This article was originally published by Meridian Magazine.
On October 23, 2019, I was privileged to join with Elder Quentin L. Cook, of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at an event sponsored by the Quill Project. Dr. Nicholas Cole of Pembroke College (Oxford) is the developer of Quill Project, which is providing unique access to major founding constitutional and related documents at the state, national and international levels. The BYU International Center for Law and Religion Studies co-sponsored the event.
My short remarks focused on James Madison, the father of religious liberty in America, and complemented Elder Cook’s moving address. The experience is indelibly written in my memory, because Elder Cook’s address touched all present, myself included, in wondrous ways.
Elder Cook opened by warning,
I am deeply concerned that faith, accountability to God, and the religious impulse are so often seen as antithetical to serious academic pursuits. I am equally concerned that the foundations which have historically supported faith, accountability to God, and the religious impulse are increasingly being marginalized in a secular world and derided and even banished from the public square.
As one who shares those concerns, I was particularly struck by the fact that over two centuries ago the Father of the Constitution, James Madison, was also “vexed,” to use his words, by the denigration of what he referred to as our “most sacred property,” religious liberty.
Elder Cook stirred the hearts of all present when he reverently quoted the Prophet Joseph Smith who proclaimed, “I am bold to declare before heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves. It is love of liberty which inspires my soul, civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race.”
Earlier in his talk, Elder Cook also noted that Madison “clearly favored religious pluralism,” in stating, “In a free government the security for . . . religious rights . . . consists . . . in the multiplicity of sects.” The Prophet Joseph Smith, Elder Cook and James Madison are right – each individual’s or sect’s right of religious liberty can only be secured when everyone’s right, regardless of sect, is equally protected.
Elder Cook went further in observing, “Freedom of religion and freedom of speech are both the heart and the foundation of a representative democracy. Freedom to believe in private and to exercise belief and speech in the public square are essential to protecting unalienable rights.” Madison agreed that the rights of religious liberty and speech are interdependent gifts of God, natural rights.
In his illuminating essay, “Property,” published the very month that the ratified Bill of Rights were circulated to the states, Madison noted “as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.” Rights are not a mere license to act; rather, they are a form of very personal property. Religious liberty was most sacred and pre-eminent to Madison, the primary author of the First Amendment, because the right protected is one’s soul or duty to God. In turn, one’s right to speak is also largely beyond the reach of government, when one speaks as a matter of conscience about the essence of his or her beliefs. The rights of religious conscience and speech, therefore, are interdependent – to limit one is to leave all others in the hands of a tyrannical future majority.
In his essay on property, Madison pointed out that all the rights protected in the First Amendment – religious conscience, the freedom of the press, free speech, the right to petition one’s government, and the right to peaceably assemble (associate) – are interdependent. If a tyrannical majority is permitted to limit one in any instance, every other right, regardless of who may hold it, is vulnerable to present or future limitation. Madison understood that the sacred right of religious conscience is severely weakened without the ability to publish, speak, petition one’s government, and associate in private and public settings. The same is equally true of all other rights enshrined in the First Amendment. To marginalize any individual’s right is to jeopardize all rights and the principle of equality that links them.
Elder Cook entitled his remarks, “The Impact of Religious Liberty on Public Morality,” and fully captured this theme near the end of his talk when he cautioned, “Religious freedom and public morality require constant vigilance. The contributions from people of faith have benefited and blessed society in so many ways [and] represent a ‘moral tradition that [has] blessed civilization.’”
Once again, Elder Cook was echoing the sentiments of James Madison, who was alarmed when he observed efforts to unravel the truths contained in the First Amendment during America’s second generation. In a letter to Reverend Frederick Beasley, Madison reverently pronounced, “The belief in a God All Powerful wise and good, is so essential to the moral order of the world and the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources nor adapted with too much solicitude to the different characters and capacities to be impressed with it.”
Many historians wrongly refer to Madison as a deist who believed, if at all, in a God who was not directly involved in the affairs of his children. In each of his eight annual addresses as President and multiple other contexts, Madison referred to America’s dependence on Divine Providence, by regularly acknowledging the direct hand of God or the Almighty in the founding and preservation of America. Madison never joined any religious sect, but he remained deeply religious. He spent a lifetime of faith seeking humbly after truth, religious and otherwise.
In responding to a question regarding her recently deceased husband’s religious commitment, Dolley Madison, who knew her husband better than any other person, responded with a resounding commendation of James’s deep personal faith: “To your further enquiry into the religion, domestic life, and acquirements of my dear husband, I lament that I have not the power – the capacity to do him justice – I can only feel that he was good and perfect in all these, and that nothing short of true religion can make man perfect.” After earning his freedom and the freedom of his family, Paul Jennings, a Madison slave who served James devotedly for years and was with him at his death, wrote intimately of his former master, “Mr. Madison, I think, was one of the best men that ever lived.”
In his eulogy of James Madison, John Quincy Adams, pled with his fellow countrymen to listen to the “still small voice” of James Madison, whose faith in God, country and the constitutional rule of law serve as an example worthy of emulation in our day. Interestingly, it was on a similar theme that Elder Cook chose to close his address with a call to action: “There is no better demonstration of the great benefits associated with religious liberty than for devoted members of various faiths who feel accountable to God to model principles of integrity, morality, service, and love. As others see the goodness of individuals and families—goodness that is founded in strong faith and character—they will be much more likely to speak up in defense of the religious freedoms that allow us to be who we are.”