On the heels of our day to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., comes a little known Religious Freedom Day to remember the commitment that anchors our Bill of Rights in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Many of us can recite the words — “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
The date of January 16 was chosen for this day because it is the anniversary of the adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on January 16, 1786. Most Americans trace this fundamental right to Thomas Jefferson, the author of this resolution, but as John M. Barry has recently pointed out in Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul (2012), the long road to religious freedom in this country begins with Roger Williams.
In reading through Barry’s vigorous and well-documented narrative, I gained a new appreciation of this founding American figure, who is one of my ancestors on my mother’s side. Whether through DNA, family heritage, or cultural transmission I can see how my own work continues many of the ideas and values that inspired Williams. Moreover, the conflicts and commitments in which he struggled are as heated and important today as they were in his time. Indeed, I am also descended from those who contested with him in seventeenth-century America. Their controversy still echoes in conversations within myself as well as among my fellow citizens.
Williams and his wife Mary fled the religious and political persecution of Charles I and Archbishop William Laud and arrived in Boston in the winter of 1631, where he began serving as a minister in the small community that John Winthrop had just begun as a “citty upon a hill” to spread God’s Word and Law as a beacon to the world. In Williams’ subsequent resistance to the authoritarian religiosity of Winthrop’s “citty,” his eventual banishment from Salem into a winter storm, and his founding of the “plantation” that would become the state of Rhode Island we find the essential controversy over the meaning of religious liberty in this country.
On the one hand stands the freedom to create a holy community without outside interference. This was Winthrop’s colony of Massachusetts Bay. On the other hand is the freedom to follow the dictates of one’s own soul, unhindered by either religious or political authority. This is the freedom Williams sought, first in fleeing England, then in escaping the authority of Massachusetts and founding not only Rhode Island Plantation but also the first Baptist Church in America. It is a freedom he sought in leaving the Baptist church he founded to be a seeker, often in a remarkable companionship with the Wampanoags, Narragansetts and other Algonquin tribes whose language he learned and whose culture he esteemed.
The religious freedom Williams sought for each soul soon led to a defense of the political equality of all persons, including the Natives whose land, he held, was being unjustly taken from them and should only be settled with due compensation to them, the rightful owners of the land. Thus, Williams anchored political liberty in religious liberty. Just as religious liberty requires the civil liberties that his mentor Edward Coke saw as the core heritage of the English people, so it also requires that no “established” religion could dominate the civil order and require a religious conformity that violates the dictates of the soul’s own leading.
The conflict between Winthrop’s desire for the freedom to be a holy community and Williams’s search for freedom to follow the soul’s requirements has riven our common life ever since. In Winthrop’s mind, Williams’s commitment to soul liberty would finally undermine the common good anchored in the Puritan’s covenant with God. In Williams’s mind, Winthrop’s demand for conformity could only result in the damned hypocrisy of an outward show of religion devoid of its inner truth.
There is no simple way out of this controversy. The seemingly trivial conflict, now before our Supreme Court, over whether a baker must violate his soul’s dictate and sell a cake to a gay couple, is only a debased expression of it. Williams’s struggle for soul liberty was always an effort to reach a higher ethic of respect for the “Savages” whose hospitality saved his life, and for the refugees as well as scoundrels who flocked to Rhode Island for a new life. Soul liberty deepened the longing for community and truthfulness underlying any common good. There could be no common good without the integrity of the souls of the community’s citizens.
Williams’s “soul liberty” has indeed been widely debased into the freedom to fear the other, pursue self-interest, and ignore the inherent dignity and soul liberty of others. The holy commonwealth of Winthrop has likely been debased into “America first” and an arrogant disdain for the reasoned opinions of the world. However, Winthrop’s vision still asks whether America will indeed be a city of refuge for those fleeing oppression or simply a self-interested, greedy, and huckster-filled marketplace dominated by the code of caveat emptor. Likewise, Williams’s appeal to soul liberty still stands as an invitation to pursue a personal vocation of deep communion with God, with the strangers around us and with the land itself, on which we depend for our very life.