The perennial arguments about separation of church and state have once again gained steam, including prayer in schools, vouchers for private religious schools, legislative enactments of one religious group’s moral tenets, allowing religious groups to endorse political candidates, and more.

Religion in America did not start with the arrival of the Pilgrims. Native Americans, with their own diverse religious traditions, were here for at least 12,000 years before the Mayflower landed. Many African slaves practiced their own native religions; some were Muslim.

The name always missing in July 4 commentaries is Roger Williams (1603-1683). Ordained and fresh out of Cambridge University, Williams arrived in Massachusetts in 1631. Although he accepted a call to lead a church in Salem, he was soon expelled into the winter wilderness for challenging the colony’s enforced Puritan religion. With the aid of Native American rescuers, he made his way to what is now Providence, R.I., where he founded a truly pluralistic society that gathered dissenting Puritans, Quakers, Jews, Catholics, atheists and other sectarian groups under its protection. He raised funds to purchase the area from the Native American chiefs.

Williams believed in the preciousness and dignity of the individual human conscience and that truth was not the basis of conscience. The basis of conscience is the human faculty of finding truth.

Forced religion prevents voluntary and sincere religious commitment. Damage to the conscience is intrinsically wrong and a desecration of what is most precious in a human being. Williams called violations of conscience “soul rape.” In Massachusetts, said Williams, “they love freedom but only for themselves.”

Many scholars believe that Roger Williams is the true father of religious liberty in America, preceding the Founding Fathers by 100 years. Historian Joseph Ellis states it this way: “Williams understands what Thomas Jefferson was to proclaim over a century later about freedom and the human spirit. The core of our liberal political heritage began as a religious argument about souls rather than citizens.”

This is one of the most important lessons Williams has to teach religious leaders and politicians today, especially those who decry the separation of church and state. Williams held that there is a profoundly religious reason for that separation. When ignored, it violates the sincerity of the tenets of true religion.

James Bortell is a retired United Methodist minister living in Normal. He can be reached at jimbortell@gmail.com

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