Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The role of Rhode Island in the story of religious liberty

Law professor Scott Dougls Gerber has a short reflection on that topic in the Providence Journal:  Law and the lively experiment in colonial Rhode Island. As Gerber points out, Rhode Island's commitment to religious liberty was far from universal (Catholics, Jews and Quakers were subject to government and social discrimination in the colony). Yet, the colony did provide for greater religious liberty protections than the other American colonies at the time, and even the official discrimination against disfavored believers was grounded in an effort to ensure social order at a minimum disruption in the lives of those considered to be subject to government sanction for their religious practices.  As Gerber writes,
[S]pecific laws affecting Catholics, Jews and Quakers, such as the Sunday laws and the laws relating to military service, were an attempt by the polity to address the conflict between religious freedom and civil order that Williams addressed so eloquently in his voluminous writings. Moreover, no law was ever enacted in Rhode Island prohibiting a particular religion or providing for the persecution of persons based on their faith.
An interesting take on the distinctive approach to religious liberty found in Rhode Island's history. Well worth a read.

8 comments:

JMS said...

Mark - excellent reference to Scott Gerber's article.

As Timothy Hall wrote in 71 B.U.L. Rev. 455 (May, 1991):

“One cannot properly place the concept of religious liberty, as embodied in the Constitution's first amendment, in its historical context without considering the values and presuppositions of Williams and later Protestant dissenters.

Williams's importance to the contemporary debate over the meaning and application of the free exercise and establishment clauses arises not so much because one can trace his views in some specific way to the views of the "Framers," although some have argued this point, n16 but because his writings provide a framework of argument and theory that is more comprehensive than those of any other writer prior to the constitutional period.”

Tom Van Dyke said...

Williams's importance to the contemporary debate over the meaning and application of the free exercise and establishment clauses arises not so much because one can trace his views in some specific way to the views of the "Framers," although some have argued this point, n16 but because his writings provide a framework of argument and theory that is more comprehensive than those of any other writer prior to the constitutional period.”

IOW, Roger Williams is way overrated by those who dig his act.

http://usreligion.blogspot.com/2012/07/roger-williams-first-american-some.html

Barry's straight line from Roger Williams to Thomas Jefferson is even weaker still. There was a historical progression of sorts from a scriptural defense of religious liberty to a “secular” one between the 1640s and the 1780s, but many voices filled in the vast space between Williams and Jefferson. Barry wants to create room for Williams in the “modern/secular” camp by showing that Williams compared the church to “a Corporation, Society, or Company of East-Indie or Turkie-Merchants”; Williams also asserted that the church was not the center of society (which also seems more secular to Barry). Nonetheless, most of Williams’ famed expositions on religious liberty are painful to read (as my undergrads can attest), overly wordy, unendingly repetitive, and unabashedly based on lengthy scriptural expositions.

Mark in Spokane said...

Tom, I think it is possible to argue that Williams' himself was not a pivotal figure to the Founders, while at the same time insisting on the importance of Rhode Island's practice of religious liberty in shaping attitudes towards that topic during the late colonial period & the early Republic. Rhode Island's notion of religious tolerance even for religious traditions that were officially disfavored strikes me as something that ended up being a key idea regarding religious liberty after the Revolution, for example.

And given the way the country's elites are heading in setting up conflicts regarding religious liberty (HHS contraception/abortion mandate, same-sex marriage), it may be an example that will merit further reflection sooner rather than later.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Williams wrote: “[I]f any of the seamen refuse to perform their services or passengers to pay their freight; if any refuse to help in person or purse towards the common charge of defence; if any refuse to obey the common laws and orders of the ship . . . ; if any shall mutiny and rise up against their commander and officers; if any should preach or write that there ought to be no commander and officers because all are equal in Christ . . . the commander or commanders may judge, resist, compel, and punish such transgressors, according to their deserts and merits.”
In short, Williams maintained that “civility” necessitated that all inhabitants of the colony, regardless of denomination, must abide by a basic sense of common morality that sometimes required curtailment of certain religious practices, although never of the underlying theology.


See, THAT'S the key, that an underlying morality is necessary for public order. Exceptions can and should be made when there's no threat to order, but

Perhaps Rhode Island’s founders understood the distinction between liberty and license better than those of us who sometimes mistakenly equate liberty with the absence of all restraint. Roger Williams certainly understood the distinction between the two.
Williams often wrote about the tension between freedom of conscience and civil order, in large part because many of the early settlers of Providence had believed from the beginning that freedom of religion meant the absence of all restraint, civil as well as religious.


doesn't fit into today's secular/libertarian narrative, so the last thing the popular mind associates with Roger Williams is "liberty is not license." His narrative has been completely perverted.

Mark in Spokane said...

That I would definitely agree with. All of the major Founders (especially those who helped found the colonies) were for the most part committed to the idea of moral order and natural law. That there were essential moral norms for the community was a given -- and in many instances it was the strength of those norms that permitted religious liberty to flourish. The strength of the Protestant establishment (with a small "e") in the early United States had a direct impact on the willingness to extend legal toleration to Catholicism (as opposed to a much weaker Protestant establishment's approach to Catholicism from the French & Indian War to around 1775).

Jonathan Rowe said...

"Barry's straight line from Roger Williams to Thomas Jefferson is even weaker still."

I didn't read Barry's book. I know that some of the notable Baptist figures who were allies with Jefferson and Madison knew of and were inspired by Williams.

However, if you said the words "Roger Williams" to Thomas Jefferson, his reply would have been "who"?

Jefferson WAS influenced by James Burgh who in turn was influenced by Williams. That's how the words "Separation of Church and State" made their way from Williams to Jefferson.

JMS said...

Thanks Mark for your reply to Tom's first comment. You encapsulated what my original comment intended to convey.

Jefferson and Madison (and other "founding fathers" knew about Williams (and William Penn,the other major colonial American "planting father") via the Baptist ministers Isaac Backus and John Leland. It was the combination of "theistic rationalism" (to use Gregg Frazer's label) and dissenting evangelical Protestant Christianity that led to the post-revolutionary disestablishment of Anglicanism in Virginia and elsewhere in the new United States.

I think Williams and Penn should be accorded greater influence than just about anyone else in colonial America because they not only wrote about religious liberty (even if their writings are not easy to read or represent a coherent philosophy - they were not philosophers), they put their beliefs into practice, and despite all the opposition and political travails they faced - they were tremendously successful and therefore influential way beyond their own time.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It was the combination of "theistic rationalism" (to use Gregg Frazer's label) and dissenting evangelical Protestant Christianity that led to the post-revolutionary disestablishment of Anglicanism in Virginia and elsewhere in the new United States.


"Theistic rationalism" wasn't a real player, acc to Hutson. Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance is lionized by contemporary secularists, but evidence of its actual influence is lacking.

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2008/09/scholarly-malpractice-and-founding.html

"The story of how Madison and a diverse band of evangelicals and civil libertarians mounted, in 1785, a successful public relations campaign against [Patrick] Henry's bill, highlighted by Madison's celebrated religious liberty manifesto, the Declaration and Remonstrance, is a familiar one in American church-state literature, especially since it resulted in 1786 in the passage by the Virginia Assembly of Jefferson's landmark Statute for Religious Freedom.

The downfall of the general assessment bill is usually depicted as a kind of slow moving Armageddon, in which Madison and his followers, representing the forces of light and progress, gradually vanquish the legions of reaction who would have dragged America back into the dark ages of religious persecution and bigotry."


Oh, we know that story quite well. Theocrats at the gates!, then and now. The heroes of Enlightenment beat them back. But Hutson continues:

"There are several things wrong with this interpretation...


Read the whole thing.