Tuesday, October 31, 2006

October Revolution 6: Civil Government, Again

Yale history professor, George Fisher, a religious liberal and no friend of the Reformation, wrote:

How is it, then, that Calvinism is acknowledged, even by foes, to have promoted powerfully the cause of civil liberty? The reason lies in the boundary line which it drew between church and State. Calvinism would not surrender the peculiar notions of the Church to the civil authority. Whether the church, or the Government, should regulate the administration the Sacrament, and admit or reject the communicants, was the question which Calvin fought out with the authorities at Geneva, in this feature, Calvinism differed from the relation of the civil leaders to the Church, as established under the auspices of Zwingli, well as of Luther, and from the Anglican system which originated under Henry VIII….A second reason why Calvinism has been favorable to civil liberty is found in the republican character of its church organization. Laymen shared power with ministers… Men who were accustomed to rule themselves in the Church would claim the same privilege in the commonwealth…Another source of the influence of Calvinism, in advancing the cause of civil liberty, has been derived from its theology. The sense of the exaltation of the Almighty Ruler, and of his intimate connection with the minutest incidents and obligations of human life, which is fostered by this theology, dwarfs all earthly potentates. An intense spirituality, a consciousness that this life is but an infinitesimal fraction of human existence, dissipates the feeling of personal homage for men, however high their station, and dulls the luster of all earthly grandeur. Calvinism and Romanism are the antipodes of each other. [1]

Hamilton, a legal historian and expert on constitutional and copyright law and former assistant to Supreme court judges, discovered that:

"This [American] marriage of distrust in individuals but hope in properly structured institutions is no mere historical accident but has its roots in the Reformation theology of John Calvin…Others have made the more general case that Calvinist precepts permeated the culture at the time of the framing. Many of the Framers brought to the convention a background in Calvinist theology, with Presbyterians predominating among the Calvinists."[2]

Daniel Elazar, of Temple University, a member of presidential committees and founding member of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, created a World History Curriculum (Article 2).

“In all of the places where Reformed Protestantism was strong, there emerged a Protestant republicanism that opposed tyrants even as it demanded local religious conformity. Reformed Protestants in England became the Puritans, whose name indicated that they wanted to purify the Anglican Church as much as the Catholic, which they had rejected. In the seventeenth century they launched the first of the great modern revolutions, the English Civil War, against royal absolutism, opening the way for modern democracy.”

“Hence the constitutional democracy that we all know today has its roots in that Reformed Protestant revival of the biblical idea of covenant which was not only important in the fight against tyrants and hierarchies but could be made operational in political systems that would protect liberties.”

Elsewhere (amongst his plethora of socio & politico-economic international essays) Daniel further claims (Covenant & the American Founding ):

“A majority of the delegates to the Convention were affiliated with covenant-based churches…The Presbyterians, however, were already moving toward full-scale federalism. As Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., noted: "More than either [the Congregationalists or Anglicans] the Presbyterians in their reliance on federalist and representative institutions anticipated the political makeup of the future United States. Indeed, as the first government came into office under the U.S. Constitution in 1789, the Presbyterians held their first nationwide General Assembly. In the Presbyterian system, congregations in a local area formed a presbytery; several presbyteries in a region formed a synod; and then came the General Assembly. As a result, the system of federal democracy established by the U.S. Constitution has often been referred to as Presbyterianism writ large for civil society…[3]

Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, an Austrian, Roman Catholic, aristocrat, intellectual and National Review contributor asserts:

“If we call the American statesmen of the late eighteenth century the Founding Fathers of the United States, then the Pilgrims and Puritans were the grandfathers and Calvin the great-grandfather…the prevailing spirit of Americans before and after the War of Independence was essentially Calvinistic in both its brighter and uglier aspects.”[4]

This fearlessness brought them to preach against public evils, whether from the populace or the prince. Naturally, the princes did not like this. Calvin, himself, was eventually kicked out of Geneva for “meddling” in politics: he clashed with the local counsel over church discipline: he wanted it controlled by the church; they wanted it controlled by the city. Already, Calvin began the ongoing power struggle between church and state.

John Adams bluntly acknowledges the wide-spread influences of both the French-Calvinist’s work Vindicus Contra Tyrannus and the English Calvinist work of Ponet (A Shorte Treatise of Politike Power), both which defended the right of the people to rise against tyrants.[5] Certain elements in the Declaration of Independence echoed past religious thought such as “all men are created equal,” which was originally expressed in the Puritan work Lex, Rex in 1644. Even further back in time, a Dutch Calvinist, Johannes Althusius, wrote Politica (1603), a complete systematic presentation of a representative Republican government including political resistance theory. Pre-existing resistance theories existed, but were not as fully developed until the Reformation under the likes of Calvin, Bullinger, Knox, and others.

A modern encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics summarizes thusly:

In general it may be claimed for Calvinism that its influence has been an elevating and invigorating one. Abasing man before God, but exalting him again in the consciousness of a newborn liberty in Christ, teaching him his slavery through sin, yet restoring his freedom to him through grace, and leading him to regard all things in the light of eternity, it contributed to form a grave but very noble and elevated type of character, and reared a race not afraid to lift up the head before kings.[6]

The story of Reformed influence on political theory has yet to be fully written.

[1] George Park Fisher, The Reformation, revised, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920), 207ff.,

[2] Christian Perspectives on Legal Thought, ed. Michael McConnell, et.al., “The Calvinist Paradox of Distrust and Hope at the Constitutional Convention,” New Haven; Yale University Press, 2001, 293.

[3] The Covenant Tradition in Politics, vol. 3 (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1998), 77ff.

[4] “The Western Dilemma: Calvin or Rousseau?” Modern Age 15, no. 1 (1971): 5.

[5] The Works of John Adams [1851] Vol. 6, p. 3-4.

[6] James Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Part 5, (Kessinger Publishing, 2003), 153.

The story of Reformed influence on political theory has yet to be fully written.

[Next: Personal Application & Postscript (with recommended books)]


Jonathan Rowe said...

Interesting site. I saw your comment on PL's website, and Dr. Frazer does, in his thesis, answer your point.

Certainly Calvinism had some influence on the founding; I think it is a grave error, however, to view it as the dominant ideology behind founding principles. Almost every single day for the past few years of my life, I've meticulously studied the issue and I agree with Bernard Bailyn that there were 4 prime streams of thought from which our Founders derived the ideas in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. They included 1) biblical precepts including covenent theology, 2) traditional common law rights of Englishmen, 3) pagan Greco-Roman principles, and 4) Enlightenment principles, or "the rights of man." If was the last, the Enlightenment, which clearly dominated and was the lens through which all sources were to be viewed.

Calvinism was probably more influential among the masses than the Founders, most of whom had a strong distate for his ideas. And some like Jefferson absolutely hated the man and everything he stood for.

You also need to consider that James Madison, who studied under Witherspoon, primarily learned not Calvinism from Dr. Witherspoon, but Enlightenment principles. Dr. Witherspoon may have been a Calvinist in his personal theology. But when he taught principles of government to his students, Witherspoon taught them LOCKE, not Calvin.

While Madison may have gleened a few things here and there from Calvinism, he was neither a Calvinist, (nor even a Christian really) but a man of the Enlightenment. And Enlightenment taught that "Man's Reason" as the penultimate guide, could pluck out the Truth from a varity of sources, including the Bible, Calvin, Greco-Romanism, Tradition, Paganism, etc.

Madison did not believe and never wrote that man was "totally depraved." Rather, he said something along the lines of "if men were angels...." which suggests he believed man was "partially depraved." As a man of the Enlightenment, he could take an idea from one source, and use "man's reason" to tweak it to fit his modernist theories.

Re: The Coventants, whatever influence the theology may have had, neither the Declaration, nor the Constitution, nor the Federalist papers Covenant with the God of the Bible, or any God. Nor did any of these key Founders suggest that government needed to Covenant with God. In fact, Art. VI of the Constitution, which forbids religious tests, seems the very opposite of a covenant.

So if "Covenant Theology" did influence our Founding, which to *some* extent, no doubt, it did, what does it say that the HEART of such theology -- the Biblical Covenants -- were missing from the Founders' formulation.

Just some things to think about.


Jon Rowe

polymathis said...

Dear Jonathan,

I've had a while to dig deeper into this issue since you responded.

My series at the beginning does allude to other sources of influence. The nature of this series is clearly to highlight what is left out of many textbooks.

The Common Law tradition slowly evolved with major changes during the 1600s, which were especially influenced by Calvinism (Law & Revolution II, Berman).

The Greco-Roman principles were integrated into the larger Christian thought even before the Reformation. And the Reformers themselves referenced them at times. But it was a Christian framework that cherry-picked these principles and/or considered them part and parcel of 'natural revelation' which complimented Biblical revelation and never replaced it (cp. The Reformation of Rights, Witte.)

The founder's "distaste for" Calvinism has never been demonstrated in whatever I have read (other than Jefferson). John Jay, Patrick Henry, Roger Sherman and others certainly had strong Calvinistic childhoods and seemed to carry most if not all of these convictions into adulthood (at least the biographies I have read). Too many people tend to shrink the Founders to Madison and Jefferson.

It is true that Madison's religious views are hard to determine, yet Witte & Hamilton clearly find traces of Calvinism.

For the roots of Witherspoon's political thoughts I recommend the latest biography by Morrison. The Locke-Enlightenment thesis has already been challenged and mutated, but that is an area I have not studied further than Morrison and Witte.

The covenant-connection is further developed by multiple scholars in Professor Elazar's The Covenant Connection and his other works (as cited in the series).

The historian must immerse himself in the milieu of the day. Calvinism was taught in the schools (via NE Primer), books and sermons. Preachers were held in high-esteem. Election day sermons included resistance theories (demonstratively developed in the womb of earlier Calvinists). Morality and religion were joined at the hip. To think that the founders substantially brought an alien worldview (Enlightenment) to the masses (and their lesser leaders) who imbibed Calvinism (to one degree) is quite strange. Even Jefferson had to keep his Deism quiet. Whatever some of the Founders may have brought certainly did not clash with the other leaders and people.

My further readings has only reinforced the fact of Christianity's influence. I don't for a minute, however, believe these authors would agree with all that I say.

Berman's Law & Revolution II hits the nail on the head: religion was part and parcel of the worldview, affecting law and society in subtle yet profound ways.

At the end of the day, I suspect we will differ in how we interpret the historical data, using different historical-philosophical frameworks (Gorski's summary of those schools of thought is excellent)

Thank you for your comment.

(For the reader of this blog): Specialty books I recommend:

Puritan Political Ideas, Morgan
Religion & the American Constitutional Experiment, Witte,
Separation of Church & State, Hamburger
Law & Revolution II, Berman
The Disciplinary Revolution, Gorski
Christ's Churches Purely Reformed, Benedict
The Reformation of Rights, Witte,
The Covenant Connection, Elazar
Revolution & Religion, Griffen
Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Hutson
Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic, Morrison
Covenantal Politics in America - Two Radicalisms, Maddox

polymathis said...

Dear reader,

For the sake of clarity and openness, you ought to know that Jonathan is a "libertarian lawyer and college professor" (from his blog).

A fact I was unaware of.