Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Remembering Roger Williams

Reason magazine's November issue contains a fine article entitled "Remembering Roger Williams: What the father of Rhode Island can still teach us".

While I cannot argue with the substance of their assessment of Roger Williams, I vehemently disagree with their characterization of Providence as a "grim port town whose main growth industry is serving as the backdrop for gross-out comedies by the Farrelly brothers". I would also highly dispute that the religious climate in this country resembles that which Roger Williams dealt with in Massachusetts, where Puritan mores literally were the law, and dissent was punishable by extraordinary corporal measures. It goes without saying that the most religious state in America, Utah, is far more secular today than Roger Williams' Rhode Island was in the 17th century.

The point, however, was clear: Rhode Island was the first colony on earth founded on the principle that religion and politics need to be separated for the protection of both institutions, and Roger Williams further proved the point that such a separation was not only possible, but desireable. Without Roger Williams, the establishment cause of the US constitution would probably not exist, and the United States, like nearly every European nation to this day, would probably have a state church.

Roger Williams' bold plan also provided the framework for religious pluralism in America, providing a foothold for Jews, Quakers, Catholics and others at a time when Puritan exclusivity was the rule, and when the sovereign of the American colonies pulled double duty as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. America's first Baptist church and first synagogue could not have existed anywhere else but Rhode Island at the time.

Reason correctly identifies his legacy as an underappreciated one, so let's give the man some of his overdue props, shall we?

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