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Salon: James Madison would be horrified by Peter King


The founder's experiences with Tripoli taught him what the congressman misses: Islam doesn't cause terrorism 

Today -- Wednesday, March 16 -- James Madison is 260 years old. Despite the natural abundance and rich panorama that surrounds the grave site on his estate of Montpelier, he rests uncomfortably. Like his central Virginia neighbor and political alter-ego Thomas Jefferson, he felt that his greatest achievement lay in the realm of freedom of conscience. Religious pluralism was the centerpiece of their combined vision for America. Of course, these same two men, tolerant of religious difference, waged war with Muslims -- but not with Islam.

There is a dual lesson in recalling what Madison and Jefferson did in embracing freedom of religion while sending warships to silence pirates and bullies on the shores of Tripoli. Their prescience may surprise you.

Echoes of "what the founders believed" reverberate all the time, especially coming from the lips of those with axes to grind who are seeking scriptural support from the Constitution. Take the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Long Island congressman Peter King, who opened his remarks last week on the threat posed by radical Islam by charging "special interest groups" with having caused "hysteria" in anticipation of the extended hearings he is now orchestrating. Actually, he has it backward. Hysteria is what he is feeding.

Congressman King overlooks what is the very essence of James Madison’s thinking: religious discrimination as the most dangerous threat to liberty. "Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess, and to observe a religion which we believe to be of divine origin," he wrote in his bold "Memorial and Remonstrance" of 1784, "we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us." Madison and Jefferson first met in the fall of 1776, three months after the Declaration of Independence, as fellow members of the Committee on Religion in the Virginia State Assembly. Freedom of conscience, then under consideration in Williamsburg, was the subject on which they first saw eye to eye; the two young legislators were impelled toward collaboration in order to change the laws and disestablish the Anglican Church. Their liberal advocacy opened the way for Baptists, Methodists, Quakers and others to extend their reach.

In his 1785 Notes on Virginia, Jefferson wrote: "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." For making this dangerous statement, he was painted in broad strokes by self-righteous conservatives in 1800, as the confirmed atheist who, if elected president, would burn all Bibles. Their idea was: You’re not "one of us" if you question the right of Christian ministers to enforce a moral consensus -- that which sustains the illusion that the community can be kept safe by espousing the same or similar views. Fearful people look for comfort in the predictable, in simple formulations. That’s where enemies come in handy.

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