Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Review: John Calvin's American Legacy - Chapter 3 - Implausible: Calvinism and American Politics

Chapter 2 review here. Chapter 1 review here. Introduction review here. Initial thoughts here.

D. G. Hart’s Implausible: Calvinism and American Politics wraps up the section on Calvin’s legacy in American society by examining historical evidence and providing surveys of the two disparate Calvinistic camps of thought on American politics, which he refers to as Libertarian Calvinists and Authoritarian Calvinists. After these historical examinations, Hart concludes that it is implausible—it is dubious—to claim that Calvinism was the source and root of American politics.

To set the stage Hart opens with a scene from 1898, Abraham Kuyper’s third lecture delivered on Calvinism at Princeton Theological Seminary, which was on the positive link between Reformed theology and personal liberty. Kuyper’s optimism is incredible—he not only believed that Calvinism was the source and root of all of the political goodness that had expanded across the Western hemisphere (as exemplified in his homeland, the Netherlands, and also in Great Britain and the United States), but, as Hart says, Kuyper “set his sights even higher” (66). How high exactly? Hart quotes Kuyper at length: 

The fact remains that the broad stream of the development of our race runs from Babylon to San Francisco, through the five stadia of Babylonian-Egyptian, Greek-Roman, Islamitic [sic], Romanistic, and Calvinistic civilization, and the present conflict in Europe as well as in America finds it main cause in the fundament[al] antithesis between the energy of Calvinism which proceeds from the throne of God . . . and its caricature in the French Revolution, which proclaimed its unbelief in the cry of “No God no master.”

Hart calls Kuyper’s (and other like-minded academics) take on the matter a “rosy view of Calvinism’s contribution to the modern world” (67). In light of historical evidence, Hart does not think it is tenable to view and attribute the positive political advancements across the Western nations to Calvinistic thought.

Lest this rosy view sit on the reader’s mind too long, Hart quickly goes on to remind readers that the wide-spread credit given to Calvinism eventually turned to blame in the 1960s, however, Hart doesn’t dwell on those criticisms to advance his thesis, rather, he digs deeper into Calvinistic history in order to show that a “survey of Presbyterian advocates and critics of the liberties that became the standard fare of modern statecraft in the West” demonstrates that there always has been varying Calvinistic “perspectives.” Hart believes this enforces that the “effort to correlate politics with theology is never easy,” even going so far as to claim that the surveyed Calvinistic thought teaches, contrary to Kuyper, that the  “the relationship between Calvinism and liberty, like that between Christianity and politics more generally, is fundamentally paradoxical” (66-67).

As I said earlier, Hart divides American Calvinists into two groups: Libertarian Calvinists and Authoritarian Calvinists. The former group is comprised of recognizable household names, e.g., John Witherspoon, Charles Hodge and Albert Barnes. This group believed Calvinism was the source of American and religious liberty. For example, Hodge “believed that the success of Presbyterian government was dependent on the same sorts of virtues that made republicanism tick” (70), both which he viewed as stemming from “scriptural liberty.” This view would eventually mature to the point that it might be encapsulated within the pithy phrase/slogan, “A free Church in a free State.” Many are familiar with Francis Schaeffer, whose thought and writings provided much fuel for the fires of political activism among conservative Christians during the “culture wars” of the 1980s—Hart lumps him among Libertarian Calvinists—although, kudos to Hart, he mentions that from Witherspoon to Schaeffer there certainly is a development, albeit one which essentially argues for the same outlook, namely, that the “American experiment of a republic based on limited government and civil liberty” is rooted in and indebted to Calvinistic thought. After surveying the Libertarian Calvinistic development in America, Hart then goes on to survey those Calvinists for whom a “free Church in a free State” would not have been considered very Calvinistic.

This latter group, the Authoritarian Calvinists, Hart introduces (foregoing name dropping) by noting that “practically every major confession from sixteenth-century Reformed or Presbyterianism churches affirmed that the civil magistrate was responsible for enforcing the true religion and had a duty to protect the true church” (77). Knowing that is key, for it means that civic and religious liberties are intertwined.

Originally, before America was a twinkling in the eye of all of the Framers, the Reformed consensus on the church/state relationship was antithetical to the current architecture of American statecraft. The Reformers clearly saw the magistrates (aka, the government) were responsible for enforcing the Lordship of Christ (true religion) as well as protecting the Church, which for most contemporary Americans would be an entirely foreign concept. Hart follows this Authoritarian thought from the Continent and traces it through Presbyterian History in America to its modern yet few expressions, like Christian reconstruction, or theonomy, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.

Hart emphasizes that “the first Protestants did not have any conception of a religiously mixed society,” and that “practically no one linked civil and religious liberty the way that American Presbyterians did” (77), which helps readers realize that American Presbyterians truly broke from historical Presbyterianism on this issue. On the one hand, the civil magistrates are responsible for enforcing true religion, but on the other hand, the civil magistrates also had a duty to protect the true church, however, the American Presbyterian understanding of civic and religious liberty capitulated toward the latter portion of this dual-affirmation, and in doing so they turned the magistrate into merely a “nursing father” (protector) to the church. This view over time, maturing in a cultural space designated as “neutral” and “secular” obviously got watered down to, well, the America we know today. But how and why did American Libertarian Presbyterians do this?

Starting in 1729, American Presbyterians revised the Westminster Standards for the colonies. At the Synod, held in Philadelphia, reservations were taken regarding the Westminster Confession’s teaching on government, and by the revisions in 1788, as Hart says, “in one fell swoop, the American Presbyterian church swept away almost two centuries of Presbyterian politics” (80). The New World was thinking fundamentally different about politics and religion. The categories of thought had changed. The sphere of magistrate and the sphere of religion were distinct and meaningfully separated.

We know motives for doing this, worries about the state overstepping her bounds and meddling in religious affairs, etc., but the motives and reasoning laid aside, it is still remarkable and historically significant (and very intriguing) to understand  that this was a revolution of sorts in Presbyterian thought. Still, Hart tries to keep the balance on the two views and reminds readers that “the contrast developed here between the libertarian and authoritarian wings of Reformed Protestantism may be stronger on paper than it has been in practice” (83).

And that very well may be true, but clearly the two Calvinist views are mutually exclusive. Yet, in order to bring some relief to the tension between the two, Hart appeals to Philip Benedict’s social history of the Reformation. Benedict argued that, contrary to Kuyper and Libertarian Calvinists, the roots of democratic/representative government (aka, the “American experiment”) can be found in the “feudal” shared experiences of Medieval decentralized society. Hart likes the sound of that. The historical events interpreted through that framework teach us that Calvinism is not a political/economic ideology or “orientation." Therefore, Hart is confident concluding that the genesis of American statecraft is not Calvinism; American politics do not proceed from the throne of God.

My thoughts: Instead of spending time circumventing bickering Calvinists by attributing genesis of the thing opposed by the one group and promoted by the other group to the social memory and imagination shaped by shared experiences during the feudal and decentralized Middles Ages, I wish that Hart had addressed a very important question: Which Calvinistic view of American Politics (or politics in general) is harmonious with what the Bible teaches?  Hart doesn’t really address the truth claims of one group over against the other’s view in relation to the political imperatives and narratives found in Scripture. Hart's historical surveys are excellent, but I think not interacting with the historical witness in that type of fashion is a real shortcoming, although it may be outside the purview of an article for this type of editorial. Simply to say, after reading this chapter I thought to myself, "That was really interesting, but . . ."

1 comment:

  1. Rushdoony argues the same thing Hart does, regarding the "medievalism" of the American experiment (albeit, attempting to bring this in line with Calvinism explicitly).
    This Independent Republic: Studies in the Nature and Meaning of American History
    It's an interesting argument, & one that should be taken seriously by anyone interested in untangling the French Revolution from our Founding. Thanks for the thoughtful read.