Liberty Matters

Independence vs. Liberty


I am grateful to Richard Samuelson for drafting a response to my essay so full of interesting observations: I would love to get into the weeds of who voted vs. who was legally eligible to vote in Plymouth, as I suspect that much like in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, any prohibitions against non-church members voting would have been honored largely in the breach, at least on the town level.Similarly, I have many thoughts about Roger Williams and religious toleration (but I suspect I will have ample opportunity to air these in response to other forum participants). It seems to me, however, that the most trenchant of the questions raised by Samuelson is not about the historical context of the Compact, but rather, about its enduring present-day resonances: his essay concludes with the provocative question: "if American Protestantism is fading, must our liberalism go with it?"
This is a serious question, and the fact that the decline in affiliation that used to impact mostly mainline denominations now seems to have spread to conservative denominations only exacerbates the problem. American Protestantism is fading, clearly, but perhaps what is worse, irreligion, or, the category of religious "nones" is growing. While I argued there is a distinct complementarity between Protestantism (especially in its Reformed variants) and republican government, this connection pales in comparison to the broader necessity of a belief in anything transcendent at all.
As Samuelson observes, "the political and religious doctrines one finds in any given community tend to be congruent with each other, else the society will be fraught with tension." If our national political institutions are based on the dual principles of human equality and liberty but our culture is untethered from any grounding in the type of existential humility I see embodied in the Mayflower Compact, we ought not to be surprised when the tension between those ideals becomes increasingly evident. In the logic undergirding the Mayflower Compact, we are free to govern ourselves because we are equal in our status as beings bearing the image of God. Equality is the prior condition of liberty, yet it does not trump liberty. We cannot, in the name of equality, deny individuals the ability to determine for themselves the course most likely to secure their "better ordering and preservation" without trespassing against the religious necessity that the consciences of men be free in order that they may worship God truly. Limitations on the use of coercive power—in either religious or political matters—are ultimately a mark of our respect for the higher authority of a transcendent being to whom all persons individually and communally are subject.
As Samuelson also points out, this logic has some major internal tensions common to all Protestants, namely the problem of where one draws the line between heterodoxy and legitimate differences of opinion and insight on theological or political matters. This is the perennial puzzle of Protestantism (and, one might add, of American-style republicanism). When the line drawn in the sand depends so much upon the convincement of the individual soul, it is difficult to prevent said line from being washed away by the waves of enthusiasm of secondary (and tertiary, and so on, ad infinitum) reformers. As a nation, we have all but allowed the line to disappear, accommodating greater and greater levels of religious skepticism and outright disbelief in our public discourse—but thereby effectively eliminating the principled restraints that kept equality and liberty in balance. Now, as we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic and confronted with the sometimes brutal realities of social and economic inequality in our nation, is it any wonder that we hear policies that would elevate equality over liberty being touted as the solution to our political woes?
I am neither a policy wonk nor a political commentator, however, and before going too far down that path, and without pretending to offer any practical insights about the problem, I shall turn back to the seventeenth century once again.What does Plymouth have to teach us about how a revitalization of the theological underpinnings of republicanism might help us constructively encourage liberty while restraining the sort of intellectual license that ultimately undermines it?
On a Sunday in October 1632, John Winthrop happened to be visiting the Plymouth colony, and he recorded this about the order of worship in his Journal:
On the Lord's day there was a sacrament which they did partake in, and in the afternoon, Mr. Roger Williams (according to their custom) propounded a question, to which the pastor, Mr. Smith, spake briefly. Then Mr. Williams prophesied; and after, the Governor of Plymouth spake to the questions; and after him the elder, then some 2 or 3 more of the congregation. Then the elder desired the governor of Massachusetts and Mr. Wilson to speak to it, which they did. When this was ended, the deacon Mr. Fuller put the congregation in mind of their duty of contribution; whereupon the governor and all the rest went down to the deacon's seat and put it into the box, and then returned.
Note that unspecified question brought before the Congregation in the afternoon order of service is answered by multiple expositors of scripture. Winthrop observes that this was not some unusual proceeding, but rather "according to their custom," and makes no further comment. His silent acceptance of the afternoon service's structure is telling in and of itself: he was not shy of remarking on things he found surprising nor in critiquing those with whom he disagreed, so his silence here indicates that this order of worship was neither exceptional in his experience nor objectionable in his judgement. Roger Williams, as a respected theologian, both poses the question for consideration, and speaks to it, (but not first, that honor going to the church's pastor, Ralph Smith—Williams, although ordained, was not covenanted to the local congregation as a shepherd). His remarks are followed by the governor of the colony, another elder in the congregation, a handful of laymen, and finally, the two guests from Massachusetts Bay. All told, the congregation in attendance would have heard between eight and nine men offer their thoughts on the topic of the day. This is practical republicanism. Can anyone who has ever attended a religious service in America in the last fifty years imagine a pastor sharing his pulpit with so many other speakers as a matter of course? But (short of a Liberty Fund style seminar, of course!) what better way for the gathered community to see that the work of understanding a text is enhanced in conversation and consultation with one another?
This was not, to be sure, a prevalent or uncontested practice even among dissenters: William Bradford devotes almost three pages to defending it in his Dialogue, an imagined conversation between a 'young' man representing New England and an 'ancient' man representing England, largely, it seems against perceptions that such a practice must be inherently disorderly. That it does not appear to have been so from Winthrop's account, and that the practice was in place for well over a decade (perhaps more: it is unclear from the Dialogue whether the practice was still ongoing at the time of its composition in the 1640s) suggests that there was more than nominal space for congregational discourse. Rather than a model of rigidly authoritative ministerial leadership crowding out dissenting voices, the mixed prophesying seen in this one preserved moment suggests a more fluid structure, where the congregation (or at least, certain members of it) might contribute to a dialogue about the meaning of community norms and commitments. This does not mean all comers were ultimately tolerated: Williams himself will go from leading such group expositions to establishing his own colony in Rhode Island as a result. It must have been difficult for him, to be sure, to undergo such a transformation in circumstances and as moderns, we long to be sympathetic to the minority view, to champion the underdog, as it were.
But the practice of regular, public examination of ideas as exemplified in this order of worship led by Williams may have helped the community to solidify the limits of its commitments to liberty and equality in a way that honored their transcendental grounding and ultimately protected the tension between them as something productive rather than destructive. If so, this anecdote not only reaffirms that the answer to Samuelson's question is an unfortunate "yes," it also offers a potential course of reform. Americans need more opportunities to gain practice in public discourse, disagreement, and discernment within a framework that is itself authoritative while ensuring that the people themselves (through consensual self-government) retain ultimate authority in both church and state. It is the practice of ruling/being ruled in turn that Americans are lacking: we are now used to either ruling (in the sense of insisting on the absence of any transcendent standard to which we ought to consider ourselves, our institutions, and our cultural mores subject) or being ruled (whether in churches with singular or "senior pastors" who provide the substantive voice of truth, or by the relatively few individuals who take into their hands the opportunity to exercise power in local, state, and national governments), but not to doing those things in tandem and within a transcendental perspective. In the absence of such regular practice is it any wonder that both church and self-government has faltered?