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Letter From April 2007 American History Magazine

What Would Roger Do?

It was a first. When Keith Ellison won the votes of Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District last November, he became the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress. When Ellison announced his intent to lay his hand upon a Koran in his ceremonial swearing in, a fellow congressman voiced his distaste. In a letter to constituents, Virginia’s 5th District Congressman Virgil Goode conflated Ellison’s election with immigration, proclaiming: “I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America.” He warned that if Americans did not “wake up” regarding immigration “there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.”

It was the first line in the first amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Freedom of religion. Separation of church and state. These most fundamental elements of American liberty were formulated by a “Founder” few recall. Roger Williams, who died more than a century before the Constitution was conceived, lived his life in pure pursuit of the vision the document so boldly proclaims: a new age where law comes before religion and individual religious liberty is unfettered by law.

Williams’ conception of “soul liberty” and rejection of Puritan rigidity earned him persecution and banishment — by the very people who had fled the coercion of established religion and conformity. Luckily, as author Glenn LaFantasie relates in the following pages, Williams persevered, refining his radical principle that religion and conscience should never be restrained by civil supremacy. His Rhode Island and Providence Plantation charter of 1663 proclaimed: “No person within said colony at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion.” More than a century later, borrowing from Williams’ notion of a “wall of separation” between church and state, Thomas Jefferson (who, if living today at Monticello, would be represented by Congressman Goode) cast the imagery we all associate with the meaning of “freedom of religion.”

Congressman Goode’s shrill alarm about a Koran used in a swearing-in ceremony for an American-born Muslim congressman was sounded in defense of “values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America.” While it seems most Americans — as the broad condemnation of Goode’s comments suggests — appear more tolerant, a large and influential segment fervently holds that those values and beliefs traditional to the United States are, in fact, Christian values and beliefs, so thoroughly embraced by the Founders that they can, and often should, transcend Roger Williams’ wall of separation. In this issue, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, author of American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, reflects on today’s perceptions of the Founders’ ideas and words.

As the inexorable tide of expanding religious and cultural diversity accelerates in 21st-century America, the debate opened by Ellison’s election and Goode’s reaction will surely sharpen. As it does, we should all re­examine the precepts of the originator of “soul liberty” and ask ourselves: “What would Roger do?”