Roger Williams's Little Book of Virtues
In the 2016 United States presidential election, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for a reality TV star even though he seems to be a malignant narcissist and a sociopath. These are not personality traits normally associated with the teachings of their supposed leader in heaven, Jesus of Nazareth. But I suppose these Christians have a different criteria for their actual leader here on earth. As of January 2019, 69 percent of white evangelical Protestants continued to approve of the way Trump is handling his job as president. Even though he is no longer president, white evangelicals continue to seek out those political candidates who will support the godawful agenda advanced by his administration.
Why is the current occupant in the White House supported by a triumvirate of right wing Christianity— American evangelicalism, the prosperity gospel, and white nationalist pride? What in God’s name is going on?
Prior to the elevation of Trump by the majority of white evangelicals, I grew tired of satirizing this God-game, and moved on to covering other topics such as the craft culture and secular spiritualities I discovered upon moving to the Pacific Northwest. But the 2016 election stirred within me the bones of my ancestor Roger Williams. Just as he spoke out against injustices fueled by politicized religiosity, I realize I am called to do likewise.
“At a crisis when the public mind, in this and other countries, is so strongly excited on questions of civil and religious liberty, the great principle advocated by Williams—that civil rulers have no authority to pre- scribe, enjoin, or regulate religious beliefs—demands the most serious consideration of every church and of every government.”
—Romeo Elton, “Life of Roger Williams” (1862)
To paraphrase folk icon Bob Dylan—are the times a-changin’? Maybe not so much. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. When I take the spiritual temperature of America, I feel the echoes of Roger in my bones. Elton’s reflections, penned over 150 years ago in reference to this seventeenth-century pioneer of religious freedom, could easily apply to contemporary debates over the role of religion in the public square.
The philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So before we look at our present Trumpster-dump, where a fear-based evangelical faith once again dominates the US of A from sea to shining sea we should do a quick run through of “Americana” Christianity to understand what we can learn from our past.
As Roger’s direct descendant, I would like to explore what we can learn from my ancestor’s life and legacy that can help us navigate through this current sociopolitical crisis. How did Roger manage to endure the trials of his life, and leave a legacy of liberty that echoes now throughout the world?
This isn’t a Farmers’ Almanac-y guidebook that serves up quotes from the past to help guide us through our contemporary problems. I want to explore how Roger lived a virtuous life with an eye towards what we can glean from his actions to help us get out of this twenty-first century religious morass. For those who think this rise of the religious right represents a new trend in Americana Christianity, history shows otherwise.