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church and state, political theology, liberalism


Our symposium conveners have focused us on “the relationship between liberalism and Christianity and their influence on American constitutionalism.” My objective is to complicate the relationship and reorient the influence. The focus of my inquiry is the liberty of conscience and its implications for the relationship between church and state. By approaching these issues through the lens of political theology (as distinct from either political or constitutional theory), hope to show that some of the most significant embodiments of conscience in the American colonies can neither be squared with an individualistic liberalism (as some on the left are prone to do) nor appropriated in the service of arguments that collapse the distinction between church and state (as some on the right are prone to do).

I have in mind the political practices of Roger Williams and William Penn. Both are important figures in American political thought, both were known to many of the Founders, and both have drawn increased attention in recent scholarship. Both were also deeply theological thinkers—and their political practices cannot be given sense outside of the theological narratives within which those practices arose.

My engagement with Williams and Penn is not confined to their arguments. Both men lived out their political practices in an era much different than our own. For this reason, identifying the theological context of Williams and Penn is only a first step. An equally important objective of this essay is to frame the ongoing relevance of their contributions. To this end, I link the theological politics of Williams and Penn to two contemporary theologians, John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. I then suggest a way to connect the theological insights of Yoder and Hauerwas back to Williams and Penn through the work of constitutional scholar H. Jefferson Powell. This essay sketches these connections as a roadmap to future work. It is offered as an opening round of what I hope will evolve into an extended discussion about the contribution of these five theological thinkers to our understanding of religious freedom and the intersection of theology, political theory, and law.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Liberalism, Political theology, Church and state