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The point is that, thanks largely to Madison, free exercise replaced toleration as the national standard for protecting religious liberty, a standard he first raised in Virginia and sustained throughout his political career.Liberals make Madison into an anti-religious rationalist, determined to quarantine the republic from the disruptive influence of faith.
Prompted by Baptist leaders and others, Madison penned his now-famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments in July 1785.
Biographer Irving Brant calls the 15-point document "the most powerful defense of religious liberty ever written in America." One reason is that Madison made freedom of conscience--meaning belief or conviction about religious matters--the centerpiece of all civil liberties.
Madison would pick up the fight again during the drafting of the First Amendment.
As chairman of the House conference committee on the Bill of Rights, Madison's original draft was among the most ambitious: "the civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship..shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed...." Though somewhat less expansive in its protections, the final version--"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" --clearly bears the Madison stamp.
He called religious belief "precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society." By placing freedom of conscience prior to and superior to all other rights, Madison gave it the strongest political foundation possible.
Hard-core separationists and others disagree, claiming that the Memorial's pious rhetoric masks an antipathy to religion. He voices concern that the misuse of religion would lead to "an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation." He reasons that government support would "weaken in those who profess this Religion a pious confidence in its innate excellence and the patronage of its Author." He recalls that ecclesiastical establishments of the past have done great damage to the "purity and efficacy" of religion." Are these the arguments of a religious scoffer?
Over the next decade, Madison would be involved in various religious liberty battles in the Virginia legislature, from repealing penalties against dissenters to suspending taxpayer support for Anglican clergymen.
Those struggles came to a head in 1784 when--religious conservatives take note--the General Assembly tried to pass a General Assessment bill to collect tax money for all Christian churches in the name of "public morality." Madison and others saw the bill for what it was: an attempt to prop up the Protestant Episcopal (Anglican) church with taxpayers' money.
Madison's substitute--"all men are entitled to the full and free exercise" of religion--essentially won the day.
This put Madison far ahead of John Locke, who generally mustered no more than grudging toleration for religious belief.