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Madison: Religious Conscience Trumps Civil Pronouncements

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I have been highlighting James Madison’s words on religious conscience on the PowerBlog over the past several weeks. The HHS Mandate is not simply an issue that can be wished, compromised, or willed away. Rick Warren’s statement, “I’d go to jail rather than cave in to a government mandate that violates what God commands us to do” is tied to Madison’s thoughts below. Madison has an understanding here that a citizen must be faithful to his religious conscience above and beyond any whims of the state. In fact, a citizen that is loyal to the higher order first can be compelled to act in good faith concerning the civil law. Thus to Madison, the highest law is the “Universal Sovereign” and man’s duty to his Creator trumps any civil pronouncement. Virginia’s advancement on the issue of religious liberty specifically found its way into the Bill of Rights.

The text below comes from “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” written by Madison in 1785 as an argument against a bill in the General Assembly of Virginia that sought to levy a general assessment for the support of teachers of religions:

We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, “that religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considerd as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority.

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Ray Nothstine is opinion editor of the the North State Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. 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.

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