Of QAnon, Calvin, And the LA Times

It is a deep animus that would seek to tie John Calvin (1509–1564) to the QAnon-fueled wackos who stormed the American capitol earlier this month but that is what Richard Hughes tries to do in a recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times. His argument is a tour de force of a perverse kind of Whig history. The Whig story is that whatever good there is today should be traced to X (pick your hero). In this case, something bad happened in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021 and it must be Calvin’s fault. He seeks to explain how evangelicals, who, in his view, should have repudiated a character like Trump, came to support him. The fault lies in “the last gasps of a long-standing American religion that is now passing away — the religion of Christian America sustained by a corrupted version of Christianity.” Who is responsible for the “religion of Christian America”? Why it is none other than John Calvin, of course. How is Calvin responsible (and thus linked to the assault on the capitol)? The nexus lies in “extremism.” The problem is, according to Hughes, is that the young Calvin (apparently single-handed) took over Geneva in the 1530s and “sought to transform it into a model kingdom of God, a city where God would rule over the church but also over politics, art, music and every other aspect of human life.” This vision of life apparently had occurred to no one else prior to Calvin.

Our Frenchman gave us the hated Colonial Puritans, “the Presbyterians who dominated the Middle Colonies, and the Baptists who would dominate the American South.” It was Calvin’s view of God and social order that “informed the majority of the faithful throughout most of the 13 colonies” in 1776. Nevertheless, despite the overweening power and influence of Calvin’s theology, somehow the Founders managed to found a republic on “nature and nature’s God” (because Calvin said nothing about natural law), thereby stripping Christianity’s favored status in the new Republic. Never mind the established churches in several of the colonies, which persisted into the first quarter of the 19th century.

Still, Calvin’s views, with their assertion of white male, heterosexual dominance, persisted uneasily with the ideals of the Founders until the 1960s, when “the Founders’ promise of liberty and equality for all began to bear new and — if measured in Calvin’s terms — altogether radical fruit.” Only then were “People of color, women, gays, lesbians and nonconforming people of every sort” able to “claim their rightful place in America’s public square.”

According to Hughes, the assault on the capitol represented a the last gasp of Calvin’s malign influence on America and an attempt to re-assert the white, hetero-Patriarchy in America. This was possible because “Christian America advocates have so often claimed that God Almighty anointed Donald Trump as president of the United States.” Calvin gave us Donald Trump. He concludes by warning that Calvin’s warrior children are not finished. They pose a serious danger to the well being of the Republic.

I assure you gentle reader that this is not a parody. Hughes, is professor emeritus of religion at Pepperdine University and the author of two books on these themes (Christian America and White Supremacy). Pieces like these, which appear periodically, are useful because they illustrate the need for a bogeyman and the persistence of the “Calvin as Tyrant” theme (on which see the resources). Hughes’ OpEd is also a good illustration of the quality or lack thereof of popular reflection on Calvin.

What most Enlightened Westerners think they know about Calvin is mostly false. He did not rule Geneva with an iron fist. He was a refugee in Geneva, more or less compelled against his will to stay the first time until he alienated the old-money Genevan families and was summarily dismissed. Technically he was on loan to Strasbourg, where he enjoyed three years of rest, renewal, and fellowship with Martin Bucer (1491–1551). Think of it as a sort of pastoral internship, where Calvin got to see Reformed church life and where he got to see the wider Reformation for himself and to learn from a first-generation Reformer, who himself embraced the Reformed at the feet of Luther.

His return to Geneva in 1541 was reluctant and he remained a pilgrim and stranger in Geneva for most of the rest of his life. He did not begin to attain the sort of authority most assume he had until the 1550s and even then it was always tenuous. He did not become a Genevan citizen until near the end of his life. He was a city employee and did the will of the Little Council (i.e., the Genevan Senate). He lived during Christendom, i.e., the church-state complex in which virtually everyone, even some of the Anabaptists, assumed that it was God’s will that there should be a state-church and that the state should enforce religious orthodoxy. Geneva was not exceptional in that. It was one place among many where, tragically, religious heretics died in the flames.

The grand assumption funding Hughes’ diatribe is that Calvin’s view of God is of a tyrannical deity leads to certain social outcomes. This assumption is widely held but remains entirely speculative and unproved. If that is the way history worked then why did so many flock to Geneva? Why was it regarded as the hospital of Europe? Could it have been that most found it a relatively benign and even benevolent place? Could it have been that widows and orphans and abused wives found refuge there? Yes it could. Those historical realities, however, do not fit Hughes’ narrative.

As to the social primacy of heterosexual white males, from all we have been told in recent years that tyranny is still ongoing. It requires a uniquely lazy anachronism to prosecute the entire Western world for not agreeing with the court in Obergefell v Hodges or with the Obama Administration’s “Dear Colleague Letter.” Hughes’ problem is with historic Christianity and Calvin is but a bête noire not a genuine historical cause. The relations of the rise of the American Republic to Calvin are truly complex. It is true that some of the Founders were deists but some of them were Christians and some of the were Deists who were well read in Scripture and influenced by the broader Western Christian tradition. It is true that the Republic as founded was secular. It is also true that without the Christian influences on the Republic it would not have become what it was. Hughes’ story ignores those (e.g., Martin Luther King) who drew on the Christian influences on the Republic in order to call it to live up its ideas.

How influential is Calvin on American Christianity? Volumes have been devoted to that question. He was an heir to the Protestant Resistance Theory that had already begun to develop in the 1540s. He was a student of political theory and Institutes 4.20 is a classic expression of a moderate theory of resistance: that lesser magistrates may resist tyrants. The Congregationalists who first arrived were, to greater and lesser degrees, heirs of the broader Reformed tradition but already by the mid-eighteenth century the influence of traditional Reformed theology, piety, and practice was waning and by the middle of the nineteenth century it was marginal. By the mid-nineteenth century America was much more an Anabaptist nation that it was a Calvinist nation. By the middle of the twentieth century, the Calvinists had been exiled from the mainline denominations and mostly scattered into socially, culturally, and politically marginal splinter groups. There was some Calvinist influence on the Christian Reconstruction movement, which was more influential behind the scenes in the first Reagan Administration than is sometimes recognized (see the resources below) but the Reconstructionist movement is more useful as a hobgoblin of the cultural and political left than it is a genuine political or cultural force.

The story of the Capitol Hill mob has yet to be told since it is politically convenient to use it the episode to demonize one’s cultural, political, and religious opponents. Hughes’ OpEd is a prime example of such. Eventually, we are likely to find out that this episode was neither the result of a conspiracy (few things are) nor the result of Calvin’s  influence on American Christianity. It will likely be discovered that most of the folks there were harmless albeit confused about American civics and about how the electoral process works. There were almost certainly organized, disciplined groups of undetermined origin, who took advantage of 1) the assumption by the authorities that this Trump rally would be no more violent than any of the other such rallies; 2) the unwillingness of the authorities after President’s walk to St John’s to be seen to be reacting too forcefully; 3) the general confusion between the layers of government in Washington, D.C. and the resulting lack of communication; 4) the influence of bizarre, cultic, quasi-Gnostic mythologies such as QAnon was greater than most of us imagined (see below).

Almost none of this has anything to do with historic Christianity of any sect, let alone Calvin or his successors in the American Colonies or the American Republic. There is nothing on earth Calvin feared more than mobs. He shared Luther’s utter disgust at the Peasants’ Revolt in the early 1520s and the railed against the Anabaptist mob that took over and led to the virtual destruction of Münster in the 1530s. The suggestion (in 2012) that Calvin would have supported the Occupy Wall Street Movement, a progenitor to the Communist Antifa movement, is risible (see the resources below) and so is the latest attempt to lay the Capitol Mob at the feet of Calvin and his children.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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13 comments

  1. The trouble is that most of the American public is entirely ignorant of the facts you bring to bear in your post, so when they read an article like Hughe’s they simply assume that everything he says is true and factual. Seems like there used to be a time when someone publishing something patently false concerning what another party or parties said publicly, they’d be liable for slander and could be taken to court. Not any more, apparently.

  2. I try to be kind and to understand the thinking of today’s left-wing thinkers and proponents…..if for no other reason than to establish dialog. But so often it seems that the more they say the dumber they look. It’s right to respect all people, but foolish to respect all opinions.

  3. Thank you. The more time I spend on the Heidelblog, the more grateful I am for a biblical worldview established in Reformed theology. It would seem that the further one strays from a scriptural understanding of history, the more absurd must be the theories of what, why, and how. Instead of understanding the sovereignty of God and recognizing the fall of man, let’s find a culprit other than ourselves to blame or explain why bad things happen we have yet to achieve utopia. If it wasn’t for that dastardly Calvin and his prodigy, life would be so much better!

  4. Technical note: it may just be me on my iPhone browser, but the “Post” button below the new comment block is always overshadowed by the checkbox of “Notify me of follow-up comments by email,” making it very difficult to choose that option without inadvertently hitting the “Post” button.

    • Mike,

      It’s a problem. The Wonderful Wizard of Web is under the weather. We’ll get it fixed but it involves a level of coding I can’t do. Sorry about that.

    • No problem, Dr Clark. It occurred to me that some of the interaction on the comments might have been diminished. Didn’t want to see that happen to my beloved Heidelblog!

  5. If it’s any comfort to you, this scion of theological liberalism encountered Calvinism as a historical phenomenon in his college years, read Calvin and some of the Confessions and a few other things, and promptly lost any respect he ever had for the name of Max Weber.

    You are right that American “evanglicalism” is mostly Anabaptist or Arminian, with Unitarianism reaching some tentacles into it (note how fuzzy so many American Christians are on the Trinity).

    Methinks Hughes dusts off a convenient bugbear from 19th century schoolbooks, which generally give a Unitarian demonography of Calvin.

  6. Hughes must at first read the VIII volume of P. Schaff Church History.

    It seems, that main modern contributor, which make that myth of Calvin as a tyrant was Stephan Zweig.

  7. Without question the attempt to smear Calvin – and through him, Christianity – with responsibility for the Q Anon “sponsored” Day of Deplorable Infamy is risible, if not stupefying. Yet it is the new abNormal, the new reality, which by definition is not rational. But that is one of the punishments of sin in this world, blindness of mind and strong delusions (LC 28).

    Anybody not on board with the pogrom; who didn’t vote for Big Joe and Ms. “Equity” Harris, is now essentially a domestic terrorist, if not guilty of insurrection. IOW a life long card carrying member of K Anon.
    K as in kulak.
    Connect the dots.

    If the one Russian proverb is “Dwell on the past, lose an eye; forget the past, lose both,” another says, “When it happens to you, you’ll know it’s true.“

    “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?”
    Because they are in rebellion against God and his Word, both written and Incarnate; as well his created world and order. Not a good place to be for a nation, a people or a political party/regime.

    Not with standing that the God who sits in the heavens shall also laugh at them in derision, may he also have mercy on his church, who might seem to be quite as insensible to his judgments (LC. 105), as is the world in their unbelieving disobedience.

  8. Good grief. Even five minutes of Googling will show that the main optic of the Capitol takeover, the “QAnon shaman,” is a lapsed Roman Catholic who has rejected any form of Christianity and now considers himself to be an ordained shamanistic religious leader returning to ancient pre-Christian spiritual practices. He dresses as a pseudo-Viking and is covered with pagan tattoos.

    What does that have to do with Calvin, or even with Christianity?

    I might expect a “religious studies” professor at a secular state institution to be so ignorant that he could confuse the “irreligious right” (i.e., secular conservatism) with evangelical Christianity and the religious right, but what are they teaching at Pepperdine that leads this professor to fail to make the most basic distinctions between secular and religious forms of conservatism?

    This isn’t a new distinction in the American conservative movement. Barry Goldwater was barely a theist. Ayn Rand told William F. Buckley that he was an intelligent man and she couldn’t understand how a man as smart as Buckley could believe in God. John McCain famously attacked the evangelical wing of the Republican Party in his 2000 primary campaign and that attack was a major part of why he lost the primary to George Bush. More recently, that division between evangelical and secular conservatives was a critical factor in the 2008, 2012, and 2016 Republican primaries — and the voters of Northwest Iowa, many of whom are Reformed, were not exactly uninvolved in those campaigns.

    Riots are by definition disorganized and chaotic mobs. As we learn more about the people who have been arrested for the attack on the Capitol, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the people who broke into the Capitol were evangelicals. It would disappoint but not shock me if some of them turn out to be Reformed. Just because we haven’t yet seen Calvinists filling the DC jails and singing psalms calling down imprecations on the government doesn’t mean there won’t turn out to have been some in that mob.

    But at least so far, the evidence that the leadership of the people who attacked the Capitol Police and broke into the Capitol building were influenced by any sort of Christianity is largely lacking. So far, what we’ve seen is that the people involved in the attack were not only uninvolved in evangelical political activism, but actively hostile to Christianity.

    Personally I would hope that any Reformed consistory or session that discovers one of their members among the rioters would put that membership under church discipline, as they would anyone else committing a public criminal act of trespass and destruction. American citizens had every right to protest outside the Capitol, but breaking into the building was a crime, and needs to be treated as such by both civil and ecclesiastical authorities.

    We’ve already seen what happens when supposedly Reformed people attacked abortion clinics in several cases over the last few decades — they were quite correctly called to account by their churches. I hope the same would happen with any Reformed people involved in the Capitol riot.

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