Christian conviction and public moral discourse: the pursuit of civility in the moral theology of Roger Williams

Davis, James Calvin, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Childress, James, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Warren, Heather, E0:AS-Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Miller, William Lee, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the moral theology of Roger Williams with two aims in mind: (1.) to demonstrate through conceptual analysis that Williams's well-known pronouncements on religious tolerance and the separation of church and state were founded in a sophisticated ethical framework that was decidedly theological, and (2.) to suggest that Williams's moral theology provides important historical insight for the contemporary debate between radical Christian communitarians and strict universalists regarding Christian participation in moral strategies and projects with others outside the faith community. With regard to the first objective, I note a trend in historical scholarship to ignore the theological foundation of Williams' s thought and to move quickly to a rehearsal of his political conclusions, thereby neglecting the theological and moral premises on which those conclusions depend. Rather than provide yet another rehearsal of his thought on the issue of religious liberty, I focus precisely on the theological and ethical framework that gives rise to his conclusions, thereby clarifying the theological foundations to his teaching on freedom of belief and on the relationship between religion and government.

I also argue that the theological nature of Williams's ethics is helpful in particular for rethinking the contemporary ethical debate between radical Christian communitarians and strict universalists. Williams envisioned the task of Christian ethics in a way that stands as an alternative to the radical communitarian's abdication of a role in public policy and discourse, without succumbing to the strict universalist's avoidance of confessional roots. In Williams we see at work an ethic that takes seriously its Christian confession as source and motive for the character and moral convictions it recommends. At the same time, however, Williams protects as theologically possible and valuable a larger public conversation in a moral framework accessible to persons both within and outside the faith community. Williams justified Christian responsibility to this wider moral conversation, and the social and political strategies that come from it, by developing a theological understanding of natural law, providing a sophisticated theory of the conscience, and positing the existence of generally recognized moral norms, the set of which he called "civility.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Williams, Roger -- 1604?-1683
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