Roger Williams, the founder of the colony of Rhode Island, was one of America’s first advocates of the separation of church and state. Williams was a devout Puritan Christian, but he also believed that religion and the government should remain separate. He thought that the “garden of the church” should not be corrupted by the “wilderness of the world.” As a result, he called for a “wall of separation” between the two.
As Mark Silk reports, new Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee is taking the legacy of Williams very seriously. In respect to the founder of his state, Chafee did not have a public prayer at his recent inaugural ceremony.
The Catholic Church in Providence, Rhode Island is very upset with this decision and has denounced Chafee’s view of church-state separation.
Here is a taste from Silk’s blog post:
Williams was in fact a pretty truculent guy who wouldn’t join any church that would have him as a member. But he is rightly famous for his insistence on liberty of conscience–a stance that put him profoundly at odds with his Puritan neighbors in Massachusetts and Connecticut. His vision of a civil state had to do with keeping the government from pushing religion on the citizenry in any way, shape, or form. It was, he wrote, contrary to Jesus’ teaching “for the civil state to impose upon the souls of the people a religion, a worship, a ministry, oaths (in religious and civil affairs), tithes, times, days, marryings, and buryings in holy ground.”
Chafee chose to keep faith with this vision by foregoing a public prayer service on inauguration morning–out of “respect [for] the separation of church and state,” as his spokesman, Michael Trainor, put it in December. That explanation caught the attention of the Catholic bishop of Providence, Thomas J. Tobin, who took to his diocesan newspaper to denounce such church-state separationism. “By now,” he wrote, “you should be aware that the exact phrase “separation of church and state” isn’t found anywhere in our nation’s Constitution but rather was a principle that evolved later on.”
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