Thomas Jefferson and James Madison squared off against Patrick Henry and his bill for Establishing A Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion for Virginia in the mid-1780s. Jefferson and Madison won the day, and the Virginia legislature did not enact Henrys bill.
This was no simple anti-religious victory. In an ironic twist, Henrys argument in support of religious establishment breathes more of secular modernity than Jefferson and Madisons arguments. Jefferson and Madison made extensive appeal to theological principles”principles largely consistent with Anabaptist claims”while Henry limited his argument in the bills preamble to the temporal benefits the policy would generate for civil society.
Henrys bill did not in fact propose establishing a church in Virginia. Similar to the form of religious establishment set up by the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, Henrys bill provided that each taxpayer be assessed and the revenue from the tax”less a 5 percent administrative fee”go to the governing board of a local church body identified by the taxpayer.
If a taxpayer did not designate a church to receive the collected funds, then the tax would be paid into the public treasury for the encouragement of seminaries of learning within the Counties whence such sums shall arise. (While today a seminary tends to be identified exclusively with a school for training clergy, in the late 1780s reference to a seminary of learning would be understood more generally as a school. So non-designated funds would go into a proto-public school system.)
Additionally, Henrys bill did not allocate revenues for whatever purposes the church wanted. Rather, the revenues had to be used to pay for ministers or teachers of the Gospel, or for providing for places of worship. So money went only for instruction or for places of instruction.
Aside from the mild form of religious establishment proposed in Henrys bill (several European countries today have similar systems of requisitions), what is striking about Henrys bill are the civil, even secular, purposes articulated for the proposal, and the modern-sounding, collective-action sensibility justifying the proposal.
The bills preamble provides,
The general diffusion of Christian knowledge hath a natural tendency to correct the morals of men, restrain their vices, and preserve the peace of society; which cannot be effected without a competent provision for learned teachers, who may be thereby enabled to devote their time and attention to the duty of instructing such citizens, as from their circumstances and want of education, cannot otherwise attain such knowledge; and it is judged that such provision may be made by the Legislature, without counteracting the liberal principle heretofore adopted and intended to be preserved by abolishing all distinctions of pre-eminence amongst the different societies or communities of Christians.
What is striking in the articulated purposes of Henrys proposal is that it does not aim to support ministers in order to advance divine or religious purposes; it does not seek to save mens souls for their spiritual well-being. Rather, Henry posits plausible, if contestable, empirical claims about the effect of Christian teaching on civil society.
Christian teaching, he suggests, tends to correct the morals of men, restrain their vices, and preserve the peace of society. Telling the truth, keeping ones word, dealing with others honestly in trade as well as in personal matters, not stealing or acting violently against others”all of these are goods that promote the temporal interests of civil society.
As with education in general, social support for teaching these virtues reflects a collective action problem: Each of us has an interest in other people being honest and generally non-violent, but each of us also has an incentive to free ride on the contributions of others in paying for instruction that might make others more honest and less violent. Henrys bill is based on the classic argument for government financing for public goods: that voluntary provision of a public good will be lower than the socially optimal level for that good.
Both Jeffersons and Madisons responses to Henrys proposal start out by appeal to freedom of minds and of conscience. It is difficult to see how these claims engage Henrys proposal: His bill allows individuals to choose the church to which their taxes go, and the funds revert to the county treasury for general schooling if a person doesnt want his tax to go to any church.
Indeed, while Jeffersons Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom is usually taken to conflict with Henrys bill for providing for Christian teachers, the actual legal requirements of each bill dont strike me as necessarily inconsistent with each other: Jeffersons bill prohibits assessments that force people to give to churches. Henrys bill does not require that tax dollars be designated for churches.
Madison advances numerous lines of argument against Henrys position in his Memorial and Remonstrance . To consider just one line of argument here, Madison basically concedes the preambulatory basis of Henrys bill, but tries to turn it. Look, Christian, he argues. How comfortable are you that Henry would have the government provide tax support to ministers in order to achieve purely temporal goals. Madison suggests that Henrys proposal would harness the Church to serve governmental purposes rather than divine purposes. It thereby tempts the Church with a form of idolatry.
I do think that Madison identifies a real risk, but I dont think that its a death blow to Henrys argument. There is no inherent problem with a frank recognition that the success of the Church in society can generate temporal benefits as an incident of her ministry. The civil government can value those incidental benefits for its own temporal purposes without seducing the Church into idolatry. (A similar tension exists in modern prison ministries, in which prison authorities value the ministries for hoped-for temporal benefits to the prison and to the inmates.)
But in all this, the ironic twist of Henrys argument should not be overlooked. His argument for church establishment is thoroughly modern. Modern policy analysis could in principle assess his policy proposal with little difficulty. It would simply ask whether the estimated marginal policy benefits in terms of decreased crime, increased truth telling, decreased out-of-wedlock births, etc., be greater than the dollar cost of the tax. In this way Henrys argument for Church establishment is strikingly less religious in nature than Madison and Jeffersons arguments against his bill.
James R. Rogers is an associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?