NPR logo Rick Perry May Not Be As Big A James Madison Fan As He Thinks

Rick Perry

Rick Perry May Not Be As Big A James Madison Fan As He Thinks

Rick Perry might be a fan of James Madison but the Founder would be no fan of the Texas governor's idea of a presidentially declared national day of prayer. National Portrait Gallery hide caption

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National Portrait Gallery

Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently told a Washington audience that he is a big James Madison fan.

Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition this week, the GOP presidential candidate whose campaign may represent one of the fastest booms to busts in modern political history, said:

"And my favorite Founding Father was also — he was also a lifelong champion of religious freedom, James Madison. He wrote in the First Amendment to the Constitution that 'the civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship... nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner or in any pretext infringed.' My faith will guide me as your president."

What's interesting about the Madison quote Perry uses, which comes from the notes the Founding Father referred to when he introduced the Bill of Rights during the First Congress, is that Perry left out an entire clause. It reads: "nor shall any national religion be established..."

Maybe there's an explanation for why Perry and his speechwriter would edit out that clause in what Perry told the Des Moines Register editorial board.

Perry told the journalists that he would declare a "day of national prayer in a time of crisis" according to a post by Jason Clayworth on the Register's 2012 Iowa Caucuses blog.

Here's the question — what would Madison do? The historic evidence argues strongly that the fourth president wouldn't call a day of prayer. Just the opposite, in fact.

In a document written after his presidency which ended in 1817 and known as his "Detached Memoranda," Madison was adamant about the need to maintain the separation between religion and government.

Madison so opposed mixing the two, he opposed the houses of Congress maintaining chaplains. Keep in mind he not only helped create the Constitution but had been a congressman from Orange County, Va. He wrote:

"The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation."

Then Madison addressed directly the idea of presidents doing the sort of thing Perry proposes:

"Religious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings & fasts are shoots from the same root with the legislative acts reviewed.

"Altho' recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers..."

It's worth plowing through Madison's 19th-Century prose to read the entire memorandum. After doing so, it's inescapable that while Perry may be a fan of Madison, the Founder would be no fan of the Texas governor's notion of a president declaring a national day of prayer.

As Robert Rutland wrote in his biography, "James Madison, The Founding Father":

"All the rights in his First Amendment were precious. But that which promised a complete separation of church and state loomed larger as the years went by.

"As president, Madison had twice vetoed measures he believed in violation of that hallowed principle and now he saw dangers lurking in 'silent accumulations and encroachments of Ecclesiastical Bodies...'

"... So complete was Madison's commitment that he came to regret his own presidential proclamations of thanksgiving, the chaplains paid to serve in Congress and the tax exemptions states extended to church property..."