James Paul Lusk: on liberty, democracy, civility - some helpful publications
The Subversive Puritan - new biography of Roger Williams by Mostyn Roberts Liberty in the things of God by Robert Louis Wilken Mere Civility by Teresa Bejan

'You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free' (John 8.32). But must a free society share one idea of what 'truth' means? Or is pluralism possible? Can people have different conceptions of what is true, and still share a common social life? If so, how?

Here are four books to help answer that question. Wilken's Liberty in the Things of God (Yale University Press, 2019 - read my review here)is by a leading American church historian (a Lutheran turned Catholic). He surveys Christian thinking from Tertullian in the early days of the church, through to the American revolution. In the face of Roman expectation that all would join in common worship of 'gods' including the emperor, Christians proposed an astonishing new idea - 'religous liberty'. Individuals could worship as they chose, while still affirming loyalty to the state. Then Christendom arrived and extinguished toleration, though Catholic thinking defended 'conscience.' In the time of the Reformation, it was thought that no society could have 'two religions' so government had to decide between the old Catholic and the new Protestant faiths. Dissenting Anabaptists started to develop the idea of a free church outside state control. Thomas Helwys was an early advocate of complete freedom of religion, and died in prison having founded the first English baptist church in 1612.

This brings us to Roger Williams, the subject of Mostyn Roberts' Subversive Puritan (Evangelical Press, 2019 - read my review here). Barely known in Britain (better known in the USA), Williams deserves - and we need - this important new biography, written by a British evangelical pastor. Williams arrived in Massachusetts in 1631. He refused a position in the Boston church tainted by links with the Church of England. He disputed England’s claims over land properly belonging to Americans (the so-called ‘Indians’ whose culture he studied and whose languages he learnt). Most controversially, he opposed all state-enforced religious compulsion. The authorities tried to send him back to face justice in England where religious meetings outside the official church carried the death penalty. He fled into the snowy forests where his relationship with the Narragansett people enabled him to negotiate land for a new settlement in what became the town of Providence. Refugees from religous persecution in the rest of New England arrived. Williams came back to London in 1643 to get a new charter for his colony of Rhode Island as a democracy with complete freedom of religion - since recognised as the first modern democracy. Having got his charter, he left for publication a hastily written but startlingly brilliant study of politics and theology. The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience shows from the bible that God wills complete freedom for all – ‘Paganish, Jewish, Turkish or anti-Christian consciences and worships’ – in the civil state.

Teresa Bejan is a young American who teaches politics at Oriel College, Oxford. Her Mere Civility (Harvard University Press, 2017) came out in paperback in November 2019. She compares the thinking of Roger Williams with his contemporary Thomas Hobbes and the later John Locke. Though the others nameas are familiar and his isn't, Williams is, she argues, the most significant of the three. He founded a state that proved in practice an idea that was widely thought to be completely destructive to public order. His idea was not the familiar one of religious tolerance based on 'latitude' (widening the scope of the agreed public consensus of the range of acceptable truth or truths). It was (as her title puts it) 'mere civility' - that we can live together by respecting the rules of a shared civil order whatever we believe to be true. Dr Bejan presents her case on a video available here.

In Liberalism's religion (Harvard University Press, 2017 - read my review here), Cecile Laborde disputes two key ideas in the modern Western idea of liberalism: one that religion is a matter of belief and the other that freedom of religion means the state should be neutral in matters of religion. Rather, she argues, religion is about belonging to groups who set their own boundaries for membership - so freedom of religion, closely connected with freedom of association, is about the proper limitations on the state's right to decide what is within the competence of assocations to decide for themselves. The state does not need to be neutral to do this and indeed neutralism is an illusion. Rather a state can be liberal by offering 'minimal secularism'. Itis well worth studying her work to arrive at a more workable idea of religious freedom. Laborde is Professor of political theory at Nuffied College, Oxford.

In The Jesus Candidate, I argued that Roger Williams is a key figure linking sixteeth century Anabaptism to modern liberalism. I have now developed this argument with new research into the 'seven London churches commonly though falsely called Anabaptist' - the first English Calvinist Baptist churches and their confession of 1646, which set the basis for their commitment to the Cromwellian side in the civil war. I show how Williams' Bloudy Tenent influenced their debates with their opponents, and I argue that this was the moment at which the Anabaptist vision for separation of church and state took its modern and sustainable form. Click here for this paper.

Contact me: email paul(AT)lusk.org.uk or phone (+44) (0)7977 517334


About me



facebook twitter