Dans le métarécit progressiste, la colonie du Rhode Island, fondée par le « baptiste » arminien Roger Williams (1603-1683) en 1644 sur les côtes de la Nouvelle-Angleterre, figure comme précurseur de la laïcité et de la tolérance religieuse. C’est apparemment dans cette micro-société isolée dans une mer de colonies puritaines toutes plus répressives les unes que les autres (sic) que la liberté de religion ainsi que la séparation de l’Église et de l’État se seraient épanouies avant d’essaimer. Mais si on creuse un peu, on s’aperçoit que le Rhode Island colonial n’était pas aussi harmonieux que les chantres de la laïcité veulent nous le faire croire…
Williams spent much of his final decades in protracted debates with Quaker missionaries and refugees to Rhode Island, and what caused him to be so exasperated with his Quaker opponents was primarily their violation of this aspect of civility, the need to conduct public conversation respectfully. Williams could counter the theological errors he attributed to them; he confidently refuted their doctrine of the inner light and their deficient Christology and saw no need to respond to their theological deviance with anything but debate. However, Williams was taken aback by his Quaker opponents’ boisterous behavior and abandonment of common courtesy during the debates. He vehemently objected to their habit of interrupting his arguments, shouting him down, attempting to humiliate him personally with name-calling and ridicule, misrepresenting his convictions, and displaying a noted lack of truthfulness in their own arguments. In short, Williams charged that his Quaker antagonists disregarded necessary rules for decorous conversation and deliberation, and to do so, he said, was « against the sober rules of Civility and Humanity. » This behavior was not, as the Quakers insisted, an acceptable exercise of free conscience. Instead it was a moral violation of the basic requirements of civility, a signal of deep disrespect and a transgression of the procedural rules for public deliberation that Williams held with the highest esteem, so much so that he was willing to entertain the possibility that violators of civility like the Quakers should be subject to legal restrictions.
Source : James Calvin Davis, In Defense of Civility : How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues that Divide Us, Louisville (Kentucky), Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 162 sur 198.
Et de telles restrictions légales visant les quakers furent en effet édictées par les autorités civiles du Rhode Island (avant que les quakers ne prennent le contrôle la colonie en 1672 — ils représentaient encore la moitié de la population en 1700) :
Although it is undeniable that every town compact, parliamentary patent, royal charter and constitution since Rhode Island’s founding has proclaimed that freedom of religion is the animating principle of the polity, a number of laws were enacted during the colonial period that were inconsistent with the principle, especially those that penalized Catholics, Jews and/or Quakers. […] A riot in Providence [broke out] during the winter of 1654-55 over the colony’s attempt to establish a regular militia […] Specific laws affecting Catholics, Jews and Quakers, such as the Sunday laws and the laws relating to military service, were an attempt by the polity to address the conflict between religious freedom and civil order.
Source : Scott Douglas Gerber, Law and the lively experiment in colonial Rhode Island [Providence Journal].
Monsieur Gerber élabore son propos dans un article académique qu’il a publié sur la question…
Legislation Targeting Specific Religious Groups
Although Rhode Island’s 1663 charter proclaimed that “noe person within the sayd colonye, at any tyme hereafter, shall bee any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinione in matters of religion,” a statute that some scholars insist was anti-Catholic (and anti-Jewish) was contained in the Digest of Rhode Island Laws of 1719, which was Rhode Island’s first published codification of the laws of the colony. The statute provided in pertinent part that:
All men professing Christianity and of competent estates and of civil conversation who acknowledge and are obedient to the civil magistrate though of different judgments in Religious Affairs (Roman Catholiks only excepted) shall be admitted Freemen and shall have liberty to choose and be chosen Officers in the Colony both military and civil.
The central question in the longstanding debate surrounding this provision concerns the date of its enactment. Because it was printed in the Digest of 1719, some scholars maintain that the provision was enacted prior to that date; more specifically, they contend that it was passed at the March 1663/4 session of the General Assembly.
The anti-Catholic provision still could have been enacted in 1663/4 because it did not mandate persecution of anyone or deny any kind of protection to anyone, but merely failed to permit Jews and Catholics from becoming freemen, voters, and elected officials. […] Last but far from least, the anti-Catholic provision was, at a minimum, “re-enacted” in 1719, 1730, 1745, 1752, and 1767, and was repealed only in 1783, which was after Rhode Island became a state.
A strong argument can be made that the enactment in 1673 of a Sunday-Observance law is further proof that freedom of religion in Rhode Island was enjoyed by Christians only. Reverend Johnson was unambiguous on the matter. He wrote:
In 1673, a law was enacted to restrain “gaming and tippling” on Sunday. Whatever may be our aversion to both gaming and tippling, still any law making a misdemeanor punishable because committed on Sunday, ipso facto makes Christianity a law of the State, introduces a union of Church and State to the prejudice of Jews, atheists, pagans, etc., who for their own reasons may wish to treat Sunday with no more reverence than any other day.
The fact that the law in question applied to Sundays only does make it appear as if Christianity was afforded special treatment in the colony. Moreover, that was how the law was enforced by the government. For example, a July 28, 1739, directive The Sunday Law in Newport contained “instructions to the Sunday constables of Newport, in relation to the enforcement of the [Sunday observance law] regulating the proper observance of the Sabbath.” The directive was signed by the governor, his assistants, and two justices of the peace.
The case of Aaron Lopez and Isaac Elizer provides additional evidence that Jews were sometimes treated unfavorably in Rhode Island. The case traced to the British Naturalization Act of 1740, which made it possible for a Jew in any colony in British America to become naturalized after residing in the particular colony for seven years or more, without being absent more than two consecutive months. However, the Act was not always implemented, including in Rhode Island. With respect specifically to Lopez and Elizer, the Superior Court of Rhode Island rejected their petitions for citizenship as inconsistent with the animating principle of the colony. The court wrote:
By the charter granted to this Colony, it appears that the free and quiet enjoyment of the Christian religion and a desire of propagating the same, were the principal views with which this colony was settled, and by a law made and passed in 1663 no person who does not profess the Christian religion can be admitted free of this Colony. This court therefore unanimously dismiss this petition as wholly inconsistent with the first principles upon which the Colony was founded.
It is difficult to find anything tolerant of non-Christians in that pronouncement from the Superior Court. […]
iii. Quakers, revisited
[…] In 1665, the Rhode Island government passed an order to outlaw Quakers and seize their estates because of their refusal to bear arms. […] It traced to the decree from the Crown that “all householders, inhabiting this colony [Rhode Island] take the oath of allegiance.” […] Quakers objected […] because it required obedience to the militia laws. The Assembly also had specified that persons who did not take the engagement would not be permitted to “vote for public officers or deputies, or enjoy any privilege of freemen,” which, of course, impacted Quakers directly.
Source : Scott Douglas Gerber, « Law and the lively experiment in colonial Rhode Island », British Journal of American Legal Studies (Birmingham City University), automne 2013, volume 2, numéro 2, p. 453-476.