One of my colleagues was reading a law review article the other day from former Judge Mike McConnell and ran across an interesting notation about pastors speaking in favor of candidates from their pulpits even during the days immediately following the ratification of the United States Constitution. James Madison, who is known as one of the architects of the Constitution, was seeking a seat in the very first House of Representatives in 1789. Madison was initially opposed to an amendment to the Constitution protecting the rights of religious freedom and conscience but, as Judge McConnell wrote in his law review article:
[W]hen he [Madison] initiated his candidacy for Congress, he discovered that his Baptist constituents were prepared to throw their support to his opponent, James Monroe. On advice of his political adviser, George Nicholas, Madison contacted Baptist leaders and proclaimed his support for “the most satisfactory provisions for all essential rights, particularly the rights of Conscience in the fullest latitude.” He then championed a constitutional provision for religious liberty as a campaign issue. The Baptist leaders responded by giving him their electoral support, which contributed to his narrow margin of victory. A letter to Madison contains an interesting eyewitness account of a gathering at the Blue Run Baptist Church, at which the minister, the Reverend George Eve, “took a very Spirited and decided Part in your favour” and “Spoke Long” on the subject of Madison’s contributions to religious freedom. (McConnell, The Origins and Historical Understanding of Free Exercise of Religion, 103 Harvard Law Review 1409, 1477 (1990)).
You can read Mr. Johnson’s actual letter to James Madison online here. I have a couple of thoughts in response to this. First, I find it interesting to note that it was pastors who provided the impetus, at least in part, for the First Amendment, and specifically the protection of religious freedom. Pastors have always been at the forefront of the great social and moral issues facing America and this is just one more example.
Second, as McConnell notes, it was only after pastors pressured Madison that he switched his position to support a provision that would later become the First Amendment. This little vignette from American history demonstrates just how much of an impact pastors can have on American life. And this is just one story in a mountain of historical evidence of the positive impact pastors have had on American history.
Finally, it seems to me that this story illustrates a powerful rebuttal to those who oppose the ADF Pulpit Initiative by arguing that allowing pastors to participate in politics will result in corruption of the church. The Johnson Amendment was enacted in 1954. There is at least a 166 year track record from the time of the ratification of the Constitution to the adoption of the Johnson Amendment. The weight of history demonstrates that the clergy ably handled their important role in American electoral politics for those 166 years. With this historical record, the charge that allowing pastors to speak freely from their pulpits would corrupt the church rings hollow.
Pastors have had an enormous influence on American history. That influence has been unjustly removed by an unconstitutional law that had nothing to do with pastors in the first place. It’s time to right the ship and restore the pastors’ rightful place in American life. That’s what the Pulpit Initiative is all about.
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