It’s cliché to say that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, but it’s also true, and so as 2011 comes to a close it’s a good time to look back at the impact of Roger Williams on church-state separation.

Williams was a Puritan clergyman who left England for America in 1630 seeking to distance himself from the Anglican Church, which he felt had become corrupt. When he arrived at the fledgling Massachusetts Bay Colony, he got off on the wrong foot with his fellow Puritans after he declined to accept a position with the Boston church. In a very good article in Smithsonian Magazine, author John M. Barry wrote that Williams turned down the offer because:

“[The Boston church was] insufficiently committed to the proper worship of God," Barry wrote. "Williams did not differ with them on any point of theology. They shared the same faith… but the colony’s leaders, both lay and clergy, firmly believed that the state must prevent error in religion. They believed that the success of the Massachusetts plantation depended upon it.

Williams believed that preventing error in religion was impossible, for it required people to interpret God’s law, and people would inevitably err. He therefore concluded that government must remove itself from anything that touched upon human beings’ relationship with God. A society built on the principles Massachusetts espoused would lead at best to hypocrisy, because forced worship, he wrote, ‘stincks [sic] in God’s nostrils.’ At worst, such a society would lead to a foul corruption—not of the state, which was already corrupt, but of the church,” Barry wrote.

As a result of his opinions, Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony within a few years. He chose to found a more tolerant, religiously free colony at Providence in what is now the state of Rhode Island. Williams was thus a pioneer for the idea of church-state separation and a Founding Father more than 100 years before the generation of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

But as Barry points out, Williams’ ideas about separation created problems that we continue to wrestle with today.

“The dispute defined for the first time two fault lines that have run through American history ever since,” Barry wrote. “The first, of course, is over the proper relation between government and what man has made of God—the church. The second is over the relation between a free individual and government authority—the shape of liberty.”

The most fascinating thing about Williams, at least according to Barry, is that he was a man of deep religious conviction and belief in the literal truth of the Bible, and yet he still favored church-state separation.

“Roger Williams was not a man out of time. He belonged to the 17th century and to Puritans in that century,” Barry wrote. “Yet he was also one of the most remarkable men of his or any century. With absolute faith in the literal truth of the Bible and in his interpretation of that truth, with absolute confidence in his ability to convince others of the truth of his convictions, he nonetheless believed it ‘monstrous’ to compel conformity to his or anyone else’s beliefs,” Barry wrote.

This is what the Religious Right simply does not understand. It is fully possible to have absolute confidence in one’s own values, beliefs and ideas without forcing them on anyone else. As Williams knew even before the United States existed, this country is not supposed to be about forcing anyone to believe anything. This is a lesson for all time, and it should be remembered for all time.  

The Wall of Separation will be on hiatus until January 3. Happy New Year, everyone!