The current debates over tuition tax credits, prayer in in public schools, and legislating an essentially religious interpretation of abortion bear a similarity to a debate that took place in the Virginia Assembly 200 years ago. The question then, too, was whether government should be the champion of religion or be neutral in matters related to religion.
In the 1780s, the focus of the Virginia debate was an attempt to enact a tax for the support of religion. The chief antagonists were Patrick Henry and James Madison.
Henry declared that nations decay when religion is neglected and that passage of his tax bill was essential to the morals of the state. Madison countered that the bill served neither the state nor religion.
Proponents increased support for the bill by rewriting it so as to give support to all religions and by changing its label so that it was "for teachers of the Christian religion." In the House Committee of the Whole, it passed by a vote of 47 to 32, and it appeared that it easily would get approval when it reached the floor for final action.
Madison corresponded with Thomas Jefferson about how to deal with Patrick Henry. "What we can do, I think," replied Jefferson, "is devotedly to pray for his death."
The solution that Madison chose was less drastic. He maneuvered to get Henry out of the assembly, which he could dominate, and into the governorship. This elevation of Henry got rid of the leader of the opposition and gave Madison the time that he needed to lobby against the pro-tax bill.
He proceeded to write "Memorial and Remonstrance," a powerful plea against any tax of any nature for religion. The proposed bill, he said, would corrupt and handicap religion rather than promote it. It would erode confidence in the "innate excellence" of Christianity. That religion had flourished most in periods such as that of the early church and during the Reformation, when it had no public support. Enactment of the tax would be a first step toward the loss of more freedoms. The bill was "spiritual tyranny" that differed only in degree from the Inquisition.
The effect of Henry's absence and of Madison's tract was the death of the tax bill. The assembly did not even bother to vote it down. Encouraged by this victory, Madison proceeded to get enacted the quite different bill that Jefferson had failed to get passed nine years earlier. That was the landmark Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom."
In his "Remonstrance," Madison stated that "lest more rights be filched" it is "proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties." That warning is appropriate to the present efforts to break down "the wall of separation between church and state." Support for tuition tax credits, for prayers in public schools, and for imposing a religious interpretation on abortion represents a misunderstanding of the role of religion in the politics of a a free society.
The official projection of religion into the political process not only harms religion, as Madison indicated. It also introduces into politics a foreign element. Religion has to do with truth. Its model is perfection. It is a spiritual commodity. Good and evil are polarized. Power is converted into principle. A spiritual community takes the place of a community of self-interest.
Politics is something quite different. It has to do with conflict, compromise and ambiguity. It is the means-ends relationship required for majority rule. It chooses among imperfect solutions. It is moral realism rather than moralism.
James Madison's comments about the religious tax bill of his time being a step toward "spiritual tyranny" is not exaggeration. The politics of truth is dangerous. The conviction of a divine sanction brings forth abbrevations of all sorts.
White supremacy in South Africa rest on a religious foundation; the subordination of politics to Islam in Iran produces a reign of terror; the religious certainty that the West Bank is a part of Israel makes it possible for Prime Minister Begin to dehumanize Palestinians.
Madison himself was a religious person. As a young man he seriously considered becoming a Christian minister. Nevertheless, he would have agreed with Max Weber that "he who seeks the salvation of souls, his own as well as others, should not seek it along the avenue of politics."