This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

The separation of church and state is what many would argue, defines the American identity. How did it come about, why did it come about and what would the nation look like without the principle?

There are those who argue there is too much religion in the village square and others who believe there is not enough. For some, no religion acceptable, anywhere at any time. For others, atheists remain nothing more than a collective of immoral provocateurs.

Martin Luther King noted that we ought to be defined by the ‘content of our character’ as opposed to anything else. Believing in God does not make anyone ignorant. Going to Church does not make anyone superior.

Being an atheist is not be the litmus test for being a liberal. There are plenty of Conservatives who do not espouse a particular faith. Being an atheist does not automatically confer a higher morality or add any weight to political ideologies.

There are no good spiritual beliefs that will be undone by man made ones, and there are no good liberal ideals are in conflict with those who believe in God.

Simply embracing an ideology- religious or otherwise-  does not in itself endow greater meaning or superiority to any individual. It is in the works and the manifestation in those beliefs that our worth is measured.

Even the most bitter opponents of Roger Williams recognized in him that combination of charm, confidence and intensity a later age would call charisma. They did not regard such traits as assets, however, for those traits only made the preacher more dangerous in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. With someone like him, they could not compromise.

For his part, Williams was not about to compromise, either, despite his benevolent intelligence and Christian charity. The error, he believed, was not his, and when convinced he was right he backed away from no one.

So the conflict between Williams and his accusers nearly 400 years ago was inevitable. It was also thick with history, for it concerned both the relationship between church and state and defining the very nature of state power. Its repercussions would be immense and reach into the present.

The American part of the story began when John Winthrop led 1,000 men, women and children to plant the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. These Puritans were disgusted with what they regarded as corruption in the Church of England and the tyranny of the crown. Seeking simple worship and personal intimacy with God, Puritan ministers were compelled—upon pain of imprisonment—to wear the surplice and use the Book of Common Prayer, and their congregants were compelled to participate in what they regarded as rote worship. As they set out from England that April, Winthrop reminded them of their purpose, to establish a “citty upon a hill” dedicated to God, obeying God’s laws and flourishing in God’s image as a model for all the world to see.

Williams, who had developed a reputation for scholarship and piety as a clergyman in England, brought his family to the colony a few months later. Winthrop hailed him as “a godly minister,” and the Boston church immediately offered him a post, the greatest such position in English America. But Williams declined, spurning the church as insufficiently committed to the proper worship of God. This astonishing charge would put him at odds with the colony’s leaders till the day he died.

Williams did not differ with them on any point of theology. They shared the same faith, all worshiping the God of Calvin, seeing God in every facet of life and seeing man’s purpose as advancing the kingdom of God. But the colony’s leaders, both lay and clergy, firmly believed that the state must prevent error in religion. They believed that the success of the Massachusetts plantation depended upon it.

Williams believed that preventing error in religion was impossible, for it required people to interpret God’s law, and people would inevitably err. He therefore concluded that government must remove itself from anything that touched upon human beings’ relationship with God. A society built on the principles Massachusetts espoused would lead at best to hypocrisy, because forced worship, he wrote, “stincks in God’s nostrils.” At worst, such a society would lead to a foul corruption—not of the state, which was already corrupt, but of the church.

The dispute defined for the first time two fault lines that have run through American history ever since. The first, of course, is over the proper relation between government and what man has made of God—the church. The second is over the relation between a free individual and government authority—the shape of liberty.

Eventually, after Williams accepted a church post in Salem, north of Boston, and gathered a like-minded congregation, the authorities in the Bay feared that the foul error emanating from him could spread and corrupt the entire colony. In October 1635, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony banished him, ordering him to leave the colony within six weeks. If he returned, he risked execution.

Williams was ill and winter was coming to New England, so the court extended him one mercy, suspending enforcement of the banishment order until spring. In return, he promised not to speak publicly. In his own home among his friends, however, he did not hold his tongue. Considering this a violation of his promise, the authorities in January 1636 abruptly sent soldiers to arrest him and put him on a ship bound for England. This went well beyond the banishment order: The best Williams could expect in England was life in prison; in English prisons such sentences were generally short.

Winthrop, though, did not believe Williams deserved that fate; in secret he warned him of the impending arrest. Williams acted immediately. Dressing against the winter, stuffing his pockets with the dried corn paste that Indians lived on for weeks at a time, he fled his home. He would never see it again…

Read it all.


In 1830 a young French aristocrat visited the United States to see the new phenomenon of American democracy built on the principled separation of Church and state. He naturally expected to find a secular society, a place where religion, having been deprived of power, had no influence either. What he found was exactly the opposite: a society that was very religious indeed, a society in which religion was, in his words, “the first of its political institutions” — or, as we would say today, the first of its civil institutions.

The young aristocrat was Alexis de Tocqueville, and in the book that he wrote about his experiences, namely his experience of American democracy, he said: “18th-century philosophers had a very simple explanation for the gradual weakening of beliefs: religious zeal was bound to die down as enlightenment and freedom spread.” In other words, Tocqueville was saying that every self-respecting 18th-century intellectual thought that religion was dying, in intensive care, and all that was needed was a little bit of help on its way — assisted suicide. “It is tiresome,” Tocqueville said, “that the facts do not fit this theory at all.” So he had this question: how come religion didn’t die when everyone said it would?

One hundred and eighty years have passed since Tocqueville wrote these words, but until very recently intellectuals have been making the same mistake. In America today, for example, a higher percentage of the population attends a house of worship weekly than is the case in the theocratic state of Iran: 40 per cent in the US, 39 per cent in Iran. Furthermore, in China today, half a century after Chairman Mao declared China to be religion-free, there are more practising Christians than there are members of the Communist Party. One way or another, religion didn’t die.

In 2009, the editor and the Washington correspondent of the Economist, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, published a book, God is Back — an extraordinary title to come from the staff of that magazine. In 2000 the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published a book called Bowling Alone, in which he developed his famous thesis that more Americans than ever are going ten-pin bowling but fewer than ever are joining ten-pin bowling clubs or leagues. In other words, they’re bowling alone. Putnam used this as his symbol for the loss of community in America, the loss of what American economists and sociologists call “social capital”. So in 2000 he was arguing that there’s no social capital left in America.

Ten years later, he published a book called American Grace, in which he documents his discovery that social capital is alive and well in America, in one place more than any other: in houses of worship. From four years of research, Putnam discovered that if you are a regular church or synagogue attendee, you are more likely to give money to charity than if you’re not a regular, regardless of whether the charity is religious or secular. You are also more likely to do voluntary work for a charity, give money to a homeless person, give excess change back to a shop assistant, donate blood, help a neighbour with their shopping, help someone with their housework, spend time with someone who is depressed, allow another driver to cut in front of you, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. There is no good deed among all of those on the survey that is more practised by secular Americans than by their religious counterparts.

It goes further than this: frequent worshippers are also more active citizens — they are more likely to belong to community organisations, especially those concerned with young people, or health or arts or leisure. They are more likely to join neighbourhood or civic groups, professional and fraternal associations. Within these groups they are more likely to be officers or committee members. They take a more active part in local civic life, from local elections to town meetings to demonstrations. They are disproportionately represented among local activists for social and political reform. They turn up, they get involved, they lead. And the margin of difference between them and secular Americans is large.

Religiosity turns out to be the best indicator of civic involvement: it’s more accurate than education, age, income, gender or race. Incidentally, religious regular synagogue or church goers are more likely to report themselves as being happier and they also live longer. Putnam’s book demonstrates that not only has religion not died, but that it is a fundamental and primary source of community and altruism. Furthermore, Putnam says that research in Britain — which is not yet published — confirms the same thing.

More recently, the Scottish historian Niall Ferguson says something remarkable towards the end of his book Civilisation: The West and the Rest. He recounts how the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was tasked with the question of finding out how the West overtook China. Until about 1500, China was in advance of the West in virtually every aspect of technology: printing, ceramics, weaving, water-mills, and so on. But in the 1500s the West overtook China and stayed in advance of China until recently. So the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was told to find out what it was about the West that gave it its unique advantage, and the Chinese scholars undertaking this investigation reported as follows:

At first we thought it was your guns, you had better and bigger guns than we had. Then we did some more study and we discovered no, it was your political system, it was democracy that gave you the better guns. Then we did a bit more research and we realised that it was your market, your economic system that gave you democracy that gave you the better guns. Except for the last 20 years we have realised it was your religion.

That was the discovery of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. I wrote a rather mischievous article about this for The Times, saying that today you may discover if you are a Western consumer of Christianity that your product has a “Made in China” label on it, but it’s still worth buying anyway.

So there it is: the evidence that intellectuals have systematically misunderstood the nature of religion and religious observance and have constantly been thinking, for the better part of three centuries, that religion was about to disappear, yet it hasn’t. In certain parts of the world it is growing. The  21st century is likely to be a more religious century than the 20th. It is interesting that religion is particularly growing in places like China where the economy is growing…

Read it all.

The war in the Balkans may have ended years ago.

The repercussions of the conflict are still fresh and open wounds- not the least of which is the yearning and mourning for the days when different ethnic and religious communities lived together in peace.

Those were the days, as the song goes.

World Affairs:

On a sweltering summer afternoon in one of Sarajevo’s many café-lined streets, Marko Radovanovic waves aside what he says are the usual complaints in the Balkans—no jobs, corrupt politics—and gets serious. Moving his beer to one side, the sharp-eyed twenty-four-year-old Bosnian Serb leans in confidentially and explains that the region’s biggest problem is actually his own generation. “We are,” he says grimly, “a ticking bomb.”

In other parts of the world, such a comment might make one look nervously for the outlines of a suicide vest. Here it is just another reminder that the former Yugoslavia’s five million so-called “war babies” are also coming of age. The long-awaited arrest in May of Bosnian Serb war commander Ratko Mladic, who is charged with crimes against humanity during the region’s bitter 1992–1995 war, created the illusion that this region was finally emerging from postwar bitterness. Yet while the youth of the Arab world spring forward, the youth of the Balkans stand suspected of falling back. Nationalism has stirred once again among their ranks, whose war-torn childhood years were saturated by the propaganda efforts of a militantly ethnocentric government agenda. Such forces continue to shape the rising generation throughout former Yugoslavia, a region once revered for its ethnic and religious diversity, to a degree unthinkable even a generation ago.

“Our parents, the people who fought the last war,” Radovanovic explains, “had lived together for forty-some years. Even though they fought the war, they still have memories of ‘the good old times.’ They lived together, they went to school together.” The look on his face as he finishes this sentence carries the punch line: but this is no longer the case.

Radovanovic has no memory of communism or its ideologically driven equalizing policies that put Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs to work side by side building schools and railways as comrades in the 1960s. He witnessed race-upon-race violence as a child, not community-building. Only fifteen years have passed since nearly one hundred thousand people died in an ethnically charged war that unleashed the worst brutality seen in Europe since World War II. But memory is persistent—and a social problem.

Today nationalism is not only socially acceptable in the region, it’s the default position, especially among youth. The Economist, tallying up mass demonstrations in Belgrade, Tirana, Skopje, and Zagreb over the last two months, recently counseled closer attention to serious “political instability” gripping the region. Many of the young people around Radovanovic’s age have developed nationalistic sympathies—some of them without even recognizing it, so subliminal has the messaging become. Should these young people gain a political foothold in the region, a return to conflict is not inconceivable given that, as Radovanovic explains, many were brought up “completely separated” from other ethnicities and religions. The rise of such an ethnically balkanized generation in the Balkans raises serious concerns. Will the region’s future leaders support the bloc’s EU ambitions? Or will the nationalistic propaganda they have been force-fed promote different and more dangerous priorities?

When I arrived in Sarajevo last year, I quickly discovered that this storied city, which Muslims, Jews, and Christians have all called home for centuries, displays its diversity like a proud vendor his wares. You want Islam? Go to the ancient city center and appreciate our fifteenth-century minarets. Christianity? Take your pick: around the corner you’ll find an ancient Eastern Orthodox church and a Roman Catholic cathedral, among the few buildings spared total destruction during the war. You want history? Franz Ferdinand paraded down this very street, and the footprints of his assassin, the man who began World War I, have even been preserved! But while the city puts on an especially cosmopolitan face for the internationally headlined Sarajevo film festival every summer—its EU bid surely in mind—tensions linger under the surface of civic life. There is a wariness, a sense that the community is actually a Potemkin diversity.

The subtle strains in Sarajevo are minor, however, compared to the growing disquiet in the region as a whole, a fact not lost on Al Jazeera, which recently announced plans to launch a Balkans channel. Bosnia held general elections in October 2010 but has yet to form a working government. Then there’s Kosovo, whose December parliamentary vote was denounced by rights groups as fraudulent, resulting in a scramble for power that left the young country leaderless for a full two months. In Serbia, tens of thousands gathered in Belgrade in April to demand early elections in a forceful demonstration against the ruling pro-Western party, which has refused to hold elections before the country secures its EU bid. Croatia, the next Balkan country due for EU accession despite waning popular support, did nothing for its international image when protestors took to the streets and the government slammed as “unacceptable” a recent UN court sentencing of two former Croatian generals charged with killing more than three hundred Serbs during the war. This explosive situation is exacerbated by a struggling economy, with unemployment skyrocketing (in Bosnia, as high as forty percent) in parts of the region. Many young people are over-educated and under-employed. Twenty-three-year-old Dino Kurbegovic, for instance, a Sarajevo resident who wants to be a teacher, tells me the only way to get a job is to cozy up to a political party. “That’s totally unfair. I chose my profession because I love it, and because I believe it has a higher purpose,” he says. “And now I have to beg someone to give me a job.”…

Read it all.

Wedding Tears

December 22, 2011

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GOP Christmas Card

December 22, 2011

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