James Madison, widely recognized as the Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, believed that religious liberty is our pre-eminent natural right. Susan B. Anthony, a leading women’s suffragist, captured the essence of natural rights when she stated, “The Declaration of Independence (and) the United States Constitution (protect) the people in the exercise of their God-given rights. (Neither) pretends to bestow rights.”
Madison’s life-long commitment to securing the right of religious conscience took root during his time as a student at the College of New Jersey (Princeton), where he was taught by John Witherspoon, a clergyman, patriot and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Witherspoon taught that the moral sense or religious conscience is “the highest law written by our Maker on our hearts.”
Conscience consisted of a duty or moral obligation of the highest order to God and one’s self. For Witherspoon and Madison, religious liberty was a matter of sacred responsibility, the need to be free to fulfill one’s duty to God and thereby secure enduring happiness. To violate one’s duty to God, in turn, did irreparable damage to one’s soul, a crime in which no just government would be complicit.
Upon returning home from Princeton, Madison discovered that Baptist ministers were regularly jailed for failing to obtain a license to preach. For Baptists, the call to preach was from God and not the government. Imbued with a deep commitment to the right of conscience, and respect for the Baptists’ religious beliefs, Madison wrote his classmate and friend, William Bradford, that Virginia’s infringement on the right of conscience “vexed” him like nothing else.
Most Virginians disagreed, believing that they tolerated the Baptists preaching, even though they found it to be disruptive of the public peace. Today, many Americans also often scoff at the religious duties of minorities, finding them to be, at best, quaint and, at worst, offensive and discriminatory.
Madison was driven to secure religious liberty for persecuted minority faiths. Those minority religionists, in turn, became Madison’s political base, enabling him to lead the effort to secure the constitutional rule of law in America, including the right of conscience.
Madison was only in his mid-20s when he served as a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1788. During that convention, Virginia adopted a Declaration of Rights that became a precursor to our Bill of Rights.
George Mason, a distinguished delegate, offered a provision designed to tolerate religious conscience. Madison was alarmed — toleration, by its very nature, denoted a second-class right, a right given and subject to limitation by a tyrannical majority.
In his first significant act in an illustrious public life, Madison audaciously countered, “the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, (is) under the direction of reason and conviction only, not of violence, or (governmental) compulsion.” He added, “All men are entitled to the full and free exercise of (religious conscience).” Government, in turn, could only limit the right of conscience when “equal liberty, and the existence of the State (would) be manifestly endangered.”
Madison continually worked to secure the right of conscience, ultimately placing it securely in the First Amendment to the United States, with free exercise language that mirrored his proposed amendment to the Virginia Declaration of Rights. In March 1792, the same month that states were notified of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, Madison wrote a significant essay explaining why the right of religious conscience was pre-eminent.
In that illuminating essay, Madison explained that we have a right in real property and property in rights. Government could take real property only when it offered just compensation for the value of that property.
People also have property in their opinions. Prohibiting expression, therefore, is a taking. Unlike the taking of real property, however, when government takes a person’s right of expression, there is really no way to compensate for the taking.15 comments on this story
Madison added, “Conscience is the most sacred of all property; other property depending in part on positive law, the exercise of (conscience), being a natural and inalienable right.” Infringement on one’s religious conscience is to take one’s soul without providing any compensation, an act of tyranny of the worst sort.
Henry Ward Beecher, the great abolitionist, preached, “Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.” Permitting government to take the souls of our children and their children ought to vex us as much as it did Madison, the Father of the Bill of Rights.