Freedom of religion must be for everyone

Sunday, November 1, 1998

Roger Williams would have been stunned by the praise heaped on him last week in Rhode Island, the colony he founded more than 350 years ago. The university named for Williams unveiled his statue and declared him a hero — a “champion of democracy and freedom in the American colonies.”

The reputation of the eccentric Puritan minister, who irritated just about everybody with his uncompromising views, has come a long way. When he died in the late 17th century, there were no processions and little public outpouring of praise or grief. So quiet was his burial, and so little noted, that even the date of his death and the site of his grave have been lost to history. Hardly a hero.

Today, however, Williams' achievement looms large. In a revolutionary break with the past, he founded the first society with no established church and the first place in the New World to protect what he called “soul liberty” for people of all faiths or none.

By contrast, the Puritans of Massachusetts banished Williams for arguing that what God required of them was that “a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries.” Civil authorities, he declared, must not interfere with religion; they must allow all people the liberty to follow their conscience in matters of faith.

The exiled Williams created “a haven for the cause of conscience” that drew dissenters, Jews, persecuted religious sects and others not welcome elsewhere. The charter of Rhode Island calls this a “lively experiment.” Lively it was, and lively it remains today.

Few people in the 17th century imagined that Williams' radical experiment would succeed; most thought that it was dangerous and wrong. When a boatload of Quakers was turned away from New Amsterdam in 1643, someone asked the clergy of that colony where the Quakers would go. The clergy replied:

“We suppose they went to Rhode Island, for that is the receptacle of all sorts of riff-raff people and is nothing less than the sewer of New England. All of the cranks retire thither. They are not tolerated in any other place.”

The rejection of the “riff-raff” might well have become the model for the United States. (There are some Americans today who hope it still might.) After all, throughout history in many nations of the world, the stranger and the new arrival have been met with hostility and fear.

But fortunately for religious liberty, it was not New Amsterdam or Massachusetts Bay Colony but that tiny “sewer of New England” that became the model for the United States under the First Amendment.

The model doesn't require that we all agree on religion (how could we?) or that we “accept” religions we find offensive. It does require that we take responsibility for guarding the rights of others, even others with whom we deeply disagree.

Williams himself provided a great example of how this arrangement should work. When he was advanced in years and unwell, he rowed across the river some 30 miles in order to debate the Quakers publicly one last time. For four days he argued passionately against Quaker beliefs and was heckled for his trouble. This was the same Roger Williams who had founded a place where Quakers could practice their faith openly and freely, without fear of persecution.

That's what the First Amendment is all about: protecting the religious-liberty rights of all and then arguing on behalf of the truth in the marketplace of ideas.

Today most Americans are proud of this experiment in liberty, as messy and even risky as it often is. When Roger Williams' statue was unveiled last week, the vigorous applause came not just from the Baptists, whose first church in America was co-founded by Williams. Nor was it only from the Jews, who found full freedom in Rhode Island after centuries of persecution throughout Europe. Applause rang out also from the Catholics (now the majority in the state), from the Muslims and from others whose religious beliefs Williams rejected, but whose religious liberty he fought tirelessly to secure.

The “lively experiment” is alive and well. That's why for the millions of people throughout the world who still seek “soul liberty,” the United States of America remains another name for freedom.