Jeff Glor talks to John M. Barry about "Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State and the Birth of Liberty."
Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?
John M. Barry: This is a longer story than you might think. Originally i planned to write a book about the home front in World War I, culminating in the events of 1919 -- a Red Scare, race riots in 26 cities and a virtual race war in Arkansas, an attempted assassination of the U.S. attorney general, violent strikes, the birth of modern fundamentalism. I had planned to follow 5 or 6 figures who collided in 1919. One of them was Billy Sunday, the model for Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry, which of course became a great movie also. Sunday was the first big time evangelist to go to big cities and get involved in politics a la Jerry Falwell. I was going to use him as a vehicle to examine the role of religion in American public life, but the more I researched the subject, the more it seemed that the question of religion in public life deserved to be the subject of an entire book. And as I did my due diligence, researching the background to the debate, it seemed obvious that the book should focus on the beginning of the argument over church and state in America-- because the argument hasn't changed at all in the nearly 400 years since it started. The argument of course began in the different visions of John Winthrop, who gave the "city upon a hill" sermon quoted ever since and who certainly believed he was founding a Christian nation, and of Roger Williams, a devout Puritan minister but a man whose vision for that city on a hill was freedom.
JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?
JB: I thought I was writing more a or less a history of the idea of freedom of religion. I soon realized I was actually writing about the development of the modern idea of freedom itself. Another surprise was how little I -- an American historian, though I had focused on the 20th century -- knew of the background to the US constitution and the Bill of Rights. I soon realized it did not come from the imagination of the Founding Fathers or from any theory. The constitution in general and the first amendment in particular emerged as a response to -- sort of the lessons learned from -- specific historic events. The writers of the constitution knew these events well, but we have forgotten them. For example, many of the amendments in our Bill of Rights come directly from the Petition of Right written by Edward Coke, the chief justice of England and the greatest jurist in English history who ruled, "The house of everyone is as his castle."
In addition, while I knew something of Roger Williams before I started the book, I had no idea he was amanuensis to and strongly influenced by Coke, or that he knew King James and King Charles, was influenced by Francis Bacon, was a friend of and influence on John Milton and Oliver Cromwell.
JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?
JB: Is this a trick question? A football coach? Don't laugh. I love football, coached for several years -- at the high school and major college level -- after I dropped out of a Ph.D. program in history, and the first article I ever got paid for was in a technical coaching magazine about a system which allowed you to change blocking assignments at the line of scrimmage. There's even a precedent. Vernon Parrington, one of the greatest American historians of the 20th century, was the head football coach at the University of Oklahoma. And he was a damn good coach too, lol.
Actually, more seriously, I love football but even while coaching at a nationally ranked major college I never thought it would be my career. I would probably be doing science, most likely in biological sciences. When I was a kid I had almost a small laboratory set up in my room, with stacks of petri dishes and a high quality but ancient microscope -- it was 40 years old when i bought it, so it was cheap; now it's an antique. I prepared my own media, and did simple experiments with bacteria. I remember thinking at age 13 it was boring to work with something as relatively harmless as E. coli, so I even got a bacteriological supply house to send me Staphylococcus aureus and started playing with it. In those days, before bioterrorism, the supply house apparently assumed anyone who asked for it was qualified to handle it and didn't investigate to make sure. Of course they should never have sent it to me. These days the FBI would be surrounding the house of anyone who even asked for that organism.
I was always torn between becoming a scientist and becoming a writer. I remember the precise moment and the reason why I decided to be a writer, but that's another story.
JG: What else are you reading right now?
JB: I'm trying to catch up on some fiction as a matter of fact, and am reading Jonathan Safran Foer. Then I'm re-reading some Faulkner. And even some poetry. Eliot and Dickinson. Trying to clear my head.
JG: What's next for you?
JB: In the past, by the time a book was published I have always been well into the next one. That's not the case this time. I don't intend to take a break but am considering several different -- radically different -- ideas but have not settled on one yet. Meantime I'm spending some time on some scientific questions relating to influenza, the answer to which lies in historical data. I may go back to another book on science, or I may do something entirely new. One thing I am certain of, having written about 2 disasters -- the 1918 influenza pandemic and the 1927 Mississippi River flood, which was bigger than Katrina -- and having lived through Katrina since my home is in New Orleans, I am never writing about a disaster again
For more on "Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul," visit the Penguin Group website.