Editor’s (admin’s) note: This is a twofer. Saving it to Ordinary Time preserves: (1) an interesting thread in response to a recent post I shared to Facebook; and (2) an extended passage from John M. Barry’s Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty that I posted to the thread. It sums up one of the main themes I expect to explore in my expanded study of ‘Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden.’

Some necessary background:

Barry, who also wrote on the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-20, said in an afterword to Roger Williams (on p. 388) that he first set out to write a book on Billy Sunday and “the role of religion in American public life.” Billy Sunday was a notorious forerunner of today’s televangelists and the political preachers of the self-proclaimed “Christian right.” As Barry explains it, “[…] the more I thought it about it, the more I was drawn to that subject itself, and specifically to the source of the debate over it, to the debate’s origin.” Then his nut graf (and, in some ways, mine as well):

That origin was the conflict between John Winthrop and Roger Williams and between two visions: the one embodied in Winthrop’s city on a hill with its authoritative and theocentric state, the other in Williams’s call for utter separation of church and state and individual rights. The First Amendment did not come from any abstruse theory. It came from history. This book has detailed an important part of that history.

From the thread:

[To Gordon Irwin:] This has been a fascinating thread, and it’s helping me think through some of this stuff. So I’m going to copy an extended quote from John Barry’s book (pp. 394-95) here, before I share it to my blog where I can be sure I can find it later with a keyword search:


Cultural commentators and anthropologists speak of the “myths” which inform and define a society. But it is no myth that the Puritans who founded Massachusetts came to build a Christian country, a city on a hill that would shine for all the world to see. They believed themselves and this nation to be chosen and blessed by God. That belief is not myth but reality.

But it is also not myth but reality that those Puritans fled England because they would not submit for forced prayer: they would not submit to the use of the Book of Common Prayer. They would not even sit silently as nonparticipants while others listened to prayers from it.

It is also not myth but reality that another informing principle runs like a / great river through American history and culture. That principle was first articulated when Roger Williams declared that the state must not enforce those of the Ten Commandments [the “first table”] which defined the relationship between humanity and God. It matured when he further separated himself from the dominant view of the day and declared a citizenry “distinct from the government set up. …[S]uch governments as are by them erected and established have no more power, nor for longer time, than the civil power or people consenting and agreeing shall betrust them with.” [My brackets ital — the other set, in the reference to “[S]uch government,” is in the original.]

And it is not myth but reality that the U.S. Constitution is an entirely secular document, with no reference to any entity that can be considered divine. It does ask for a blessing, but only for “the blessings of liberty.” It then prohibits a religious test for office, equates an “affirmation” with and “oath,” and, in the First Amendment, it establishes absolute religious freedom — the first freedom, the freedom to think — and its’s corollary, the freedom to express though. They understood that infringing upon that in any way limited not only religious freedom but all freedom. […]

Seems like a lot of these things are intersecting now, in ways Barry probably couldn’t have imagined when he wrote that book in 2012.

And a footnote (kinda) and a citation:

Here’s a quote I love, which I shared to the embedded thread. It’s from Bill J. Leonard, founder of Wake Forest Divinity School, interviewed by Becky Garrison a free-lance writer who :

[…] Williams did not anticipate American democracy—in terms of current post constitutional practices. Rather he anticipated American religious pluralism, even in ways that he himself would not have imagined at the time. Generally, however, he would probably favor gatherings where representatives of different communions sought to work together, but he would have been one of the obnoxious ones in the room, debating everyone.

Citation (Chicago style): Bill J. Leonard, “‘Soul Freedom’ versus ‘Christian Nation’: Exploring the Legacy of Roger Williams,” interview by Becky Garrison, Religion Dispatches, Sept. 10, 2010 https://religiondispatches.org/soul-freedom-versus-christian-nation-exploring-the-legacy-of-roger-williams/.

***

Garrison’s bio: Becky Garrison contributes to a range of outlets including The Humanist, Killing the Buddha, American Atheist, Beverage Master, Grapevine, and Fresh Toast. Her eight books include Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, 2020), and Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (Jossey-Bass, 2006).

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