Roger Williams Takes on the Tea Party
My ancestor took the more radical route, preaching that the church had to make a clean break with the state. He advocated for "soul liberty," a term I gather means that neither the state nor the church can judge the conscience of even the heretic or the atheist. I can't begin to fathom the Christian cojones it took for anyone to stand before the Puritan mob and acknowledge that atheists have a right not to believe in God.
Even though he didn't care for some religions like Quakerism, Williams felt individual conscience must be free from the tyranny of the majority. As he noted, state sponsorship of religion would yield an unhappy situation wherein "the whole world must rule and govern the church." The merger of church and state remains "opposite to the souls of all men who by persecutions are ravished into a dissembled worship which their hearts embrace not."
Here Barton & Company follow the lead of Puritan ministers like John Cotton, who railed against Williams by advocating that only a fanatic would suggest something as daring as religious liberty. There must be some kind of religious foundation (read: Christianity) in place in order to avoid moral chaos. Williams countered this belief that arguing that men must remain free to choose their beliefs, adding that no one can accept Christ of her free will if she is forced to follow a state-sanctioned set of beliefs.
This does not mean Williams felt the state could exist in an ethical vacuum. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum observes in Liberty of Conscience, "The idea of an overlapping consensus, or, to put it Williams' way, the idea of a moral and natural goodness that we can share wile differing on ultimate religious ends, is an idea that helps us think about our common life together much better than the unclear and at times misleading idea of separation." By shifting the focus away from the need to maintain religious orthodoxy to a consensuses regarding the "correct belief" on a given issue, we can be free to engage with those who share our common virtues in the hopes of advancing the common good.
These beliefs coupled with his humane treatment of the Native Americans caused the elder statesman of my family to get booted out of godly Massachusetts, and he settled with his family in Rouges Island. Here he created a haven for those of any religious persuasion, including those who professed to have no faith. Even though he established the first Baptist church in America, he left this church after a few months and became a seeker of sorts. With so many voices clamoring to have the truth, he felt he was going to have to wait for the new revelation to emerge.
Then in 1643, he began a battle with Parliament that led to the creation of a charter for the State of Rhode Island which made liberty of conscience the law of the land, a belief that later became woven into the fabric of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Unfortunately, these days, when pundits and politicos appeal to Christian (read "Evangelical") voters, they start humming Winthrop, not Williams. Methinks it is time to start singing a different tune, for only then can the United States truly be the "land of the free."
Excerpts from this reflection are taken from Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ.
Becky Garrison's books include Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ, Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, and Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-Shaped Ministries (Forthcoming). Her additional writing credits include work for Killing the Buddha, The Washington Post's On Faith column, the Guardian, The Revealer, and Religion Dispatches.