Ah, the founders, those starch-collared English souls planting liberty in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century. For those who didn’t follow rules handed down by God through man, these New World authorities could cut out your tongue, slice off your ears or execute you. O.K., Puritans, wrong role-model founders.
Then let’s look west, beyond the Wasatch Mountains in the 19th century, where Brigham Young built a Mormon empire in which church rule and civil law were one and the same — the press, a military brigade and the courts all controlled by the Seer and Revelator of a homegrown religion. Oops, wrong founders again.
American political bedrock — God’s house and the people’s government guiding separate worlds — wasn’t always in place. Reason ultimately won out. But theocracy certainly had its colonies and its advocates; it might have prevailed but for a few outstanding voices.
One of those voices was Roger Williams’s. Banished by the Puritans, he established what became Rhode Island and created in 1636 “the first government in the world which broke church and state apart,” as John M. Barry writes in “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul,” a new book on this founding episode.
The idea that civil law and religious law are separate has coursed through American society ever since. It was a radical thought in 1636. It’s written in the Constitution now. And yet, with Rick Santorum riding high in the Republican primaries, it looks as if this issue will get another go-round.
Santorum, who makes Mitt Romney look blandly secular by comparison, has a well-known animus against accepted sexual practices that he believes defy “God’s law” — his words, not mine. He opposes sex for reasons other than producing babies, sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, prenatal testing, and on and on. Contraception, he has said, gives people “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”
Erik S. Lesser/European Pressphoto AgencyRick Santorum and his family prayed with a pastor at a campaign rally in a Cumming, Ga. church on Feb. 19.
Most Americans won’t begrudge him his beliefs; he’s free to practice them, and imbue his children with them, as he did by home-schooling his family. But most Americans also will part ways with him when he advocates that civil code should adhere to his religious beliefs.
“God gave us laws that we must abide by,” he said early on the campaign. Notably, Santorum, a far-right Catholic, has taken issue with President John F. Kennedy, a moderate Catholic, for having said that his presidency would not be dictated by his faith. This view, Santorum said in 2010, has caused “great harm to America.”
So, bring on the argument, once again, with history as the guide. Williams was a Puritan convert who left Britain to escape religious persecution by a king who was head of state and head of the Church of England. After initially being welcomed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he was persecuted for his more enlightened views and put on trial. He faced the possibility of torture, or execution. Ultimately, he was banished.
In founding Providence as a place of religious tolerance, Williams drew Jews, Quakers and nonbelievers to his new colony, and gave up trying to convert the Indians. “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils,” he said.
In Barry’s book, Williams is charismatic and heroic, but also far ahead of his time. “The Bay leaders, both lay and clergy, firmly believed that the state must enforce all of God’s laws,” Barry writes. Williams “believed that humans, being imperfect, would inevitably err in applying God’s laws.” And certainly, those heretics who were hanged in New England paid the ultimate price for such errors.
The Mormons, for all the cheery optimism of their present state, were birthed in brutal theocracy, first in Nauvoo, Ill., and later in the State of Deseret, as their settlement in present-day Utah was called. The Constitution, separating church from state, press from government, had no place in either stronghold. And it took a threat to march the United States Army out to the rogue settlement around the Great Salt Lake to persuade Mormon leaders that their control did not extend beyond matters of the soul.
Santorum is itching to add another chapter to this book. Last weekend, he seemed to question President Obama’s faith, alluding to a “phony theology” that supposedly guides his presidency. Who knew there was a religious test through the gates of the White House?
He also used his Biblical beliefs to deny climate change, saying, “We are put on this earth as creatures of God to have dominion over the earth.” You may think he’s running for chief deacon, and should swap his sweater vest for a clerical collar.
But his followers know exactly what he’s talking about. In Wednesday night’s debate in Arizona, Santorum defended his religious-themed campaign: “Just because I talk about it doesn’t mean I want a government program to fix it.” But in fact, he does. Santorum has long tried to get his Biblical principles taught to children in public schools — insisting that “creationism” should be in every American classroom, and trying to enforce that through riders to education bills when he was a senator. Better yet, the kids should read about Roger Williams, a man of faith, and of reason — the American model that will prevail long after Santorum has left the pulpit.