07/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Roger Williams, the First Amendment and the Presidential Campaign

Throughout the Bush era, I have witnessed a blurring of the line that separates church from state. So I am not surprised by the news that our presidential candidates plan to attend a California megachurch forum together in August. This marks the first time the candidates have agreed to a joint appearance. I recognize that faith influences political decision making, but as a Rhode Islander, this news gives me pause.

In 1620, the Puritans fled religious persecution in Europe and arrived in the New World. But it wasn't long before many of the persecuted became persecutors. Roger Williams was expelled from Massachusetts simply because he dared to think expansively about his religious beliefs. He went on to settle in Providence. Along with Anne Hutchinson and others, he founded the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Then, in 1663, King Charles II granted the colony the most liberal charter of the entire colonial era. Its most famous passage bestowed upon the people of Rhode Island "full liberty in religious concernments." King Charles had expressed a willingness to "experiment" in order to ascertain "whether civil government could consist with such liberty of conscience." This was the "lively experiment" upon which the Rhode Island government was based.

In May of 1776, Rhode Island became the first colony to break with the crown and the state's charter became its constitution. The colony refrained from ratifying the federal constitution until 1790, the last of the thirteen to do so. Rhode Island insisted that the U.S. Constitution contain the same assurance of religious freedom the colony had enjoyed for 127 years.

The first words of the first amendment are not about freedom of press. They are not about freedom of speech. They are about freedom of religion: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

Over the years, the Supreme Court has dealt carefully with separation of church and state issues. The Court once addressed a case here in Rhode Island involving a publicly-displayed nativity scene. Even in this bastion of religious freedom, we still struggle with drawing the proper line between church and state.

It's hypocritical for the religious right to be hyperventilating over state-sponsored religion by the Taliban and Islamic extremists while ever so gradually allowing the state to encroach on our "full liberty in religious concernments."

The two presidential candidates have been careful to have their megachurch forum co-sponsored by Faith in Religious Life, which is a multidenominational group. But this Rhode Islander still has concerns. Will Senators Obama and McCain appear on stage together at a political event surrounded by symbols of one religion?