By Walt Pontynen and Karen Scott
What role should religion have in the public square? Is the wall of separation between church and state a misused metaphor that should be discarded as Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote while still an associate justice? If there is a wall, is it a one-way wall to keep the government out of the churches but not the churches out of government?
In the 17th century Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, wrestled with and wrote on these and similar issues. Unlike his fellow Puritans, and the Pilgrims before, who came to America seeking religious freedom for themselves, Roger Williams, a devout Christian, came desiring to establish it for everyone — Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jew, or unbeliever.
His ideas were so radical that they were deemed a threat to the government of Massachusetts Bay Colony. In order to preserve the peace and protect their own religious liberty, Massachusetts Bay Colony imprisoned Roger Williams in order to send him back to England. Before that could happen, Williams escaped into the New England wintry wilderness. Had it not been for his Native American friends, Williams would have died that winter.
Later he purchased from Native Americans the land that would become the state of Rhode Island. Here he began what became known as a “lively experiment”. Williams put into practice what appeared at the time to be radical ideas concerning the government and the individual, particularly the individual’s religious practice versus the state’s authority in such matters. He wrestled with the proper relationship between individual liberty and the authority of the state. He struggled with the competing concepts of freedom to believe and practice one’s religion and those practices causing others discomfort. He wrote extensively on religious persecution and its madness. How does a state accommodate everyone’s religious belief or unbelief and still prevent chaos were vital concerns in the colony of Rhode Island, which was known as the ‘latrine of New England’ since it allowed every sort of idea to flourish rather than legislate religious uniformity.
It was not until the American Revolution that America began to embrace his ideals. During his lifetime he generally walked alone along a new, undiscovered road. In many ways, he became a forgotten man: we do not know either when he was born, exactly when he died or where he is buried. No monuments were erected to him in his lifetime. However, the pluralistic society our country enjoys today with its multiplicity of beliefs testifies to his passion for liberty of conscience for all. Roger Williams is a man who needs to be remembered, especially now as the lines between church and state have blurred.
Today when we are wrestling with what it means to accommodate everyone’s religious belief while not establishing that belief, Williams’ writings are relevant and demand our attention. In his day, the idea of religious liberty was a horrifying thought. It was believed that if there were no state-mandated uniformity of religion that the country’s morals would decline leaving the state in chaos. We hear these same statements today in calls for getting “God back into the public schools”. The unanswered question is “whose God” should be put back into the public schools?
Rather than being a forgotten hero, Roger Williams is a man that needs to be remembered and his writings studied.