Remembering Roger Williams and 350 Years of Religious Freedom

May 13, 2013

Rhode Island hasn’t had enough to celebrate lately. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay brings us an anniversary all Rhode Islanders can take pride in next month.

Three hundred and fifty years ago, Rhode Island struck a blow that would reverberate around the globe when England granted the colony a charter that for the first time in the modern world put in place a government that granted absolute religious freedom to its people.

The colonial charter of 1663 carried out the wishes of Roger Williams, our state’s first white settler, and was remarkable in an age marred by wars of religion and the persecution of people for their religious beliefs.

Now, our state is poised to celebrate Rhode Island’s role in the evolution of human and religious freedom with discussion, song and reflection. On June 22nd, the State House will open its doors for a public event featuring a lecture from author John Barry, the Providence native whose book, `Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul’ has coaxed Williams and the 1663 charter into the national consciousness. After Barry’s lecture, there will be a big gala at the Roger Williams Memorial National Park a few hundred yards from the capitol where the air will fill with music and Native American drumming.

It is long past time that the charter, which sits unobtrusively under glass outside the state Senate chamber, gets its perch of honor in McKim, Mead and White’s masterpiece that is our Statehouse. The charter in June will have its own mini-museum at the capitol alongside exhibits that explain the glorious heritage of our state’s pivotal place in the development of individual rights and democracy.

Every Rhode Island school child learns about Williams, the religious dissenter who was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because he preached against the theocentric Puritans who ruled early Boston. But in our age of historical illiteracy, too few Rhode Islanders know or understand the significance of Williams or the enduring relevance of his views.

Williams was a devout Christian, a minister who took theology seriously and was a biblical scholar. He was also a clergyman, rare in his era, who thought believers could interpret God for themselves.

His famous dictum was that ``Forced religion stinks in the nostrils of God.’’

Williams established a colony that would have no established church, unlike European countries. He erected a strict wall between church and state 150 years before this theory would be enshrined in the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Williams wasn’t worried that entwining church with state would tarnish the government. Rather he believed that government interference in religion or endorsement of any individual faith would inevitably pollute religion. Without state sanction of religion, Williams was allowed to set up a government that derived its legitimacy and authority from the people, not from God or a divine right monarch.

So Rhode Island became the New World’s first democracy that had no established church. Having no state supported church meant that no faith would be set above another.

Thus Rhode Island became a refuge for dissenters of all stripes. Williams compared Rhode Island to a ship on which all religious believers – or those who had no belief at all – would be represented. The ship’s captain could mandate anything that was necessary for passenger safety but could not bar religious liberty.

The result was a dynamic colony that welcomed everyone, including Jews, Ranters, Muslims, Quakers and atheists. People who respected each other would find a haven in Rhode Island, which evolved into a prosperous trading colony that became a magnet for immigrants from around the world. And Williams, unlike other American colonists, valued good relations with natives. ``It shall not be lawful for the rest of the colonies to invade or molest the native Indians,’’ stated Rhode Island’s first Constitution.

Too often, religious freedom continues is more hope than reality. As we scan our nation and world, religion is still too often a kindling for violence, war and the coarse debates that inflame our politics.

When our nation’s founders wrote the U.S. Consitution, that remarkable government document that has served our country through a devastating Civil War, depressions, world wars, immigration and massive societal changes, they didn’t mention the word God once. Which is one reason it has endured through the ages.

There is no better time that the present to reflect on and celebrate our small state’s huge role in shaping the nation that continues to attract people from around the globe.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard at 6:35 and 8:35 every Monday on Morning Edition and at 5:50 on all Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at