Roger Williams and Choosing Pluralism over Polarization
By BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler
Turn on any news channel or go to your preferred pundit’s social media timeline, and you’re likely to hear something along these lines: “America is more divided than ever.” Political polarization among people groups, political parties and even families has been the subject of numerous studies, think pieces, newspaper articles and books. In BJC’s work to secure faith freedom for all, we are concerned with yet another facet of this polarization trend: increasing division based on religious difference. When looking for a model for a way forward, we can draw inspiration from the life and example of Roger Williams, a religious seeker who spent some important time as a Baptist and arrived in North America 389 years ago today.
Our diverse and ever-changing religious landscape is thanks in large part to the American constitutional system that protects religious freedom. Because our government is neutral when it comes to religion, religious observance has flourished and multiplied in its expression. Though Christians continue to count for the largest proportion of Americans (about 7 out of 10), nearly every faith tradition imaginable is represented in our country’s population. As widely reported, the fastest-growing segment of our population when it comes to religious identification are those who do not claim a specific tradition.
Navigating religious diversity is challenging. When we discuss religion or nonreligion, we are frequently talking about a person’s most sincerely held beliefs and truth claims, which are often the cornerstone of her morality, her sense of self and the way she interacts with others in the world. When faced with diversity, one response can be to hunker down into religious isolationism or triumphalism, condemning those who pray differently than we do or those who don’t pray at all. This response drives many of the instances of religious intolerance in our nation today.
How can we hold fast to our own religious or nonreligious convictions, while still honoring the constitutional right of our neighbor to hold different convictions? That’s where Roger Williams comes in.
In 1631, Williams was one of many Christians who fled England for the Colonies to escape violent religious persecution. Unfortunately, he faced religious intolerance in his new home as well. In 1635, he was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for preaching about soul freedom, the idea that faith is necessarily voluntary and, therefore, governments should neither compel nor constrain religious practice of any kind. Important for his Baptist credentials, Williams founded the First Baptist Church in America in 1638.
Williams was a person of deep conviction. An early abolitionist and defender of Native American sovereignty, he also held strong religious beliefs, expressed in writings that vigorously defended his view of Christianity against what he saw as the errors of other traditions. One might think that such a strong-willed individual who gains political power would declare his religious views superior and condemn the practice of all other paths. Thankfully, Williams chose a better way.
After being forced out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Williams founded the colony of Rhode Island, which soon became a haven for religious minorities. Instead of shutting out his neighbors of differing religious traditions, Williams worked to build a society where everyone was free to worship as they saw fit.
Williams’ beliefs changed throughout his life, and he defended the conscience rights of his religiously diverse neighbors in Rhode Island. Importantly, though, he never gave up on his own religious convictions (whatever those happened to be at any given time). In his book Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, Miroslav Volf calls Williams “an intransigent defender of religious truth if ever there was one.” However, Volf also credits Williams, who wrote of the “hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world,” as “the father of political pluralism.”
Williams understood that religious liberty is not just for me, but also for thee. There is no contradiction between having religious convictions (including beliefs that are religiously exclusivist) and standing up for our neighbors’ rights to believe and worship as they see fit. We can hold fast to our own beliefs while protecting the constitutional right of every person to do the same, including the right to change or reject previously held beliefs. We cannot fight the dangers of religious intolerance and polarization by hiding behind the walls of triumphalist Christian nationalism. We must choose the challenge of real interfaith encounter over the insidious “easy answers” of religious bigoty and exclusion.
This work is not easy, but it can be done. We can resist religious polarization in our personal lives as we build relationships with our neighbors of all faiths and none. We can resist religious polarization in our shared political life, as we work to protect the First Amendment’s vision of faith freedom for all. We can resist religious polarization in our increasingly global society as we build an international diplomatic vision that respects religious difference and promotes peace.
As we honor Roger Williams’ life and witness today, let us honor our convictions, the convictions of our neighbors, and our nation’s constitutional promise of religious liberty that allows us to live and work together as neighbors and as friends.
Amanda Tyler is the executive director of BJC.