Roger Williams: Did this Gentle Man Plant a Seed for the American Revolution?

Statue of Roger Williams at Roger Williams University, Bristol, Rhode Island. No one knows how Roger Williams original looked like, so the sculptor used another, more recent, Williams as a model.

Statue of Roger Williams at Roger Williams University, Bristol, Rhode Island.
Yes, that’s Ted Williams’ face.

Hear me out:  The concept of the separation of church and state is so deeply embedded in the American psyche that it was a catalyst that led not only to independence, but to American democracy itself.

Jefferson hardly invented the “wall of separation” phrase that’s in his famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.  He very appropriately repeated a phrase that was first uttered by Roger Williams in the 1640s.

Unable to come to an accommodation with the intolerant Puritans in Massachusetts (actually he fled from them), Williams obtained a charter from England with the intention to build a colony with a “hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes (sic) of the world.”

Rhode Island was born.

Let’s think about that. Jefferson well knew who first uttered that phrase one hundred and sixty or so years before, as probably did the congregants of Danbury Baptist.

The concept of a separation of church and state was well known in 1802.  And well it should have been. It took some time for Williams’ seed of religious liberty to sprout outside of Rhode Island, but when it did…


That seed sprouted into the First Great Awakening.

The First Great Awakening was a religious movement that burned through the American colonies in the first half of the 18th century. At its core, it was a popular reaction against the theocracies that established authoritarian states in several New England colonies.   The common people insisted that they reserve the right to choose for themselves how they worshipped.  They won that contest against the theocrats, and won pretty handily at that.  In so doing, they built a resilient wall of separation between church and state.

No more theocracy:  The power of religion lay with the people and not the state.

From thereon in, the people of New England were psychologically prepared to rebel against unabridged authority, be it religious or political.

It was no coincidence that where the First Great Awakening initially caught fire, where the people rebelled against theocracy so they could worship in their own way, was also the land where British troops were first fired upon.

Hence Roger Williams, possibly the gentlest settler who walked the early American colonies, in his example of religious tolerance and protection for individual religious belief, greatly contributed to the defiant mindset (“Don’t tread on me”)  that eventually led to the American Revolution.

Certainly his principle of a “hedge or wall of Separation”designed to protect individual religious belief lives on today 370 years later. This wall is much older than Thomas Jefferson.

Today’s extremists, ignorant of this grand history, will continue to try to knock down this powerful wall that is so deeply embedded in the American character. In the long run, they’re not going to get very far with their muddleheaded quest.

Like those long ago New England colonists who battled for religious freedom, today’s Americans won’t let anyone take that freedom away from them.

Yes, these radical muddleheads will create chaos and pain in the attempt at weakening or destroying this wall.

But succeed?

I don’t think so.

A fine series on Roger Williams and his powerful but largely forgotten impact on today’s world is available on YouTube via the Center for Liberty of Conscience here:


Clerics for the Poor

Christ of Maryknoll by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Christ of Maryknoll by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

The recent accession of Pope Francis reminds me of the South American bishops and priests who fought for the rights of those in deep penury in the 1960s and 70s. These were the days of the “slum bishop” Helder Camara, the late archbishop of Recife, Brazil. Camara lived among the poor, dressed very humbly, and refused to live in the bishop’s house or even drive a car. A true ascetic, he lived in the slums themselves, founding, among many other things, a bank for the poor. The dictatorship hired an assassin to murder the him. The assassin, on seeing the bishop’s humble abode in the slums, refused to kill him, and in fact, asked for for a confession! He was one of the many brave priests and nuns who were hated by parties ranging from brutal military dictatorships to conservative sects within Catholicism that, against their very faith, defended the wealthy well before the poor.

During those days, a contemporary of Camera, a theologian and Dominican priest named Frei Betto was arrested by the dictatorship and tortured. As he recounted in his memoir, during the torture sessions, they asked him, “How can a Christian collaborate with a communist?”

He replied, “For me, men are not divided into believers and atheists, but between oppressors and oppressed, between those who want to keep this unjust society and those who want to struggle for justice.”

They responded, “Have you forgotten that Marx considered religion to be the opium of the people?”

He responded, “It is the bourgeoisie which has turned religion into an opium of the people by preaching a God, lord of the heavens only, while taking possession of the earth for itself.”

Pope Francis certainly isn’t as radical as Betto. It’s obvious, though, that this deep concern for the poor is part of this priest’s very nature. Such concern is further indicated by his contributions to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace on the Global Economy, where the Vatican makes it quite clear, especially through a recent publication that went nearly unreported, that libertarian teachings on the economy (also known as the “Austrian School”) are anathema to Catholicism. Indeed the document calls for a global regulating economic body to tame the more destructive elements of capitalism that cause great harm especially to those living in poverty.

Note: The document decries European “liberalism.” In Europe, the term “liberal” is synonymous with the American term “libertarian”. An American “liberal” is certainly not a European “liberal” by any means. The document is diplomatic but direct on the harm that libertarianism poses to society.

An excellent article on the release of the above document by the Rev Tom Reese, S.J.:

How Much Longer Can The Radical Right Ignore Positive Liberty?

Isaiah Berlin

Von Mises even went so far to insist that true democracy was via money spent and not votes. He effectively argued that “one dollar, one vote” was more effective and preferable than “one man (sic) one vote”. To sort of quote Mises: “a society in which every penny represents a ballot is a capitalist society”.

Think of the implications of that philosophy. That *is* what is believed by many powerful people in government today, from Scalia to Clarence Thomas to Paul Ryan to Alan Greenspan- that money *is* democracy.

It’s no wonder that they are in love with the Citizen’s United decision. It fulfills such a world view of what most people outside of their bubble would call a twisted idea of democracy. One where the more money one has, the more “freedom” one has to express oneself.

Yeah, I know…that’s nuts. But that’s what they believe.

These gentlemen of the Austrian school also argued that work is only useful if it produces goods that consumers wish to purchase. They despise the progressive principle that work is necessary for human dignity and that it can be a means of self-realization.

In fact, all of them – Friedman, Von Mises, Hayek, including today’s Alan Greenspan and his crop of libertarians, insisted and insist on recognizing only one kind of freedom – what Isaiah Berlin called “negative liberty”- the freedom to act without constraints.

The folks who adhere to this school of economic philosophy – of economic ideology, really,- insist that there is no such thing as another kind of liberty. The only liberty that exists to them is the one that means that they can act free from constraints. Or, to use GOP vernacular, “free from regulation”.

This *other* kind of freedom was recognized, effectively, by Aristotle, and for that matter, in the writings of Moses and expressed in ancient Judaic law. It was recognized and taught by greats such as Augustine and Aquinas. Yes, even the Catholic Church’s social teachings since the 1890s have recognized this liberty in its modern sense. FDR preached it, too, even reading aloud Catholic social justice tracts verbatim. The Protestant Social Gospel movements of the early 20th century recognized this non-negative freedom as well.

Isaiah Berlin termed it “positive liberty”.

It’s the freedom towards self realization that often comes from selflessly serving one another and society at large. Such self-realization requires available employment. It requires opportunity through affordable education. It requires health care for all so that people can work towards their personal goals.

It’s the freedom to work with a living wage- that is, to work a work week and be able to feed one’s family.

It’s the freedom to breath clean air and drink clean water.

These, and many others, are freedoms -liberties- too.

They’re positive liberties. And we must protect and cherish them. Guard them with all of our beings, if necessary.

Most libertarians hate even the concept of positive liberty, as after all, Ayn Rand wrote a book called “The Virtue of Selfishness”. Some libertarians do recognize it, but only as an inferior to their interpretation of negative liberty. It is assuredly *not* an inferior in any sense.

Positive liberty is the freedom towards self-realization that can only come from a healthy society. FDR, for example, described positive liberty in terms of “freedom from fear and freedom from hunger”

College students recognize it when they marched on Wall Street. They recognized that the greed of Wall Street is damaging their rights towards self realization. That the imbalances created by greed are badly infringing their positive liberties in the forms of self realization and opportunity.

Do the college kids use my words? No- but I bet they wouldn’t disagree with me.

It’s’ becoming more and more obvious that Wall Street’s grasping for more and more and more negative liberty is crowding out everyone else’s right for positive liberty.

As far as I’m concerned, another way to define “positive liberty” is, well, to use an old fashioned phrase, “the American Dream”. People can define that dream however they want- as an education, or as owning a house, or perhaps a successful business.

To me, though, all of those concrete desires come down to the positive concept of liberty, that is, the freedom of opportunity and of self realization.

That is why so many people perceive the “American Dream” as being in trouble. To use my words, they perceive that our positive liberties are endangered.

And they are quite correct in their perception.

“And Yet, It Moves”

GalileiMany extreme GOPers are so emotionally attached to the notion that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Pell Grants, etc. can’t work that they refuse to accept that they do work, and work better than privatizing them.

Imagine if, similarly, these same people were emotionally attached to the belief that airplanes can’t fly. They’d propound as gospel the old mathematical proof that airplanes can’t fly.

Even if someone like Galileo proved to them that they DO fly by pointing at them flying above their very heads and said to them, “Eppur si muove” (“And yet it moves”).

I don’t like Mondays


Brenda Spencer- long ago

Remember the teen girl in the 1970s named Brenda Spencer that murdered those schoolchildren and inspired the song, “I Don’t Like Mondays“?

I came across some fine observations by Laura L. Lovett is an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst on this past rampage and how it relates to Newtown today.  Lovett is a founding co-editor of the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth.

To quote her CNN blog entry:

“Comparing Spencer’s and Lanza’s attacks on small children and school staff members, we begin to see that these terrible episodes are more than an expression of a male-dominated culture of violence.

Much more salient are the facts that Spencer and Lanza both came from homes with ready access to guns and massive amounts of ammunition. Both had parents that celebrated gun use, and both appear to have been psychologically troubled.”

Access the full entry by Lovett here: