John Winthrop wrote “A Model of Christian Charity” upon his arrival to the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630. This composition has had a tremendous impact on American thinking, culture, and politics. Its notoriety comes from the fact Winthrop declares the early settlement a “city upon a hill,” a reference from one of Jesus Christ’s sermons (Matthew 5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden”). Many consider this piece, more so the phrase Winthrop uses, as one of the first examples of American exceptionalism. Both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan used this phrase at the climax of their political careers. Unfortunately, this composition not only wreaks of Puritan mysticism but also implores the application of collectivism in the newly established colony.
On top of echoing Christian morals and scruples in the piece, Winthrop reveals a more insidious future for the new land. The overall theme works to outline the relationship man should have with God. The ends of this aim are, of course, salvation. Unsurprisingly, Winthrop urges that man must express the utmost obedience to God and his will. The most demonstrable form of obedience is following God’s commission saying, “when God gives a special commission He looks to have it strictly observed in every article.” Implicitly, Winthrop begins to shape more than just Puritan ethics, he begins to build a framework for a social system that only God would approve of:
“Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities…We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.”
Apparently, Winthrop intended to drag the altruistic, collectivist morality from Europe, across the Atlantic, and to the colonies. He does not recognize the individual; he views people as a mindless mass, a herd, that needs a bellwether. Reason does not fit into Winthrop’s thinking, people are a means to his ends, and his ends are supposedly moral. Accordingly, there will be devastating repercussions if the will of God is not strictly followed:
“But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.”
Winthrop’s ideal social system is apparent. God has “commissions” that must be implemented. When these “commissions” are ignored, people distance themselves from God and thus reject salvation, consciously or not. The only way to follow such “commissions” is for the individual to relinquish his identity and transform himself into the collective mob. This mob is dedicated to one thing and one thing only, obey the will of God and punish those who stray. This is classic totalitarian thinking. Replace God with “nation” or “fuhrer” and you’re left with the Soviet Union or Adolf Hitler.
Fast forward to 1785 Virginia. The newly formed states are loosely joined together with the impotent Articles of Confederation, but the principles of the American Revolution are still resilient in the minds of the infant nation. The Virginia General Assembly began debating a, “Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Faith.” This is one of the earliest proposed pieces of legislation that would allow the state of Virginia to tax her citizens and redistribute the loot to Christian institutions. In one of the most heroic intellectual defenses of individual rights, James Madison wrote, “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments” in which he produced fifteen different arguments against the passage of such a bill. While it was mixed with sound political arguments, the most prominent arguments are those based on reason.
Madison overtly rejects not only the bill in question, but in pure totality, the ideas of John Winthrop. Shamelessly, Madison ushers the quote, “that Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” Madison may not have been an atheist, but he found religion to be strictly a matter of personal choice. Like Winthrop, Madison recognized the significance of principles. He asserts this thought saying:
“it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties…The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle.”
Unlike the political pundits America is plagued with today, Madison understood that adulterating one set of principles only lead to an entirely different set of principles. Any intersection between the separation of church and state would ultimately lead to an integration of church and state. Accordingly, the adulteration of a system established on individual rights will only jeopardize the system based on individual rights. The time it takes for the conversion to complete itself is the only variable worth debating. Madison references the prudence of history in his arguments as well:
“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.”
Madison alludes to the collectivist implications this bill would lead to as well:
“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…Because the proposed establishment is a departure from that generous policy, which, offering an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion…Instead of holding forth an Asylum to the persecuted, it is itself a signal of persecution.”
Would such an ardent and fervent defense of individual rights, no matter what the issue at hand, be tolerated in a society that prides itself on “tolerance?” Winthrop and Madison were both men of principle, only Madison demanded that government act to keep men free while Winthrop sought to place them in bondage. Given the fact that both these men were true to their beliefs, they were, in fact, radicals. Madison was a radical for liberty and freedom, Winthrop was one of a plethora of collectivists who have faded in and out of history; a collectivist whose morality continues to be lauded and embraced.
This is where the moral crime makes itself apparent.
The religious right insists that the American decay comes from abandoning the Christian principles of a “Christian country.” Principles have been abandoned, but they were the principles of the Revolution. America fought tyranny in order to shape a country where men lived their lives for their own sake, not at the expense of others. What is needed is a proper understanding of individual rights, which Madison artfully articulated and fully comprehended.
At a time when America is working to rejuvenate itself, why haven’t Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments” been injected into the national discussion? Especially when it comes to the proper role of government. Surely someone like Glenn Beck, with his profound respect for history and the founding of America, would have stumbled across such a profound document. For the religious right, the only principles that matter are those that God and Jesus Christ have laid forth. Glenn Beck violates Madison’s rule of adulterating principles when he argues that the only way to save the country is to mix reason with faith.
Mixing reason with faith is about as healthy and productive as consuming a cocktail of water and crack cocaine. Building a belief system with contradicting principles is the farthest thing from a belief system. It is a method for making a human being defenseless against tyrants and incapable of recognizing reality.
The next time a Republican, or a Democrat for that matter, assumes the podium and assures the voters of their embracing of faith, let’s remember the brilliance of James Madison and the tragic burial of “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments.”