Reforming Civil Religion Today
Reforming Civil Religion Today

Reforming Civil Religion Today

There is not one model of Reformed political engagement. Which is most needed in the age of Trump?

June 29 th 2017

From the colonial era to the Civil War, the American heirs of John Calvin deployed their political energies along three main paths. From Puritan New England came the quest for a righteous society. Presbyterians in the Middle Atlantic region elevated a constitutional system to secure order and rights in a pluralistic society. And Presbyterians in the Deep South segmented off civil space as adiaphora in the name of the "spirituality of the church."

My aim in this essay is to review these historical models with some application to the current American scene. What possibilities and limitations might they offer for the testimony that Presbyterian and Reformed churches can make amid the highly polarized and rancorous politics in which Americans find themselves today?

The Calvinist solution lay in its old strain of constitutionalism and due process: a strong church order designed to contain and resolve conflict in the house of the Lord, and a civil constitution that kept order while guarding liberty in the city of man.

The Puritan Dream

The Puritan quest for a righteous society took its energy from its paradoxical combination of sectarian intensity and established church sway. On the one hand, church membership in Massachusetts was open only to those who could testify to a convincing personal experience of conversion. By this means New England Puritans aimed at making the visible and invisible churches as synonymous as possible. At the same time their churches were state-supported to the exclusion of all others with the aim of thoroughly reforming not only church but also state and society. This was to be a "Bible commonwealth" founded on covenants both civil and ecclesiastical, drawn at once with each other and with God.

Socially, this covenanted communalism was dependent on New England's remarkably homogeneous demography. The twenty thousand souls who founded the region came virtually all at once, came principally from one region in England (East Anglia), and were followed by relatively few others until the great Irish immigration two hundred years later. This was a thoroughly tribal society, more English than England itself. Accordingly, the holy commonwealth could be hard on outsiders. New Englanders were par for the course in warring on native peoples, but were unique in volubly invoking Scripture and prayer in the process. Suspect insiders could face exile, as in the cases of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, or mass purgation as in the infamous Salem witch craze. Its twenty victims count as the predictable sacrifice of an insular community trying to dam a rising tide of afflictions. More productively, New England took recourse to the jeremiad and revival, employed to call the community back to its mission. In this light, history became a cycle of election, transgression, and the dream of a renewed election made possible by that very transgression.

The Puritan dream of a righteous society was recast after the Revolution in republican and evangelical language. The scope of what counted as God's "chosen nation" expanded from New England proper to include those adjacent territories where her children spread in the search for land and opportunity, and then to the United States as a whole. In the Yankee diaspora across upstate New York and the upper Midwest, the antebellum heirs of the Puritans launched their project anew in a spate of intense reform activity that sought to redeem the young republic of its collective sins. The worst of those sins, of course, was slavery, and the heartland of antislavery agitation was defined by the map of New England migration. Slavery was finally undone, symbolically speaking, at the hands of four descendants of colonial New England: President Lincoln, Generals Sherman and Grant, and the poet-reformer Julia Ward Howe. Her "Battle Hymn of the Republic" not only inspired the North during the Civil War but also sanctified its self-conception for a century afterward as the arrived and fulfilled chosen nation of God. Here, besides its suspicion of outsiders and of "deviant" insiders, is the final flaw of the New England model, nicely enough growing out of its greatest achievement: a sanctimonious civil religion clothed in the garb of Christianity.

Presbyterian Proceduralism for a Pluralist Society

American Calvinism's second model stemmed from radically different circumstances. The Middle Atlantic region of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania constituted the most ethnically and religiously pluralistic society in North America, and the five Reformed groups who settled in the area (Dutch, Huguenot, German, Scots, and Ulster Irish) had to make their way in a patchwork society. Here any claim of religious establishment was a pipedream while civil politics plumbed the depths of factionalism and self-interest. The same was true for the descendants and kin of these groups who spread up and down the backcountry of Appalachia, on the western fringe of polities that were controlled by seaboard elites.

Conflict of all sorts was endemic in these circumstances, and a tenacious defense of rights well indicated. Order and harmony had to be achieved by measures that rose above the designs of any particular group. The Calvinist solution lay in its old strain of constitutionalism and due process: a strong church order designed to contain and resolve conflict in the house of the Lord, and a civil constitution that kept order while guarding liberty in the city of man. The approach was tailor-made for America's Revolutionary era, and no one rose to the occasion better than John Witherspoon, a Scots pastor imported in 1768 to preside over the College of New Jersey. Under his direction Princeton produced more civil officeholders on all levels of the infant nation than did any other American college.

A fixation on the church’s integrity can be used to excuse or comply with the grossest lack of integrity and justice in public life.

Witherspoon's political Calvinism emphasized the responsibilities of public service and the centrality of law—first to legitimate the Revolutionary process and then to stabilize the post-Revolutionary settlement. His most distinguished student was James Madison, principal architect of the US Constitution. With its separation of powers, checks and balances, disbursement of sovereignty between federal and state levels, and underlying strategy of multiplying factions and interests over a large republic, the document is a mirror of middle-colony and backcountry experience. It also registers the naturalized Calvinism that Madison took away from Princeton: utterly secular, trusting in no redemptions, with strong structures designed to channel and control indelible self-interest.

After the Napoleonic Wars, Princeton returned to its original intent of producing ministers, founding a separate theological seminary that became a font of undiluted Calvinist orthodoxy. Leading the enterprise for half a century was Charles Hodge, most famous as a professor of systematic theology. Yet his first great publication was a church history tellingly titled The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (1840/1851). During his long teaching career Princeton minted more ministers—thus, more professional leaders in local communities across the United States—than did any other school in the land. Hodge always hesitated to sacralize civic causes in the New England manner. Rather, the resonance of his instruction was to promulgate a culture of sober realism and civil respect, and a model of piety fulfilled in institutional service. These helped inspire the cult of "decency and good order" in church proceedings that later Presbyterians would observe even—perhaps especially—when they departed from Hodge's theological orthodoxy.

Southern "Spirituality"

In the Deep South Presbyterian and Reformed settlers dwelled in a different environment still, one predicated on slavery from the very beginning. Founded on the model of Barbados's incredibly lucrative plantation complex, South Carolina quickly became the only mainland colony with an enslaved majority. It also, and not accidentally, had the most centralized and elitist political regime in the colonies. Likewise, the slave code it instituted after the Stono Rebellion (1739) was the most severe. Perennial fears of slave insurrection marked all Carolina policy, the religious included. Thus evangelizing efforts in the slave quarters were only accepted once it had become clear that conversion did not entail manumission. Evangelical religion made its advances in this region by accepting a twofold contract: that the most slavery-dependent region of colonial America would be run in the name of the purest libertarian ideology, and that civil government would be free of any carping from the church.

Presbyterians, as evangelicalism's intellectual leadership, worked to warrant this deal by promulgating the doctrine of "the spirituality of the church." Best articulated by James Henley Thornwell, long a pastor and professor of theology in Columbia, South Carolina, the notion sharply demarcated between civil and ecclesiastical spheres—likewise between "material" and "spiritual" affairs—and limited the church's corporate authority to the latter in each pair. It conceded to the Jeffersonian-Baptist hegemony in the South, which projected American church-state separation on the heavens as the eternal counsel of God. It paralleled contemporaneous high-church efforts on both sides of the Atlantic to protect the church's purity from political subservience. At the same time it accepted that subservience, for the spirituality of the church served to insulate the dominant socioeconomic institution of the South from the church's moral critique. Slavery was deemed an entirely civil institution, also in its prohibition of literacy and of legally binding marriage in the slave quarters. Though for whites these were "moral" or "spiritual" concerns par excellence, they were not honored as such for blacks and thus were deemed to lie outside the church's proper jurisdiction.

We might note that such quietism availed little in the final analysis, for when the Confederacy declared independence from the United States, Thornwell himself wrote the brief by which Southern Presbyterians defended before the world their ecclesiastical separation from their Northern brethren—and gave fulsome support to their region's thoroughly political cause.

Which Calvinism? Whose Public Theology?

And now for a brief application to the present. The election of Donald Trump and the embattled society that it manifests call for (1) a combination of these three lines of Calvinian public theology, as any one of them is inadequate in isolation, and (2) a full awareness of the fallibilities to which each is liable. We see too many Christians—including Reformed Christians—crusading for a "Christian America" à la the Puritan dream without a due respect for the rights of others as constitutionalism requires. Blessedly, Trump's resolute paganism has made these invocations relatively rare, but it has also licensed an unabashed Christianist tribalism that would cast out outsiders and deprive suspect insiders of their rights. The Left, however, offers no convincing picture of a capacious social solidarity, perhaps in part out of a fear of a blinkered civil religion.

Yet constitutionalism can be flaccid without a zeal for justice and mercy that transcends the maintenance of order alone. A version of this syndrome has bedeviled the liberal side in church and state with a relentless concern for ticking the boxes of inclusiveness while losing sight of the ultimate goals for which such diversity must fight. It's no good, as the Democratic Party and PC(USA) both demonstrate, to be a proper rainbow if you keep losing elections and members.

So is it the turn of the third model, either in a two-kingdoms or Hauerwasian form? It is true that the church can be so concerned with the public sphere as to risk neglecting the spiritual nurture essential to the life and future of the faithful. Yet a fixation on the church's integrity can be used to excuse or comply with the grossest lack of integrity and justice in public life. We might well ponder whether the two-kingdoms theory, for one, exists to permit its advocates to vote for Trump without compunction, antithetical to Christian teaching, ethics, comportment, and character though he might be.

In sum, mixing the best of these three models to counteract each other's worst elements may constitute the proper task for Reformed Christians on the current American scene. Yet the polarization into which their churches have also been largely absorbed might well make that task, challenging in the best of circumstances, virtually impossible in the foreseeable future. Perhaps the best we can do is cultivate the memory of their virtues and defects in hopes that it will prove useful on some more auspicious day.

This article is taken from a paper James Bratt presented at a conference on Public Theology in Plural Contexts sponsored by the International Reformed Theological Institute in Hong Kong, June 16, 2017.

James Bratt
James Bratt

James Bratt taught in the History Department at Calvin College until his retirement in 2016. This past academic year he has been Fulbright Lecturer in U.S. History at Xiamen University in China. He has long been interested in the intersection of religion and politics both in the Reformed tradition and in the United States.


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