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Roger Williams enduring resonance

January 13, 2012

Nearly four centuries ago Roger Williams founded a colony of conscience in a place he called Providence. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay reminds us that Williams views resonate still.

One of those ripe ironies for which life in Rhode Island is remarkable came last week. On the same day that author John Barry spoke at Brown University about his masterful new biography of  Roger Williams, Federal Judge Ronald Lagueux ruled that that a large prayer mural at Cranston West High School violated the U.S. Consitution’s decree that the state establish no religion.

No amount of debate, Judge Lagueux stated, can make the prayer mural anything but a Christian prayer that leaves out both other religions and those who have no religious beliefs.

Barry’s book, `Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul’ is an incisive look at the life, times and theories of Rhode Island’s founder, the devout Christian who planted the doctrine of the separation of church and state in American soil.

Williams founded Providence in 1636. Yet there is no time like the present to examine his relevance than this moment in our history, with its boiling national debate about the boundaries of church and state.  Political figures of every persuasion, from the tri-cornered hats of the Tea Party to the Twittering classes of liberals joust vigorously over who best represents American traditions and history.

Many outside our state wonder why there is a Rhode Island; how this watery sliver of   southeastern New England, a place one can drive across in 45 minutes without breaking the scarcely obeyed speed limits, ever became a United state?

The grand historical accident that is Rhode Island came to be because Williams couldn’t get along with the Theo-centric Puritans who ran Massachusetts.

Barry’s work points out another delicious irony. Williams was a serious Christian, a Baptist clergyman and noted bible scholar. He was that rare evangelist who believed his flock could interpret God for themselves. In an interview Barry said one his favorite Williams adages is a famous one: “Forced religion stinks in the nostrils of God.’’

Williams timeless resonance lies in the truism that he was the first philosopher and practitioner of government in the New World who believed that the sovereign authority and legitimacy of government rests with the people.

Under Williams leadership, Rhode Island became the first modern, entrepreneurial colony, a place that embraced diversity. To show how far ahead of   his time was Williams, one only has realize that in 1658, 15 Jewish families arrived in Newport. They were granted the same religious rights as others, remarkable considering that Jews in England did not gain full civil rights until two centuries later in 1858.

Williams laid out the axiom of church-state separation 150 years before the U.S. Constitution guaranteed religious freedom. The framers of the Constitution were Christians but that great government document doesn’t include the word God anywhere in its text.

So the next time a federal judge upsets Christians with a decision like the Cranston prayer mural, consider that all the judge is doing is upholding an American tradition that was made right here in Rhode Island.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at the `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. jim DeRentis permalink
    January 13, 2012 11:33 pm

    Here, here. You should send this article to all the candidates posturing for the Republican nomination for President. They all need a history lesson.

  2. Chris O'Donnell permalink
    January 15, 2012 3:43 am

    Brilliant!

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