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James Madison – Detached reflections on the separation of church and state

January 9, 2015

            “[B]esides the danger of a direct mixture of religion and civil government, there is an evil which ought to be guarded against in the indefinite accumulation of property from the capacity of holding it in perpetuity by ecclesiastical corporations. The power of all corporations ought to be limited in this respect. The growing wealth acquired by them never fails to be source of abuses. …

[M]ust not bodies – perpetual in their existence, and which may be always gaining without ever losing – speedily gain more than is useful and, in time, more than is safe? Are there not already examples in the United States of ecclesiastical wealth equally beyond its object and the foresight of those who laid the foundations of it? … The people of the United States owe their independence and their liberty to the wisdom of descrying, in the minute tax of three pence on tea, the magnitude of the evil comprised in the precedent. Let them exert the same wisdom in watching against every evil lurking under plausible disguises and growing up from small beginnings. Obsta principiis [block the beginnings]. …

[W]e are always to keep in mind that it is safer to trust the consequences of a right principle, than reasonings in support of a bad one.
            Religious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings & fasts are shoots from the same root with the legislative acts reviewed.
            Altho’ recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers.
            The objections to them are 1. that governments ought not to interpose in relation to those subject to their authority but in cases where they can do it with effect. An advisory government is a contradiction in terms. … 3. They seem to imply, and certainly nourish, the erroneous idea of a national religion. The idea, just as it related to the Jewish nation under a theocracy, having been improperly adopted by so many nations which have embraced Xnity, is too apt to lurk in the bosoms even of Americans, who in general are aware of the distinction between religious & political societies. The idea also of a union of all to form one nation under one government, in acts of devotion to the God of all, is an imposing idea; but reason and the principles of the Xn religion require that all the individuals composing a nation, even of the same precise creed, and wishing to unite in a universal act of religion at the same time, the union ought to be effected through the intervention of their religious not of their political representatives. In a nation composed of various sects, some alienated widely from others, and where no agreement could take place through the former, the interposition of the latter is doubly wrong. … 5. The last and not the least objection is the liability of the practice to a subserviency to political views; to the scandal of religion as well as the increase of party animosities. Candid or incautious politicians will not always disown such views. In truth, it is difficult to frame such a religious proclamation, generally suggested by a political state of things, without referring to them in terms having some bearing on party questions. The proclamation of President Washington, which was issued just after the suppression of the insurrection in Pennsylvania, and at a time when the public mind was divided on several topics, was so construed by many.“

(from ‘Detached Memoranda,’ [after 1817, before 1832], edited by Elizabeth Fleet, The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 3#4, 534-568 [October 1946])


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