What would Roger Williams say… and do?

roger williams

Roger Williams

In celebration of the Fourth of July, despite everything… Martha Nussbaum revives a dreamy vision of religious freedom. Jeff Sharlet paints the real bathos of our adapted political piety. I join them both in the pleasure of rediscovering Roger Williams (1603 – 1683) as a neglected American model of real religion, real freedom, real tolerance. As Martha Nussbaum reminds us, Roger Williams was English-born, a friend and contemporary of John Milton. He came to America — and from Massachusetts to the colony he founded in Providence, Rhode Island — in flight from meddlesome Puritans. His affinity for the Narragansett Indians, and his sense of the injustice that the settlers were inflicting on Indian property and humanity, sharpened his educated understanding of the rights of the individual spirit.

And so he developed a view of conscience – which I think is really attractive – which is that every human being has within themselves something very precious which he called conscience, which is a capacity to seek for the ultimate meaning of life in your own way. And the thought is that we all have this equally; whether we’re using it right or wrong, it ought to be respected. And respecting it means giving it lots of space to pursue its own way and not establishing an orthodoxy that squeezes it. He had two really neat images for religious intolerance. One of them was imprisonment, as consciences were imprisoned all over the world. And the other, even more striking one was rape. Consciences were being raped. He called it “soule rape” when somebody sets up a religious orthodoxy and denies a space to others to find their own way.

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum of Liberty of Conscience in conversation with Jeff Sharlet and Chris Lydon, July 1, 2008.
Jeff Sharlet

Jeff Sharlet

We’ve gone irreparably too far. I don’t like the word theocracy; I

don’t think we ever will be a theocracy, but we have severe establishment and we will have establishment of a religion that’s very comfortable with the status quo. It’s a religion of what is, and it’s a religion that shuts down dissent and it’s a religion that shuts down prophetic voices as well. Yes, I think we’ve gone irreparably too far in the United States, but that doesn’t mean that we stop speaking and living and dissenting – and for those of us who feel religious, speaking in prophetic terms, and for those of us who don’t, speaking in political terms. Hope is something that you have when you have a situation that reason doesn’t quite support, so we have to be hopeful. We have irreparably established a certain kind of religion in American life so there’s no going back. I think there’s only moving forward until we get to a country that Roger Williams would like to live in.

Journalist Jeff Sharlet of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and The Revealer in conversation with Martha Nussbaum and Chris Lydon, July 1, 2008.

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  • Zeke

    On fourth of July reflections: I recommend David Hackett Fischer’s in the July 3 NY Times. He speaks of Champlain and Canada and how his vision contrasted with that of our own founding fathers.

  • herbert browne

    Roger Williams’ echo across the sea might seem to be Alexander Pope… at least that’s what this conversation brought to my mind (& sent me back to the “Essay on Man”). This WAS a most pleasant reintroduction, because I’d not recalled (or maybe even considered) the delineation of ecology that Pope expressed there… and even found a parallel to Williams’ consideration of the plight of indigenous communities- both physical & spiritual- in the early part of the Essay.

    Jeff Sharlet’s contention, that we have a “religion of what is”, and Pope’s closing contention, “Whatever is, is right”, may also seem congruent. However, I think that Pope was actually saying something more akin to “whatever is, is what we Deserve”, (aka the outcome of “cause & effect”)… eg the Bush/Cheney presidency, maybe…

    At any rate, the stimulation provided here is also “right”, by me, for the paths that have opened (& reopened)… and I’m most appreciative to have stumbled in when I did… ^..^

  • Potter

    That last part, Jeff Sharlet’s, was upsetting to hear, I fear it is so that we have not arrived at those high ideals but have stalled or crystallized.

    Bill Moyers was agitated enough to do more than one very strong segment on “faith-based initiatives”. I am so very disappointed to hear that Obama is for it. I fear that Obama will triangulate away his promise of “change” the way of the Clintons.

    Of Roger Williams and the founding of Rhode Island, not being a Christian myself, his ideas of equality and freedom of conscience have never left me since grade school where we were also made to sing Christmas Carols and do reports on how this holiday is celebrated around the world. This to my mother’s great dismay. For me it was interesting but I felt so different and left out.

  • ghostofdali

    I think this conversation brought up one of the most fundamental clashes in America’s political identity. On the one hand, you have the folks like Roger Williams (and let’s not forget Anne Hutchinson) who defined RI as a “sanctuary city,” where individuals’ rights to self determination are paramount and the various religious, political, and social out-group(s) were to be treated with respect and allowed to make their own way in the world.

    And on the other hand, you have the people who are the ideological descendants of the Optimates (“best people”) of republican Rome. It’s the latter that seems to have won out nationwide, as the “levelling impulses” of the masses are supposedly kept in check by the more powerful minority of enlightened oligarchs. The ruling class of our nation have made it clear that tolerance and respect of out-groups is not a priority, or even an agenda item. Diversity is a brand, brought out to generate profits and preserve the status quo, while a homogeneous conglomerate of power brokers use those profits to preserve the race and class boundaries that keep the common people disenfranchised.

    In this upcoming election, we have a Roger Williams – and his name is Ralph.

  • herbert browne

    While the “enlightened oligarchs” may appear to hold sway, presently, their “lofty position” in this world may also serve to isolate them, ultimately, from the ‘dynamism’ that exists- and will flourish, in the ‘troubled times’ ahead- as we all experience the socio-economic changes that are going on all around… (or, as Chief Sealth allegedly put it, “the end of living, and the beginning of survival”). So, those of us who may choose to embrace our curiosity- and a Long view of history- rather than nurture our fears (while girding ourselves for “the worst”) might do well to consider the former Haitian President Aristide’s campaign slogan- Poverty with Dignity- with the realization that, to be poor in America is to be among the wealthiest 25% on the planet. Hanging in there with the “disenfranchised” can be enjoyable… and rewarding, in so many ways… while also helping to put things in perspective- ie “One man, One vote, One appetite”… ^..^

  • I should have credited a listener in Africa for prompting the conversation with Martha Nussbaum. Osvaldo Agatiello — one of the best friends I’ve never met — wrote to me back in the Spring: “I cannot be the only Open Source fan who is dying to hear Martha

    Nussbaum present her last book. I find it interesting that America can

    be celebrated for religious toleration these days…”

    On hearing the podcast, Osvaldo writes again:

    “You never disappoint me. Only this morning could I listen to the program, in the car that takes me to the center of Luanda very early in the morning. And it was every bit as interesting as I expected.

    “I am very confused by things religious. Freud’s last book, Taylor’s latest book and the harassment of rationality that followed the Nietzschean tradition, including the Structuralists and the Post-Rationalists, all looking so passé now. We need to believe in reason and still Viktor Frankl gave us a very robust sense of our search for ultimate meaning. Indeed, the classical Greeks condemned us to stand in perpetual tension, deep within and in our attention for the res publica. I think this is the most important lesson of your program–we need to stay alert, with “the will to have a conscience”, as Heidegger put it.

    I follow you from the times of The Connection. Years back you took my call during a program on Vicente Fox.

    “Today I called my three American children to congratulate them for July 4. Although they communicate mostly in French now, they are very proud of being Americans and my wife and I do whatever we can to nurture that feeling.

    “We live in the outskirts of Geneva since 2003, when I took a position with the United Nations. Now it is my wife who works at the UN and I am dedicated to consulting and teaching (http://www.genevadiplomacy.com/?menu_id=6&page_id=15&full=1&faculty_id=32). Since February I am advising the Angolan government on legal matters, going home from time to time. Being away in the tropics has helped me write a lot on applied ethics. As Vilfredo Pareto, the founder of microeconomics a century ago, I have lost a lot of faith in law and economics but not in moral philosopy.

    “Keep up the good work, dear friend.”

    Thank you, Osvaldo, for a preview of the global conversation we’re all bulding.

  • Dr. Seuss

    “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right”.

    Isaac Asimov.

    Martha Nussbaum uses Roger Williams’ Stoicism as a background to illustrate the subtleties between the moral and the theological. We can bring our morality to the table as Nussbaum interpreting Williams’s points out, but not its source. It is the separation of religious imagery, and state, but not of morality. (It should be noted that the writing or interpretation of law is one thing – for this we do not need images – and a picture of the Ten Commandments in a courtroom is another).

    Why should one make a conscious choice to disrespect the memory of the people who founded this wonderful place called America? Yes, it is imperfect. But so are we. We are a land of contradictions; successes and failures. If someone asked us to trash the memory of a favorite teacher or a particularly enriching experience in our lives, should we say OK just because the person asking has had unfortunate experiences in life?

    I take issue with Martha Nussbaum on interpreting Justice Scalia when referring to the three great monotheistic religions. After quoting Scalia that “It is fine to celebrate monotheism” she interprets this as meaning that “It makes a statement that other people are not fully equal citizens”. This is where she and many others lose it. “Equality” is not the issue in this context. It is simply recognition of the group of [Christian] founders in contrast to other groups who were not founders. They are the ones who paved the way for the rest of us in the same way that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob paved the way for their people. If people are offended by other people’s choice of who they recognize as their forefathers or founders, as the case may be, then one is forced to wonder what is genuinely on the minds of these people. It is no longer a “legal issue” at this point, but one of aesthetics – which is where the philosopher gets into trouble. It does not matter the source of these values, as long as we use them.

    Should we trash our collective memories in exchange for a political agenda or anger for George Bush? Should we demonize the political constituency of the religious right because we find their religious imagery distasteful? Who would ask another to deem indistinguishable those original experiences from which we draw inspiration to similar ones we have encountered thereafter? Does not the original deserve status as the progenitor of the ones that follow?

    Isn’t it ironic how some people who preach freedom and equality try to take away those freedoms from others who think differently than they do?

  • herbert browne

    Ah… FOUNDERS!.. something New, under the sun! Certainly we “bring our morality to the table”, since (to paraphrase a Founder of a modern predicament) we want to say that “everything is on the Table”. Must we also bring our insignia?.. and our Agenda (properly sculpted to appear to aspire to, and benefit from, our Morality)? Do we bring our tri-cornered hats, and ‘our’ stone tablets (in Aramaic, certainly, as befits a true representation of reality), and perhaps some older, cuneiform documents of the roots of our roots? Perhaps we might honor Abraham’s mom & dad, as well. Surely, THEY had something to do with his eventual choices in life.

    The celebration of our icons, then, is a very selective process… and one to which a lawyer, in particular, might be attuned… accustomed as lawyers are to sifting the incredible pile of case law in search of opinions which will offer some support to their own. For Scalia “to celebrate monotheism” is simply triumphalism- a fine American trait- akin to “root, root root for the home team”. Alongside “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” we might also posit “Abraham, Hagar, and Esau” (and this socio-cultural observation: those last two names have activated my spell-checker, while the first threesome never did!). But, let’s not go there… or to the Iroquois, who inspired a bit of the Constitution… or to the Orangemen, who inspired mid-Summer parades.

    Re “if people are offended by other people’s choice of who they recognize as their forefathers or founders, as the case may be, then one is forced to wonder what is genuinely on the minds of these people…”-

    True enough… I have wondered, myself, why anyone took umbrage with Trent Lott’s celebration of that great American patriot, Strom Thurmond- not, I’ll grant you, a perfect man, but a persistent one- who, aside from a bit of alleged miscenegative hi-jinks (in his exhuberant youth, no doubt) became a beacon to many in the Heartland of the Old Colonies.

    Re “Isn’t it ironic how some people who preach freedom and equality try to take away those freedoms from others who think differently than they do?”

    I’d say that it’s a bit beyond ‘ironic’… “diabolical” comes to mind… & so does ‘Palestine’.


  • herbert browne

    Note: that should read “miscegenative”… it’s warm out. ^..^

  • jazzman

    WWRWD? It sounds to me like Roger Williams (love the falling Autumn Leaves impression on his piano) would be a champion of the tenets of Absolute Morality.

    1) Do Respect and Honor ALL Life/Nature.

    EVERYTHING in the universe has purpose, meaning, and an innate right to exist. (No need to invoke God, Creationism or The Theory of Evolution )

    2) Do EMPATHIZE with others in all transactions.

    Consider the effect of your actions vis-à-vis others by walking in their shoes. Don’t take advantage of people via trickery or superior intellect. This is the root of the Golden Rule – no vengeful tit for tat.

    3) Do not kill more than is needed for physical sustenance.

    I believe that most people would agree that the deprivation of life and/or resources for gluttony is less than ideal and should be discouraged.

    4) Do not commit violence on yourself or others, life, or the environment.

    Violence is a result of FEAR and unexpressed pent up aggression, fostered by a sense of powerlessness to attain desires by the incompetent, ignorant or impatient and NEVER justified.

    5) Do not attempt to attain an IDEAL by violating any of the above propositions.

    The “All of the above” Meta-rule – IDEAL ENDS NEVER JUSTIFY LESS THAN IDEAL MEANS.

    Herbert Browne: Good to see your handle reappear. BTW Strom Thurmond’s first wife, Jean Crouch, was a close friend of my mother’s. My mother told me that at the time she didn’t approve of their age difference and warned her not to marry him. I don’t know if he was already suffering from Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever at that time.

    Peace to ALL

  • meshil

    Martha Nussbaum uses Roger Williams’ Stoicism as a background to illustrate the subtleties between the moral and the theological.And this story has very good moral to every human being in his daily life.



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