On Thursday October 18, 2012, Boston Globe columnist and author James Carroll spoke at the kick-off a multi-day planning session organized by the Pell Center, the Newport Historical Society, the John Carter Brown Library, the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, Brown University, and Bryant University.
Carroll, author of Jerusalem, Jerusalem offered a blend of historical context and contemporary political reflection, weaving the legacy of Roger Williams and Rhode Island’s “lively experiment” with religious freedom into a broader conversation about the role of faith and religious meaning in American culture.
Carroll noted the prevalence of the phrase “a city on a hill,” in the American political lexicon. Taken from Christ’s sermon on the Mount, and first used in the American experience by John Winthrop when he addressed his fellow pilgrims off the coast of what would become the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the phrase is intended to signal American exceptionalism. President Ronald Reagan used the passage frequently, and Governor Mitt Romney has used it frequently on the campaign trail this year.
The deeper meaning of the passage, however, is lost on most audiences. The idea of creating a city on a hill among fundamentalist Christian groups is filled with apocalyptic meaning and emphasizes an American exceptionalism that has contributed to American foreign policy adventures, including the so-called “war on terror” which President Bush misguidedly referred to as a “crusade,” in 2001.
In Rhode Island, however, political leaders like Roger Williams and others like John Clarke, sought a different approach to governance, one that rested on tolerance and acceptance—a tolerance so profound, said Carroll, that it included toleration of the intolerant. Contrast that view with the belief that anyone different in the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a witch, subject to a penalty of death.
The year 2013 marks the 350th anniversary of Rhode Island’s Royal Charter. Over the course of next year, the Pell Center, Salve Regina University, and its partners at the Newport Historical Society and across the state will be hosting a wide range of scholarly and public events to consider the meaning of the “Lively Experiment” and its continuing relevance today.
This past week, a call for papers was released for the academic conference in the autumn of 2013.