Select Page



by William H. Benson

May 12, 2011

     Michael Reagan, the former President’s son, submitted his opinion of Osama bin Laden’s demise. “They got him. Put a couple of slugs in his face. Then they dumped his body in the sea—something for the fish which don’t much care what they eat to feed on.”

     Reagan pointed out the ideological discrepancy that falls along geographical boundaries, of that between the West and the East. “All of this comes out of a divergence of world views. Here in the West we try to live and let live. Believe what you must; we’ll defend your right to your beliefs as long as they threaten no one.”

     But speaking of the zealots of the world, Reagan observed, “That’s heresy to the fanatics who worship at the altar of violence, who insist that their warped view of the world, and the role that one’s religion plays in it, demands violence against its non-believers. . . . Do it their way or die.”

     Reagan’s comments cause me to wonder, how is it that one part of the world clings to the idea of allowing everyone to believe and worship as he or she wants, and in another part its citizens wish to persecute those who refuse to believe as they believe? A difficult question, but it juxtaposes the modern with the medieval, and the West, it must be remembered, was not always a beacon of religious liberty. 

     The best answer is that the West produced forceful individuals, stubborn men from centuries ago who dared to assert what they believed to be true, regardless of the consequences, and they convinced a few others, and gradually their ideas took root, grew, and blossomed into freedom of the conscience.

     One such individual was Roger Williams, the founder of the New England colony at Rhode Island. In 1644, when visiting London, he published his major work, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience. Although it is a tedious work, its ideas overwhelm the careful reader.

     At its beginning, he lists twelve ideas. The first: “That the blood of so many hundred thousand souls of Protestants and Papists, spilt in the Wars of present and former Ages, for their respective Consciences, is not required nor accepted by the Prince of Peace.”

     The fifth: “All Civil States with their Officers of justice in their respective constitutions and administrations are proved essentially Civil, and therefore not Judges, Governors, or Defenders of the Spiritual or Christian state and worship.” Roger insisted that the government should not interfere in a state’s religion, an idea that his contemporaries in Massachusetts thought crazed, outlandish.

     But if anyone misunderstood him, he spelled out in his sixth what he insisted upon: “It is the will and command of God, that . . . a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Anti-Christian consciences be granted to all men in all Nations and Countries.”

     This was too much for the Bay colony clergymen and magistrates, who believed in a theocracy, the joining together of the government with the one church, for they reasoned it would be foolish to allow all brands of religion to flourish in their colony. It would invite trouble.

     Those officials justified their position by pointing to the Old Testament, to ancient Israel, and Roger offered an answer to that argument in his seventh: “The state of the Land of Israel, the Kings and people thereof in Peace & War, is proved figurative and ceremonial, and no pattern nor precedent for any Kingdom or civil state in the world to follow.”

     The eighth: “God requireth not an uniformity of Religion to be inacted and inforced in any civill state.” If a government does require a uniform religion, the result, Roger argued, “is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience,” because it “confounds the civil and the religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility.”

      In the eleventh, he predicts the benefits that would result from a multiplicity of religions: “The permission of other consciences and worship only can procure a firm and lasting peace.”

     The Bay colony magistrates rejected each of Roger’s twelve ideas, and to advance their own narrow brand of religion, they relied upon the tools of persecution: banishment, fines, the whipping post, badges and emblems of disgrace worn on their clothing, the dunking tank, stocks, branding, disfigurement, severing limbs, and ultimately the gallows and the hangman’s noose.

     They banished Roger Williams from Boston, executed a Quaker lady named Mary Dyer, fined a Baptist named John Clarke, and tied another Baptist named Obadiah Holmes to the whipping post where he received thirty stripes across his bare back. Holmes’ crime: he had visited a fellow Baptist in Lynn, Massachusetts and preached a sermon there on the need for adult immersion in baptism.

     Roger Williams’ ideas won the battle though. A century and a half later, freedom of religion and liberty of conscience were incorporated into the first Amendment in the Bill of Rights: “ Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

     But that is in the United States, and does not apply to the world’s other nations. Michael Reagan wrote that bin-Laden and his Al-Qaida party, “have not understood that they cannot enforce their beliefs by killing those who reject them.” The bloody tenent of persecution: May it be buried in the sea.