Living Through History

A quick history lesson shows that religious liberties have been a critical component of America’s history.

by Maggie Karner

I live in New England, where lots of little states are crammed together with shared tales of dramatic revolutionary battles and a history of patriotic activism. Specifically, I live in Connecticut, the next-door neighbor to tiny Rhode Island.

A quick history lesson reminds us that Rhode Island played a prominent role in the formation of one of our most cherished constitutional principles. We often forget that many early colonists were persecuted by a Puritanical government, which consisted of a muddy mixture of religion and politics. Puritans maintained local power, made all the laws and excluded the views and the participation of other religious traditions.

A progressive-thinking colonist named Roger Williams understood the danger of mixing religion and politics. In 1636, he founded the first permanent settlement for religious asylum in Providence, and later the King of England granted this little colony of misfits a royal charter. This authorized the continuation of the concept of religious freedom, which at that time was a novel concept in the New World. The colony of Rhode Island eventually welcomed Baptists, Jewish congregations, Roman Catholics and others. It made up a motley mix of religious traditions along the coastline. But the inhabitants all cherished the freedom to practice their religion openly and to bless their communities with shared mercies from their faith.

Religious liberty was also the topic that set Martin Luther apart. He was ahead of his time when he taught that Christians are citizens of two “kingdoms” at the same time, each with very different attributes. Luther saw secular government as operating under God’s “left hand.” In this kingdom, government and society serve as His instruments and utilize the law to preserve civil order. This allows the proper space and freedom for the Church to proclaim the Gospel and care for the needy (God’s “right hand” kingdom). Luther’s “two kingdom” theology keeps religion out of government (as happened in colonial Puritan government) and government out of religion (as we are struggling with today). This keen, biblical insight into the relationship of church and state is a wonderful launching pad for Christians, particularly Lutherans, to participate confidently in public policy and civil service.

History tells me that Rhode Island carved out a notch for the respect of religious freedom in our nation. John Gardner once said, “History never looks like history when you are living through it.” I suppose the brave souls in Rhode Island long ago never considered the history they were making, nor the legacy they left to our nation. We are making history today. I pray the American hallmark of religious freedom will stand, because Rhode Island isn’t big enough for all of us.

> Go to to watch a video of Karner taking part in a Heritage Foundation panel discussion on the recent HHS mandate.

About the Author: Maggie Karner is the director of LCMS Life and Health Ministries.

LCMS Representatives

Six members of The Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod are also members of Congress. “Remember these men and women in your daily prayers,” says President Matthew C. Harrison. “I encourage you to pray for them by name each week in your churches.”

  • Congressman Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.)
  • Congressman Cory Gardner (R-Colo.)
  • Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.)
  • Congressman Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.)
  • Congressman Dave Reichert (R-Wash.)
  • Congressman John Shimkus (R-Ill.)

Lord God, as I pray for all who are in authority, I thank You especially for the form of government given us in our beloved country. Give me the grace with my fellow citizens to value the officers and the magistrates of our government as those sent by You. Instill in me that respect and honor that is due them. Lord, endow them with wisdom for their several duties, with a spirit of sacrifice for the common welfare, with mercy and justice, with uprightness and kindliness. Correct the evils of selfishness, greed, a vain desire for honor, or abuse of power among us as well as in the other governments of the world. Grant that the true purposes of government may prevail, safeguarding peace and prosperity, so that we may live soberly and uprightly in Your sight and have opportunity to tell of You and Your kingdom. These petitions I direct to You because in Jesus I know You as my Father and Lord. Amen.

(Lutheran Book of Prayer, Concordia Publishing House, 2005)


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