RICHMOND, Va. – If you want to stand in the room where America as an idea was conceived, visit Montpelier, where James Madison grew up, lived most of his life and died.
Montpelier is a beautiful place, nestled in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. On clear days, you can see the peaks rising in the distance through the second-floor window in the library of the restored plantation house. I stood in that spot recently and trembled at the magnitude of what took place there, in the mind of one man.
You can imagine Madison looking out that very window for inspiration during the months he spent alone there before the historic summer of 1787, poring over his own books and the many volumes of history, philosophy and politics sent to him by his friend and political ally Thomas Jefferson. When he emerged from his self-imposed intellectual retreat, Madison carried the ideas that would form the basis of the U.S. Constitution and its first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights.
Without those founding documents, our nation – which was then a shaky confederation of former colonies on the verge of squandering their hard-won independence from England – would not exist. And you would not enjoy the right to speak, worship, vote and assemble with others as you please. Neither would untold millions of other people across the world, freed from their chains by the ideas Madison not only forged but ceaselessly labored for, wrote about and campaigned to see ratified.
To be sure, the encouragement of Madison’s great mentor Jefferson (who also wrote a little something called the Declaration of Independence) was crucial. So was the instant credibility George Washington brought when Madison persuaded the beloved revolutionary general to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Many others contributed to the basic principles that went into the Constitution, both during Madison’s formative years in the Virginia legislature and during the long, hot summer of the convention itself, where he spoke more than 200 times.
But without Madison in his finest hour, where would we be today?
“As a framer and defender of the Constitution he had no peer,” historian Garry Wills wrote. “No man could do everything for the country – not even Washington. Madison did more than most, and did some things better than any. That was quite enough.”
He would go on to serve two terms as president, lead the young country through the War of 1812 and lived until age 85, the last of the Founding Fathers to pass off the scene. Yet in that pivotal year of 1787, James Madison was 36 years old. And he was far younger when he began grappling with the ideas that would make him the “Father of the Constitution.”
I highlight Madison’s youth at the time in order to pose a question: Where are the Madisons of today? More specifically, where are the spiritual Madisons?
We keep hearing that the Millennials, born after 1980, are leaving churches in droves (or never joining in the first place), that they are wary of making commitments to faith communities, government, school, marriage or any other institution. They like having unlimited options, we’re told, and prefer digital social networks to joining or forming the groups that traditionally have held society together.
The Pew Research Center supplied more confirmation of those attitudes in its study released March 7, “Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends.”
“The Millennial generation is forging a distinctive path into adulthood,” the study reported. “Now ranging in age from 18 to 33, they are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry – and optimistic about the future. … [H]alf of Millennials now describe themselves as political independents and about three in 10 say they are not affiliated with any religion.”
Pew said Millennials are “at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the quarter-century [it] has been polling on these topics.”
You have to give Millennials credit for being optimistic about the future, given the crummy economic and career prospects they’ve been handed. Maybe that’s the natural energy and hope of youth. The grim economic outlook of recent years, not to mention massive student debt, also explains part of their reluctance to get married and enter into other major social or financial commitments. The issue of trusting others, however, is revealing.
“Millennials have emerged into adulthood with low levels of social trust,” Pew reported. “In response to a longstanding social science survey question, ‘Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?’ just 19 percent of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31 percent of Gen Xers [born from 1965 to 1980], 37 percent of [the Silent Generation, born from 1928 to 1945] and 40 percent of Boomers [born from 1946 t0 1964].”
People tend not to interact with those they don’t trust – and definitely won’t willingly work with them, join churches or other voluntary organizations with them, or cooperate with them to keep civil society functioning.
Perhaps you’re a Millennial believer in Christ, but you’ve decided to take a pass on being part of a local church. It’s an outmoded institution encrusted with irrelevant traditions, you say. You’re “spiritual but not religious,” so you intend to worship on your own or with a few close friends. You plan to do ministry and missions that way, too, rather than bothering with bulky religious organizations that might waste your time and money.
It’s your choice. But consider this: What if James Madison had decided to go it alone after the American Revolution? He could have stayed at Montpelier and enjoyed his big Virginia plantation – and let others worry about a fledgling nation on the edge of collapse. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and plunged into the long, exhausting task of dialogue, debate, compromise and coalition-building that went into creating the United States of America out of the competing interests of 13 ornery colonies.
The church, a far older institution than the United States, is also the body of Christ. Christ commands that we not only worship, serve and proclaim the gospel alongside other sinners saved by grace, but that we love them.
In order to form a more perfect union, we must commit ourselves to renewing the imperfect one we have. We need you to be a part of it.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erich Bridges is the International Mission Board’s global correspondent. Visit WorldView Conversation, the blog related to this column.)