Roger Williams’ Vote

Imagine that Roger Williams comes alive this week, and that he walks into an American voting booth. Whom would he vote for?

It’s a strange question, isn’t it? After all, most Americans have never heard of Roger Williams. And yet Williams is one of the greatest heroes in colonial American history.

In fact, among the fifty states of the United States, only one was founded by an individual who ventured through the wilderness as a solitary figure and then single-handedly established a home in the name of liberty and freedom. That state was Rhode Island, and that man was Roger Williams.

Williams was initially a clergyman in the town of Boston, a theocracy that was ruled by the same Church government that later presided over the infamous Salem witch trials. Like today’s rulers in Iran and Saudi Arabia, Boston’s religious authorities simultaneously maintained governmental authority, and rejected the concept of a Separation between Church and State.

So how did a clergyman end up in the wilderness? He was banished by his own Church, and thus by the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for repeatedly questioning religious doctrine. One of his major concerns involved the Church’s willingness to imprison residents for the crime of failing to attend full-day religious services every Sunday.

Williams didn’t question the practice of full-day weekly services per se. But he did ask whether it was wise for an authoritarian Church — or any authoritarian government entity, for that matter — to mandate Church attendance.

Of course, he did acknowledge that such mandates, when accompanied by threats of imprisonment, would prompt compliance with the behavioral expectations of religious leaders. And yet, he asked, would the punitive mandates encourage individuals to embrace the spiritual beliefs of the religion itself?

In retrospect, the argument represented a very early colonial version of contemporary debates over activities like abortion and gay marriage. Today, some leaders argue for legislation that explicitly legalizes such activities, while others argue to outlaw them.

Meanwhile, some libertarians oppose these activities in principle, but believe that the only sustainable way to win support for their position is through persuasive dialogue and not through authoritarian criminalization.

Roger Williams was such a libertarian. No, he wasn’t an advocate of gay marriage or pro-choice politics; he lived several centuries before such issues exploded in our political consciousness. But he firmly believed that it was inherently wrong for authoritarian governments to rule by declaring their opponents to be morally bad, and by criminalizing and punishing them.

So, if Williams were alive today, whom would he vote for? Naturally, that’s impossible to say with any certainty. After all, he may have been so amazed at the sight of a digital voting booth that he may have been unable to hit the right screen icons!

Nevertheless, it’s always interesting to ponder how our historical heroes may have responded to the challenges that we face today. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that Williams might have held very strong opinions about the candidates that are now running for the American presidency.