Part III. The Religious Right as Deja Vu

The chart here summarizing the comparisons studied in this paper could have been anticipated by those who have followed the argument to this point. In Cotton's society his views were prevailing. Church blended with state and state with church in a way few but Roger Williams questioned.

A century later, while a remnant of this Puritan fusion remained with North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland having Anglican establishments; the Congregational Church being established in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire; and New York; the society had become more diverse, switching established allegiance from the Dutch Reformed to the Anglican Church,109 nonetheless the Puritan hegemony was gone. The theocracy did not spread to take over the continent as Marshall would have hoped. The covenant no longer served as a means of consensual decision making in New England towns, being replaced by the traditional majoritarian method. Kenneth Lockridge chronicles the changes in New England which led to its transformation from the feudal, corporate and organic nature of its Puritanism towards the more individualistic, contractual, pluralistic society of Madison's time, and our time.110

 

The Declining Virtue of America Political Society as It Would Be Drawn and Perceived by the Current Religious Right

GOOD High level of Organic Christianity

MEDIUM Pluralist Constitution with Christian Consensus

POOR Widespread liberal democracy with Christianity as a minority

TIME PERIOD:

The Era of Cotton and Williams--17th Century

The Era of Henry and Madison-- 18-19th Century The Religious Right--
20th-21st Century

Madison's views were gradually dispersed as leaven throughout the early American republic. From a society which knew little else but religious establishment arose a polity with no establishments and a recognition that optimal religious and political liberty might derive from a civil arrangement separate from religious power. There were pluralistic consequences to the doctrine of the separation of church and state, and Americans, for the most part, seemed to desire them. A liberal society was erected which opened a door, as Roger Williams had once tried to do in Rhode Island, to all who would come in. The epithet of "melting pot," applied to the American experiment two centuries later, was a recognition that wider public opinion favored the move than when Williams began it with Rhode Island, whose epithet was "the sewer of New England."

A Chart Measuring the Advancing Virtue of America Political Society as It Would Be Drawn and Perceived by a Champion of Liberal Democracy

GOOD High level of Religious and Political Pluralism

MEDIUM Pluralist Constitution with Christian Consensus

POOR Closed-minded Puritan Hegemony

TIME PERIOD:

The Era of Cotton and Williams--17th Century

The Era of Henry and Madison-- 18-19th Century The Religious Right--20th-21st Century

Madison was the John the Baptist between the Puritan "Old Testament," and the "New Testament" of America's modern liberal democracy, which, though beset by problems, still shines from sea to sea. The rapid move in the new Republican Congress toward some restrictive terrorist legislation in the aftermath of the terrible Oklahoma City bombing of April 1995 is being met by a cry from many quarters to not overact by tampering with civil liberties. This is continued evidence of America's liberal core, her committment to individual freedom. The New Religious Right finds itself increasingly upset with the liberal order, denouncing it as setting up a religion of "secular humanism,"111 and sharing the what Kenneth Dolbeare lists as the general conservative resentments of liberalism:

"(1) its toleration of licentious behavior by so many people; and

(2) its inability to assert a definite public interest that, if necessary, should be followed regardless of popular preferences."112

The Christian Right finds itself a minority inheritor of what had been a majoritarian tradition. This has been a difficult realization for the Right, and as they have come out of the denial stage on it (at least to the extent they have), they have formed a handful of religious liberty organizations113 which, while claiming to defend religious persecution among their ranks, actually seem to be acting in a way to try and reseurrect their former Reformation and Puritan glory days. They are not as upset that their liberty has been restricted114 as much as sad that they have lost the largest piece of the pie. It seems their desire is for power, not truth. Their defense of liberty is not the classic defense of liberty which defends liberty for all, but a jealous demand that they be given more freedom--not necessarily anybody else.115

CONCLUSION. The battle between Williams and Cotton, between Henry and Madison, between today's Religious Right and the heritage of Williams and Madison, extends beyond their time and our time, beyond their personalities and ours. The issue of religious liberty and its place in a secular (or religious) state is as important in our day as at any time in history. The war-torn former Yugoslavia is largely a stage for the playing out of present and former religious prejudices. The Croats are Catholic and the Serbs Orthodox in a rivalry continuing since the Crusades. Many adherents of Islam are in enclaves in Bosnia-Herzegovina playing out struggles with Catholic Croats and and Orthodox Serbs that go back, again, to the Crusades. Samuel Huntington, in what is becoming a pivotal essay in analyzing international relations, says that the conflicts of our time are along cultural and civilization lines, not those of class and ideology.116 He writes:

Hence the West will increasingly have to accomodate these non-Western modern civilizations whose power approaches that of the West but whose values and interests differ significantly from those of the West. This will require the West...to develop a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations and the ways in which people in those civilizations see their interests.117

Williams, who was an active missionary among the native American Indians, by being first a trusted friend to them, would certainly agree with this approach.118 This does not sound like the parochialism of Cotton, nor Henry. Lienesch casts doubts if it would be the approach of a Religious Right coming to power.119 Rhode Island welcomed all, even though Williams had very definite views that clashed with the "Turks, Jews, and infidels" whose rights he often defended. This is the attitude needed internationally. We can be sure of our position, but we still need to listen to others and give them their right to speak.

In the United States, "culture wars" are engaged full-sabre, highlighting the value-borders of America's current civil war. The warring parties are locked in hand-to-hand conflict over who will define the American future. One synopsis of the conflict would see fundamentalist Christians launching a counterrevolution, or at least writhing in reaction, to modern secularist trends. It is perhaps here that the vision of Williams, the visionary out of step with his time, can minister to our time. The religious right espouses rhetoric similar to that of John Cotton, similar to the conventional wisdom of Patrick Henry. The wisdom of Williams is often lost in the emotionalism involved in debating positions on such issues as abortion, school prayer, and homosexuality. The advance of true principles of liberty in Madison and the Fathers which can fairly be called Williamsian,120 which needed every brilliant talent of statesmanship in the Madisonian arsenal to gain a toehold and then a majoritarian embrace in the late Eighteenth Century, are at an ebb in the present debate. As the Christian Coalition, the new "party" of the New Right gains momentum, the Cottonian construction of religious liberty takes the field. But this "defense of liberty" is in disguise only. The Fox guards the hen house.

Cotton was posturing to keep the Puritan hegemony and a continuation of the Puritan power structure. He used Scripture and logic as tools to defend the existing order. Historian Robert Alley makes the same point in relation to Patrick Henry. "Henry sought to use the Baptists, along with many other groups and individuals, in his own antifederalist interests."121 The price of Cotton's order was liberty, the case of Roger Williams and his banishment being Exhibit A. The price of Henry's political sophistry, though finally defeated when the Remonstrance helped down the assessment bill, was the obfuscation of the pearl being offered by Madison.

What will be the price for the present "liberty" of the Right? The liberty espoused by the Right is more nearly a complaint that the Right is not the culturally dominant segment of the society. This was never a motive for Williams. When Williams defended religious liberty, it was a necesary and understood corollary that he was defending liberty for all. God grants freedom to all creation and it is this freedom which must be the basis for any true view of religious freedom. The founding of Rhode Island, its initial constitution which welcomed and protected all religious faiths, even the Quakers with whom Williams bitterly disputed, are the proofs of Williams' sincerity of seeking maximum security for all, not simply power for himself. Williams insisted that God's methods of persuasion were reason and the arrows of the Spirit, never real arrows, never civil penalties.

But in the Religious Right's defense of liberty is heard the echo of John Cotton saying God gives liberty only for the truth, and only for the truth as interpreted by the Puritan (or modern Puritan) hierarchy. Civil and religious restrictions are sure to hedge the way of citizens if the program of the Right is legislated. Following is a simple list of lessons from Roger Williams and James Madison which speak to the present challenge of the Religious Right in the last decade of Twentieth Century America:

1. THE BASIC CORE OF IDEAS FROM ROGER WILLIAMS AND JAMES MADISON HAS BEEN VINDICATED BY OVER TWO CENTURIES OF THE AMERICAN EXPERIMENT WITH LIBERTY. GOVERNMENT MUST PROTECT RELIGIOUS AND CIVIL LIBERTY. Williams' thought anticipated "pluralism" before the word was coined. He believed that a society with mixed persuasions could prosper and that all should be given "soul liberty" to speak and act as their consciences prompted. Christians and non-Christians alike were possessed of such conscience and it is the purpose of government to provide them a protected arena to work out their visions of conscience. America, in its founding, embodied and shared this conception, especially in its First Amendment. America's relative strength as a country is at least passive vindication of these constructs. The success of America should keep us careful to not stray far from this core of principles shared with Williams.

2. FREEDOM WHICH IS ONLY FOR THE "POLITICALLY CORRECT" OR THE "THEOLOGICALLY CORRECT" IS NOT TRUE FREEDOM. Williams' concept of freedom meant freedom for all. Though one disagree vehemently with another, there must be full acceptance of each by the other. The only weapons that should be used against those who disagree with us should be the weapons of thought, logic, persuasion, exhortation and reason. Otherwise our liberty is not that which flows from God, but that which is constrained by man--which is not liberty at all.

3. THERE SHOULD BE NO RELIGIOUS TESTS FOR HOLDING PUBLIC OFFICE. This is a portion of our Constitution built upon the firm logic of Williams and Madison that says, in the physical realm in which goverment can work, all men are capable of judicious leadership and no statement of political or religious correctness should be held out as a hedge against political participation.

4. THE FIRST AMENDMENT RELIGIOUS CLAUSES MUST BE AFFIRMED IN THEIR ORIGINAL INTENT. The original intent of the religion clauses is that which Williams held and Madison built upon. THE ESTABLISHMENT CLAUSE. A church that seeks governmental aid for its activity is a weak one. A church, if it is doing the will of God, should expect God's help, power and guidance and should expect no special financial or material help from the government, other than the duty of the government to provide safe havens for religious expression. It should not be the job of government to promote religion. THE FREE EXERCISE CLAUSE. This is the single greatest source of strength for society. Citizens must be free to hold, express, and act on their conscience. They must be free to follow God as a duty even higher than their civic obligation. If all are allowed to do this, in open communion one with another, the greatest good can derive for a society, not the reverse as many enemies of soul liberty fear, and claim, including John Cotton and today's Right. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's restriction of free exercise in the controvesial Smith decision of 1991 should shout a warning: Scalia is often a darling of the Religious Right.

5. WILLIAMS' PRISM OF BIBLICAL ANALYSIS IS IMPORTANT. The Religious Right believes its deepest roots are in the Scriptures. But far different outcomes for the present polity can result depending on which prism for Scripture one uses. Cotton treated Old Testament Scripture as if its commands could speak with moral--and structual--authority into the present, as Christian reconstructionists and some conservative parts of the Religious Right do. This is far different from Williams who said that those aspects of the Mosaic law (apart from the Ten Commandments, which were indeed binding moral law for all time) which Cotton used as normative were actually symbolic and typical of the present age of grace and meant to inform believers of their relationship with Heaven, not meant to be imperatives for the organization of government now. Madison, in referring in the Remonstrance to the church's purpose of spreading the gospel understood that the way to read the Bible in our time is in the light of the New Testament and its spiritual teachings, not to build a political order from the Mosaic law.

THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH. Williams taught the existence of two kingdoms, an earthly and a heavenly. The heavenly is for the church alone, and that by faith. But the earthly includes all, in their commonality of being tangible beings in a physical realm. The spiritual nature of the true kingdom of God is being lost sight of by the Religious Right as evidenced by their energetic concern of the affairs of government in this world. While their literature certainly alludes to the understanding of these two kingdoms, of which the spiritual is the more important122 , their actions tell any objective observer that they are much more concerned that you take their pro-life view than that you gain an understanding of the greater spiritual kingdom which they claim to serve. Even their theology admits that the two kingdoms--the heavenly and the earthly--are not the same. They often confuse the two realms, by failing to distinguish them, as did John Cotton, Patrick Henry and most of their 17th to 19th century companions.

The history of Europe screams, the logic of Williams preaches, the practical wisdom of Madison and the fruit it has brought forth in America shouts, and the Bible warns, but the Right has Cotton in its ears and Henry bars in its mouth. Americans had best think twice when deciding which bodyguards to hire when protecting the heritage of Williams and Madison, now housed in the opening phrases of the First Amendment. The choice seems to be between two good things: religion and "soul liberty." I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty.

FOOTNOTES

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