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:


Great Quote by St. Augustine

“Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth.”

Is it Possible to be a Republican and a Catholic?

It’s difficult for me to get my arms around a yes or no answer on that one as the term “Republican” is the label for a coalition of groups on the “Right” side of the aisle. Those groups have a range of goals and foundational beliefs, ranging from moderate conservative (with close relations to the original Nixon/Rockefeller Republicans) to the extreme atheist libertarian elements.  Similarly, the term “Democrat” encompasses an even greater range of groups, ranging from secular humanists to Irish Catholic Democrats to the fiscally conservative Bluedog Democrats.

Regarding Republican-Catholic compatibility, the question is much more answerable from the perspective of “Catholic Conservative” and “Catholic Libertarian”, as there’s no denying that libertarianism has become the dominant force within the Republican Party today.  Such libertarianism is a strange bedfellow indeed for evangelical or Roman Catholic conservatives, to be sure, but a bedfellow nevertheless.

That there’s a significant difference between conservatism and libertarianism, is inarguable. Neither is it worth debating that while the libertarian strain is now dominant (read Tea Party, Paul Ryan, Ron and Rand Paul, and yes, to an extent, Rick Santorum), there still exists elements of the once-dominant moderate conservatives in the tradition of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. As much as GOP purists disparage Dewey Eisenhower and Nixon, with one ultraconservative once telling me at a dinner that Nixon wasn’t a “real Republican”, the reality is that Nixon and Eisenhower did something that followers of more extreme ideologies such as Goldwater couldn’t do: Win a national election.

These once dominant conservatives are the people who, to paraphrase Joe Biden, used to say, “Me too, but less” regarding progressive initiatives.  They’re the ones who brought forward the national highway system (Eisenhower and a Republican Congress pulled that one off- something FDR wanted and couldn’t get done), the EPA (Nixon did indeed approve the EPA; he basically said, “yes, but less” as he made the agency less powerful than what the Democratic Congress wanted), and these conservatives brought forward the War on Cancer, which was another Nixonian initiative as Nixon hoped curing cancer would be something similar to inventing a polio vaccine- nevertheless, this war on cancer that continues on has saved innumerable lives.  All of these initiatives demonstrate a concern for the common welfare.

This conservative school of thought also brought forward the current Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s system of mandated universal health care with mandated coverage via private health insurers.  Such a system was originally proposed by Richard Nixon in the 1970s.  This was and *is* a conservative idea. Nixon offered it to Edward Kennedy as an alternative to a single payer system- an idea that Kennedy rejected. A rejection Kennedy regretted to his dying day, calling it the biggest mistake in his political career.

It was GW Bush and a conservative-dominated Republican Party that pushed through Medicare Part D in 2003.  I have *huge* problems with Medicare Part D, mostly because a program more expensive than Social Security was irresponsibly voted through by the GOP without a way of funding it- but that’s another conversation.

Back to mandated health insurance: Such mandated coverage is *not* a libertarian idea, of course, as libertarians reject the concept of government promoting the general welfare, and here’s where we come up on the rub of the struggle in today’s Republican Party.

“Conservatism” takes its roots from the desire to “conserve” traditional values and mores. Towards this end, they embrace limited government (*not* “small” government as so many mistakenly say – but limited government- an altogether different notion). They also embrace such traditional values as self-determination and the rights of the individual versus the larger society. Encompassed within those values are the obligations of the individual to society at large so as to contribute to the common good (the “common good” is largely an original Catholic concept)- to pay fair taxes so as to balance budgets, to help the poor towards dignified self-sufficiency and to, in general, promote the general welfare, including the stewardship of the environment and natural resources so as to make those resources available to future generations. It was the Republican Theodore Roosevelt, after all, who made major strides towards conservationism.

At this level, such conservatism is hardly at odds with progressive values- heck- Theodore Roosevelt, Republican that he was, had no problems calling himself a “progressive”. In fact, there is significant overlap of true conservative and progressive values, as strange as that sounds in today’s polarized political climate. This overlap accounts for the political compromises that enabled real societal progress of the USA over the last eighty years. I submit that at this level, conservatism has more in common with progressive thought than it does with libertarianism.

What’s happening today in front of our very eyes, as mentioned above, is the supremacy of libertarianism within the GOP. This is an altogether new happening.  It isn’t happening with just one candidate,  such as Barry Goldwater in 1964, but throughout the nation, and what’s more, to add to this new event, it’s strangely melding with an extremist version of fundamentalist, apocalyptic Christianity.  This melding is all the more strange as the most radical forms of libertarianism follow Ayn Rand’s atheistic creed where selfishness and competition are made virtues.

Many believe that libertarianism is a subset of conservatism, that is, an extreme form of conservatism. I strongly disagree.   Libertarianism is *not* conservatism, as many conservatives from Eisenhower to Nixon would attest.  Certainly Bill Buckley, if he was alive today, would make a hard and fast distinction between conservatism and libertarianism.

The relationship is one of some overlap, but not of a parent-child relationship. Libertarianism embraces a completely deregulated economy- something that I submit is at odds with conservative traditional values to minimally regulate the economy so as to maintain a stable society and business environment- minimal regulations to be sure- but regulations nonetheless, and embodied by such organizations as the Securities Exchange Commission, for starters, but also via such the Federal Reserve. This is born out by the fact that most of the chairmen of the Federal Reserve have been…Republican. Yes- the Fed was a Democratic-invented institution brought forward in 1913. However, in recent history, it’s been run, mostly, by Republicans who have no philosophical issue with a centrally-managed banking system that promotes a stable business environment. Such central management, while tolerable to many conservatives if it promotes that stable business environment, is anathema to libertarianism, Alan Greenspan not withstanding.  Think of Ron Paul’s near obsessive “End the Fed” campaign. Ron Paul’s main opponents to “End the Fed”?  An informal coalition of progressives and conservatives.

Libertarians would have had no *philosophical* issue with the USA falling into a deep depression in 2008. As per their Hayek- and von Mises- led economic beliefs, most libertarians would see such a depression as a “lessons learned” for businesses. While some libertarians would show great personal compassion towards the suffering caused by a depression, philosophically, they would have let it happen.

Conservatism, in the case of the 2008 recession brought forward by GW Bush, saw that allowing such a depression was at cross purposes to the conservative value of promoting the general welfare, and acted, in concert with Democrats, against such a calamity via approving hundreds of billions in TARP monies, sending billions in support to the American auto industry to ward off the loss of jobs for millions (the first batch of $$$ to the auto companies was a GW Bush-led effort), and supporting the Federal Reserve’s actions when the Fed granted no-interest and low-interest loans worldwide to prevent a global banking collapse. It’s not well publicized, but the Fed loaned well over at least $4 trillion -that’s “trillion”- to banks worldwide to prevent a widespread banking collapse- some accounts peg the amount as something like $14 trillion in interest-free loans.  Ron Paul can scream “End the Fed” until his face turns blue, but without the Fed’s actions in this arena, the ensuing depression may have made the 1930s Great Depression look small.

Catholic social teaching – which I must reemphasize, again, is mandatory for all Catholics, teaches the “whats”, that is, the requirements. It requires from all Catholics respect for life in all its forms, from an aversion to abortion all the way to a strong opposition to the death penalty. The teaching continues with respect for the dignity of work, unions, and collective bargaining rights. It continues with a societal preference for the poor, with such basic necessities as food, clothing, education, and health care available to all.  On it continues with strong teachings toward a preference for an equitable distribution of goods (the Catholic “universal destination of goods” which teaches that the economy exists to promote the common good). It focuses especially in regard to the just distribution of goods to those in poverty -yes- that’s exactly what is taught in the Catholic teachings of distributive justice. The interrelated concepts of subsidiarity and solidarity are crucial to these formulas. Our responsibilities toward stewardship of the environment are strongly emphasized, which means controls to ensure clean water to drink, and pure air to breathe.  It means listening with respect the scientists who tell us that our climate is changing.

Church teachings emphasize over and again that while it instructs regarding the “what”, for obvious reasons, these teachings don’t bring forward the “how”.  If conservatives can bring forward workable “hows”, then God bless them. I’m all ears, and I submit, all parties, from every side so the political aisle, should be open minded to all suggestions as to how to attain these ends, no matter from what quarter.

That said about conservatism, after much consideration and study, I fail to see how libertarianism, with a competing set of “whats” – a competing set of requirements at cross purposes to Catholic Social Teaching- is compatible with Catholicism.

So – can a true-blue (pun intended) conservative Republican be a Catholic? Sure, if he or she adheres to the requirements of Catholic Social Teaching, the major tenants of which are stated above.  After all, anyone can join the Republican Party, just as anyone can join the Democratic Party.

Can a *libertarian* Republican be a Catholic? I fail to see how that’s possible. Catholicism is a social and communal religion that emphasizes the importance of the community versus the individual.  It also emphasizes the need for government assistance to the poor (it certainly does- I can write a book about how the USCCB says it can’t do things alone and needs government help to assist the poor).   Such communalism and the view that on the whole, government is a vehicle of the good, is anathema to libertarians.  Furthermore, Catholic teaching states over and again that there is no such thing as a solitary Catholic. Even Catholic hermits have a societal obligation.

Libertarianism, by its very nature, is an individual, near-anarchic movement that rejects even the notion of societal requirements.  Libertarianism has no room for John Paul II’s “social mortgage” requirements on all levels of society.  At best, when forced into a corner, libertarianism narrowly and inaccurately defines society only in terms of the individual – usually labeling society a “collection of individuals”.   Just as there is no such thing as a solitary Catholic, there is no such thing as a communal libertarian as the core of libertarianism is extreme individualism.   Where libertarianism defines extreme individualism and even selfishness as virtues, such hyper-individualism and selfishness is considered by Catholicism as a sinful state.  The concepts of Catholicism and libertarianism are truly and obviously at odds with one another.

Can a Google search find people who label themselves Catholic libertarians?  Absolutely. That doesn’t mean that they’re right, or for that matter, philosophically honest. Even a quick study of what is written by these folks shows that these self-professed Catholic libertarians try to twist one belief into fitting into another – such as weird attempts to marry Ayn Rand’s hatred of the poor as “takers’ and “parasites” with Jesus’ message of “bringing good news to the poor” and His teachings regarding the dangers of wealth. But each and every one of these “marry Catholicism to libertarianism” attempts are fantastical, gymnastic attempts to, well, grow oranges on the sun while performing a ballet. Doesn’t work and looks really silly from the outside.

This is well borne by the recent document by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace on the Global Economy. That document made it quite clear that libertarianism and its adherence to the Austrian School of economics is fundamentally at odds with Catholic economic teachings. Whenever Ron Paul says (and really he does say this), “We are all Austrians”, he’s referring to the Austrian School of economics. Whenever he says this, whether he knows it or not, whether he admits it or not, whether he’s even capable of understanding it or not, he’s taking a direct shot at Catholicism.

So- conservative Republican Catholics – sure, of course they can exist, and as long as they adhere to the requirements of Catholic Social Teaching (again, see above), they can be considered “good” Catholics.   I will submit that being a Republican while adhering to the major tenants of CST is a *hard* thing to do in today’s polarized political climate, where Republican presidential nomination debates feature such horrible events as loud cheers for a governor holding a record in the number of executions under his watch, or shouts of “Yeah!” to a question of letting a man die who doesn’t have health insurance.

It must be especially hard outside of the northeastern USA.  In many areas outside of that zone, support for the death penalty is strong, the poor are blamed for being poor, and long regarded basic protections for the environment are cast as “socialism”.

But libertarian Republican Catholics? No, such animal exists, as much as some may insist on it. The phrase itself is an oxymoron.

Hence I suggest, and suggest with all seriousness, that the greater political adversary to Republican Catholics are not their Democratic Catholic brethren, but the libertarianism that strikes at the very heart of traditional Judeo-Christian values.  Christ taught the story of the Good Samaritan, a parable in direct contrast to that shout of affirmation during a Republican presidential debate in regard to letting a man die simply because he lacks health insurance.

The time is coming to decide what side you stand on:  Do you stand with the Good Samaritan?  Or do you stand with that man who shouted “Yeah” to letting a sick man die because he lacks health insurance?

Like a Prayer

Just some quick thoughts about this year’s Superbowl halftime show. One of the last songs that Madonna presented was, “Like a Prayer”. I well remember the controversy swirling around the video in the late 1980s. To this day, I’m stunned that people who profess their Catholicism can have so little understanding of the very nature and power of their faith.

I ran across a blog entry recently that discusses the song and video very well; I’ve linked it below. It focuses more on a comparison of Lady Gaga and Madonna, where I’m focused more on a source of true power in faith, but it’s a good write and a good read. What I most appreciated was the quote from Fr. Andrew Greeley, who I remember was appreciative of the message of the video,as he wrote in America magazine once upon a time:

“…only for the prurient and the sick who come to the video determined to read their own twisted sexual hang-ups into it. Only for those who think that sexual passion is an inappropriate metaphor for divine passion (and thus are pretty hard on Hosea, Jesus, Saint Paul, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and Saint Teresa of Avila).”

Here’s the great link: