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Letter: Madison’s wisdom may benefit county

Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds’ apparent belief that the first amendment’s free exercise of religion is a right that, in Rowan County at least, must be earned at the ballot box is an idea far removed from the intent of our founding fathers.

In 1785, James Madison, who later would become known as the “father of our Constitution,” led the opposition in Virginia against a religious tax, which was being proposed to support the Episcopal Church.

In a document known as a “Memorial and Remonstration against Religious Assessments,” Madison carries his argument far beyond simply an opposition to the tax.

He also declared that “religion is wholly exempt from the cognizance of civil society.  Civil magistrates can properly neither judge religious truths nor subordinate religion to public purposes.”

First, Madison pointed out that the free exercise of religion implies the right to believe in no religion at all.  He was adamant that strife and violence would only be encouraged by laws that even touched on religion. He believed that Christian religion did not need civil support and it was an insult to the faith to assume that it did. As his biographer Ralph Ketchum wrote, “Madison had made possible complete liberty of belief or unbelief and the utter separation of church and state.”

Later in life, Madison came to believe his positions on religious freedom had not gone far enough.

He regretted the call while president for a national day of prayer during the War of 1812 and had come to regard it as a mistake.

Madison also declared that the inclusion of chaplains in the U.S. military was “inconsistent with the Constitution”.

It is clear how far modern American politics has wandered from Madison’s absolute defense of the freedom of individual conscience.

Maybe he still has something to tell us.

— Keith Townsend

Mt. Ulla

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