Madison’s Notes Discuss Christianity v. Theistic Rationalism

[This was originally published in 2007.]

Check out page 88 of this book collecting James Madison’s writings. These notes he took on Patrick Henry’s VA Bill which sought to provide financial aid to “teachers of the Christian Religion.” In the Memorial and Remonstrance, Madison famously argued against the content of this bill which was subsequently defeated.

In Roman numeral V of his notes, Madison ponders the question “What is Xnty?” This is relevant because only “Christianity” and not other religions were eligible for aid in Henry’s bill. In V6 he discusses that some view the entire Bible as divinely inspired, some view only “essential parts” as divinely inspired; in V7 he notes some believe if a creed rejects certain key doctrines it is not Christian even if it calls itself Christian; in V8 he notes Trinitarianism, Arianism, Socinianism, (the latter two are forms of theological unitarianism) asking which of them would qualify as “Christian” under the bill; and in II6 he notes the case of “primitive Christianity,” “Reformation” and “Dissenters formerly.” He concludes that unless Christianity is specifically defined in the bill, judges might have to answer what is heterodoxy v. what is orthodoxy. And that in turn will “dishonor Christianity.”

How this relates to theistic rationalism? As my readers know, I have found that the key Founders (certainly Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and I would argue Washington and Madison himself) believed in what they sometimes referred to as “primitive Christianity,” that was unitarian (either Arian or Socinian), which viewed the Bible as only “partially inspired,” and elevated man’s reason over revelation as the decisive tool for determining which parts of the Bible were “essential” or valid. Sometimes scholars refer to this creed as a form of “Deism” (though it is not strict deism ala Thomas Paine). Dr. Gregg Frazer has dubbed it “theistic rationalism” and Madison’s notes here seem to anticipate almost all of its elements.

Madison does not, unfortunately, explicitly endorse here, what form of Christianity he might believe in (though looking at his life as a whole I have concluded he was a theistic rationalist). But he did note that he did not want judges deciding whether what we call theistic rationalism is real Christianity.

If judges decided theistic rationalism, because of its heterodoxy, was not “Christianity,” then it would be ineligible for aid. Madison makes clear in the Remonstrance, that whatever his personal creed, he thought government aid ought to be available to all religions on a non-discriminatory basis.

Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?

4. Because the Bill violates that equality which ought to be the basis of every law, and which is more indispensible, in proportion as the validity or expediency of any law is more liable to be impeached. If “all men are by nature equally free and independent,” [Virginia Declaration of Rights, art. 1] all men are to be considered as entering into Society on equal conditions; as relinquishing no more, and therefore retaining no less, one than another, of their natural rights. Above all are they to be considered as retaining an “equal title to the free exercise of Religion according to the dictates of Conscience.” [Virginia Declaration of Rights, art. 16] Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offence against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered. As the Bill violates equality by subjecting some to peculiar burdens, so it violates the same principle, by granting to others peculiar exemptions.

Yet, if judges declared theistic rationalism was “Christian” and hence eligible for tax aid, it would have, by force of law, established “heresy” as Christianity. This is exactly what occurred in Massachusetts where Protestant churches received government aid under a mild state establishment. A great deal of those Protestant Congregational Churches (arguably a majority of them in Boston) receiving such aid preached unitarianism/theistic rationalism, not orthodox Trinitarian Christianity.

I’d imagine that orthodox Christians viewed this is a tremendous dignitary harm. Reader Eric Alan Isaacson, Esq., a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, informed me that conservative Calvinists congregants actively disfellowed themselves from the unitarianian congregants.

To draw a slight parallel to a present controversial issue, also most apt in Massachusetts — same sex marriage: Religious conservatives are asked “how is it that granting same sex couples the status of marriage harms you?” One common reply is calling something “marriage” that isn’t marriage, cheapens the institution. Similarly, calling something “Christianity” (theistic rationalism/theological unitarianism) that isn’t Christianity likewise cheapens the institution.

Madison’s solution? Not protect Christianity by giving legal privileges to “real Christianity” only — orthodox Christianity. But separate church and state. Perhaps then, we should separate marriage and state?

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18 Responses to Madison’s Notes Discuss Christianity v. Theistic Rationalism

  1. Pinky says:

    Well, maybe; but, the concept religion and state is a much different concept than the one of marriage and state. Or maybe, it’s easier to understand by just looking at the difference between religion and marriage. Marriage does not claim authority over religion–it’s the other way around. Religion claims a super authority over existence itself.
    Whereas marriage is an authority that has some regulatory affect on the family.
    It seems to me that postmodernism (aka post structuralist society) is the main confusing element here. By taking away institutional structure, we’re left with a hodge-podge of free floaters that are hard to nail down. So, we at feathers in the wind.

  2. Pinky says:

    In other words, as marriage is an institution of society, it should be regulated by the state.

  3. Gregg Frazer:

    “You’re right that there’s not a single example of the Bible being thrown out for rationalism — there are NUMEROUS examples! Unfortunately, if I remember correctly, you arbitrarily refuse to admit a number of them into the discussion. We could start with Jefferson and his scissors and Adams claiming that the Genesis account of the Fall of man was “either an allegory, or founded on uncertain tradition … which by no means accounts for the facts.”

    Genesis being allegory goes back to Augustine. This is an example of reasoned interpretation trumping literalist interpretation not reason trumping revelation. This was brought up before at AC and Gregg did not answer.

    This is important too in discerning whether natural law and rational Christianity was the re-emergence of something that was authetically Christian into Christian thought that was lost when sola scriptura and depravity of man became poplular or whether it was something totally new that came along with the Enlightenment?

    I submit that in regards to political theory that the reintroduction of natural law into the discussion resulted in a stream of political thought that in many ways closely resembled that of Aquinas and the schoolmen in many key areas. This is reflected in the dramatically simliar language that both eras used despite the severe anti-Catholic biases found in the founding generation.

    When this is uncovered we find only some minor sotierological differences that would have separated the so called Theistic Rationalists from the Christians. If we are discussing how these differences influenced political thought I do not see how they did. The founders certainly did not allow these differences into the political dialogue. If true why are we even discussing it?

    In short, I think since an unmistakable connection has been proven in the natrual law based poltical theory of the era of Aquinas and that leading up to the founding, the burden of proof is on the Kraynak and Frazer crowd as to why soteriorology is germane at all to answering the question posed above about whether American political thought was really anything new at its core?

    This is huge Jon in that if Fukuyama is correct, and I think he will be proven so over the next 50 or so years, then we have to have a good definition of what “liberal democracy” really means and if today’s version is the same as the founding. If it is not and sold that it is that would be a lie of major proportions that could have lasting damage that far outweighs anything that David Barton could do.

    I think you should read the book about Islam that Chris linked in a previous post. The Frazer view of Christianity is remarkably similar to the literalist view of Islam(obviously minus any violence as far as Frazer goes but no so in many that read the Bible the same way he does like Phelps and others like him) of many of the hardline clerics. I would also add that to label of all Islam theocracy as many in the West do is not far from thinking that does the same in certain rationalist circles in this country.

    Both religions have a diverse history and many schools of thought that are often ignored. This type of revisionism is the most dangerous of all.

    With that said, I understand that you are trying to show that Frazer-like Christianity was not exclusively the kind that one out in the founding era. I assume it is a call for more modern forms to win out in our era. I applaud that but lets not miss the forrest looking at the trees.

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  5. Christianity says:

    I wanted the larger note mostly for a friend who plays and needs the larger notes to see… Christianity

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  7. Alvin says:

    Hello new to the blog post,

    I thought Primitive Christianity is the Nicean Orthodox one, this strand of christology predates even Arianism, which agrees with the tenets of the Athanasian creed about Christ being the son of God. Also, is it possible to have a true and absolute definition of what a Christian is in this day and age? Since “Christian” as a term has been unfairly deconstructed and abused to what its meaning is..

    I apologize to the moderators, if the question hints of fundamentalism, sorry just being defensive, but just curious are you guys liberal christians? I was raised up in an traditional evangelical home, but am now a deist.

  8. James Hanley says:


    Most of the authors on this blog do not consider themselves Christian. Only Jim Babka does, while the rest of us range from atheist to agnostic (if that actually counts as a range). Several of our regular commenters consider themselves Christians. While it’s not really up to me to define, I would say they are probably more properly classified as conservative, than liberal, Christians. (But if any of those folks want to correct me on this, I’ll take their word on it.)

  9. Alvin says:


    Thanks for the reply, Just out of curiousity, were you raised up as an atheist? or did you lapse to the point of heresy just like I did? and if you did fall away, what was the defining factor/s that lead to the slip?

  10. Jon Rowe says:


    As the Founders like Jefferson tended to use the term, “primitive Christianity” referred to Christianity before 1) the biblical canon was written and 2) the creeds were formulated. That permitted them disregard 1) biblical infallibility, and 2) orthodox Trinitarianism.

  11. James Hanley says:


    I was raised in a conservative protestant church. No one thing can be called the defining factor in my falling away, just a long gradual disenchantment with various aspects of Christianity.

  12. Alvin says:

    Just an aside, theistic rationalism is more of a byproduct of the adjustments Nicean Christianity had to make when it became tolerated and even celebrated as state religion; As if it had trouble handling the success due to the silence of Jesus on the topics of politics, social government, rights of individuals; the Christ had much to say and encourage believers about being persecuted for his name, but he did not forsee that his teachings would influence rulers, authority figures who will have trouble finding advice on what to do with non-believers subject under them. True Christianity at its core is apolitical and only concerns itself the transformation of the individual’s nature, with sin, salvation, social justice and morality. Jesus himself said his kingdom wasn’t of the secular, immanental nature “of this world” A kind of concession and compromise happens when christian rulers decide to legitimize their authority over their subjects, or the treatment of heretics, even gaining the acceptance of traditional institutions for learning (e.g. Plato’s Academy) to better accomodate the elites of society. Jesus did not give any advice on what to do in these circumstance, that’s why it took Locke, Aquinas, Augustine, Luther to fill in the gaps, and out of the hodge-podge combined with some syncretism from pagan, naturalistic philosophy emerged Rational Theism, the principle necessary to bind Christendom together.

    Pardon the awkward language, I don’t have illustrious university doctorates as you guys have, I’m just a business undergrad interested in topics like these

  13. Alvin says:

    The reason I fell away was i prayed to God to have him change my habits, nothing happened afterwards, I then went to charismatic services with my family to try to meet and ‘feel’ God, I did do so in an epiphanic sort of way, I still can’t explain that away to this day.. after the experience, I got into some nasty addictions which i’m currently struggling to get off…so again, I prayed to God to get it off, nothing happened, that’s when I decided that God doesn’t care; in a way I am an atheist in that I get to run my life in the face of an absentee All Father, its similar to, if not the same as an All-Father who doesn’t exist.

    no surprise then, that Deism has been called the half way house to atheism. It’s also Darwin’s pre-evolved philosophical state before he matured into an atheist.

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