Nation’s founders debated ‘soul liberty’

Sunday, August 8, 1999

Not since the days of Massachusetts Bay Colony has the place of the Ten Commandments in public life been so hotly debated in America.

Last month, the fight centered on the vote in the U.S. House of Representatives to give states the right to post the Commandments in public buildings — including public schools. The House action followed on the heels of conflicts in many parts of the nation about putting the Commandments in courtrooms, city halls and other places of government.

Now, in a new twist, Ogden City, Utah, is being sued for prohibiting a religion called “Summum” from putting its monument up next to a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds surrounding the municipal building.

Summum, a recent movement founded by someone who calls himself “Amen,” claims to reconcile “religion, science, and philosophy.” In light of Summum's focus on such things as the “meditation of sexual ecstasy” and “the art of mummification,” it's hardly surprising that the mayor of Ogden refuses to put the movement's monument next to the Ten Commandments.

But the underlying issue isn't the validity of Summum — or of any religion. The issue is government involvement in religion. Should Ogden City be allowed to put up any religious monument? If so, can the city then refuse to allow other monuments to be erected?

This is just the latest round in that perennial battle over the proper relationship of church and state in America. It all started with the 17th-century argument between John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Bay, and that trouble-making minister, Roger Williams.

Winthrop envisioned a “city upon a hill” where church and state worked together to carry out their covenant with God. New England was to be a “new Israel,” a Holy Commonwealth ruled by divine law as set forth in the Bible.

Echoes of Winthrop's views can be heard in the arguments of those Americans in our own time who see government's acknowledgement of God and the Bible as essential to our nation's moral and spiritual well-being. The principles of the Ten Commandments, says the mayor of Ogden, “reflect the moral base on which Ogden City has been developed.”

Williams, of course, would have no quarrel with those who advocate living by the Ten Commandments. He was, in fact, more deeply religious than most of his fellow Puritans. But his reading of scripture convinced him that God had not chosen the authorities of Massachusetts — or of any government — to establish the divine kingdom on earth.

Williams viewed any involvement of the state in religion as an invasion of the “garden of the church” by the “wilderness of the world.” Such involvement — no matter how minimal — would be contrary to divine will and would lead to defilement of the church.

In today's debate over the posting of scripture by government, John Winthrop would enthusiastically support efforts by congressmen, mayors and judges to promote the Ten Commandments.

And Roger Williams would vehemently counter that the New Testament forbids “imposing upon the soul of the people a religion, a worship, a ministry.” The state, he would say, must do everything possible to protect “soul liberty,” the freedom of each individual to follow his or her own conscience in matters of faith.

But isn't posting the Ten Commandments an “important tool to promote morality,” as one congressman argues?

“No,” Williams would surely reply, the first table of the Commandments (the first four laws) concerns worship of God — a matter well beyond the purview of government.

Williams favored persuasion over coercion in matters of faith, and he trusted that God would ultimately prevail.

The colony of Rhode Island — founded by Williams as a “haven for the cause of conscience” — was filled with all kinds of religious expression competing in the marketplace of ideas.

Williams didn't like much of what he heard in the public square of Rhode Island, especially from the Quakers, whose beliefs he considered dangerously wrong. But he refused to use the engine of government to promote his religion over others. As he put it: “God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state.”

By contrast, the public square of Massachusetts Bay — much like the grounds of the municipal building in Ogden — was a place where the government proclaimed one religion and disallowed others.

Under the First Amendment, America is supposed to resemble the colony of Rhode Island, not Massachusetts Bay. For both religious and civic reasons, Roger Williams was right: The churches and synagogues of Ogden City are the guardians and promoters of the Ten Commandments. City officials are the guardians of “soul liberty.”