Misreading the Madisonian Theory of Religious Freedom by Luke M. Herrington

    As advanced by Thomas Farr (2008) and others,1 contemporary international religious freedom theory sees religious freedom as an essential component to international stability and domestic prosperity. Perhaps the leading proponent of this school of thought in American foreign policy circles, Farr grounds his personal ideas about religious freedom in the works of the American “Founding Fathers”—in particular, the works of James Madison. Although his invocation of Madisonian thought seems primarily to be a persuasive move aimed at eliciting a commitment to religious freedom abroad from American policymakers,2 following Madison, Farr’s normative argument for religious freedom boils down to the idea that duty to some god or another requires the ability to practice one’s faith freely.

    This argument may seem tautological, but Farr is not just suggesting that one’s duties to a given deity require an ability to carry out their duties to said deity. Instead, he is suggesting that religious freedom is mandated by God himself.3 Of course, this is a powerful argument. States can’t possibly infringe on a person’s or group’s rights if their freedoms have been divinely sanctioned and sanctified, right? I am agnostic to such claims. Farr may be right, or he may be wrong. Yes, people the world over subscribe to religious beliefs mandating duties of all kinds, and openly fulfilling those duties almost certainly requires some degree of free exercise. Additionally, in the context of a post-Reformation, early modern Europe, such an argument likely held strong appeal for people belonging to a diverse array of oppressed Christian sects. Moreover, it may have even conferred some degree of legitimacy on those actors as they sought reprieve from the repressive apparatus of the state.  Yet, as a normative argument meant to persuade state actors who may perceive the fulfilment of one’s divinely mandated duties as a threat to social stability, the idea that religious freedom is necessary just because God wills it lacks merit.

    It seems, however, that Madison was probably aware of this problem. A deist like Thomas Jefferson, the man who would become the fourth president of the United States (U.S.), did occasionally proffer vague references to God in his public and private works. Although it is conceivable that he was instrumentalizing this theistic language as a persuasive tool aimed at winning support for his strictly secular arguments, he does, as Farr maintains, speak about duty to God in the context of early American debates about religious freedom. Yet, following John Locke, he also articulates a powerful strategic argument for religious freedom that would be hard for any state actor to ignore. This is important. If scholars of international religious freedom ignore Madison’s politico-strategic arguments, they may overlook the importance of religious diversity that his theory attaches to the efficacy of religious freedom in state and peace building efforts.

    Interpreting and Reinterpreting Madison

    Drawing on Madison, Farr suggests that natural rights, such as the freedom of religion (and broader freedom of conscience), come directly from God (see Franck 2016 for a similar argument). Given that the religious impulse, or desire to find ultimate truth, is common to humans across time and space, this makes religious practice intrinsic to human nature, and with it, human well-being. As a result, individuals have a duty to understand the sacred and seek transcendent, ultimate truths, and if all humankind has a duty to God to seek out such truths, a human right must exist for individuals to do so. Thus, religious freedom is, like the religious impulse itself, intrinsic to human nature, and a gift from God himself. As Madison puts it,

    “The Duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of our discharging it, can be governed only by Reason and Conviction, not by Compulsion or Violence, and therefore all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it according to the dictates of conscience […].” 4

    Ultimately, reasons Farr, this is why Jefferson opened the Declaration of Independence with reference to the Creator, and why Madison wrote of man’s duties to the “Governour of the Universe” (Farr 2008, p. 87) Simply put, they perceived religious freedom as a gift from God.

    Right or wrong, Farr is far from alone when he cites Madison’s views (or their place in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) as the normative justification undergirding his ideas about religious freedom and foreign policy. For instance, Brian Grim and Roger Finke’s (2011) overview of Enlightenment era works on religious freedom similarly points to the example of the U.S. and its founding generation. Unlike Farr, however, they point out that such figures as Madison and Jefferson were inspired more by the success of specific states (e.g., Pennsylvania) that had experimented with religious freedom in the colonial period than they were by explicitly theistic arguments. Of course, they also suggest that Jefferson and his peers—including Madison—were acting on lessons previously taught by the likes of Voltaire, David Hume, and Adam Smith. Of course, the framers of the American government likely borrowed heavily from Voltaire, Hume, and Smith (Arkin 1995; Fleischacker 2002; O’Brien 1996), but combined with their empirical observations, this suggests Madison’s theistic appeals were never intended to serve independently as normative justification for religious freedom to the early-modern state.

    Isolating the theistic component of his argument—and divorcing it from Madison’s politico-strategic ideas—thus represents a misreading of Madisonian theory, and more specifically, a misreading of Madisonian theory that renders its own relevance to political theory today entirely unclear. The same can be said about its relevance to the post-industrial state, as well as to non-Christian majority states throughout the developing world.

    Theistic arguments aside, Madison and his supporters are quite clear about the strategic need to attach the First Amendment, with its two clauses protecting religious liberty, to the U.S. Constitution.5 That is, Madison maintains that the protection of religious freedom is an essential building block for a new government. He justifies this claim by identifying religious freedom as a prerequisite to cultivating a religiously diverse society, and by in turn identifying religious diversity as a fundamental precondition for a nation’s social stability. Indeed, in his 1787 and 1788 treatises on factions and checks and balances (see Federalist 10 and Federalist 51), Madison argues that freedom is the key to mitigating the conflict produced by the interaction of a diverse array of special interest groups, political organizations, and religious sects:

    Whilst all authority in [the United States] will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority (Madison 1788).

    In expressing this view, Madison echoes Locke, who himself contravenes pre- and post-Westphalian assumptions that religious diversity can only act as a catalyst for conflict. But, since Madison reasons that greater numbers of active interest groups in a society lower the probability that one group could impinge on the rights of another, his theory of religious freedom parts way from the Lockean tradition. That is, the idea that diversity prevents violence because it acts as a kind of check and balance is a strictly Madisonian view that emerges only from the Federalist Papers.

    Where a misreading of Madisonian theory that envisions human rights as a God-granted gift might be suitable for theological discussion, Madison’s strategic argument that religiously diverse states will experience less violence and achieve a greater degree of domestic political stability if they respect religious freedom should be far more relevant to political theorists of international religious freedom, as well as to policymakers in non-Christian or non-religious states. As a normative justification for religious freedom, Madison’s strategic approach also fits comfortably alongside similar schools of thought, such as the Smith-derived religious economy approach to violence employed by Grim and Finke (2011) and others (e.g., Iannaccone and Berman 2006). Deemphasizing theistic misreadings of Madisonian thought in favor of a strategic reading also meshes with work on the origins of religious freedom by Anthony Gill (2007).


    With the foregoing in mind then, adopting a strategic reading of Madison’s work would seem to be the only way to maintain his relevance to international political theory. It also highlights the importance of religious diversity to the efficacy of religious freedom. Nevertheless, scholars interested in the theistic dimensions of Madison’s arguments dismiss the secular aspects of his theory of religious freedom. Indeed, although his own theory is similarly premised on the ways religious freedom contributes to international security, Farr himself acknowledges Madison’s strategic argument, but derides it as a bastardized form of pluralism aimed at the forcible privatization of religion (Farr 2008, p. 178-179). This criticism is moot though. Madison wants active interest groups—religious or otherwise—to compete in the public square because he envisions their public competition as a kind of check and balance that will prevent one group from abusing its power if it accrues too much.6

    Farr’s reservation aside, theistic arguments might have served a greater purpose in the early modern context than they do today, but neither religious conceptions of the divine generally, nor Christian conceptions of God specifically, are necessary underpinnings for religious freedom theory. After all, ideas like Madison’s about the inviolability and freedom of human conscience could have flowed naturally to the American founding generation from the Cartesian principals with which it undoubtedly would have been familiar. Put differently, it is not hard to imagine an intellectual leap from “I think, therefore I am,” to the freedom of conscience. Furthermore, although Madison’s writings antedate Charles Darwin’s work by more than half a century, evolutionary thought also creates space for such conclusions. That is, we can recognize the human animal’s status as homo religiosus without worrying about the truth content of any specific religious claim. Yet, even if scholars opt against principals of methodological agnosticism, Madisonian thought is, as illustrated above, far more nuanced than an exclusive emphasis on his political theology can reveal. For example, accepting religious freedom as a matter of God’s will tells us nothing about the implications of Madisonian thought insofar as religious diversity is concerned. With this in mind, Madison’s secular justifications for religious freedom are ultimately what ought to count for political theorists and other students of international religious freedom.



    1. Among many others, see Grim and Finke (2011), and Toft, Philpott, and Shah (2011).

    2. From an ontological security perspective (Steele 2008), and given the traditions of liberal imperialism and militarized humanitarianism that animate American foreign policy (Cox 2013; Grewal 2005), one might see Farr’s invocation of Madison, the First Amendment, and the U.S. Constitution, as part of an instrumentalist appeal to conceptions of American self-identity rooted in exceptionalist ideas that the U.S. is a special bastion of human rights that is both capable of spreading freedom throughout the world at will and required to do so.

    3. As with similar Judeo-Christian conceptions of religious freedom (e.g., Franck 2016), Farr is referring to the God of Abrahamic tradition.

    4. Madison is quoted here by Farr (2008, p. 87), but the primary source from which the text was drawn is unclear.

    5. The first of the two clauses, the “Establishment Clause,” forbids the U.S. government from recognizing a national religion. The second of the two, the “Free Exercise Clause,” effectively frees all Americans to participate in any religious activity of their choosing. Of course, as Richard Labunski (2006) notes, the original text of what would eventually become the First Amendment contained stronger language. Had Madison’s initial proposals passed, the law would have applied to the states as well as the federal government, and it also would have prevented discrimination on the grounds of one’s religious identity.

    6. And this is to say nothing of the fact that if such accusations were accurate, they would invalidate the very rhetoric on which Farr’s theistic interpretation is built. The perceived importance of Madison’s religious invocations notwithstanding, they would render his words hollow and insincere.



    Arkin, Marc M. 1995. “‘The Intractable Principle’: David Hume, James Madison, and the Tenth Federalist.” American Journal of Legal History 39: 148-176.

    Cox, Dan G. 2013. “The Age of Liberal Imperialism: Twenty-Five Years of a Flawed U.S. Foreign Policy.” Orbis 57: 643-652.

    Farr, Thomas F. 2008. World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Fleischacker, Samuel. 2002. “Adam Smith’s Reception Among the American Founders, 1776-1790.” The William and Mary Quarterly 59(4): 897-924.

    Franck, Matthew J. 2016. “Introduction: Religious Freedom, Same Sex Marriage, and the Dignity of the Human Person.” In Religious Freedom and Gay Rights: Emerging Conflicts in North America and Europe, ed. Timothy Samuel Shah, Thomas F. Farr, and Jack Friedman, 1-17. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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    Grewal, Inderpal. 2005. Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

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    Iannaccone, Laurence R. and Eli Berman. 2006. “Religious Extremism: The Good, the Bad, and the Deadly.” Public Choice 128: 109-129.

    Labunski, Richard. 2006. James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Madison, James. [1787] 2008.  Federalist No. 10. Available from https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed10.asp.

    Madison, James. [1788] 2008. Federalist No. 51. Available from https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed51.asp.

    O’Brien, Conor Cruise. 1996. The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Steele, Brent J. 2008. Ontological Security in International Relations: Self-Identity and the IR State. London: Routledge.

    Toft, Monica Duffy, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah. 2011. God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.





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