Essays - Autumn 2007

Unto Caesar

Religious groups that have allied themselves with politicians, and vice versa, have ignored at their peril the lessons of Roger Williams and U.S. history

By Ethan Fishman | September 1, 2007


For much of its history, the United States has largely avoided the religious conflicts that have cost other nations countless lives. Our ability to escape such conflicts is grounded in the Constitution’s First Amendment, which requires government to maintain as neutral an attitude as possible toward religion. Fortunately for Americans, past presidents as a rule have sought to honor this neutrality. Today, however, the Bush administration, working with certain religious denominations, seeks to repudiate it.

The original 13 states ratified the First Amendment in 1791, but the groundwork for its passage, as well as the foundation for Article VI, which prohibits any religious test as “a Qualification to any Office or public Trust,” was laid much earlier. In 1631, Roger Williams joined the Puritans, English Calvinists who had left England to escape the burdens placed upon religious minorities by the established Anglican Church. Williams trusted that the Puritans would refrain from forming their own state religion in the New World. But the Massachusetts Bay Colony betrayed his trust, and Williams left to found Rhode Island in 1636. Unlike England and Massachusetts, where citizens could be fined and imprisoned for such offenses as refusing to attend church or for sleeping with their neighbor’s wife, Rhode Island distinguished sin from crime. When Christians rely on government coercion to advance the acceptance of their faith, Williams argued, they contradict the free will that underlies Christianity. “Forced worship,” he wrote, “stinks in God’s Nostrils.”

Rhode Island soon established a reputation as a haven for religious dissenters. The feminist heretic Anne Hutchinson and her Antinomian associates (who criticized the Puritans for accepting moral behavior as evidence of God’s grace), Jews, Baptists, and Quakers—“all the scum and the runaways of the country,” in the words of the Massachusetts magistrates—found refuge there. In such a pluralistic environment, Williams determined that the only morally acceptable standard for statutory law is reason. People interpret God in many ways, he observed, but the demands of reason are the same for everyone.

Williams’s views on government and religion were based on the distinction he made between “the garden and the wilderness.” In the fifth century, St. Augustine contrasted “the city of God,” consisting of those who love God, with “the city of man,” composed of those who love themselves. Recalling Augustine’s famous dichotomy, Williams observed that churches, the garden in his own metaphor, are supposed to be bastions of moral rectitude. Governments, on the other hand, are part of the corrupt temporal world, or the wilderness. Even at their best, he noted, governments execute policies that compromise basic moral principles.

According to Williams, churches that choose to participate actively in politics, therefore permitting the wilderness to encroach upon their gardens, are bound to suffer one of two undesirable fates. To the extent that churches honor their fundamental tenets of love, humility, and justice, he argued, they are manipulated by politicians for less than honorable political ends. To the extent that churches attempt to use political power to force their beliefs on others, they violate their fundamental tenets by becoming manipulators themselves.

Nothing should prevent individuals from reaching political decisions that are influenced in part by their religious beliefs, Williams maintained. But when they feel disappointment as a result of their political participation, that disappointment is their own. When churches, or groups claiming to speak for them, actively engage in politics, they risk placing whole congregations in a spiritually untenable position. Consider the contemporary example of radical Islamists politicizing the Muslim faith and misidentifying it, in the minds of many, as a religion of sinister terrorists bent on world domination.

Williams found scriptural support for his garden-wilderness metaphor in Matthew 22:21. When some Pharisees asked Jesus whether paying taxes to a pagan Roman emperor constituted a sin against God, their one true King, Jesus, replied: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Williams interpreted this passage to mean that, while we should appreciate government for the political order it can provide to combat anarchy, we must also realize that government possesses neither the authority nor the ability to help us put our own souls in order.

When the magistrates of the Massachusetts Bay Colony required non-Puritans to swear allegiance under God to them, Williams accused them of confusing God with Caesar. Since, by their own admission, Puritans did not consider members of other religions to be God-fearing people, Williams argued that the loyalty oath amounted to nothing less than taking the name of the Lord in vain. He viewed the oath as a cynical attempt by the magistrates to sanctify their political power in order to increase their control over the citizens of Massachusetts. That, to Williams, reversed the traditional Judeo-Christian relationship between human beings and God. According to that tradition, we are expected to subordinate ourselves to God and dedicate our lives to serving God’s ends. By using God to accomplish their temporal goals, Williams maintained, the magistrates were placing themselves above God and committing the most deadly of all sins—pride.

Williams detected other signs of sinful pride in the Puritans’ certainty that they alone understood what God expects of human beings, that they possessed a divinely inspired mandate to impose their will on others, and that they were under no obligation to permit dissent from their views. He was especially troubled by their insistence that the Massachusetts Bay Colony represented “God’s New Israel,” a “shining city upon a hill” created by the Almighty for the whole world to idolize. “Thus it seemed to Williams,” historian Perry Miller observed in Roger Williams: His Contributions to the American Tradition (1953),

that whoever speaks with the accents of spiritual finality . . . is a danger to the spirit. Williams’ greatest insight is into the corrosive effects not of sin but of virtue. The worst enemy of the soul is not the profane antagonist or persecutor, but the soul’s rectitude. Every gathering of the righteous into a society of purity, in which the Bible becomes only a support to the aims of the community, is a fatal temptation.

The American tradition of religious freedom also owes much to the life and thought of Thomas Jefferson. In addition to the important roles he played in drafting and ratifying the First Amendment, Jefferson worked to pass the 1786 Bill for the Establishment of Religious Freedom in Virginia. He considered his work on this bill to be so significant that he memorialized it on his tombstone at Monticello. He also helped popularize the idea of a “wall of separation between church and state,” using the phrase in an 1802 letter to a group of Baptists from Danbury, Connecticut. Jefferson summarizes his views on the proper relationship between government and religion in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785).

Our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Although Williams and Jefferson agreed on the necessity of maintaining as much neutrality between religion and politics as possible, their motivations differed. The pious Williams expressed concern about the dangers posed by government to religion. Jefferson, never an especially religious person, worried about the dangers posed by religion to government. His primary fear was that a religion representing a majority of Americans would gain control of government and use its political power to deprive religious minorities and disbelievers of their freedom to worship or not as they pleased.

The two religious clauses of the First Amendment reflect the different concerns of Jefferson and Williams. Jefferson’s fear that one church would gain control of government resulted in the establishment clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Williams’s emphasis on protecting the independence of churches became the free exercise clause: “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Taken together, these two clauses prohibit government from either helping churches or hurting them. These few words set into law the standard of neutrality that Williams and Jefferson prescribed.

The Bush administration has sought to undermine almost every one of the contributions Williams and Jefferson made to the tradition of religious freedom in the United States. By giving religious denominations the power to directly influence public policy, it has allowed them to force their tenets on others. The administration has also exploited religion for the sake of gaining and maintaining political power. And it has used religious faith to justify the carnage caused by the war in Iraq.

Williams and Jefferson sought to prohibit government from directly translating church doctrine into law and policy. The Bush administration, on the other hand, has fought embryonic stem cell research, abortion, contraception, sex education, and the teaching of evolution, all apparently in deference to evangelical Protestant theology. The influence of evangelical Protestantism on Bush is so pervasive, concludes Kevin Phillips in American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (2006), that the GOP has become “America’s first religious party.”

It isn’t hard to find support for Phillips’s assertion. One of the president’s first cabinet appointments was John Ashcroft as attorney general. Ashcroft had cemented his relationship with evangelical Christians in 1998 when he told the Christian Coalition that the wall of separation between church and state that, as we’ve seen, goes back to our earliest history, is a “wall of religious oppression.” When Ashcroft considered running for president in 2000, his candidacy was endorsed and financially supported by two of the most influential evangelicals in the United States: James Dobson, the head of Focus on the Family, and Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition. Since his retirement in 2005, Ashcroft has served on the faculty of Robertson’s Regent University, in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Last year Bush dismissed the scientific theory of viability and used the religious assumption that life begins at conception to justify his veto of an embryonic stem cell research bill. Moreover, Bush appointees to the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration have downplayed the use of condoms in favor of sexual abstinence, justifying their position not on the basis of science but on the basis of religious faith. They have also made medically false claims that the HIV virus can be transmitted through tears and sweat. Dr. Susan Wood, a former director of the FDA’s Office of Women’s Health, resigned her post in August 2005 after accusing the agency of using religious rationales for opposing the sale of the morning-after abortion pill. In July 2007 former surgeon general Dr. Richard Carmona testified before Congress that the Bush administration had ordered him for religious reasons to refrain from speaking out about such public health issues as embryonic stem cell research and global climate change. The antagonism of evangelicals to Darwinism has been reflected in administration efforts to encourage the teaching of Intelligent Design in public school biology classes. Bush told a group of reporters in 2005 that both theories should be taught as part of a student’s scientific educational experience.

Kevin Phillips traces the current attack on separation of church and state to an alliance between the Bush administration and evangelical Protestants. Damon Linker, a former editor of the leading theologically conservative journal First Things, extends the alliance to a group of self-described conservative priests and intellectuals who seek to ally the American Catholic Church with the Republican Party. (Linker makes this point in his 2006 book, The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege.) Evangelicals and Catholics have been at loggerheads for much of American history. Evangelicals were among John F. Kennedy’s most vocal critics during the 1960 presidential election, and Catholics have, of course, traditionally been staunch Democrats. The source of this unprecedented cooperation among evangelicals, Catholics, and Republicans, Linker explains, is their mutual hatred of abortion and mutual contempt for President Clinton’s sexual misadventures in the White House.

According to Linker, Bush began to reward theocons and evangelicals for their support in the 2000 presidential election “within hours of his inauguration.” He appointed a Council on Bioethics, composed mainly of people sympathetic to his religious orientation, to advise him on end-of-life issues, genetic research, and cloning. When in February 2004 two appointees—biologist Elizabeth Blackburn and medical ethicist William May—criticized the council for opposing stem cell research, they were summarily dismissed. Bush banned the funding of international organizations, such as the United Nations Population Fund, that encourage abortion or that simply provide information about abortion to the public. He urged Congress to pass a bill prohibiting partial-birth abortions. The resulting law has recently been upheld, with the help of unprecedented judicial logic, by the Supreme Court. And he endorsed amendments to the Constitution that would outlaw same-sex marriage and forbid abortion except in cases of rape or incest or to protect the life of the mother.

Roger Williams warned religious groups that active involvement with politics would cause them to lose sight of their most basic priorities and begin compromising their theology. As Linker points out, theocons have developed a utilitarian version of religion that values Catholicism for the political functions it can perform. Pope John Paul II condemned abortion, birth control, and capital punishment as part of a culture of death in the United States. According to Linker, while advocating administration support for John Paul’s stand on abortion, theocons nevertheless advised Bush to tolerate birth control and capital punishment, in part because they considered the pope’s opposition to them to be politically unpalatable to Americans.

The theocon position is based on the historically inaccurate assumption that this country was founded as a Christian nation by devout Christians holding sound theological principles. Christian precepts, such as the fundamental equality of human beings and the dignity of the individual, contributed greatly to the creation of the American political system. But the Founding Fathers acknowledged other contributions as well—including the political philosophies of Aristotle, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the Baron de Montesquieu.

Moreover, unlike Roger Williams, whose beliefs had their roots in Augustinian theology, the Founding Fathers held what were at best superficial interpretations of Christianity. In concert with Enlightenment standards for religion, they considered reason more important than faith, tended to deny the divinity of Christ, and doubted the redemptive power of revelation. Jefferson famously wrote a version of the Bible that excluded miracles. These important differences notwithstanding, the Founding Fathers joined Williams in recognizing separation of church and state as a prerequisite for religious freedom.

A major part of the Bush administration’s religious agenda was establishment of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI). Despite its good intentions of fighting hunger, homelessness, alcoholism, and drug addiction, the White House agency would have aroused the ire of Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson because the recipients of its subsidies are community service groups from churches—organizations to which American taxpayers do not belong and with which they may disagree. Williams and Jefferson would also have distrusted the competitive application process required of churches seeking to qualify for the subsidies. When a federal agency has the power to evaluate the ability of churches to perform community services, Williams and Jefferson would have cautioned, freedom of religion is endangered. A political relationship has been devised that can cause government to become an official arbiter of religious orthodoxy for the nation.

Williams warned that when churches enter politics they wind up either being manipulated by politicians or becoming manipulators themselves. The Phillips and Linker books portray churches playing the role of manipulator as they use the Bush administration to force their beliefs on others. In Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction (2006), David Kuo, former deputy director of Bush’s OFBCI, presents the other side of the equation by describing how the administration has used the White House agency to exploit evangelical Protestants who played such a significant role in its 2000 and 2004 electoral victories.

Born-again Christians such as Kuo at first did not question Bush’s commitment to Christian ethics. It occurred to Kuo that Bush’s payback to evangelical Protestants and theocon Catholics had primarily been to oppose abortion, stem cell research, and gay rights. Why couldn’t something positive be accomplished as well, he wondered. Kuo, who felt a Christian calling to help the weak, the sick, and the disadvantaged, persuaded himself that Bush’s OFBCI could serve as an effective means to carry out these affirmative ends.

It soon became apparent to Kuo that the relationship he envisioned between church and state was being reversed. Instead of presidential power acting as a vehicle for the fulfillment of his religious calling, his calling was serving as a tool for the expansion of presidential power. In 2000, 84 percent of evangelical Protestants voted for Bush. Part of the spoils was the promise of $8 billion in new funding for their social service programs. By 2003, however, the year Kuo resigned in frustration, he estimated that only one percent of that total had been allocated. He also said he observed senior members of Bush’s staff praising evangelicals in public and mocking them in private.

The Bush administration has ignored Roger Williams’s warning about the corrosive effects on both church and state of the lethal combination of national arrogance and religious self-righteousness. That contrasts with the reactions of Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison at the turn of the 19th century when North African Muslim pirates were seizing American ships and capturing their crews. The pirates were fond of using quotes from the Koran to justify their criminal activities, and the United States responded in a variety of ways to protect its political and commercial interests in the Mediterranean: they sent in the Navy and the Marines, paid protection money, and ransomed the crews. But these presidents never considered their war against the Muslim pirates to be religiously motivated or to have any religious significance at all.

Since the attacks of September 2001, Bush has insisted on calling America’s reaction a war on terror, and his statements have contained religious imagery comparable to that used by Osama bin Laden. University of Chicago religion professor Bruce Lincoln observes in Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11 that both Bush and bin Laden use language that refers to “a Manichean struggle, where Sons of Light confront Sons of Darkness, and all must enlist on one side or the other, without possibility of neutrality, hesitation or middle ground.” The implication of both leaders’ rhetoric is that God supports what may be called a war of “pious cruelty.”

The Constitution’s religious protections are incorporated into precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Exceptions to religious neutrality have sometimes been made in such matters as tax exemption for churches; the use of chaplains in state legislatures, Congress, and the military; the display of the motto In God We Trust on currency; and the use of the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. And, of course, we don’t prohibit public fire departments from fighting church fires. Generally, though, the high court has held that for statutes to meet the requirements of the First Amendment, they must have “a secular purpose”: their primary intent must be to neither help nor hurt church organizations, and they must avoid “excessive entanglement” with religion. In stark contrast stands the recent decision of the Court, led by Bush appointees Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, that atheists and agnostics cannot sue the OFBCI for distributing their taxes to religious organizations.

Roger Williams acknowledged that even the most devout religious communities cannot avoid living in the wilderness of the temporal world. The role that government plays in maintaining temporal order is valuable to religious and irreligious citizens alike. How, then, are churches supposed to resist the temptation to cross the line between mere coexistence with government and active political participation? In the eighth century B.C. the prophet Isaiah responded by teaching the Jewish people to strive to be in the world but not of it, and Williams sought to apply Isaiah’s message to colonial New England.

In June 2007 the National Association of Evangelicals debated whether to advise members to “guard against over-identifying Christian goals with a single political party, lest nonbelievers think that the Christian faith is essentially political in nature.” Perhaps that debate will cause the Bush administration and complicit religious groups to reexamine their policies in light of Isaiah’s teachings and Williams’s views.

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