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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