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James Madison on the Two Kingdoms

8 January, 2009

brannansmall1The following is an extract from a letter by the fourth President of the US, James Madison (1751-1836; served 1809-1817), who was a Christian as well as an ardent defender of religious liberty and the separation of Church (or Synagogue, or Mosque…) and State.

Click for Madison wiki

Click for Madison wiki

Madison here isn’t writing directly about what may be called the distinction between the two kingdoms, or in scriptural language, the distinction between the present age and the age to come, and between the purposes and role of human governments (Rom 13) and the purposes and role of the Church. Madison is rather writing from such a perspective, and is applying it concretely to the following question:

Should the government declare religious holidays or memorials to be observed by citizens of the nation?

Madison offers 5 objections to the appropriateness of such a confusion of the distinct purposes and roles of Church and State, which confusion is potentially very harmful for both. I think Madison’s objections are particularly appropriate even in our day, and so much of what he warns against is precisely what many well-meaning Christians want to be the role of the government. Though he doesn’t appeal explicitly to scripture here, I believe Madison’s on solid biblical footing — and remember, he’s writing this as a Christian and as the President:

Religious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings & fasts are shoots from the same root with the legislative acts reviewed [earlier in the letter]. Altho’ recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers.

The objections to them are:

I. that Gov[ernmen]ts ought not to interpose in relation to those subject to their authority but in cases where they can do it with effect. An advisory Gov[ernmen]t is a contradiction in terms.

2. The members of a Gov[ernmen]t as such can in no sense, be regarded as possessing an advisory trust from their Constituents in their religious capacities. They cannot form an ecclesiastical Assembly, Convocation, Council, or Synod, and as such issue decrees or injunctions addressed to the faith or the Consciences of the people. In their individual capacities, as distinct from their official station, they might unite in recommendations of any sort whatever, in the same manner as any other individuals might do. But then their recommendations ought to express the true character from which they emanate.

3. They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erronious idea of a national religion. The idea just as it related to the Jewish nation under a theocracy, having been improperly adopted by so many nations which have embraced [Christianity], is too apt to lurk in the bosoms even of Americans, who in general are aware of the distinction between religious & political societies. The idea also of a union of all to form one nation under one Gov[ernmen]t in acts of devotion to the God of all is an imposing idea. But reason and the principles of the [Christian] religion require that all the individuals composing a nation even of the same precise creed & wished to unite in a universal act of religion at the same time, the union ought to be effected thro’ the intervention of their religious not of their political representatives. In a nation composed of various sects, some alienated widely from others, and where no agreement could take place thro’ the former, the interposition of the latter is doubly wrong:

4. The tendency of the practice, to narrow the recommendation to the standard of the predominant sect. The Ist proclamation of Gen[era]l Washington dated Jan[uar]y 1. 1795 recommending a day of thanksgiving, embraced all who believed in a supreme ruler of the Universe. That of Mr. [John] Adams called for a [Christian] worship. Many private letters reproached the Proclamations issued by J[ames] M[adison] for using general terms, used in that of Presi[den]t W[ashington]; and some of them for not inserting particulars according with the faith of certain [Christian] sects. The practice if not strictly guarded naturally terminates in a conformity to the creed of the majority and a single sect, if amounting to a majority.

5. The last & not the least objection is the liability of the practice to a subserviency to political views; to the scandal of religion, as well as the increase of party animosities. Candid or incautious politicians will not always disown such views. In truth it is difficult to frame such a religious Proclamation generally suggested by a political State of things, without referring to them in terms having some bearing on party questions…

  1. enu permalink
    9 January, 2009 2:31 pm

    nice new look.

  2. 20 January, 2009 7:13 pm

    Madison is expounding what Niebuhr would consider a Christ and Culture in Paradox perspective.

    What is interesting is that Madison, from what I understand, was an Eposcopalian. That means he was used to a strong connection between “church” and “state” especially on religious holidays. Washington had the same denomination affiliation but came to a different conclusion.

  3. creedorchaos permalink*
    23 January, 2009 8:15 am


    In many ways I agree with reading Madison and similar thinkers as representing a position of paradox, but I don’t know enough about (in this case, Madison) to say how well the shoe fits in this case. One of Madison’s best comments is that ‘an advisory government is a contradiction in terms’ — one of the main reasons for the government staying out of private religious affairs is that it has no jurisdiction or authority there. This is certainly a kind of ‘parallel but separate’ mentality, but I don’t know if its because Madison would argue in a more Protestant ‘two kingdoms’ fashion that the state is a common grace realm with a distinct calling and purpose from that of the church, or in a quasi-Deist fashion that the government has no claims over religion simply because of the inalienable freedom of individual conscience in all human endeavor, religious or otherwise. Perhaps a mixture of both for Madison?

    On another note, as a Reformed advocate of a two kingdoms approach to these things (similar to Michelle in the follow-up post), I don’t really see myself clearly in Niebuhr’s ‘paradox’ paradigm — although it’s closer to the mark in certain respects than the other approaches. Do you see Niebuhr’s paradox position as roughly equal to a two kingdoms view?

    For instance, I would heartily affirm that Christ even now rules and directs all of history, together with the Father and the Spirit, toward fulfilling his well- and wisely-ordained purposes. As throughout Revelation, metaphors are used, e.g. the triumphant and ruling One who looks like a slain lamb, to describe how despite earthly appearances, Christ rules from heaven and in him through the Spirit’s work in and among his people God’s will is certainly being accomplished on earth as it is in heaven.

    On the other hand, there’s a clear distinction between the purposes and the roles of the two kingdoms. Again, I wouldn’t call this a strict paradox, because they are opposed only in very specific senses — the realities of the present age that is passing away, over against those of the age to come, which even in the present age is present in Word and sacrament: the proclamation of the accomplished eschatological redemption of Christ and its living outflow through the Spirit. This is an ethical or covenantal opposition.

    A great analogy for this is the law-gospel distinction (for traditional Protestants, anyway). Law and gospel are not opposed abstractly, but opposed where sinners’ relationship to God is concerned, so that law and gospel re roughly equivalent to the principle of the Adamic covenant and the principle of the covenant of grace, respectively. Embracing gospel doesn’t destroy the law, because Christ fulfilled the law in order to bring us the gospel, and the Spirit bears in us the fruits of the righteousness of Christ which we possess by grace through faith. Law isn’t bad or evil, it’s good — but if we try to hold up our law-keeping before God we’re in trouble.

    Something similar is going on — to get to the point! — with the two kingdoms approach to the church-state distinction. The state is a natural, creational entity — upheld this side of Genesis 3 by common grace — whose role is defined by ‘law’: reward good and punish evil (Rom 13). The state is good and necessary and helpful, especially when it’s doing its creational, legal job well. There’s no paradox between Atheists and Christians both wanting to fight AIDS, for instance — but fighting AIDS as a covenant rebel won’t score points with God, and it’s not the role of the Church to fight AIDS *as the Church* — not because it’s wrong for Christians to fight AIDS (it’s very good), but because the Church’s calling is ministry and proclamation of ‘gospel’ through Word and sacrament.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems this doesn’t fit Niebuhr paradox paradigm (or any of his other paradigms) very well.

    I like your site by the way,


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