Politics as Worship: Madison Warned Us

The Southern Baptist Convention has embarked on what is all but a purge of leaders–such as Russell Moore–deemed insufficiently loyal to former President Trump. The episode is reminiscent of one of the lesser-noticed points in James Madison’s 1785 “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” a petition against Patrick Henry’s proposal for the State of Virginia to provide public funds for Christian religious instruction. Madison likens that support to a religious establishment. Madison’s primary argument deals with the rights of religious minorities. But his seventh point notes that religious establishments are no better for religion than they are for politics:

Because experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lustre; those of every sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy. 

Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance

In other words, religion can intrude improperly on politics. But it is also true that earthly power corrupts religion. To be sure, evangelical support for Donald Trump, and his courting of it, hardly constitute a religious establishment. Religion has always had a place in American politics. Neither the Revolution nor the Civil Rights Movement would have succeeded without moral urging from pulpits. Moreover, Jefferson’s “wall of separation” does not require the exclusion of any political arguments that draw on religious teaching. Indeed, it would be impossible to disentangle religious teaching as one of several motives for policies on topics ranging from abortion to poverty.

Madison’s point, though, is that politics and religion can become so entangled as to make one inseparable from the other, thereby presenting the dangers of an ecclesiastical establishment even in the absence of a literal one. There are religious sects approaching that point. The Southern Baptist Convention may be one. The left should not be smug: There are ample religious institutions that sublimate worship into progressive activism. All this is even more regrettable because of the indispensability, as Washington taught in his Farewell Address, of religious belief to civic life.

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