I know Presidents Day was last month, but I’d like to give a shout out to a president who has become one of my favorites in recent months.
Happy birthday, James Madison (March 16, 1751).
I didn’t set out to read about our fourth president, but he’s played a prominent role in two books I’ve read in the last few months. Thomas Jefferson is known for the Declaration of Independence, but Madison was a key figure in the development of the Constitution. So much so that he is called the father of the Constitution.
What struck me about Madison was not his politics, but his personality. He was described by Joseph Ellis as “practically invisible.” That’s an odd description of someone who was so influential. We live in an age when politicians are loud, often bombastic, and try to gain the upper hand by being offensive and attacking the other side. But James Madison was quite the opposite. He was never threatening. He could argue his case without upsetting a soul or offending anyone—and he’d win the vote. We equate politics with a politician’s personal agenda, but Madison never seemed to have a personal agenda. He was well-reasoned and reasonable in the way he presented his case. Ellis described him this way:
“His diffidence in debate was disarming in several ways: He was so obviously gentle and so eager to give credit to others, especially his opponents, that it was impossible to unleash one’s full fury against him without seeming a belligerent fool.” (Ellis, Joseph P. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation [Vintage Books, 2002], 53.)
Do you see what makes Madison so unique? He was quiet, shy, and humble, yet he exerted great influence. So maybe, just maybe, we don’t have to be loud and pushy to get things done. Madison’s character reminds me of Paul’s call to all believers:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).
Beginning in the next verse, Paul pointed to Jesus as an example of humility, and he called us to “adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus” (v. 5).
For those who think that’s a nice sentiment that doesn’t work in the real world, look at James Madison. The politics of his day were just as nasty as they are today, but James Madison rose above it with a humble deference to others that repeatedly won the day.
It certainly looks like James Madison was following the example of Jesus—and I think he was.
“Madison’s intellectual life and long public service to his nation were directed by his ‘firm Christian faith and principles.’ These included belief in God’s sovereignty, humanity’s innate sinfulness, pride, and selfishness (which required a government of checks and balances to prevent oppression), and the need for redemption through Christ.” [Source]
Madison’s love for Christ and His church is why he was a strong proponent for separation of church and state. He was convinced that Christianity flourished where it was not required by government. He believed Christianity thrives where one’s acceptance of it is voluntary. “Madison rejoiced that ministers of every denomination were zealously providing religious instruction in Virginia and winning people to Christian faith by ‘the purity of their lives.’” [Source]
Madison did not wave his Christianity as a flag or political statement, but his faith infused and influenced his thoughts, reasoning, and conversations in the political arena. And thanks to the constitution he influenced, we are still reaping the benefits of Madison’s character today.
Christlike character counts. If it can make a difference in a political climate known for its debate, arguments, and name-calling, it can work in your life as you interact with co-workers, neighbors, and church leaders.
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you at the proper time” (1 Pet. 5:6).
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