Kevin Gutzman On Church And State, Thanksgiving Proclamations And James Madison

todayDecember 3, 2013

share close
James Madison by Kevin Gutzman book
Order James Madison & Making America -Autographed by author Kevin Gutzman

Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – It was with great interest I saw some of the postings of George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation yesterday.  I hadn’t read it in a while.  I went back and re-read it yesterday and did a little research on this, knowing you have written and spoken about this and about President Madison’s proclamation, which he did issue one, it appears, in 1814.  Check out today’s transcript for the rest…

Begin Mike Church Show Transcript

Mike:  It was with great interest I saw some of the postings of George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation yesterday.  I hadn’t read it in a while.  I went back and re-read it yesterday and did a little research on this, knowing you have written and spoken about this and about President Madison’s proclamation, which he did issue one, it appears, in 1814.  Shortly thereafter, an elder semi-retired James Madison, I guess sitting by the fire at Montpelier and not having anything else to do, began to analyze and criticize his own presidency.  He wrote these memoranda, which somehow disappeared until 1946.  A little bit of history on that, about what you know about the memoranda in question.

On the other hand, the tradition we have now of having a Thanksgiving originated with Abraham Lincoln, who as far as we know did not believe in Christianity – Kevin Gutzman

Kevin Gutzman:  Well, there was a mid-19th century Virginia U.S. senator named William Cabell Rives who wrote a multivolume biography of Madison.  Madison actually was a friend of his.  He was a kind of client or Madison was his mentor, I guess is a good way to say it.  Rives apparently gave away some of Madison’s correspondence to autograph seekers

For exclusive access to the rest of today’s Mike Church Show transcript please sign up for a Founders Pass (take the Founders Pass Tour) or if you’re already a member, make sure you are logged in!

[private FP-Yearly|FP-Monthly|FP-Yearly-WLK|FP-Yearly-So76]

and other ways to use the privilege of having access to all of Madison’s papers.  One thing that he had in his collection of Madison’s writings was what historians have since called detached memoranda.

See the Constitution being drafted and ratified in Mike Church's "Spirit of '76"
Order the Spirit of ’76 on DVD from The Founders Tradin’ Postand see James Madison in action writing the Constitution

One of the detached memoranda was about this question of church and state.  Madison did apparently come to the conclusion — he doesn’t say in the detached memoranda I was mistaken to call for a day of Thanksgiving in 1814, but he said essentially the principle of free exercise of religion and the principle of having Congress be banned from adopting the law of respecting the establishment of religion is violated not only by having Congress make people pay for religions they don’t support or pay for religions they do support voluntarily, but also by having the president, who is, of course, paid for by taxpayers, make religious proclamations or call for religious observance when it’s not his function and in fact it shouldn’t be government’s function at all to call for religious observance or make religious statements.

We have to infer that he there was thinking of his own behavior as president.  Not only did he once call for a day of Thanksgiving, but he also called for people to pray for the success of American arms and so on.  It seems that he thought he should not have done that.  Obviously, if you read the preamble, the first section of the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom where they justify the principle that the government shouldn’t be telling you what to think about religion or making you pay for religion, penalizing you for either religious beliefs or religious practice, then this is just entirely consistent with that statement in the Virginia Statement of Religious Freedom, and in fact seems to be mandated by this principle in the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.

It’s interesting, though, that on your website you posted a quotation from WallBuilders where David Barton’s group says: Madison said this in these memoranda, but even his closest friends didn’t know he had these opinions.  How can David Barton know that Thomas Jefferson didn’t know that Madison had these opinions?  How is it possible that David Barton knows that William Cabell Rives didn’t know that James Madison had these opinions?  Honestly, people who want to know about James Madison or Thomas Jefferson or anything else to do with the American founding should have the first rule, number one, do not read anything by David Barton, because he makes these kinds of claims that obviously are completely unfounded.  I think he’s just out to distort your understanding.

Yes, Madison also wrote in his detached memoranda that there should not be chaplains in Congress, there should not be chaplains in the military, there should not be public proclamations of prayer on Thanksgiving and so on, because why?  Well, because of all these involve making people pay for religious observance.  So, for example, if the chaplain today in the U.S. Congress is a Congregationalist, then everybody in America, including non-Congregationalists, is having to pay for Congregationalism.  Even Congregationalists who may disbelieve in establishment are having to pay for congregationalism, or even people who are Congregationalists and dislike that particular minister are having to pay him.

His idea that the government shouldn’t have anything to do with these things because man’s relationship to his Creator is between man and his Creator, I think, is perfectly consistent with a Lockean understanding of the state, of limited government, freedom-respecting vision of government.  It’s a very appealing one, I think.  Obviously President Washington either disagreed with this way of thinking about things or hadn’t thought about them in quite this way, I’m not sure which, but he did make this famous call for a day of Thanksgiving.

Order the AUDIOBOOK version of this,voiced by Mike Church! Kevin Gutzman called John Taylor "...the brains of the [Jeffersonian] operation"
Order the AUDIOBOOK version of this,voiced by Mike Church! Kevin Gutzman called John Taylor “…the brains of the [Jeffersonian] operation”
On the other hand, the tradition we have now of having a Thanksgiving originated with Abraham Lincoln, who as far as we know did not believe in Christianity, did not ever frequent a church on a frequent basis, certainly never joined one, and in general we can think was probably manipulating the population by trying to imply that he was himself Protestant.

Mike:  One of the points I was trying to make in my post was to illustrate or demonstrate that in Washington’s proclamation, there are imperative commands and in Madison’s it’s almost as though he’s apologizing as he’s writing this proclamation.  With every sentence of, [mocking] “We ought to have a day for this, but it’s totally voluntary.  You don’t have to do it.  As a matter of fact, you should stop reading this right now.”  That’s how I read Madison’s proclamation; whereas, Washington’s was: Wow, let me go find someplace to celebrate on the appointed day.  I don’t want George angry at me.  The two writing styles are certainly, there’s a certain dichotomy there in between the way Washington proclaimed Thanksgiving and the way James Madison proclaimed Thanksgiving.  Wouldn’t you agree?

Gutzman:  There is.  Again, one has to deduce that Washington was not bothered by these same considerations as were primary for Madison, which is not surprising.  There was a kind of inertial inheritance of this tradition from the British monarchical system in which there was a state church, and in the Virginia in which both Washington and Madison had grown up before the revolution, this was just accepted.  The governor called for days of prayer and Thanksgiving.  People were required to pay taxes for the Episcopal Church.  Every Sunday in church they said prayers for the king and so on.  If you didn’t think about these matters, you were going to continue to behave this way.  It just seemed like what you did.

As we already noted, Madison didn’t think about these matters and ultimately concluded in a society like Virginia where you have lots of Presbyterians, lots of Baptists, few freethinkers who don’t believe in church, and many Episcopalians, there’s really no way to have freedom of religion if you’re forcing people to attend or support financially any particular denomination.  Not only that, you have a significant number of people who opposed the idea of being made to pay even their own minister.

The way Jefferson explained that was suppose you think that although you’re a Methodist, the local Methodist minister is somewhat dissolute or you don’t like something he’s done that year, you should be able to prompt him toward better behavior by withholding your contribution.  Well, you can’t do that if you have State support.  This whole practice, again, seemed to Madison, apparently, in his retirement as he thought further about it, to have been a mistake.  Again, you can only infer from the detached memoranda that he thought as president he had aired in calling for days of prayer for the success of American arms and so on.

Mike:  Another point on this as we wrap this up on our Thanksgiving Extravaganza, we hear this often in conservative lamentations.  There’s an awful lot of lament out there about, [mocking] “Thanks to the Supreme Court, we can’t even have prayers before football games.  We can do this and that and the other.”  There was a manifest difference, I think there is anyways, in between one of the local parsons being asked to voluntarily show up, who is familiar with many of the people on a basketball team, high school band, debate club, whatever, and being asked to say a few words of solemn reflection and prayer before an event, and the State employing that individual and saying: We don’t need to bring yours; we already have one.

The truth be known, professor, and I think you’ll agree with me on this, we do have State-supported displays of religious devotion.  They’re called flyovers.  They’re called very ornately staged displays of military extravaganza.  Who do you think’s paying for that?  Who transported those people to the stadium?  Who paid for the fuel for the flyover?  You think LSU paid for that?  I suspect that they didn’t, and if they did, I bet they were still subsidized.

The coolest and most [r]epublican way to keep your bottled bevs cool!
The coolest and most [r]epublican way to keep your bottled bevs cool!
Just viewing the State today, especially the American State, as a religious institution, because it basically fulfills all the functions a church used to fulfill, or it attempts to fulfill.  If they were presented with those events in the manner, using the description I just gave for them, might view them in the same way that they would view, say, a Muslim, an imam being paid to host the vocation before an event.  To me, just listening to your description again, and I’ve heard it before but there are a couple new elements today, it sounds to me to be all very similar.

Gutzman:  Yes, I think that’s true.  I also agree with you about the voluntary prayer.  When I was playing high school football in Belton, Texas, we had a little tradition that at the end of every game, a Christian got on his knee right there in the middle of the field after the game and say the Lord’s Prayer.  And this involved an establishment?  Well, I suppose we were all wearing football uniforms that had been given us by the high school, but none of us was being paid for this.  I don’t think it did at all.  On the other hand, if it had been required, it would have, clearly, but it wasn’t required.  I agree with you about that.

Besides that, in this little Texas town where I went to high school, they also had the tradition of having a local minister, and it was on a rotating basis, before every football game say a little something about: Lord, please don’t let any of our boys be seriously injured tonight.  I don’t think that is a major violation either, but maybe Madison would have.  Certainly those people weren’t being paid and nobody was being forced to participate.  It didn’t involve the same kinds of objections as the one Madison had in mind.  So, I don’t think so, but, on the other hand, if kids are made to say a prayer at the beginning of a school day, it does seem to me that that does step onto the other side of that line that Madison had in mind.

It’s difficult, obviously.  You don’t want to be banning people from being religious.  The point that Madison stressed consistently through his life was anytime the government is paying for this, anytime you’re using taxpayer money to support one of these kinds of observances, then you’re basically making people, to that extent, un-free when it comes to religion.  By the way, when it comes to imams, did you notice that in the House of Representatives now, they do occasionally have a Muslim minister giving the invocation.  If Madison’s principle of not having chaplains were observed, then you wouldn’t be seeing your taxpayer funds going to pay for Islam, but right now you are.

Mike:  If you want to get the usual suspects up in arms over that, just say there’s an imam in the house and the battle against the prayer before the start of the session will be on.

Gutzman:  It does happen.

Mike:  [mocking] “Well, if we gotta have one of them in there, not no but hell no.”  That’s all the time we have today, professor.  Happy Thanksgiving to you.


End Mike Church Show Transcript

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
author avatar

Written by: AbbyMcGinnis

Rate it

Post comments (0)

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x