Decentering Discussions on Religion and State (Donabed & Quezada-Grant, eds.)

This April, Lexington Books will release “Decentering Discussions on Religion and State: Emerging Narratives, Challenging Perspectives” edited by Sargon George Donabed and Autumn Quezada-Grant (Roger Williams University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Decentering ReligionThis volume explores dynamic conversations through history between individuals and communities over questions about religion and state. Divided into two sections, our authors begin with considerations on the separation of religion and state, as well as Roger Williams’ concept of religious freedom. Authors in the first half consider nuanced debates centered on emerging narratives, with particular emphasis on Native America, Early Americans, and experiences in American immigration after Independence. The first half of the volume examines voices in American History as they publicly engage with notions of secular ideology. Discussions then shift as the volume broadens to world perspectives on religion-state relations. Authors consider critical questions of nation, religious identity and transnational narratives. The intent of this volume is to privilege new narratives about religion-state relations. Decentering discussions away from national narratives allows for emerging voices at the individual and community levels. This volume offers readers new openings through which to understand critical but overlooked interactions between individuals and groups of people with the state over questions about religion.

“The Lively Experiment” (Beneke & Grenda, eds.)

This March, Rowman & Littlefield Publishing will release “The Lively Experiment: Religious Toleration in America from Roger Williams to the Present” edited by Chris Beneke (Bentley College) and Christopher Grenda (CUNY-Brooklyn Community College).  The publisher’s description follows:

Beginning with the legacy of Roger Williams, who in 1633 founded the first colony not restricted to people of one faith, The Lively Experiment chronicles how Americans have continually demolished traditional prejudices while at the same time erecting new walls between belief systems. The chapters gathered here reveal how Americans are sensitively attuned to irony and contradiction, to unanticipated eruptions of bigotry and unheralded acts of decency, and to the disruption caused by new movements and the reassurance supplied by old divisions. The authors examine the way ethnicity, race, and imperialism have been woven into the fabric of interreligious relations and highlight how currents of tolerance and intolerance have rippled in multiple directions. Nearly four hundred years after Roger Williams’ Rhode Island colony, the “lively experiment” of religious tolerance remains a core tenet of the American way of life. This volume honors this boisterous tradition by offering the first comprehensive account of America’s vibrant and often tumultuous history of interreligious relations.

Radical Puritanism and Religious Vitality

In a previous post, I argued that there was no necessary connection between a policy of stringent church-state separation and the strength or vitality of religious life within the state. There have been many societies that enjoyed a flourishing religious life well before anybody got it into his head to talk about separation. And there are several modern societies that practice strict separation and whose religious life is seemingly moribund. Any correlation between separation and religious vitality, I argued, is situational and incidental. The strength of religious life within a society depends, I said, on other factors.

But suppose someone were to say: ‘No, that’s not correct. Religious strength does depend on strict separation. In today’s day and age, a strong religious life means exactly that the state is completely separated from religion. A person is most free to affirm true religious commitment just inasmuch as the state and religion are totally separate. In the modern world, the strength of a nation’s religious life depends upon that individual freedom.”

In fact, I think something like this view grounds the frequently-heard claims about the religious vitality that must arise in a strictly separated state. In my previous post, I noticed the puritanical and evangelical conception of religion that the view presupposes. I’ve been reading around in this volume on the Establishment Clause edited by T. Jeremy Gunn and John Witte, Jr., and David Little’s essay, “Roger Williams and the Puritan Background of the Establishment Clause,” offers further confirmation. Professor Little writes that it was the issue of establishment that most sharply divided Roger Williams from other New England Puritans. Disestablishment was thus in some sense the problem of an intramural dispute among puritan factions–the most radical of which was represented by Williams. Little and many others have recognized the mixture of religious and pragmatic arguments for strict separation.

It is the religious arguments that interest me here. Little writes:

Along with references to experience and reason, Williams adds extensive appeals to Christian scripture, doctrine, and history. . . . The decisive transgression took place

when Constantine broke the bounds of this his own and God’s edict, and [drew] the sword of civil power in suppressing other consciences for the [sake of] establishing the Christian [church]. [T]hen began the great mystery of the churches’ sleep, [by which] the gardens of Christ’s churches turned into the wilderness of National Religion, and the world (under Constantine’s dominion) into the most unchristian Christendom….There never was any National Religion good in this world but one [namely, ancient Israel], and since the desolation of that nation, there shall never be any National Religion good again.

No Establishment of Religion, 111-12 (quoting Williams, The Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloody). Little goes on to dispute Mark DeWolfe Howe’s claim that Williams was interested solely in the corruption of religion; Little believes that Williams was concerned about mutual corruption of church and state. But in either case, a theological argument against establishment of this kind can readily be inflated to serve the ends of strict separationism. And so it has been in the generations that followed, as arguments from mutual corruption have become ever more salient in the interpretation of the Establishment Clause, and have been held to require more and more separation.

Back to the initial issue though–the connection between separationism and religious vitality. The objection to my initial post, it seems to me, is a good one, but with one important proviso. Religious vitality does increase as religion and the state become more separate, provided that one adopts the radical puritan theology that Williams espoused. If one does not adopt that theology, then one is left with prudential arguments for strict separationism as conducive of religious vitality. Those prudential arguments, I believe, are entirely circumstantial and accidental; it simply is not the case, as a pragmatic matter, that strict separationism inevitably results in a strong religious life.

A committed policy of strict separationism that is not qualified by the accidents of circumstance and historical contingency depends for its support on the sort of radical puritanism in matters of religious vitality so ably articulated by Roger Williams. Might the need to adopt such theological premises occasion its own Establishment Clause problems? Something for a future post.

Gerber on Religious Freedom in Rhode Island

Rhode Island is celebrating the 350th anniversary of its royal colonial charterRhode Island Seal this year. The occasion reminds me of one of my all-time favorite cases in constitutional law, Luther v. Borden, in which the struggle over the representative failings of the charter and all of the attendant political intrigue so typical of the Ocean State was deemed nonjusticiable by the Supreme Court. There aren’t too many Guarantee Clause controversies any longer, but you can still spot one every so often. As my former boss, Judge William E. Smith, put it to me: “Not much has changed around here since then.”

Have a look at this interesting short piece by Professor Scott Gerber (another law clerk veteran of the US District Court for DRI) discussing religious freedom in Rhode Island. Particularly interesting are Prof. Gerber’s points about Rhode Island’s complicated history and the distinction between “liberty and license.”

Barry on Roger Williams

From Penguin, a new biography of Roger Williams, Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul (2012), by John M. Barry. Barry usefully situates Williams in the legal and political struggles of Jacobean and Caroline England — I did not know, for example, that Williams once served as an apprentice to Sir Edward Coke, the famous Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, and thought of Coke as a surrogate father — and follows him to Massachusetts, from which his fellow Puritans banished him when he denied civil government’s authority to punish offenses against God. Barry discusses the evolution of Williams’s ideas about church and state, including his most famous contribution, the metaphor of the “wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world.”  The publisher’s description follows.

For four hundred years, Americans have wrestled with and fought over two concepts that define the nature of the nation: the proper relation between church and state and between a free individual and the state. These debates began with the extraordinary thought and struggles of Roger Williams, who had an unparalleled understanding of the conflict between a government that justified itself by “reason of state”-i.e. national security-and its perceived “will of God” and the “ancient rights and liberties” of individuals.

This is a story of power, set against Puritan America and the English Civil War. Williams’s interactions with King James, Francis Bacon, Oliver Cromwell, and his mentor Edward Coke set his course, but his fundamental ideas came to fruition in America, as Williams, though a Puritan, collided with John Winthrop’s vision of his “City upon a Hill.”

Acclaimed historian John M. Barry explores the development of these fundamental ideas through the story of the man who was the first to link religious freedom to individual liberty, and who created in America the first government and society on earth informed by those beliefs. The story is essential to the continuing debate over how we define the role of religion and political power in modern American life.

%d bloggers like this: