James Paul Lusk

Liberty, democracy, civility

Fixing UK democracy - what can we do?

The Jesus Candidate cover

The Jesus Candidate: Political religion in a secular age.

The Subversive Puritan - new biography of Roger Williams by Mostyn Roberts Liberty in the things of God by Robert Louis Wilken Mere Civility by Teresa Bejan
Liberty in diversity

'You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free' (John 8.32). But must a free society share one idea of what 'truth' means? Or is pluralism possible - with social life shared among people who harbour different conceptions of what is true? If so, how can this be possible?

Here are three books to help answer that question. Wilken's Liberty in the Things of God (Yale University Press, 2019)is by a leading American church historian (a Lutheran turned Catholic). He surveys Christian thinking from Tertullian in the early days of the church, through to the American revolution. In the face of Roman expectation that all would join in common worship of 'gods' including the emperor, Christians proposed an astonishing new idea - 'religous liberty'. Individuals could worship as they chose, while still affirming loyalty to the state. Then Christendom arrived and extinguished toleration, though Catholic thinking defended 'conscience.' During the Reformation it was thought that no society could have 'two religions' so government had to decide between the old Catholic and the new Protestant faiths. Dissenting Anabaptists started to develop the idea of a free church outside state control. Thomas Helwys was an early advocate of complete freedom of religion, and died in prison having founded the first English baptist church in 1612.

This brings us to Roger Williams, the subject of Mostyn Roberts' Subversive Puritan (Evangelical Press, 2019). Barely known in Britain (better known in the USA), Williams deserves - and we need - this important new biography, written by a British evangelical pastor. Williams arrived in Massachusetts in 1631. He refused a position in the Boston church tainted by links with the Church of England. He disputed England’s claims over land properly belonging to Americans (the so-called ‘Indians’ whose culture he studied and whose languages he learnt). Most controversially, he opposed all state-enforced religious compulsion. The authorities tried to send him back to face justice in England where religious meetings outside the official church carried the death penalty. He fled into the snowy forests where his relationship with the Narragansett people enabled him to negotiate land for a new settlement in what became the town of Providence. Refugees from religous persecution in the rest of New England arrived. Williams came back to London in 1643 to get a new charter for his colony of Rhode Island as a democracy with complete freedom of religion - since recognised as the first modern democracy. Having got his charter, he left for publication a hastily written but startlingly brilliant study of politics and theology. The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience shows from the bible that God wills complete freedom for all – ‘Paganish, Jewish, Turkish or anti-Christian consciences and worships’ – in the civil state.

Teresa Bejan is a young American who teaches politics at Oriel College, Oxford. Her brilliant Mere Civility (Harvard University Press, 2017) is now (November 2019) getting a paperback edition. It compares the thinking of Roger Williams with his contemporary Thomas Hobbes and the later John Locke. Though the other two are familiar names and his is not, Williams is, she argues, the most significant of the three. He founded a state that proved in practice an idea that was widely thought to be completely destructive to public order. His idea was not the familiar one of religious tolerance based on 'latitude' (widening the scope of the agreed public consensus of the range of acceptable truth or truths). It was (as her title puts it) 'mere civility' - that we can live together by respecting the rules of a shared civil order whatever we believe to be true. Dr Bejan presents her case on a video available here.

In The Jesus Candidate, I argue that Roger Williams is a key figure linking sixteeth century Anabaptism to modern liberalism. I have now developed this argument with my new research into the 'seven London churches commonly though falsely called Anabaptist' - the first English Calvinist Baptist churches and their confession of 1646, which set the basis for their commitment to the Cromwellian side in the civil war. I show how Williams' Bloudy Tenent influenced their debates with their opponents, and I argue that this was the moment at which the Anabaptist vision for separation of church and state took its modern and sustainable form. Click here for this paper.

'Thoughtful and challenging' - Evangelicals Now

'Welcome and timely' - National Secular Society

Click here for more about the book and to buy

The Religious Right argues that the state must share a common religion - therefore a pluralistic society is necessarily locked in 'cultural war' for religious truth. This drives the Briitsh Religious Right organisations to generate legal 'cases' alleging state persecution of the faithful.
Click here for my recent (July 2019) review of the work of Joe Boot (and his reply). As head of public theology for Christian Concern, Joe is a key thinker on the UK religious right.


UK Housing crisis - the truth!

The truth is that we do not have a shortage of housing and building new homes will not fix the housing market. Read more here in 'Beyond welfare housing'.

Contact me: email paul(AT)lusk.org.uk or phone (+44) (0)7977 517334

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You are at the website of writer James Paul Lusk. Award-winning fiction writer Sean Lusk (brother of James Paul) is at seanlusk.com