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To help draw business, a state looks back to its 1636 roots

Posted November 28

In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016, photo, a statue of Roger Williams overlooks the skyline in Providence, R.I. One of Colonial America's most important freethinkers has a new role as a marketing tool for the place he settled 380 years ago. Williams founded Providence as a refuge for dissidents experimenting with ideas that formed the backbone of U.S. democracy. Now state leaders are harkening back to his legacy as a draw for businesses and young people looking for a place that matches their ideals. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

— Tax credits. Lower cost of living. Restaurants and beaches. And don't forget Roger Williams and his experiment in protecting everyone's liberty of conscience.

One of Colonial America's most important freethinkers has a new role as a marketing tool for the place he settled 380 years ago.

Rhode Island started out as a refuge for dissidents experimenting with revolutionary ideas that formed the backbone of U.S. democracy. Now, the tiny state is invoking its roots to draw and retain educated young people searching for a community that matches their ideals.

"Young people want to live in a place that's tolerant and diverse and inclusive," Gov. Gina Raimondo said during an interview at the Roger Williams National Memorial , which commemorates the minister and his advocacy for individual freedom. "This is part of who we are. It's not a fad or something temporary. It's ingrained in who we are as Rhode Islanders."

The Democratic governor views those principles through the lens of economic development. When PayPal announced it was halting plans to open a North Carolina branch because of that state's law blocking transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice, she called up the San Jose, California-based company and asked it to move to Rhode Island instead. Her appeal included a reference to the founding ideas of Williams' colony.

Raimondo used the strategy again in September with a letter to the National Collegiate Athletic Association after it pulled a men's basketball tournament out of North Carolina.

"Rhode Island was famously founded in 1636 on the principle of personal and religious freedom," Raimondo wrote to the NCAA. "Today, that tradition of acceptance persists, and we count the diversity it invites as one of our deepest strengths."

The NCAA ended up moving its games to South Carolina, but PayPal has been in serious talks to open a Rhode Island branch.

To be fair, the state hasn't always lived up to its founding ideals. Raimondo was cautious about welcoming Syrian refugees, saying the state would accept them if asked by the federal government. Other politicians in the state advocated banning Syrian refugees or putting them in camps; previous waves of immigrants have faced discrimination.

Williams is better known in Rhode Island than in the rest of the United States, where history textbooks give passing mention to his banishment from Puritan Massachusetts and his founding of Providence as a refuge for like-minded dissenters.

The ideas he espoused about personal freedom and separating church and state, and the citizen-led government he formed in Providence, became precursors to American constitutional democracy. He also stood out among English colonists in his early opposition to slavery and in fostering relatively warm relations with New England's indigenous people.

It makes sense for Raimondo and other leaders to harken back to his legacy, said John Barry, author of the 2012 book "Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State and the Birth of Liberty."

It's impossible, he said, to imagine how the theologian would have interpreted laws affecting transgender rights. But on other hot-button issues, his ideas have clear resonance, such as Republican President-elect Donald Trump's campaign proposal to ban Muslim immigrants.

Williams was a devout Christian who favored acceptance of religious differences over mere "toleration," because only the divine could pass judgment on another's belief, Barry said.

"He explicitly stated that a Muslim — and someone he called anti-Christian, or atheist — could be as good a government official as a Christian," Barry said. "That was extraordinary in his time. Unfortunately, it seems unusual among some parts of the American population today."

The Rhode Island General Assembly also became one of the first governments to abolish slavery, though merchants later ignored the law and became active in the slave trade. Williams died in 1683.

A big proponent today is Roger Williams National Memorial Park Ranger John McNiff, who said people "are basically rediscovering Roger Williams as this country is going through a series of changes."

"They look at Roger Williams and see a radical set of ideas," he said. "They see a place where these ideas were actually put into practice."

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