Bioethics Blogs

Ideological Struggles Old and New in America: The Inappropriate Use of Coercive State Authority

The history of America from the
beginning was a struggle of opposing ideological perspectives over the role of
the state’s power vis-à-vis the consciences of individual citizens. The 17
th
century Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony basically transported to
America the same kind of religious, state intrusion into the lives of
individuals they were trying to escape in England by requiring citizens to subscribe
to the official state religion. Fortunately, there were courageous individuals
there at the time, like Roger Williams (1603-1683), who strongly resisted such
requirements. Williams, prior to coming to America, had been educated at
Cambridge and worked for Lord Chief Justice
Edward Coke. (1552-1634)  Coke was the famous English jurist whose work
provided much of the foundations of the Anglo-American legal system, and who
famously “declared the king to be subject to the law, and the laws of
Parliament to be void if in violation of “common right and reason”.
  No doubt Williams’ prior education and
influences from Coke, and from others like Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who taught
him the way of learning through experiment and observation, helped temper his strong
theological commitments in relation to his views about the proper relationship
between the authority of the state and religion, and the extent to which the
state could have control over the consciences of free individuals, what
Williams called “soul liberty”. Williams himself did not have theological
quarrels with the Puritans; however, he did not believe religious conviction
could be coerced. It was on this moral and political basis, that Williams
founded Rhode Island, the first state ever to have a constitution guaranteeing
expansive freedom of conscience to individual citizens.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.