Tuesday, December 07, 2004

A Brief Sermon on Lowell Weicker, Roger Williams and Religion in America

It is not at all surprising that former senator and governor Lowell Weicker, the prime mover in the enactment of an income tax that has doubled state expenditures, should now be spending his twilight years in retirement bemoaning – high taxes. Weicker’s entire public life has been wasted in attempts to pound square pegs in round holes.

In addition to high taxes, Weicker also is troubled by what he perceives as a dangerous and possibly unconstitutional religious resurgence in America, an alarming turn towards faith that apparently has not affected public education administrators in Maryland who, eyes cocked in the direction of mischievous suits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, have developed curricula pointedly not mentioning that the Puritans were preeminently a religious people who often thanked God for their good fortune – as was the case during Thanksgiving.

“Too many Americans,” Weicker writes in Northeast magazine, a Hartford Courant publication, “have the view that our nation was founded by those fleeing religious persecution. Not so. That (religious persecution) came later as a result of persecution right here in the United States. Rather, Europeans were tired of paying in taxes and lives for wars declared by kings, and so they fled Europe.”

Well … not so.

The Puritan founders of Massachusetts and later Connecticut were neither war weary nor were they tired of paying taxes. Connecticut was founded by a charter given to the colonialists by the king of England. Neither John Cotton in Massachusetts nor Jonathan Edwards here in Connecticut were anti-royalists. “That,” to quote Weicker, “came later.”

The founding of the country is only incidentally related to religious persecution here, which is not to say that theocrats in Massachusetts did not practice what we might call “religious persecution.”

Roger Williams, a separatist nonconformist, was very much put upon by the conforming religious leaders of Massachusetts. He was tossed out of the state during one of the worst winters in living memory and, were it not for the attentions bestowed on him by local Indians, he would have perished. A man of immense courage, Williams lived to write polemical masterpieces against Cotton, appealed the cause of nonconformism to Oliver Cromwell – who was an anti-royalist -- struck up a friendship with John Milton, compiled a dictionary of the language spoken by Indians, and founded Rhode Island, no mean accomplishments.

But neither Williams nor his persecutors were secularists, and they would have been horrified, as would a Deist such as Thomas Jefferson, by the notion that the founders in penning the First Amendment freed pedagogues in Maryland (named after the blessed mother of Jesus) from dwelling upon the religion of the Puritan founders of New England.

The First Amendment -- which reads in part “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion nor prohibit the free exercise thereof” – opens a wide door of liberty for religious institutions and prohibits the state from writing laws that would impede religious practices.

The open question rarely discussed secularists is this: If the Constitution prohibits Congress from making laws prohibiting religious exercises, does the constitutional prohibition extend to the other branches of government – governors and courts as well? Are courts that issue edicts driving religion from public places engaging in unconstitutional acts?

During much of his political career, Weicker has labored under the misapprehension that the First Amendment to the US Constitution provided a right of freedom from religion. He has said as much elsewhere. This juvenile notion is a gross misinterpretation of history and a radical simplification of the First Amendment. We know something is wrong when a man, under the influence of such misapprehensions, tells us that the Puritans were not fleeing religious persecution; actually, they were seeking a refuge where they could practice their religion unimpeded by king or parliament.

Williams was a man in whom gigantic virtues laid down and lived peaceably with ferocious vices.

Perry Miller, the most accurate authority on the Puritans, said that Williams was an uncompromising nuisance. But Williams was a magnificent nuisance. He denied the covenant theology prevalent in Connecticut and Massachusetts, practiced topological interpretation of scripture, never forgot a slight or a compassionate gesture and was, as was Jonathan Edwards after him, the wide door of religious liberty that led, after him, to the grand mosaic of the religious faithful that have given us so much and asked of us so little in this land of liberty wending its way under the hand of God.

This is a land unplumbed by secularists and, increasingly, an alien land in our public schools – for which we have to thank men, like Weicker, who posses all of the vices and none of the virtues of Williams.

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