The Blog

On Evangelicals and Theocrats

The example of James Madison shows why liberals who continue to conflate the Taliban with religious conservatives are wrong.

11:01 PM, Jan 21, 2002 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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A CHRONIC annoyance in the media these days is the casual equation of religious conservatives with the Taliban. One example from the left-wing British newspaper the Guardian is a doozy.

In a January 15 editorial mocking a prominent conservative Southern Baptist on the occasion of his death at 92, the paper managed to refer to the Taliban in the second sentence, then went on to say of its subject (W. A. Criswell, warmly praised by President Bush and Billy Graham, a member of his Dallas congregation) that he "gave lip service to the constitutional separation of church and state."

The generous explanation for this slur is ignorance: Maybe the Guardian really doesn't know the difference between an evangelical and a theocrat. If it wanted to know, the antidote might be a series of new writings that highlight the religious roots--closely entwined with the Enlightenment roots--of that pivotal American invention, the separation of church and state.

Consider James Madison's early exposure to religious persecution. Growing up in Virginia, the future Father of the Constitution and author of the First Amendment was himself a member of an established church, the Church of England--and he witnessed its intolerance in action. None other than the Baptists, as it happens, were a growing nonconformist minority in the years after the Great Awakening. Their pastors refused to seek licenses from the Commonwealth, asserting that their warrant to preach came from God.

One ugly episode occurred when Madison was 20. Here's how Michael Novak, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, recounts it in "On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding" (Encounter Books, 2002):

"In the summer of 1771 in Caroline County in Virginia, an unlicensed Baptist preacher was preaching outdoors when from across the fields a priest of the Church of England galloped up at the head of the Sheriff and other men, thrust a horsewhip in the preacher's mouth, dismounted, and then subjected the preacher to a thorough flogging in an open field, in plain sight of the assembled crowd."

Between 1765 and 1778, Virginia jailed over 45 Baptist ministers, according to Novak, and Madison often defended them. But his studies, as well as unpleasant events in his neighborhood, were making him a devotee of religious freedom.

Madison attended the College of New Jersey, later Princeton, during the heyday of its president John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister who had arrived from Scotland in 1768 and would shortly become the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. First he would turn Princeton into what English detractors called a "seminary of sedition." Journalist Joseph Loconte begins his essay "Minister to Freedom" (the 2001 "President's Essay," available from the Heritage Foundation) by recounting that on July 30, 1776, British troops on Long Island burned two men in effigy: George Washington and John Witherspoon.

Rev. Witherspoon's "Lectures on Moral Philosophy" were a required course at Princeton, drawing on the Scottish realists, but also on the truths of scripture. Witherspoon championed the principle of freedom of conscience and the model of what Loconte calls "the engaged citizen of faith." "The greatest service which magistrates or persons in authority can do with respect to the religion or morals of the people," wrote Rev. Witherspoon, "is to defend and secure the rights of conscience in the most equal and impartial manner."

His students included not only Madison, a future president, but also a vice president, 12 members of the Continental Congress, 5 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 49 U.S. Representatives, 28 U.S. senators, 3 Supreme Court justices, a secretary of state, 3 attorneys general, 2 foreign ministers, and a great many more who held state and local office.

For one more fresh and fascinating treatment of the positive contributions of evangelical religion to American principles of liberty, see the chapter on American democracy in "Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry" (Encounter Books, 2002)--like "On Two Wings" and the Witherspoon essay, the work of authors who have published in The Weekly Standard, journalists Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett.

Carroll and Shiflett remind us that the pioneers of religious freedom in the Colonies--notably the Puritan Roger Williams and the Quaker William Penn--arrived at this arrangement not out of deist rationalism or indifference to religious truth but from a fierce devotion to it. Later, during the Revolution, dissenting minorities who had experienced oppression displayed a special zeal for independence. Persecution had bred "hardy independence of spirit. The more devout they were, the more vehement their support of the Revolution."