Golly, Madison

James Madison has long had an image problem among popular historians—or, more bluntly, he has hardly had any image at all. Washington and Mount Vernon, Jefferson and Monticello, Franklin and Philadelphia: each is securely lodged in the imagination of serious and semiserious fans of American history. Madison and Montpelier, however, are another story. The fourth president is less celebrated than his wife, Dolley, who courageously saved the Lansdowne portrait of Washington when the British burned the White House, and has been compelled to settle for cameos in the big narratives of the Founding he did so much to bring about.

Steven Waldman's enlightening new book, "Founding Faith," is wise and engaging on many levels, but Waldman has done a particular service in detailing Madison's role in creating a culture of religious freedom that has served America so well for so long. "As a child, James Madison needed only to look across the dinner table to see the Anglican establishment," writes Waldman, the editor in chief of Beliefnet and a former NEWSWEEK colleague. Madison's father, James Sr., was a vestry-man of Brick Church in Orange County, Va. "The church lay leaders (the vestry) had not only religious powers but also the authority to collect taxes and enforce moral laws," Waldman writes. "It was they who would declare punishments for those who rode on horseback on the Sabbath or drank too much or cursed."

A child of the established church, of a world in which one's civil and political rights were linked to one's religious observances and professions, Madison was deeply affected by what he called the "diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution" at work in his native county in the early and mid-1770s. Dissenters—Baptists in those days were dissenters—were being jailed, beaten and harassed (one preacher was nearly drowned by a mob in a mud puddle) by the Anglican establishment, and Madison was horrified. "I must beg you to pity me," he wrote a friend, "and pray for liberty of conscience to all." Madison ultimately became a kind of Adam Smith of church and state: he believed that the marketplace, if left to its own devices without government interference, would produce stronger religious belief, not weaker.

He was right: once the federal government declined to establish a church and the states moved to disestablish (Massachusetts was the last, in 1833), religious belief grew. "No doubt exists that there is much more of religion among us now than there ever was before the change," Madison wrote. "This proves rather more … that the law is not necessary to the support of religion."

"Founding Faith" is an excellent book about an important subject: the inescapable—but manageable—intersection of religious belief and public life. With a grasp of history and an understanding of the exigencies of the moment, Waldman finds a middle ground between those who think of the Founders as apostles in powdered wigs and those who assert, equally inaccurately, that the Founders believed religion had no place in politics. Along the way he does justice not only to Madison but to John Leland and Isaac Backus, two Baptists who fought for the separation of church and state on the grounds, to borrow a phrase of Roger Williams, that the "wilderness of the world" was bad for the "garden of Christ's church."

That fervent evangelicals were in the forefront of the fight to secure what Jefferson called the "wall of separation" is among Waldman's many counterintuitive historical points. He does a good job of correcting what he calls "common myths," such as: "The Founding Fathers wanted religious freedom because they were devout Christians. Most of them disliked much about organized Christianity, the clerical class, and its theology, especially the common Calvinist doctrine that salvation came only from expressed faith in Jesus—or from being among God's elect—rather than through good works." And: "Evangelical Christians invariably want more government support for religion and less separation of church and state. In fact, separation of church and state would not exist if not for the efforts of eighteenth-century evangelicals." And: "The First Amendment was designed to separate church and state throughout the land. Actually, the Founders only intended it to apply to the federal government, not the local governments that regulate schools, local courthouses and town squares."

By emphasizing the freedom to choose whether to believe or not, the Founders gave successive generations, including this one, much to cherish and much to defend. "The United States is among the most religious and most tolerant of nations," Waldman writes. "Madison would not be surprised that such religious vitality has flourished in the context of increasing tolerance, diversity, and freedom. Religious freedom provides each American an unobstructed path to God, Who especially treasures the adoration that is offered without duress or cajoling." For that we owe Madison a word of thanks, and another to Waldman, for making a cogent case about a contentious topic.