Acton Institute Powerblog

Madison on Religious Conscience

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The HHS Mandate is troubling to so many simply because it’s a clear Constitutional violation. Any basic understanding of Constitutional rights and our religious freedom sees that this is primarily about religious liberty, and not solely an issue concerning contraceptives or Roman Catholics.

Last week we heard from James Madison on religious liberty in my post “Religious Liberty or Government Tolerance?”

In 1792, Madison wrote an essay titled “Property” in the National Gazette. This is a brilliant piece by Madison where he declares that government is instituted to protect the property of the person. “In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights,” says Madison. There is all sorts of property according to Madison. As Madison understands, property is not just material property, but also a property of conscience or religious opinions. Madison notes that man “has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.” Furthermore, Madison declares this kind of property is “the most sacred.”

Madison said that those in government who violate that charge of protecting property “would be in his proper functions in Turkey or Indostan, under appellations proverbial of the most complete despotism.”

Below is an excerpt from Madison’s essay:

More sparingly should this praise be allowed to a government where a man’s religious rights are violated by penalties, or fettered by tests, or taxed by a hierarchy. Conscience is the most sacred of all property, other property depending in part on positive law [but] the exercise of that being a natural and unalienable right. To guard a man’s house as his castle, to pay public and enforce private debts with the most exact faith, can give no title to invade a man’s conscience, which is more sacred than his castle, or to withhold from it that debt of protection for which the public faith is pledged by the very nature and original conditions of the social pact.

The full essay is here.

Ray Nothstine Ray Nothstine is Associate Editor at the Acton Institute, and Managing Editor of Religion & Liberty. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford. Before coming to Acton, Ray worked as a free-lance writer for several organizations, including the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He gained ministry experience in churches in Mississippi and Kentucky. After college, he also served on the staff of U.S. Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Miss) in Gulfport in 2001-02. The son of a retired Air Force pilot, Ray has also lived in Okinawa, Philadelphia, New England, Hawaii, and Egypt.