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Calvinism and Politics, Historically Considered

By April 13, 2012 No Comments

A number of you sent appreciative notes on my last post, “The Geography of Faith,” which took a shot at the big picture of American religious history and its implications for where we are now. So here’s another offering along that line, this time taking up a particular tradition, Calvinism, and the time-honored question of how it relates topolitics. Consider this post is a teaser for a longer essay of mine which treats the topic in more depth: “The Prism of Calvin’s Political Legacy in the United States” (Perspectives, June/July 2009).

“Calvinism and politics” triggers contradictory answers. To some, the faith was a natural fit for pluralistic democracy; for others it was not, and theologically could not be, any such thing. Still others claim that Calvinism happened to make a good fit for democracy in America; naysayers put Methodism in that role instead, with its Arminian mantra of free people, free markets, and free will.

In sorting through this mess, it’s important to define terms carefully. If we narrow Calvinism to Reformed theology as encoded in the propositions of the Westminster standards literally applied, an affinity between Calvinism and democracy connection might indeed seem implausible. But if we trace the actual trajectory of Reformed people over time and attend to the resonances of their words and actions, then the lines of connection get more complicated—and more interesting.

In American history before the Civil War, for instance, we see not just one but three types of Reformed political engagement. Each manifested one of the prime ends that John Calvin, his allies and associates, hoped to achieve in their reformation. Each reflected as well a particular place of origin in Europe and the particular circumstances in which it became rooted in North America. The most important variables were: (1) how homogeneous or heterogeneous was the society in which a Reformed group found themselves; (2) how close or far they were to the levers of political power; and (3) where in the course of American expansion their descendants spread.

From this mix, then, the three types of Calvinist politics in early America:

  • Calvin’s quest for a righteous society flourished most in Puritan New England’s covenanted communities. These rooted back to East Anglia across the sea, and spread across New York and the upper Midwest between the Revolution and Civil War. From this ground sprang up Mormons and Millerite Adventists, revivalists and abolitionists, and  a myriad of social and moral reform efforts that, each and all, aimed at replicating the Puritans’ “holy commonwealth” by means appropriate to the age of church-state separation. John Winthrop set the prototype of the pattern, Lyman Beecher was his latter-day incarnation, and John Brown served as the nightmare (or heroic) apparition of the Lord’s avenging angel punishing the sin of slavery, which made a mockery out of the chosen people.
  • Democratic or not, Calvinism has persistently tended toward careful constitutionalism. That tradition flourished especially among the Presbyterians of the Mid-Atlantic states and the upper South, where ethno-religious pluralism was the order of the day and particular rights had to be balanced and protected so as to make a harmony out of disparate parts. As there was no prospect here that their church could capture the state, constitutional Calvinists aimed instead at controlling the consequences of human depravity by means of structural constraints. The godfather of this tradition was John Witherspoon, the Presbyterian parson imported to become president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in the mid-eighteenth century. His star student turned out to be James Madison, the ur-framer of the U.S. Constitution. On the church side Charles Hodge, the most august of all the Princeton theologians, took the prize with his Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.
  • Calvinism from the start also gave itself to a quest for a pure and autonomous church. This passion served well in the Lower South (the Carolinas, Georgia, and parts west) where libertarian political ideology and a most profitable slave regime were both deeply entrenched. James Henley Thornwell, long-time Presbyterian pastor and professor of theology at Columbia, South Carolina, found a path through this maze by devising the doctrine of the “spirituality of the church.” The notion sharply demarcated civil from ecclesiastical affairs, limited the church’s corporate authority to the latter, and so made Calvinism safe for slaveholding.     

The morale of the story? Here’s one. It has been often remarked that the American Civil War was also a Christian civil war. It was more specifically still a Calvinist civil war. In this epochal conflict the fiercest and most accomplished rhetoric on the Northern front come from New England ministers who consciously styled themselves as “sons of the Puritans.” Their equals in the South were self-consciously Calvinistic Presbyterians devoted to the purity of Reformed churches. Lost in between—and leaving Charles Hodge, quite literally, in tears—was the constitutionalism that middle-state Presbyterians had endorsed as the best means of maintaining ordered liberty in a mixed society. When in 1861 the Constitution no longer availed, this group and their border-state neighbors decided the issue by submerging ordered liberty in Union, their nuances dying, with so much else, upon the altar of the nation.


James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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