Lessons from Roger Williams

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Every Rhode Island school child recognizes Roger Williams as the father of our state. As the story goes, Williams, a Baptist preacher, was chased from the theocracy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He landed in Providence in 1636, where he set up a government that favored no religion and provided no religious test for holding any public office.

Nearly four centuries later, it is important that we remember Williams' legacy, especially in this time of both religious celebration and increasing religious and ethnic intolerance across our state and nation.

In Oklahoma, voters have approved a state Constitutional Amendment restricting the use of Islamic law. During the recent election, debates cropped up around the country over a Muslim center near the Ground Zero site in Manhattan. In Cranston, the Rhode Island chapter of American Civil Liberties is jousting with school authorities over the posting of the Ten Commandments on the wall at Cranston High School West.

It is astounding to read again Williams writings from the 1640s and see how relevant they remain. It is a reminder that no matter how much human conditions change, human nature doesn't. We always seem to want to impose our views on others.

Williams worried that any majority, including religious majorities, would fail to respect the religious views of the minority. He thus set up a colony with complete freedom of conscience. ``Forced religion stinks in the nostrils of God,'' Williams famously wrote.

He supported a strong separation between church and state. If the state supported, or established, no religion but tolerated all, then no faith would be placed above another. Williams' view of the separation of church and state was so strict that he would be vehemently against such everyday American tenets as the ``In God we trust'' message on our money or the ``under God'' clause of the Pledge of Allegiance, says Stanley Lemons, a retired Rhode Island College history professor and expert on Rhode Island history.

In his extensive writings, Williams spoke of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, pagans and atheists. He compared the colony of Rhode to a ship at sea on which all of religions were represented. The captain of the ship was empowered to require anything that is needed for the safety of the passengers but that otherwise there is to be the widest possible religious liberty for all passengers.

As a result of Williams theories, Rhode Island became a haven for people who were shunned elsewhere. In 1658, fifteen Jewish families arrived in Newport. They were given the same religious liberty granted others, which law professor Martha Nussbaum says is ``astonishing'' given that Jews in Britain did not gain full civil rights until 1858.

As we celebrate our winter seasonal holidays, let us heed the words of Williams, who so long ago cleared the path for a respectful view of the diverse humanity that has been so crucial to the development of our state of strangers and immigrants. Light your menorahs and trim your trees, but remember Roger Williams and our ancient heritage of tolerance.

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