The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Is it true that Madison said "Religion is the foundation of government?"

Another popular misquotation by the religious right has Madison saying that religion is the foundation of government.

Research and writing by Jim Allison.


David Barton, in his book The Myth of Separation contains a popular version of that this quotation, on page 120:

Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe . . . Religion . . . [is] the basis and foundation of government."

This isn't the only form of the quotation. Here are some other variations:

I would say the most honest form is the first and second, because they do indicate it has been extracted from something else, the third gives such an indication as well.

The last two forms are the least honest. However, all forms are incorrect, because Madison never said anything like this.

The footnote Barton gives as his source is valid:

The Papers of James Madison, Robert Rutland, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), Vol. VIII, pp 299, 304, June 20, 1785.

The first clue that something is wrong here is that these pages turn out to correspond to Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance, a document written in support of separation of church and state. (The complete text of this document may be found at James Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance.)

In Section 1, a little over halfway through it, you will actually find the following sentence, "Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe . . . "

Now to find the rest of what was used to create version one (the version from page 120 of Barton's book) we have to jump over to SECTION 15, (I might add at this point it is very rare to see anyone use version one; most use one of the other versions. I guess Barton wanted to spice it up even more and included the above sentence as part of it.)

I will use capitals to indicate the words Barton selected to arrive at his newly created false quote:

SECTION 15, Because finally, 'the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his RELIGION according to the dictates of conscience' IS held by the same tenure with all his other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us; if we consider the 'Declaration of those rights which pertain to the good people of Virginia, as THE BASIS AND FOUNDATION OF GOVERNMENT,' it is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis.

Madison, in other words, was talking about individual's rights, of which the free exercise of his religion was one, as being the basis and foundation of government. He even refers to the Declaration of Rights that was part of the Virginia Constitution as his example.

Personal, individual rights is what Madison believed to be the basis and foundation of government, not religion itself. Whomever created this false quote knew what he said, knew what they wanted him to say in its place, and set out to create what they wanted him to say.

This was no accident or simple misunderstanding.