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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- The “Calvin As Tyrant Meme”
- Would Calvin Support the Occupy Movement?
- Resources for Understanding Calvin
- The Myth of “Christian America”
- QAnon, Evangelical Gnosticsm, Manichaeism, And The Kingdom Of The Cults
- “‘Magic and Noise:’ Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America,” in eds. R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim, Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey (Escondido: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), 74–91.
- Resources On Theonomy And Reconstructionism