For twenty years I’ve been writing and talking about civility, the public virtues necessary for a healthy democracy. My work on civility got its start in a dissertation and two subsequent books on Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and the first American prophet for religious freedom.
Recently I enjoyed a rare opportunity to talk about his importance for a podcast called Multifaith Matters, which “explores various facets of loving God and multifaith neighbors through interviews with pastors, ministry leaders, and scholars” and “models neighborly multifaith conversations with members of various religious traditions.” The podcast is produced by Multi-Faith Matters dot org, an organization whose mission is to “help evangelicals fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandments (love of God and neighbor) while maintaining faithfulness to evangelical convictions.” To achieve this, they facilitate dialogue and relationships among people of all faiths.
Roger Williams is known for his religious toleration, but he was also fiercely dogmatic, and his ability to hold together deeply held convictions and respect for others makes him an interesting case study for our time. In our conversation here, after a brief biographical sketch, I delve into Williams’s ideas about the Puritan establishment in Massachusetts, natural law, religious freedom, civility, and the proper relationship between church and society.
You can listen to the podcast here on its website, or via several other podcast platforms, including Spotify.
You can also watch the interview here!
Grace and truth. Neither is in great supply these days. Grace and truth can be scarce in the church or at family holiday gatherings, but they are virtually unicorns in American politics, rumored to be real but never actually seen. In our post-fact era, there is no such thing as truth, for reality is whatever my favorite cable channel or internet site says it is. And in our hyper-partisan political culture, where political opponents are no longer fellow citizens but enemies of the people, grace gives way to demonization. In the eyes of Democrats, Republicans are racist, cowardly, and enslaved to the wealthy elite. In the standard rhetoric of Republicans, Democrats are anti-religious intellectuals bent on undermining American security with open borders, while redistributing wealth to eliminate the need to work. The absence of grace and truth in our politics increasingly bleeds into how we relate to our neighbors, family members, and church kin.
In the most racially divisive moment in the United States since the Civil Rights Movement, we are discovering that we are not “one nation under God,” but two Americas, living in the same national space. One America recognizes that we are becoming increasingly diverse as a nation, with experts projecting that people of color will outnumber white citizens in less than a generation. This America welcomes diversity and celebrates how rich and interesting our country becomes with the embrace of racial, ethnic, cultural, and sex/gender difference. This America accepts the truth that to live up to our moniker as the “city on a hill,” we must embrace our tradition as a nation of immigrants and establish border policies that are both disciplined and gracious. This America acknowledges that our national history is built on injuries to people of different races, cultures, and countries, but it seeks to remedy that legacy by the confession of sins and commitment to a future of fairness and mutual respect.
But there also is a second America, gripped by fear and simmering with resentment, inhabited by groups used to occupying the majority and serving as the measure of what is normal, but who now are in danger of losing their country to an element that feels foreign and alien.
Like many of you, I have been struggling with the news coming out of New Zealand a week or so ago. Fifty people were killed in an act of terror on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The victims’ only crime was gathering as Muslims for prayer. The attack was perpetrated by a man who identifies as a white nationalist, a resister to the alleged global effort to exterminate white people. His manifesto, meant to inspire others in the cause, was itself inspired by (among other influences) white nationalist rhetoric, efforts, and validations here in the United States. For a week the entire nation of New Zealand has been mourning fifty people killed in the name of hate.
I’ve been preoccupied with this news this week, and with the unimpeded rise in dangerous racist sentiment here and around the world. As a Christian, I also am underwhelmed by the response of the Church to moments like these. To be sure, many Christian denominations came out immediately with thoughtful and earnest denunciations of the violence and expressions of genuine sympathy and concern for the victims of this tragedy, and for New Zealand as a national community. But many of those statements strike my ear as somewhat innocuous, expressing genuine sorrow but not quite capturing the anger I have in moments like these. Our hearts go out to our Muslim sisters and brothers.… We must put an end to the violence…. Is this all that Christians can say?