Religion and politics according to Roger Williams: A Thanksgiving Meditation

Thanksgiving is unique in the American sequence of major holidays. It is rooted in one of the nation’s primary historical eras and expresses one of America’s foundational narratives. It combines religious, political, and cultural elements, but in a way that allows the holiday to be embraced not only by Christians but also by people of other religions or of no religion.

This holiday, perhaps more than any other, reveals the fact that the nation’s very existence is based upon the radical disregard for the people who already were here when Europeans arrived. Thus, no matter how joyfully we celebrate the day, it is right that Americans remember, with remorse, those whose way of life has been trampled upon in order to allow the rest of us enjoy the way of life experienced by the dominant members of the population.

Although we rightfully focus our attention upon the good things in life, as manifested in traditional Thanksgiving services and feasts, this holiday is also a time to revisit the central political themes that are enshrined in the historical tradition.

For me this year, this political aspect of remembrance focused upon Roger Williams who was one of the most astute architects of the American system of liberty and equality. During the days surrounding the holiday, I came across an extended review of John M. Barry’s new biography: Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.

“Anyone who reads this book,” reviewer John Fea writes, “will need to come to grips with the fact that it is Williams, not [John] Winthrop, who best represents the historical roots of the religious liberties that citizens of the United States enjoy today.” (This review, with the title “The original separationist,” appears in Christian Century, November 14, 2012, pp. 36-37.)

My second encounter with Williams over the Thanksgiving weekend was in a book entitled Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (Basic Books, 2008).  Its author is Martha C. Nussbaum, a philosopher who “holds appointments in the Philosophy Department, Law School, and Divinity School at the University of Chicago, is co-chair of the university’s Human Rights Program, and…is the author of thirteen previous books” (from the book jacket).

Nussbaum is a vigorous defender of the central pillars of the American tradition, which she describes as freedom and equality. It is clear to her that this way of setting up national life is unique in the world and that it is “a tradition under threat.”

Early in the book, Nussbaum devotes an entire chapter (entitled “Living Together: The Roots of Respect”) to Roger Williams, a Puritan intellectual who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, but five years later fled because his opposition to the established order was likely to lead to his arrest.

He established a new community in Providence, Rhode Island, in which he used his distinctive principles to establish a colony noted for its receptive attitude toward people of widely varying ideas and practices. From this secure position, he maintained a vigorous literary debate with Boston leaders, especially John Cotton, pastor of the First Church Boston.

The mood and style of the debate is indicated in the titles of the treatises they produced during this controversy. Williams: The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644) and The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy (1652); Cotton:The Bloudy Tenent washed and made white in the bloud of the Lamb (1647).

Nussbaum begins this chapter with a quotation from The Bloudy Tenent:

“Sixthly, it is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Sonne the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, bee granted to all men in all Nations and Countries” (p. 34).

What stands out in her treatment of Williams, however, is not the colorful language, but instead the extent to which this lonely figure anticipated better known political philosophers and leaders in later generations. His writings during the 1640s “anticipate [John] Locke’s 1689 A Letter Concerning Toleration in every respect” (p. 41).

“It is not implausible,” she writes, “to compare his core ideas to those that will animate the philosophy of Immanuel Kant a century later” (p. 56). The “ideas of fairness and respect” as Williams presents them “continue to be central to the best work in recent political philosophy in the Western tradition,” and here Nussbaum cites John Rawls’s books A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism (p. 57).

When I read the Williams-Cotton Bloudy Tenent debate half a century ago, I was paying attention to other issues and overlooked the importance of Williams’s ideas about liberty and equality. While it is unlikely that I will reread these “logic-chopping” treatises, I do plan to continue reading Nussbaum’s book and then move to other expositions of Williams’s life and thought. My remembrance of Thanksgiving will carry me well into the new year!

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