Religious Liberty and the Founding Myths

The First Baptist Church

The First Baptist Church in America, in Providence, RI – where religious liberty and the separation of church and state was born

Growing up Baptist, I was schooled by my father of the dangers of having the government involved in religious life.  A New Deal Democrat and a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state, Daddy was a proud “Roger Williams” Baptist. So when Andrew attended Brown University in Providence, Candice and I made sure to stop at the Roger Williams National Memorial – administered by the National Park Service – where I picked up a copy of John Barry’s Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul and sent it to my father.

Last year I began hearing Kevin Kruse, the Princeton historian and author of One Nation Under God:  How Corporate America Invented Christian America interviewed on NPR and other outlets. Intrigued, I bought that book for my father as well, thinking it would strike a chord.

We talked about both works before Daddy passed away, and I wrote a piece on this blog last year about how old places can help us understand the battles for religious freedom.  When I brought both books home from his library earlier this year, I made the decision I wanted to read them back-to-back.

Roger Williams

Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul by John M. Barry

I began with Barry’s 2012 study of Williams, one of the least understood of the founders of colonial America.  The first portion of the book focuses on the religious turmoil in England, which shaped Williams as well as the Puritans who traveled to America for religious freedom. But as Barry makes clear, the religious freedom envisioned by the Puritans only included those who worshiped according to their dictates.  Williams’ growing understanding of the need for liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state came about due to his close involvement with some of the leading post-Reformationist thinkers and leaders in England, as well as his first-hand observations from colonial America.

Barry’s book is full of surprises for those who have not studied this period of history in-depth.  I had always assumed that Williams was a devout Baptist once he moved to what became Rhode Island, but Barry notes that he moved among religious groups and could more accurately be described as a seeker.  Williams’ engagement with the Native Americans he found in the colonies was well ahead of his time (by several centuries), and led one reviewer to lament that Barry had not covered more of that story.  The intrigue between Boston, Salem, Plymouth, Providence, and London – with Williams often in the center of controversy – is well documented by Barry, a talented writer who usually focuses on 20th century topics.  (I especially enjoyed his Rising Tide about the great Mississippi flood of 1927.)

Barry’s Afterword sums up the remarkable man who was Roger Williams:

“Roger Williams was not a man out of time.  He belonged to the seventeenth century, and to Puritans in that century.  Yet he was also one of the most remarkable men of his century.

With absolute faith in the Bible, with absolute faith in his own interpretation of it, he nonetheless believed it “monstrous” to compel another person to believe what he or anyone else believed, or to compel conformity to his or anyone else’s belief.  His enemies called him a “firebrand.”…They feared being challenged, and having their word, under challenge, disintegrate.  They feared the chaos of freedom, and they feared the loneliness of it.

Williams embraced all that.  Freedom, he believed, was worth it, worth his life and worth far more than his life…For of all the remarkable things he said, the most remarkable was this: ‘Having bought Truth deare, we must not sell it cheape, nor the least graine of it for the whole World, no not for the saving of Soules, through our owne most precious.’

For he knew that to believe in freedom and liberty required faith in the freedom of thought, of conscience.  And that was soul liberty.”

One Nation Under God

One Nation Under God by Kevin M. Kruse

I have often thought of the troubles we encounter in America when we try to compel others to believe as we do.  Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God:  How Corporate American Invented Christian America, is a recent piece of scholarship that looks into the obliteration of the separation of church and state – at, surprisingly, the hands of anti-New Deal corporate CEOs.

This is another book full of surprises, and although not as well received as Barry’s book, that may be due to the more controversial subject matter.  Having lived through the culture and school prayer wars of the 1960s up until today, I was certainly aware of how the so-called “Christian right” worked to wrap itself in God and country.  What was more of a revelation was the support for this work stretching back to the 1930s from a broad group of corporate executives out to wreck Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms.  Eisenhower’s role in the shift in American public opinion towards a more public religion, was also something of a revelation.

Neither work is perfect, but both are worth reading, especially in light of the ongoing battles in 2016 over the nature of religious liberty and the separation of church and state.  I suspect if he were alive and active today, Roger Williams would be able to discern the charlatans among our midst, and the perils we face in limiting the rights of those not like us.

The First Baptist Church

The First Baptist Church, Providence, RI

More to come…

DJB

 

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