We recently took a cruise out of Galveston. The ability to drive to the port and to board a ship is another advantage of island life. Cruising delights the senses by providing a place to lock up your cellphone. We visited some Caribbean Islands, ate too much, drank too much and read some books.
I would highly recommend John M. Barry’s “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul.” Williams was a well-educated member of the English middle class. He fled from England to New England in the early 17th century to avoid religious and political turmoil.
Williams was neither a Pilgrim nor a Puritan. Within months of Williams’ arrival in Boston, he fell into conflict with John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Plantation, a colony. Williams was offered a post as “teacher” of the Boston Church, but declined because he wouldn’t work in a church not yet separated from the Church on England.
Williams went further and argued the government had no right to enforce the “First Table” of the Ten Commandments. The First Table regulates ones’ duty to God: “to have no other God before Him, to make no graven images, to not take the Lord’s name in vain, and to keep the Sabbath holy.” In 1631, this virtually amounted to treason, not only in New England but in most of Europe. Penalties included cutting off ears, imprisonment, and sometimes death.
After extended arguments with plantation leaders, Williams was banished from Massachusetts. He was forced to flee south in the dead of winter where he was saved by members of the Wampanoag tribe. After many perils, Williams established an independent government in Rhode Island and Providence Plantation. The basis of this government was subsequently echoed in our Constitution.
Williams agreed God gave us the Ten Commandments, but he argued that government is a human institution and therefore subject to flaws. He would disagree that any rights such as enumerated in the Constitution are God given rights. He reasoned these are the product of human thought and therefore subject to interpretation, elaboration, and error. Moreover, the government shouldn’t attempt to promote or enforce any religious position.
He would argue, as have the courts, each person has the right to pray and worship as he chooses, but this cannot be part of a government institution. He based this argument on the belief that government derives its sovereignty from the people, and not from God. This means “The (authority of) government … extends no further than over the bodies and goods of their subjects, not over their souls.”
Williams deeply believed both in the grace of God and the fallibility of people, including his own. Thus if one believes the state derives its authority from the people, then the state must be just as fallible. Hence the state shouldn’t involve itself in religion, because this involvement inevitably corrupts religion. Put simply, in Williams’ words: “…forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”