Separating Church and State

Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Roger Williams made arguments for a separation of Church and State that are at the core of legal rulings based on the Second Amendment. Timothy L. Hall demonstrates in SEPARATING CHURCH AND STATE: ROGER WILLIAMS AND RELIGIOUS LIBERTY that the common perception of these men being essentially modern in their philosophies and views is a misunderstanding. Williams lived a century before the Enlightenment, in a Puritan environment that he found too tolerant and willing to compromise.

Williams was not a Puritan, but a Separatist—separation not just from “popish” practices still found in the Church of England, but separation of God’s people from those whose evilness consisted more of easy-going materialism than criminality. He wanted nothing to do with those who were beyond salvation, and his argument for leaving them to perish as God had intended was to prevent true believers from being contaminated by contact with them, not by respect for their views or ecumenical vision. This meant that he “tolerated” Native American religious practices in that he left them alone, but he would not participate in or even witness their ceremonies.

Freedom of conscience had its price—the de-Christianization of society and isolation from those whose views differed even in the slightest. The reward was an end to religious persecution whether it concerned doctrine and beliefs or was masked as protecting social norms and behavior.

Although Williams’ ideas rarely surface in modern American dialogue in a form he would recognize, Hall contends that they are worth studying because, paradoxically, his dogmatic intolerance was the basis of his arguments for a sweeping toleration of non-conformist ideas.