Madison’s success, politically and philosophically, came in part because he bridged Jefferson’s Enlightenment impulses with the views of the Baptists he got to know in Virginia. As a young man, Madison witnessed a shocking wave of persecution against local Baptists, who in our day might be called Evangelical Christians. (By the time of the revolution, about half of the Baptist ministers had been arrested.) In addition, Madison owed his subsequent election to Congress to the votes of Evangelicals, which he secured by promising them he would advocate for a Bill of Rights that would protect religious freedom.
He imbibed, and agreed with, the Baptist argument that church and state should be separated — not to make America secular but rather to make it religiously vibrant.
In 1819, nearly two decades after the passage of the First Amendment, Madison was asked to assess whether the separation of church and state had worked well. Unsurprisingly, he offered a positive verdict, but the nature of his evidence was revealing. He pointed not to the decline in religious persecution but to the rise in enthusiasm:
On a general comparison of the present & former times, the balance is certainly & vastly on the side of the present, as to the number of religious teachers, the zeal which actuates them, the purity of their lives, and the attendance of the people on their instructions. . . .
The number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State.Jefferson, by contrast, focused on the threat that organized religion posed to freedom of thought. Unlike Madison, Jefferson in his writings exhibits a deep hostility to organized religion, both its modern and its ancient varieties. In Jefferson’s view, Christianity was ruined almost from the start. “But a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in church and state,” he wrote. The authors of the canonical gospels laid “a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications.” The apostle Paul made matters worse. “Of this band of dupes and imposters, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.”