“[Roger Williams] was saying that mixing church and state corrupted the church, that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics.” — John M. Barry, “God, Government and Roger Williams’ Big Idea,” Smithsonian, January 2012.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall …,” Robert Frost, “Mending Wall.”

My research into Swedish immigration has me reading a lot of Roger Williams lately. Well, let’s be totally honest here — reading about Roger Williams. His 17th-century English is notoriously hard to read. But it gives me a different perspective on President Trump’s behavior this morning at a Washington, D.C., prayer breakfast.

Not that it’s hard to imagine what Williams would have said about it. We usually cite Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment, but he’s the guy who first called, in 1644, for freedom of religion and a “wall of separation” between church and state.

And whatever else you can say about Trump’s performance, he was prancing and dancing, capering up, down and all around that wall at the prayer breakfast. Here’s how Quint Forgey of Politico described it in a spot news story headlined “Trump attacks political foes at National Prayer Breakfast for invoking faith.” Forgey’s lede:

President Donald Trump immediately attacked his political rivals at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, just hours after his acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial — charging that they had inappropriately invoked “their faith as justification” for calls to remove him from office.

Trump’s rhetoric was everything we’ve come to expect from the man.

Waving copies of the Washington Post and USA Today, he fumed about, among other things, “some very dishonest and corrupt people … hurt our nation … I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong. Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you’ when they know that that’s not so.” 

Leaving aside the question of how Trump can peer into his perceived enemies’ souls, it was a remarkable outburst for a prayer breakfast.

And while I don’t want to claim I can peer into Roger Williams’ soul (especially when he died in 1683 and I have a hard time following the words he actually put down on paper), I can’t help but imagine him watching Trump capering around at the prayer breakfast. And in so many words I’ll bet he’d say, “I told you so.”

You see, we have it backwards today. A founder of the first Baptist church in America (although he later split with them over doctrinal issues), Williams called for the separation of church and state to protect the church, not the state. According to his biographer John M. Barry, he believed if you mix church and state, what you can get is a “foul corruption—not of the state, which was already corrupt, but of the church.”

In a 2012 article for Smithsonian magazine, Barry explains:

Williams described the true church as a magnificent garden, unsullied and pure, resonant of Eden. The world he described as “the Wilderness,” a word with personal resonance for him [since he nearly froze to death when he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony]. Then he used for the first time a phrase he would use again, a phrase that although not commonly attributed to him has echoed through American history. “[W]hen they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world,” he warned, “God hathe ever broke down the wall it selfe, removed the Candlestick, &c. and made his Garden a Wildernesse.”

Confused by this stuff about a candlestick? (See, I told you: Williams is hard to read.) An expert on constitutional law named Philip Hamburger helped clarify it for me. Quoting several of Williams’ theological pamphlets in his 2012 book on Separation of Church and State, Hamburger suggests it symbolizes “the light of divine truth illuminating individual conscience in the wilderness of this world.” Remove the candlestick, in other words, and the light goes out.

But the part about the garden and the wilderness couldn’t be clearer.

And as far as I’m concerned, Trump was prancing around in the garden this morning like a trick pony (he’s more like a one-trick pony anyway) trampling the flowerbed, as he took veiled personal swipes at Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and House Speaker Nancy Peolosi, D-Calif. Forgey of Politico picks up the story:

The president’s incendiary remarks, lobbed during the traditionally bipartisan annual event in Washington, echo a broadside he leveled in December against Pelosi, a devout Catholic, after the speaker insisted during a heated exchange with a reporter that she does not hate Trump and prays “all the time” for him.

“Nancy Pelosi just had a nervous fit,” Trump tweeted of the interaction, adding: “She says she ‘prays for the President.’ I don’t believe her, not even close.” Two weeks later, on the day of his impeachment by the House, Trump seemed to sarcastically encourage his supporters online to “Say a PRAYER!”

Pelosi, D-Calif., said later she does pray for the president.

“He really needs our prayers,” she told reporters. “So he can say whatever he wants.”

Pelosi said more, but I’m not going to try to peer into her soul. I’ll leave that to Trump. But I know she attends Mass regularly, and I know the liturgy includes prayers for those in civil authority. So I don’t find it difficult to believe she prays for the president. I do too. Every Sunday morning.

Nor am I going to try to peer into Trump’s soul.

But I do feel safe in suggesting a hypothetical: If Roger Williams were to come back and watch Trump’s performance at the prayer breakfast, he wouldn’t be surprised. Nor, I think, would he be particularly dismayed.

That metaphor of the garden and the wilderness came from a pamphlet he wrote in 1644 and titled Mr. Cotton’s Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered. (Mr. Cotton, if you’re a history nerd, was New England clergyman John Cotton, who jangled with Williams repeatedly. His grandson Cotton Mather is better known to history, for his somewhat dubious role in the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693). A more complete quotation from Williams’ pamphlet appears on the Wall of Separation website, a project of the Baptist History & Heritage Society:

When they [the Church] have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the Candlestick, etc., and made His Garden a wilderness as it is this day. And that therefore if He will ever please to restore His garden and Paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world, and all that be saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the wilderness of the World.

Williams, who fled to New England in the days of King Charles I, the English civil war and Oliver Cromwell, didn’t expect much from heads of government. Nor, in my opinion, would he be surprised if he were to come back today and see Trump in action.

I suspect he’d just want to build a wall.

Not Trump’s wall, but after hearing Trump at that prayer breakfast, I’ll bet he’d want to get to work right away on a better wall around the garden.

Works Cited

John M. Barry, “God, Government and Roger Williams’ Big Idea,” Smithsonian, January 2012. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/god-government-and-roger-williams-big-idea-6291280/

Quint Forgey. “Trump Attacks Impeachment Foes at National Prayer Breakfast for Invoking Faith,” Politico, Feb. 6, 2020 https://www.politico.com/news/2020/02/06/donald-trump-lashes-out-impeachment-national-prayer-breakfast-111379.

Philip Hamburger. Separation of Church and State. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009. pp. 49-50. Google Books.


2 thoughts on “Trump’s post-impeachment prayer breakfast caper and the wall of separation between church and state

  1. Once he disagreed with Jesus’ command to love your enemies, he brought disgrace to the room. I agree with Williams that the separation protects the church. How many people watching that and the religious “leaders” who fawn over him come to have a deeply negative and warped understanding of the Gospel?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Yep! I thought I’d gotten to the point I couldn’t be surprised by anything the man did anymore, but somehow he managed to out-Trump himself with this spectacle. I’m going to link a blog post by a Presbyterian minister from suburban Chicago who attended the thing — what she said about the reaction of the audience, and “these same tablemates [who] were standing and applauding the idea that loving our enemies is too much to ask,” really stuck with me. https://revstephanieanthony.com/2020/02/06/spiritual-whiplash/

    Liked by 1 person

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