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by William H. Benson

October 11, 2001


     Almost immediately upon his arrival in 1631 at Massachusetts Bay, Roger Williams argued with the colony’s governing church officials.  At first he pointed out that the church had not completely separated from the Church of England, and therefore he could not worship with them since he had converted to Separatism.  Then, later he argued that they had misappropriated illegally the land in Massachusetts from the various Indian tribes, which he believed were the rightful owners.  Finally, he disagreed with the way the church leaders punished the colonists for breaches of religious observances and for enforcing church attendance.

     Roger Williams went on to think deeper about the proper relationship between the church and the state and between theology and the law than did any other early American.  He believed they should be completely separated.  He spoke his ideas from the pulpit, and he wrote his ideas down on paper.  For the crime of heresy the Massachusetts Bay’s theocratic leaders brought him to trial on October 6, 1635, and on the 9th the fifty-man jury brought in a unanimous verdict of guilty.

     He was “enlarged out of Massachusetts” the next January into a blinding winter blizzard and only stayed alive by finding refuge with the Indians.

     Today the idea of separting the church from the state is an intricate and accepted part of American life.  It is the law.  But four centuries ago, it was heresy.  It was easy then to whip Colonial juries into a frenzy over a lack of religious piety or for heresy.  Roger Williams saw that and understood the danger inherent in linking theology and the law.

     What he perceived was that so many religions are steeped in an absolutist frame of mind–each convinced that it alone has a monopoly on truth and therefore eager for the state to impose this truth on others.  Practitioners of absolutist religions cannot see any middle ground or that truth can be drawn from seemingly contradictory doctrines.

     Roger Williams did not live to see the anactment of the Bill of Rights, which decoupled the church from the state.  James Madison, the writer of the Bill of Rights, recognized that a close relation between the government and any of the quarrelsome religions would be fatal to freedom and injurious to religion.  It would tend to destroy government and degrade religion.

     For the past month Americans have focused on Islam, what James Michener called the “misunderstood religion”.  He wrote that the one point that Americans frequently miss is that “Islam is not only a religion, it is also a body of law.  This law, known as the Shariat, has developed from the Koran and the traditions.  This system makes a Muslim’s religion somewhat more important to him that it would be in a western community.”  In other words in Islam the distinction between theology and law is muted, and often a Muslim does not separate the two.

     However, in his column last week, Dan Rather argued that the terrorist attacks of September 11th went way beyond adherence to the Islam religion.  “It seems apparent that the perpetrators’ true religion is fascism, that grim creed the earth never seems able to banish completely.  Their acts ‘can only be understood’ within the context of Islam only because Islam is the framework they have chosen for expressing their will to power.”

     The columnist Thomas Sowell asked the question, “What have we done wrong to arouse such hatred?”  He answers, “We have achievements that dwarf theirs.  We have succeeded.  The fanatics most often come from wealth, rather than poverty, and so they have time on their hands to brood and produce their brand of fanaticism.” 


     Why has Western Civilization, in America and Europe, succeeded and achieved so much?  There are a lot of immediate and obvious answers, however, I  would argue that the West has succeeded because of characters like Roger Williams who forgot about their own personal comforts, took a contrary position regardless of the threat of imprisonment or banishment, and argued that only the state should be the institution that creates and executes laws and not the church.