The Madison, WI-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has put up a 14 by 48 foot billboard on Interstate 295 at Route 2 in Warwick. This is the first billboard by the organization in Rhode Island, but the 695th in 61 cities since 2007.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president, said it’s fitting that the campaign has expanded to Rhode Island, which was founded by Roger Williams, a strong advocate of keeping religion out of government and vice versa.
“Although Williams was a religious man, he believed deeply that civil and sectarian authorities should not intrude on each other, for the good of both,” Gaylor said.
She noted Williams’ famous statement that “forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God.”
The billboard’s message is abundantly clear, based on a form of governance that seems to be continually distorted. The Founding Fathers may have been Deists, and most of them held some sort of belief in a god, in whatever way that was personally defined. Anything more than that, and in particular anything related to the national government’s support of a specific religion, was out of the question. The Founding Fathers were fearful of unrestrained government power, and particularly a government that would impose religion on its people.
Many clear examples exist that support this, including our very own Roger Williams, founder of the Providence Plantations colony in 1636, who was a “Champion of Religious Liberty.” This was all due to him needing to flee Massachusetts by challenging the political and religious establishments, claiming government had no role in religion and that the Massachusetts Colony was not even legitimate since the land was stolen from Native Americans.
The Treaty of Tripoli, signed by John Adams in 1797 reads:
…the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…
In Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists (1802), he wrote:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. “
Another stellar example was James Madison’s response to Jasper Adams’ pamphlet (a graduate of Brown University), The Relation of Christianity to Civil Government in the United States, in which he wrote:
In the Papal System, Government and Religion are in a manner consolidated, & that is found to be the worst of Govts.
In most of the Govt of the old world, the legal establishment of a particular religion and without or with very little toleration of others makes a part of the Political and Civil organization and there are few of the most enlightened judges who will maintain that the system has been favorable either to Religion or to Govt.
To put this in perspective, we just have to look at the conspicuous moralism that often accompanies religious-based “discussions” in Rhode Island, such as those about a tree in the State House Rotunda, being pro-choice, or supporting marriage equality. As examples, in each of these cases, Bishop Tobin was compelled to express his displeasure, not as an individual, but as a representative of the Catholic Church. As that representative, he holds quite a bit of power over the shaping of political decisions, whether it be exacerbating an uproar over the name of a tree, excoriating former Representative Patrick Kennedy, hindering the expansion of health care coverage, and preventing full marriage equality (which is as clear of a case as I could imagine that creates a government-sponsored, special privilege for religion).
I do think having a discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of any policy are important. And arguments will be based on individuals’ worldviews. But there can often be overt religiosity that tries to pass itself for reasonable debate….
And that’s just not right.