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Confronting Christian bias in the Holy City

What Would Roger Williams Do?



I was raised by Texas Baptists. We went to church every Sunday. We studied the Bible. We prayed before meals. We were encouraged to practice our faith. Yet we were taught that our religion was not the only one and that we should respect the consciences of others.

If that last sentence surprised you, then you're probably not alone. All my life, I've been meeting Christians who were not taught to respect the consciences of others. They were taught that their faith was the only one or at least that their way was the preferred way. This was mostly reinforced by what they saw around them in a religion and even a politics that privileged Christianity over every other tradition. Such Christian bias has been baked in from our American beginning, as the Puritans settled Massachusetts with no regard for the religious and spiritual traditions of indigenous people living there. It was also part of the founding of South Carolina, which began as an Anglican colony with a single state church. If we're honest, then we really need to add to our list of founding inequities — white privilege, male privilege, and class privilege — that of religious privilege. Christians in America have always elevated themselves over others.

One Christian, however, stands out for his critique of religious privilege from the beginning. Roger Williams was born in England and emigrated to Massachusetts Bay in 1630. Williams was a religious man, but one of the core tenets of his faith was a deep and abiding respect for conscience. Whatever religion was, he thought, and whatever a person's beliefs were, they could not be coerced or compelled. To force someone into a faith or philosophy was a form of violence. Williams got into trouble with the Puritans right away. A few years after his arrival, the local governors sought to arrest him for the crimes of advocating for indigenous property rights and resisting the signing of loyalty oaths. Williams fled, was cared for by local tribespeople, and later went on to found the new settlement of Providence in what would become Rhode Island. In reference to the native people who had helped him during that time, Williams wrote something that took the Christian bias against non-Christians and turned it on its head. Seizing on the racist term "savages," which his contemporaries used to describe tribespeople, Williams offered a brilliant response. "I feel safer down here," he wrote, "among the Christian savages along Narragansett Bay than I do among the savage Christians of Massachusetts ..."

I wonder how many of us could say the same thing. Like Williams, I am a Christian, and yet like him, I object to any kind of religious orthodoxy being lorded over others. I hold fast to his idea of religious and philosophical liberty for all. Yet not everyone in South Carolina seems to share this value. When I moved to the state seven years ago, I expected to engage the demons of its past in the form of white supremacy, male privilege, and economic disparity. I did not, however, fully understand how culturally dominant Christianity would be or how little space it would allow for everyone else. Time and time again, in our public gatherings, at city hall, at Little League games, at Fourth of July picnics, and in countless other contexts, people have begun with explicitly Christian words and prayers without ever acknowledging our many diverse faiths and philosophies. I have seen my Jewish friends quietly wonder how to respond. I have stood next to Muslim friends feeling left out. I have looked to atheist friends who do not feel seen or heard. I have even felt left out myself, as a progressive Christian who affirms, as Thomas Jefferson did, that our church and state should remain separate from each other so that each might maintain its integrity.

I wonder what Roger Williams would do. Actually, I don't really wonder because I know. Williams would protest religious privilege, he would check Christian bias, and he would cry out that we do better at honoring the consciences of all. He would remind us that any faith or philosophy worth its salt can appeal to conscience on its own; no coercion is required. Yet Williams wouldn't really be seeking to shame us as much as to call us to a deeper engagement with and understanding of each other. As philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote, he believed that "everyone has inside something infinitely precious, something that demands respect from us all, and something in regard to which we are all basically equal." Williams' vision of America was a vision where everyone was seen, valued, and respected. This vision matters now more than ever as we see a continuing rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in our country.

With respect, then, we should follow Williams' example and honor what is precious in every American sister and brother, no matter their faith or philosophy, by not privileging one over the others. It's alright to start our meetings with a deep and beautiful moment of silence. For all of us.

Jeremy Rutledge is senior minister at Circular Church.

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