Does Human Rights Need God?

By Elizabeth M. Bucar; Barbra Barnett | Go to book overview

12
Religious Freedom: A Legacy to Reclaim

AMBASSADOR ROBERT A. SEIPLE

An important dimension of the relationship between human rights and religion is the right to religious freedom. This chapter demonstrates the importance of religious freedom to the development of this country and its foreign policy. Religious freedom was an important value for many of the American founders, particularly Roger Williams and William Penn (founders of the Rhode Island and Pennsylvania colonies, respectively). Indeed, a very important incident in Roger Williams’s life helped shape how the issue of religious liberty would be framed in the national consciousness. When Williams was still in Massachusetts, his ideas about religious freedom so provoked the establishment that the authorities decided to banish him from the colony and deport him to England. Before he could be captured, however, Governor Winthrop, who was part of the council that voted to banish Williams, warned him of the imminent arrest and allowed Williams to escape to Rhode Island. In the words of Williams, “that ever-honored governor, Mr. Winthrop, privately wrote to me to steer my course to Narragansett Bay and to the Indians….” With this preemptive act, Winthrop demonstrated a grace that speaks to tolerance and says a great deal concerning his quiet respect for Williams. This value — the best of tolerance leading to respect — became foundational to how the American forefathers approached, morally and pragmatically, the issue of religious liberty.

Roger Williams’s contemporary, William Penn, made a similarly foundational contribution to institutionalizing freedom of conscience. In Penn’s words, “Because it is most reasonable for a man to believe according to his own conscience and not according to another man’s conscience [therefore] it is unrighteous to persecute a man for not maintaining that religion which in his conscience he believes to be false.”1

Further, as Mary Dunn, a Penn biographer, points out, “William Penn

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