Not long before the separation of church and state was enshrined in the Constitution, Virginia nearly passed a bill that would have drawn the institutions more closely together. At the time, this great philosophical question was intertwined with an utterly practical one: how should we take care of each other?
The time is late 1785, and Patrick Henry’s assessment bill, which would have directed taxes to churches, has failed to win the third vote that would have made it Virginia law. In this conversation at Christiana Campbell’s Tavern, Henry and state legislator James Madison wrestle with the ramifications of the bill’s failure.
Henry’s irritation with Madison is palpable. Indeed, their differences would only increase over the course of the next few years with the passage of the new federal constitution and the contentious ratification debate in Virginia.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
In 1784, Henry was not alone in fretting over the nation’s future. In Virginia, the loss of state support during the Revolution had left churches in a woeful condition. There were far fewer ministers and fewer resources to care for widows, orphans, and, now, disabled military veterans.
Perhaps just as significant, the weakening of religious institutions threatened the moral life of the people.
Henry’s solution, the assessment bill, proposed directing tax money to churches. Unlike before, any Christian denomination—even Baptists and Methodists—could receive funds.
“The general diffusion of Christian knowledge,” he said, “hath a natural tendency to correct the morals of men, restrain their vices, and preserve the peace of society.” Other Revolutionary leaders from Virginia, including George Washington and Richard Henry Lee, tended to agree.
The bill passed on its first reading, 47-32. Two more positive votes and it would become law.
34-year old James Madison took up the charge against the bill, fearing that it was an unconscionable commingling of religion and government, exactly the kind of thing lovers of liberty were supposed to oppose.
But liberty means different things to different people, and in the 18th century, the notion that one would want to completely divide the civil from the spiritual was novel indeed.
Madison laid out his opposition in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, a 15-point argument for what he considered genuine religious freedom. He repeatedly asserted that the assessment bill was fundamentally at odds with the Virginia Declaration of Rights.
Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offence against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered. As the Bill violates equality by subjecting some to peculiar burdens, so it violates the same principle, by granting to others peculiar exemptions.
The struggle to define religious freedom began here, and it continues today. It’s a conversation worthy of honest—and civil—debate. And just as we still go back-and-forth over what we mean by religious freedom, we are constantly revisit the question of how to support our neediest fellow citizens.
But make no mistake, the nation’s path to virtue is no straighter than our own.
Join us this Thursday, Oct. 13, at Hennage Auditorium, for another session of It Starts Here: America’s Enduring Debates. This week, three of the nation’s presidents will discuss what constitutes good leadership, and what the think about the voice of the people.