We signal – academic style seems dowdy but members read its gestures; soccer fans treasure that moment of recognition. We note kinship, we signal we understand. We treasure that moment when we raise our eyes and see a surprised look, an – “I agree.” The academic style seems to troll obsessively for these moments – perhaps to still the cognitive dissonance.
John Barry’s Roger Williams inspired me – I had known little and he has led me to study farther. But if I’m grateful, I’m also a bit irritated. Why a concluding criticism of John Yoo and equation of George Bush with James I (whom he has treated with considerable contempt)? And it alienates – no understanding look would pass between us in conversation, at a dinner table. The relation between the Patriot Act and James’ highhandedness seems tenuous at best and certainly irrelevant. Barry’s LA Times’ piece argues Williams would be today’s “warrior against religion.” Well, maybe. He cites the suit brought by a Rhode Island girl, requesting the school remove a prayer mounted on the wall. He concludes – “Presidential candidates and evangelicals ignore American history and insist on injecting religion in to politics. They proclaim their belief in freedom – even while they violate it.” This simplifies; certainly, using Williams – exiled from each New England community – as touchstone might mean your “American history” is more limited than you imply.
Williams’ belief in an inclusive state and an exclusive church led him to separation, but the intensity, obsessive nature and even narrowness of his religiious beliefs were the driving force. An inclusive state allows all sects to grow as a theocratic doesn’t. And Williams’ Providence was inclusive. Most would choose his society – comfortable with numerous sects, not perturbed by their standards for admission – as long as we weren’t forced to conform. Still, his was a remarkably exclusive, remarkably narrow religion.
Theology interests Barry minimally. We are grateful to a well-done analysis of the elephant’s trunk, even if the blind man ignores the wall that is the body or the rope that is the tail. But I’m not sure we want to grant him expertise on the whole elephant – nor the herd. He implies more, convinced of his soundness by looking up to the approving, knowing smile across the table.
He might have been forewarned. Almost 60 years earlier, Perry Miller concluded the “Foreword” to his Roger Williams: “I have long been persuaded that accounts written within the last century created a figure admirable by the canons of modern secular liberalism, but only distantly related to the actual Williams” (vi). Clearly writing against interpretations like Barry’s, Miller that same year (1953) noted in his seminal The New England Mind: From Colony to Province:
Roger Williams is regarded today as a prophet, and I admire him inordinately; still, we need to remember that he repudiated the persecuting power of the civil arm not because, like Jefferson, he was religiously indifferent, but because he took Congregational purity with dreadful literalness. He was a perfectionist, saved from dogmatism by his realization that perfection is unattainable; nevertheless, the demand that saints become so holy as to render political regulation superfluous. He became so infatuated with justification by faith that he lost the concomitant sense of innate depravity.”(120)
In 1967, Edmund Morgan concluded his Roger Williams:
It does not follow that we should give Williams back to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century liberals who claimed him for their own. Williams belonged to the seventeenth century, to Puritanism and to Separatism. What he did share with a number of men, in his own century as well as before and since, was a quality that always seems to life a man above his time¨ intellectual courage, the willingness to go where the mind leads. If his mind told him there could be no church, he left the church, even though he wanted nothing more than to serve it. When his mind told him the state could do nothing but harm to religion, he said so, even thought it cost him everything he had” (142).
And, again, he offers a “correcting” frame. The soul of the moderation he prizes in Winthrop, opened his 2006 “Foreword” to his new edition, Williams’ “thinking on these subjects, too disturbing for seventeenth-century Massachusetts, still has the power to disturb twenty-first-century America. It poses a challenge to all those who would allow a church to meddle in politics and equally to those who would allow the state to meddle with the teachings of the church.” (xii)
Barry’s treatment of Coke and Morgan’s of separatism give us useful insights, for we still find our complex heritage useful. Williams has been lucky – Barry’s prose, less clean but more figurative & broadly historical, gives a different pleasure than the always welcome, remarkable purity and depth of Morgan. Both, like Williams, think. But the purely secular, as a half century ago, is likely to miss much about the elephant.