Saturday, October 28, 2006

On Roger Williams as Political Philosopher

For a number of reasons, Dr. Freeman is just plain wrong when he comments that:

Of course anyone who's read Williams would never mistake him for a philosopher, especially not a political philosopher. What your comment assumes is that Leland gets Williams right. Williams makes allusion to the garden image several times in his complete writings. But he is not making a case for separation of church and state (which Leland is). He was not worried about the integrity of the state (certainly not democracy), but rather with the purity of the church.

First, the Puritans saw themselves as a "new Israel." The Mayflower Compact -- a church covenant pressed into service as a civil document -- was viewed as the equivalent of the covenant between God and Israel at Sinai. The nation of Israel enforced all the commandments given to Moses. Any nation that was a "new Israel" should enforce all of the commandments -- including the commands on the "first table" of the Ten Commandments about worship.

Williams did not believe that civil government should enforce all of the Ten Commandments. He believed that Christians should observe all of the commandments, but he held that civil government should only enforce the "second table" of the law -- the last six commandments. The commands of the "first table" of the law -- the commands regarding religion and worship -- he believed should be left to private, individual conscience.

In the eyes of the Puritans, it was both heretical and treasonous for Williams to suggest that civil government should not enforce the commands of the "first table" of the Ten Commandments. He was jeopardizing their covenant with God as the "new Israel."

Williams denied that colonies on the American continent could properly be viewed as a "new Israel." He argued that the relationship between the church and "The state of the land of Israel, the kings and people thereof, in peace and war, is . . . figurative and ceremonial, and no pattern nor precedent for any kingdom or civil state in the world to follow." (Bloudy Tenent, p. 3.)

Second, Freeman insinuates that Professor Wolfe and anyone who asserts that Williams had a contribution to make to political philosophy must not have read Williams. I've read both Williams and several of his biographers. I am unapologetic in asserting that Williams' understanding of political philosophy was well ahead of all his contemporaries in America.

Third, before coming to America, Roger Williams was English Jurist Edward Coke's stenographer and transcriptionist at the Crown Court in Westminster Hall. Sir Edward Coke was one of the most powerful figures in English political and legal life. He wrote legal texts on English Common Law that were definitive for 300 years. Williams was educated at Cambridge under the patronage of Edward Coke. Here's how James Ernst, one of William's ablest biographers, describes Williams' education:

Williams was hardly the kind of youth to keep out of the religious and political discussions that agitated Cambridge in the early seventeenth century. The university was then a hotbed of radicalism and protest. His studies in history, philosophy, and theology brought him in contact with the popular sovereignty and natural rights notions of the Pagan and Christian thinkers. The teachings of Christ are themselves populist and individualistic in tendency. At Cambridge he again took up the religious and social protests of the Puritans and reformers, and under the able leadership of Sir Edward Coke and Sir John Eliot, joined the party opposing Bishop Laud's church policy and the followers of the King. (p. 31-32).

Fourth, Williams left Cambridge the year that Coke drafted the Petition of Right which was a forerunner of the English Bill of Rights and the U.S. Bill of Rights. In this context, Williams' emphasis on "liberty of conscience" could be seen as one aspect of the early struggle for basic human rights.

Fifth, contrary to what Dr. Freeman would lead my readers to believe, Williams had plenty to say about political philosophy. He was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because political ideas like this were considered dangerous to the unity of civil society:

"True civility and Christianity may both flourish in a state or kingdom, notwithstanding the permission of divers and contrary consciences, either Jew or Gentile."

Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, For Cause of Conscience ed. Richard Groves (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2001), pp. 3-4.]

Sixth, Williams actually had political experience setting up a pure democracy in Rhode Island. Here's a quote from he articles that created the Government of Rhode Island March 16-19, 1641:
It is ordered and unanimously agreed upon, that the Government which this Bodie Politick doth attend unto in this Island, and the Jurisdiction thereof, in favour of our Prince is a DEMOCRACIE, or Popular Government; that is to say, It is in the Powre of the Body of Freemen orderly assembled, or the major part of them, to make or constitute Just Lawes, by which they will be regulated, and to depute from among themselves such Ministers as shall see them faithfully executed between Man and Man.

He also began the "livlie experiment" with religious liberty for all by securing the first charter in the history of the world to secure "a free, full, and absolute liberty of conscience."

10 comments:

Mike Broadway said...

Dr. Prescott and Dr. Freeman are actually both giving important insights true to the writings of Roger Williams. Williams does provide much fodder for political thought, and his political thought is especially concerned with the protection of a free church.

This particular aspect of the debate about church and state in recent decades has battled around an impasse. Part of the reason for the impasse is the broad reassessment among Baptists, the Reformed Tradition, Anabaptists, and Roman Catholics about the shortcomings of their own traditions and about the way they characterize one another's doctrine.

I find that there are still haters of the Roman Catholic Church among Baptists. Neither of these scholars is numbered among them. On the other hand, neither of them is ready to bend the knee to the supremacy of Rome or its bishop. Those are not the only two possibilities.

Nor are the only two possibilities in church-state relations (1) to accept the supremacy of pluralist visions of the good society as a necessary corollary of faithful ecclesiology and separation of church and state or (2) militaristic, theocratic absolutism. It is not either (1) nation-state as divinely appointed umpire of the limits of religion, or (2) Muenster. One can doubt the competence of the nation-state to be a fair arbiter of faith without throwing out the valuable traditions of church-state separation which Baptists rightly treasure. One can even doubt that the pluralistic telos of U.S. culture is aligned with proclaiming the Reign of God without wanting the Reign of God to be enforced through Reconstructionist or other heretical models of coercive Christianity.

What was said in only muted terms in the original remarks by Dr. Newman was that a church which affirms the Lordship of Jesus as its political order can do so faithfully only in an authentic commitment to follow Jesus' path of non-violence. To claim, "Jesus is Lord," can only have integrity if the church disavows violence. Seventeen centuries of willingness to bear arms against the enemies we love has produced enough Muensters and Auschwitzes that we ought to be able to get it through our thick skulls that separation of church and state must mean separation of church and violence. I admit that this is a minority position in Baptist theology. But it is a minority position for the very reason that most Baptists accepted the Reformed Tradition's doctrine of the Divinely Sanctioned State as holding hegemony over bodies, leaving the inward life of the mind to be ruled by the church. Yet the New Testament says to present our bodies a living sacrifice, not only our minds.

Setting aside violence does not mean that churches have to leave the social realm to governments and corporations to rule as they will. In the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago, Lawndale Community Church has reshaped life by transgressing the imposed distinctions between politics and religion. Getting housing up to code, providing health care, educating children, creating jobs, can't merely be left to the powers and authorities which are dominated by the rich who seek their own self-interest. The church steps out and joins God in making a way where there is no way.

The result often is, as Yoder says, a kind of spiritual osmosis, by which the government, the corporations, the world's social structures get on the bandwagon and do their part to build a better community. This is a fully political model of ecclesiology, but not one that is built on a theocratic absolutism. It is a teleological understanding of God's Reign as already and not yet. It is the irruption of the Spirit, to transform the social existence, the political order, in which people live. It is what John and Vera Mae Perkins did in Mississippi. It is what the Latino Pastoral Action Center is doing in the Bronx, New York, and what St. Paul Community Baptist Church is doing in Brooklyn, New York, what Mission Waco is doing in Waco, Texas, and what Friendship West Baptist Church is doing in Dallas, Texas.

It is not Christian Reconstructionism. It is compatible with strict separation of church and state as an institutional arrangement by which churches do not depend on government to do their work nor does government select one or some churches or religions to be its agents. Such an ecclesiology recognizes that governments and churches both make all-encompassing claims on human lives, but can agree that the church has no intention or permission or birthright to make those claims under threat of violence. It does not judge worldly government as competent to make the expansive claims that it makes, for the kingdoms of this world are passing away.

Such a church can agree with Dr. Newman that church-state separation is a good worth protecting as well as that "Jesus is Lord" is our confession without reservation.

The high level of rhetoric in this exchange reminds me a bit of why I am a former Southern Baptist and also a former Southern Baptist Exile. I don't mean that the Baptists with whom I share regular fellowship are not equally capable of harsh exchanges.

Associating now with National Baptists, Progressive National Baptists, and Lott Carey Baptists, I also remember that my Southern Baptist upbringing led me to believe Black Baptists were a deficient form of Baptist life. I don't think anyone in this discussion believes that now. But I do believe that the differences between Black Baptists, English Baptists, American Baptists, Southern Baptists, and Moderate Baptists, among many others, are often ignored and belittled by the claim that one stream of Baptist thought represents true Baptists.

Helwys and Smyth, as two candidates for the founders of the Baptist Movement, should make plain to us that the debate over the willingness of Baptists to kill, when commanded by the ruler of their geographical location, has been and remains a lively issue among Baptists. Strong claims for non-violence remain prominent in the past half-century of Baptist life in the U.S. And on the acceptance or rejection of cooperating in state violence hinges much of how we interpret the Lordship of Jesus Christ while we observe the strict separation of church and state.

Mike Broadway said...

Dr. Prescott and Dr. Freeman are actually both giving important insights true to the writings of Roger Williams. Williams does provide much fodder for political thought, and his political thought is especially concerned with the protection of a free church.

This particular aspect of the debate about church and state in recent decades has battled around an impasse. Part of the reason for the impasse is the broad reassessment among Baptists, the Reformed Tradition, Anabaptists, and Roman Catholics about the shortcomings of their own traditions and about the way they characterize one another's doctrine.

I find that there are still haters of the Roman Catholic Church among Baptists. Neither of these scholars is numbered among them. On the other hand, neither of them is ready to bend the knee to the supremacy of Rome or its bishop. Those are not the only two possibilities.

Nor are the only two possibilities in church-state relations (1) to accept the supremacy of pluralist visions of the good society as a necessary corollary of faithful ecclesiology and separation of church and state or (2) militaristic, theocratic absolutism. It is not either (1) nation-state as divinely appointed umpire of the limits of religion, or (2) Muenster. One can doubt the competence of the nation-state to be a fair arbiter of faith without throwing out the valuable traditions of church-state separation which Baptists rightly treasure. One can even doubt that the pluralistic telos of U.S. culture is aligned with proclaiming the Reign of God without wanting the Reign of God to be enforced through Reconstructionist or other heretical models of coercive Christianity.

What was said in only muted terms in the original remarks by Dr. Newman was that a church which affirms the Lordship of Jesus as its political order can do so faithfully only in an authentic commitment to follow Jesus' path of non-violence. To claim, "Jesus is Lord," can only have integrity if the church disavows violence. Seventeen centuries of willingness to bear arms against the enemies we love has produced enough Muensters and Auschwitzes that we ought to be able to get it through our thick skulls that separation of church and state must mean separation of church and violence. I admit that this is a minority position in Baptist theology. But it is a minority position for the very reason that most Baptists accepted the Reformed Tradition's doctrine of the Divinely Sanctioned State as holding hegemony over bodies, leaving the inward life of the mind to be ruled by the church. Yet the New Testament says to present our bodies a living sacrifice, not only our minds.

Setting aside violence does not mean that churches have to leave the social realm to governments and corporations to rule as they will. In the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago, Lawndale Community Church has reshaped life by transgressing the imposed distinctions between politics and religion. Getting housing up to code, providing health care, educating children, creating jobs, can't merely be left to the powers and authorities which are dominated by the rich who seek their own self-interest. The church steps out and joins God in making a way where there is no way.

The result often is, as Yoder says, a kind of spiritual osmosis, by which the government, the corporations, the world's social structures get on the bandwagon and do their part to build a better community. This is a fully political model of ecclesiology, but not one that is built on a theocratic absolutism. It is a teleological understanding of God's Reign as already and not yet. It is the irruption of the Spirit, to transform the social existence, the political order, in which people live. It is what John and Vera Mae Perkins did in Mississippi. It is what the Latino Pastoral Action Center is doing in the Bronx, New York, and what St. Paul Community Baptist Church is doing in Brooklyn, New York, what Mission Waco is doing in Waco, Texas, and what Friendship West Baptist Church is doing in Dallas, Texas.

It is not Christian Reconstructionism. It is compatible with strict separation of church and state as an institutional arrangement by which churches do not depend on government to do their work nor does government select one or some churches or religions to be its agents. Such an ecclesiology recognizes that governments and churches both make all-encompassing claims on human lives, but can agree that the church has no intention or permission or birthright to make those claims under threat of violence. It does not judge worldly government as competent to make the expansive claims that it makes, for the kingdoms of this world are passing away.

Such a church can agree with Dr. Newman that church-state separation is a good worth protecting as well as that "Jesus is Lord" is our confession without reservation.

The high level of rhetoric in this exchange reminds me a bit of why I am a former Southern Baptist and also a former Southern Baptist Exile. I don't mean that the Baptists with whom I share regular fellowship are not equally capable of harsh exchanges.

Associating now with National Baptists, Progressive National Baptists, and Lott Carey Baptists, I also remember that my Southern Baptist upbringing led me to believe Black Baptists were a deficient form of Baptist life. I don't think anyone in this discussion believes that now. But I do believe that the differences between Black Baptists, English Baptists, American Baptists, Southern Baptists, and Moderate Baptists, among many others, are often ignored and belittled by the claim that one stream of Baptist thought represents true Baptists.

Helwys and Smyth, as two candidates for the founders of the Baptist Movement, should make plain to us that the debate over the willingness of Baptists to kill, when commanded by the ruler of their geographical location, has been and remains a lively issue among Baptists. Strong claims for non-violence remain prominent in the past half-century of Baptist life in the U.S. And on the acceptance or rejection of cooperating in state violence hinges much of how we interpret the Lordship of Jesus Christ while we observe the strict separation of church and state.

Steve Harmon said...

Very well said, Mike! Your post reframes the categories and refocuses the issues in ways that ought to make us rethink our usual discourse about church and state, Christ and culture. Whatever sense one makes of Romans 13, one can't escape its location of the use of the sword in the civil state. The church cannot wield the sword or aid and abet the use of the sword without forsaking the Lordship of Christ; under the Lorship of Christ the church may find itself in active conflict with the state that asks for the help of the members of the church in wielding the sword. In such circumstances the church will find itself transgressing the polite conventions of a pluralist society that serve to insulate the state from the challenges of a religion that refuses to be confined to the sphere of private opinion. We are glad when the powers of pluralism reign in the would-be jihadist; should we be glad when the same powers succeed in sidelining those whose witness to the peace of the reign of God is a threat to the powers? That question is what Beth's column sought to address, and Mike's post has helped us recover it.

Dr. Bruce Prescott said...

Mike and Steve,

We must not be living in the same country.

I saw the culture-warrior Christians in the Religious Right rallying the troops for war with Iraq.

You write as if it were the ACLU, Americans United and progressive Christians.

Critiques of the idolatry of nationalism and capitalism are commonplace among progressive Christians. Beth had nothing to add except an analogy drawn from a Christian Reconstructionist.

Big Daddy Weave said...

Dr. Prescott,

I've enjoyed your responses to Newman, Freeman, & Company.

Personally, I was quite offended by Broadway's "observation" that "there are still haters of the Roman Catholic Church among Baptists."

Who are these Haters? Was Broadway referring to random folks in the pews or older Moderate Baptist scholars and leaders???

I hope not the latter...

Dr. Bruce Prescott said...

Weave,

If he was referring to any moderate Baptist I know, he'll have to produce some evidence.

Commitment to Baptist theology has nothing to do with hating Catholicism. Neither does commitment to Catholic theology have anything to do with hating Baptists.

Theological diversity is healthy for the church.

Mike Broadway said...

Bruce says that I seem to be living in a different country. You may be on to something, so I want to experiment with that idea.

Your earlier remarks had highlighted the prominence of Reconstructionist ideas in Oklahoma. You also encounter them on the web, a place where everyone can become a published author with a little time and access.

I know these people meet and write and organize. I've taught about them in my classes. I have a colleague who researches them. But they are speaking a language that has not made much sense to my undergraduate students (a few years back) nor to my divinity students now.

Moreover, when I deal with public high school teachers and students and with college or divinity students or professors from the other universities in our area, this kind of Reconstructionist idea is the farthest thing from their view of the US. If it is true that about 40% of the people in the US go to college, as I recall (the figure I found was 35% of people at the age to start college in 2002, see http://chronicle.com/free/v52/i27/27b05001.htm, which would not include those who go later in life) then one could assume that many of these people find themselves in a milieu similar to mine. Of course, prominent Reconstructionists include many college graduates, so I am not trying to claim that going to college is an absolute indicator of whether someone would be attracted either to Reconstructionist or to Secular Supremist ideas.

A second angle to take on living in different countries could be affected by the generally progressive politics of my county and city. Maybe a better argument would be that in Durham, NC, there are not many Reconstructionists to be found (even though one prominent Baptist pastor may be in sympathy with them). Your experience in Oklahoma may be different, and no doubt Idaho has attracted such people.

One might construe the two countries according to different kinds of churches and their agendas. As for the threat of conservative so-called Christians believing in a renewed crusade, in a war to bring on Armageddon, or in a revived Imperialism of the US as the supercession of Israel, I am with you fully that this is the current great threat to peace in the US and the world. Many of these people have so many doctrines wrong about the nature of the church and the nature of the state, sadly built upon certain versions of Puritan heritage of the Reformed tradition. That is part of what I was trying to address in my earlier post about non-violence.

On the other hand, churches who are engaging in grassroots democracy and community transformation, whether conservative evangelical or progressive evangelical or mainstream protestant or Roman catholic, are recognizing the failure of conservative or liberal politics-as-usual to help the poor or deal with white supremacy. Christian Community Development, IAF/DART/Gamaliel/PICO, Leadership Foundations of America, and a variety of local churches are making changes through their own efforts and by joining efforts with others to leverage social change. That is happening all over the country, and it is something I have focused my attention on. But nowhere that I have looked have these efforts managed to eliminate poverty or racism completely.

When I look at church-state issues from the point of view of what churches must do to faithfully be the presence of Christ here and now, in this country, under this government, then part of what I want churches to know is that they don't have to accept the hemmed-in, domesticated role assigned them in the doctrine of the spheres. On pilgrimage in the world, such churches and their people engage the thrones and dominions through participatory democracy and representative government, and also by building their own structures for social change. This latter is their calling regardless of what political order they are living in--one where the secularism of eastern universities shapes the thought of many, or one where Reconstructionists can get the ear of a regional newspaper.

When I look at church-state relations from the point of view of how government policies can maintain a proper relationship toward churches and "religions," then I still find 1st amendment jurisprudence which promotes benevolent neutrality a good place to hang my hat. Neutrality will never quite be neutral, so the effort has to be asymptotal. Practical reasoning of the highest care is required. I still tell my friends they are better off not taking the "faith-based" money from the government to do their ministries. I work to stop the attack on schools that "No Child Left Behind" legislation has put in place to redirect government funds to for-profit corporations and private religious groups wanting to get in on the government purse through vouchers. But this is a defensive effort, a way to maintain detente. It is not a constructive ecclesiology. It helps keep the civil society from going too far off the path of the common good. But it does not put the church on the path of Kingdom building.

Finally, when national elections are falling out 50-50 and opinion polls are falling out 40-40, then that might be one more reason to feel that we are talking about different countries.

Mike Broadway said...

Big Daddy Weave asks whether I meant to accuse moderate baptist scholars and leaders of hating the RCC. No.

Coleman said...

I'm a latecomer to this conversation, and a reluctant one. I echo much of what's been said by Drs. Newman, Freeman, Harmon, and Broadway; there are few theological points I can add. However, I think it's important to speak as one of a number of younger Baptists seeking to move beyond the tired rhetoric displayed here and by many of my fellow "moderate" Baptists in discussions about church and state, ethics, and (as often goes ignored) ecclesiology. It's also important that as a former BJC employee, graduate of a CBF-partnered seminary, member of a CBF church until moving to an area where there are none (I'm now in an ABC church), and participant in several CBF-funded mission projects, I support the work of these groups in very large part.

Dr. Prescott, while you have admitted that Dr. Newman's column is not linked with Restorationism (nor fundamentalism or nationalism, I might add), the way you respond to her recalls the guilt-by-association typical of the conservatives and fundamentalists you are so critical of. I also believe you do not adequately address the substance of her critique, what I refer to as the "other side" of religious liberty. In short, Baptists in America have been correct in advocating for and defending religious liberty and separation of church and state, a providential development in the disentanglement of the church from coercive power. Unfortunately, individualism has left Baptists with an ecclesiology largely unable to discern or resist the dangers of the culture we live in and the government we live under. Examples include consumerism in various forms and our nation's reliance on violence and its threat to maintain and exercise power on a global scale, but there are certainly others. Sadly, the lack of a stronger, ethically-meaningful notion of the church universal has rendered non-fundamentalist Baptist ethics nearly impotent.

That this ecclesiology is also unable to deal with fundamentalism (or theological liberalism) is something many of us have seen firsthand. What we have also seen are repeated, fruitless calls to recognize who the "real Baptists" are. It should be apparent by now, however, that establishing who rightly interprets Scripture and/or Roger Williams makes little difference in the context of supposedly "autonomous" churches and Christians who believe they can rightly interpret Scripture without the context of community and tradition. As the remnants of Christendom and the later Protestant culture in the U.S. fade away, much that was assumed - positively and negatively - can be assumed no longer, and we Baptists find ourselves painted into a corner in which the status of the individual self prevents healthy ecclesial association or correction. Paradoxically, this leaves us particularly vulnerable to authoritarianism such as that displayed in the fundamentalist takeover. Thus it should come as no surprise that we have spent the last several decades fighting and dividing, further weakening our already weak ecclesiology.

Non-fundamentalist ("moderate") Baptists are now faced with a challenge and an opportunity: either continue on our current path and fade to nonexistence (or at least irrelevance) in a generation or two, or set to the task of re-envisioning our ecclesiology. Such re-envisioning must be especially concerned with real, repentant ecumenism and formulating our ethical discourse in response to the signs of the times. All this being said, I thank you for your willingness to engage in this important conversation.

Dr. Bruce Prescott said...

Coleman,

Your caricature of my position makes it clear that you are unfamiliar with my position.

You may find these links helpful:

9/21/96 Letter to Dr. Freeman

Re-affirming Baptist Identity