeavor inspired a host of similar tours by other trios throughout the 1930s.

Read more on Law and Liberty: https://www.lawliberty.org/book-review/a-nuanced-report-card-on-religious-liberty/