Calvin and American Exceptionalism

Damon Linker writes in “The New Republic”:

Once an idea is unleashed upon the world, there’s no telling where it will lead. That is one lesson to be drawn from studying the astonishing influence of John Calvin’s theology on the subsequent history of the world. Born five hundred years ago today, Calvin deepened the Protestant Reformation by building on Martin Luther’s break from Rome, formulating a sternly ascetic version of Christian piety that, as Max Weber powerfully argued more than a century ago, inadvertently laid the psychological groundwork for the development of capitalism. Others have noted the surprising ways that Calvinist ideas helped to legitimize representative political institutions. Less widely acknowledged, though no less historically significant, is the profound impact of Calvinist assumptions on the formation of American patriotism — and in particular on the country’s sense of itself as an exceptional nation empowered by providence to bring democracy, liberty, and Christian redemption to the world. It is this persistent theological self-confidence (some would say over-confidence) that distinguishes American patriotism from expressions of communal feeling in any other modern nation — and that demonstrates our nation’s unexpected but nonetheless decisive debt to John Calvin.

Early modern Christians in the Calvinist tradition strongly emphasized the absolute sovereignty of God, insisting that God ultimately controls all events in the natural world and human history. In the exacting language of the Presbyterian Church’s Westminster Confession of Faith (1649), “God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest to the least, by his most wise and holy providence.” The various Protestant groups that affirmed these and other similarly austere Calvinist doctrines longed to establish a purified Christian church independent of existing ecclesiastical institutions. In England, this desire placed these “Puritans” and other Christian separatists at odds with both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, resulting at several points during the late-sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in civil unrest and violent persecution.Many of the radical Calvinists who resolved to leave England to establish colonies in the newly discovered continent of North America believed themselves to be reenacting the exodus of the Hebrews from bondage in ancient Egypt. Having freely joined in a covenant with God and resolved to build a purified church and holy city in the New World, the Puritans boarded their ships confident that the Lord would guide and protect them on their “errand into the wilderness.” When William Bradford stepped off the Mayflower in 1620, he quoted Jeremiah: “Come let us declare in Zion the word of God.” Ten years later, John Winthrop wrote in the midst of his voyage to America, “The work we have in hand, it is by mutual consent through a special overruling providence . . . to seek out a place of cohabitation and consorting under a due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical.” Once they established the New England colonies, many of the leading Puritans became more convinced than ever that it was within their communities that the Lord would “create a new heaven, and a new earth, new churches, and a new commonwealth together.”It didn’t turn out that way, of course, as conflicts and dissention within the colonies led to numerous schisms, expulsions, and the eventual dilution of the strenuous Puritan ethic. Yet the idea that the original colonists had come, with God’s aid and assistance, to establish a new Israel on American shores managed to persist. Late in the seventeenth century, Cotton Mather claimed that John Winthrop had been “picked out for the work” of founding New England “by the provident hand of the most high,” while William Bradford was a “Moses” who happily served as “an instrument” of the Almighty in establishing “Israel in America.” Minister Thomas Thacher of Boston’s Old South Church concurred with the judgment, boldly asserting that “we are the people that do succeed Israel.” Clergyman and historian Thomas Prince nicely summed up the theological consensus on the topic when he observed in 1730 that “there never was any people on earth so parallel in their general history to that of the ancient Israelites as this of New England.” (This was, of course, more than two centuries before the nefarious “Israel Lobby” set up shop in the nation’s capital.)Having made the basic analogy between Puritan New England and ancient Israel, some extended the comparison even further, to speculate about the perhaps decisive place of the American colonies in sacred history. In Calvinist interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, Israel was usually portrayed as a nation chosen by God to preserve his law until His Son arrived to purify and promulgate it throughout the world. Israel was thus a divine crucible and a providential conduit for the gospels. And so, it seemed, was America — a nation chosen by God to proclaim the repristinized Christianity of the Protestant Reformation to all peoples.

Early in the eighteenth century, the vision of America as a new Israel specially chosen by God to perform a divine mission was primarily limited to the Puritan and post-Puritan elite of New England. But by the middle of the century, the more modest views of providence that until that time had dominated throughout the mid-Atlantic and Southern colonies had been supplanted by the stringent Calvinism of Massachusetts and Connecticut. America was New Englandized. According to historian John F. Berens, the motor behind this extraordinary transformation was the Great Awakening of the 1740s, which helped to spread theological concepts throughout the colonies. In the electrifying sermons of George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, Samuel Davies, and many other preachers, colonists from New York to South Carolina encountered for the first time the potent providential ideas that had previously transfixed the minds of the Puritan settlers of New England.Not that these ideas were identical to the ones that originally inspired John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, and other seventeenth-century writers. On the contrary, American providential thinking evolved dramatically as it circulated throughout the colonies. As Berens notes, the French and Indian War (1754-1763), which followed immediately on the heels of the Great Awakening, contributed decisively to the transformation. For the first time, Americans began to define themselves in contrast to a vision of tyranny — namely, the (political and religious) absolutism of Catholic France. Unlike France, they concluded, the American colonies were a bastion of political and religious freedom. This freedom had been won, moreover, with the help of God’s providence, which would continue to protect the colonies in times of danger, provided the colonists proved themselves worthy of it by maintaining their divinely favored civil and religious institutions. In Berens’s words, by 1763 — a full thirteen years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the outbreak of war with Great Britain over the supposedly tyrannical usurpations of King George III — the “ever-increasing intercolonial conviction that America was the New Israel” had come to mean that the colonies “had been assigned a providential mission somehow connected to the advancement of civil and religious freedom.”Through the Revolutionary War, the years surrounding the ratification of the federal Constitution, and the early national period, pastors and presidents repeatedly praised the “great design of providence” that had led to the creation of a country dedicated to protecting and preserving political and religious liberty. Call it the consolidation of America’s Calvinist consensus. What were once the rather extreme theological convictions dominating a handful of rustic outposts on the edge of a wholly undeveloped continent were now the unifying and motivating ideology of a rapidly expanding and industrializing nation. Whatever difficulties the new nation faced — from the traumas of the War of 1812 to the gradual escalation of regional hostilities that ultimately issued in the Civil War — Americans remained remarkably confident that God was committed to the survival and success of its experiment in free government and would continue to intervene providentially in its affairs to ensure that outcome.

This confidence received an additional boost from the Second Great Awakening that swept through wide swaths of the new nation in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Many of those caught up in the intense revivalistic fervor of the time became convinced that they were living through the last days of human history prior to the advent of a thousand-year reign of Christian peace and prosperity on earth. Millennial hopes and fears left long-lasting marks on older Protestant sects (like the Baptists and Methodists) and inspired the founding of eccentric new ones (like the Mormons and Seventh-Day Adventists). But they also added an eschatological dimension to American thinking about providence. What if God had created the United States to serve as the model for millennial perfection that would prefigure the second coming of Christ? Such questions had titillated the minds of American Christians since the time of the Puritans, but they began to be posed with renewed vigor as millennial passions reached unprecedented heights in the 1810s and ‘20s.The ideology of “manifest destiny” that emerged in the 1840s and inspired the policy of westward expansion through the remainder of the century was an outgrowth of this newly millenarian form of Calvinist providentialism. The man who coined the term, journalist John L. O’Sullivan, insisted that it was “by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which providence has given us for the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government.” Decades later, after the closing of the frontier, writer Robert Ellis Thompson penned a study of The Hand of God in American History, which likewise proclaimed that from the time of the first settlements to the Spanish-American War God had “shaped the course of our national history for his own ends.” It was a sentiment amplified by statesman-historian Albert J. Beveridge in a speech before the U.S. Senate in which he voiced unambiguous support for American annexation of the Philippines. As far as Senator Beveridge was concerned, God

has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adept at government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race he has marked the American people as his chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world.

Economic and scientific progress directed by God and actualized by Americans, divinely ordained political accomplishments issuing in divinely sanctioned global hegemony by the United States, and God’s election of America to redeem the world — these were the essential elements of American providence at the dawn of the twentieth century.Over subsequent decades, as the political, economic, military, and cultural power of the United States expanded beyond anyone’s expectations, providential thinking continued to play an important role in defining American national identity and in setting the terms of public debate. Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy outlook, including his proposal for a League of Nations that would make possible an era of global perpetual peace, grew out of his strong faith America’s providential role in the world. The World War II propaganda campaign frequently appealed to identical convictions. And politicians from both political parties regularly cast the Cold War as a quasi-eschatological conflict between forces of darkness and light — with God clearly standing on America’s side of the battle. Even Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party’s answer to the “anti-intellectualism” of Dwight D. Eisenhower, spoke unapologetically in 1952 about the “awesome mission” that “God has set for us,” which was nothing less than “the leadership of the free world.” In more recent years, the cadences of the Calvinist consensus could be heard in Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical evocations of America as a “city on a hill” and George W. Bush’s frequent assurances that history moves in a “visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of liberty.” No commemoration of John Calvin’s birth can be complete without recognizing this momentous American legacy. Whatever our views of American exceptionalism and its complicated human consequences, it is Calvin who deserves to be recognized as its unintended instigator.

28 thoughts on “Calvin and American Exceptionalism

  1. Ok, so here’s the quick summary for people who dont want to read the article:

    Many of the Puritans who started America were Calvinists
    Calvinism emphasised the absolute Sovereignty of God – everything happens by God’s design. Also He saves who he wants to.
    If you believe that God is orchestrating everything in the world to his perfect plan, and that you are on his side, then it is a small step to thinking that you are God’s unique instrument to carry out his will.
    This thinking has spread throughout the US and was a major motivator and justification for the many adventures the US has got itself into, from ‘Manifest Destiny’ to subdue the Indians and populate the land, to the current war.

    Calvinism contains a paradox – although it emphasises the absolute depravity of human nature, it makes people not more humble but more arrogant that they are on God’s side (or rather that God is on their side)

  2. I thought it was quite an interesting article, if somewhat hysterical towards the role of Calvinism and the US in world history.

    That’s what I mean by the way Americans can’t seem to see beyond their own worldview. You’d think Genesis or civilisation began with the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’.

    The History of the English Speaking People by Winston Churchill is a far better summary of the impact of religion on politics and language.

    The US comes about five eighths of the way in!

  3. Actually I thought it was a useful article for understanding America and Americans too. The idea of a America having a special place is seen in both sides of politics. Both Republican AND Democrat Presidents have said things that leaders of other countries wouldn’t say, but that can be understood by looking over the religious history,

    It’s very different to Australia.

    Life in the first part of American history was completely different to us convicts here.

    Check out the anti-catholic laws before the revolution. Amazing stuff.

  4. Anyway, I thought it was interesting Wazza.

    Video didn’t work bones. Is that the wOne with “cold is gods way of telling us to burn more Catholics”.

    Not much better than black Adder , but I like the WW1 series the best.

  5. Btw, that’s the thing about Calvinism. Not many Calvinists are convinced that THEY were predestined to not be saved.

  6. Silly man! I’m not the one who’s so unhappy about life I have to swear at people I’ve never met.

    As I read somewhere today, America is more socialist than the old Soviet Union these days, and so polarised it can’t be that far from a civil uprising. Maybe they need a revival to cleanse the self-interest out of Washington.

    It’s amazing how those New England Calvinists have converted to liberal democrats.

    Cheer up Bones, you still live in the greatest country on earth. Be thankful and praise God.

  7. Look the influence on Calvinism on American history is fact – whether that makes you angry or whether is makes you leap for joy.

    Just like the convict era shaped Australia whether or not your ancestors stole a cabbage in London or if they came on a leaky boat from Saigon.

  8. Wazza, I still don’t get why of all articles this one has elicited such strong responses.

    I’ll read it again and get back to you.
    So, why did you post it?

  9. Some tend to think this article is pretty good.

    A Review Of Calvin And American Exceptionalism

    For the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, Damon Linker wrote an article for the New Republic titled, Calvin And American Exceptionalism. Noting the contributions attributed to Calvin regarding Capitalism and representative government, Linker focussed on how Calvin contributed to the Americans’ sense of their own uniqueness and mission.

    According to Linker, the link between Calvin and American Exceptionalism has to do with two main ingredients: an already special sense of self or one’s group demonstrated by his followers who came to the New World and God’s providence. That special sense of self started with the Puritan’s mission to create their own purified Church and society and, in my opinion, possibly something like Calvin’s Geneva. It was there that the Church was not only concerned with purifying itself, it wanted to thoroughly cleanse all of society as civil government provided a source of additional discipline to bolster Church rule. Evidence showing that the Puritans imitated Calvin and Geneva here came in their treatment of witches and some other denominations. Quakers, for example, were initially persecuted and even martyred by the Puritans.

    So when the Puritans and other Christian sects arrived in New World, they saw themselves as the New Israel, partly for their exodus from England, and they trusted that God would establish them. Linker traces this back to Calvin’s view of the Old Testament. For the Puritans, their view of their mission in believing that God was creating in them a “new heaven, and new earth.” Thus, they believed that America was God’s chosen instrument to bring the Protestant Gospel to the world. But as the Puritan religious influence waned, Linker noted that trust in God’s providence in maintaining America and its role of being the New Israel were maintained.

    However, Calvin’s influence here received a shot in the arm through the Great Awakening according to Linker. He notes that there was a change in the people’s perception of God’s working providence. The people began to contrast themselves and who they were with those in Europe who were experiencing many troubles. Americans wanted to be seen as providing an alternative to tyranny. The colonies became a place for “political and religious” freedom. Here, we should note that if those who came over from England were being influenced by Calvin to create a pure church and society, we have to ask, because Linker did not, whether this change was due to following Calvin. For though he did not have strong feelings about the organization of society, he favored aristocracy to a democracy. In addition, becoming a place of political and religious freedom seems to break from the model set in Calvin’s Geneva.

    According to Linker, Americans maintained their belief in God’s providence and their belief that they were the New Israel only the mark of this Israel became their unique free government. This belief in themselves was strengthened by the Second Great Awakening. It was with this Second Awakening that Americans combined eschatology to their view of providence by wondering if they were to be a “model for millennial perfection.” Linker states that this new millennial ingredient along with the continuing belief in God’s providence helped spark Manifest Destiny.

    According to Linker, as America continued to progress, the inevitability and dominance seen in Manifest Destiny acquired a larger scope. Thus we American hegemony and the purpose of this global form of Manifest Destiny was to redeem it.

    In a short article, Linker does us a favor. He helps us discover the roots of American Exceptionalism and there is a link between this exceptionalism and Calvinism, though there seems to be a stronger link between this American concept of its own uniqueness with Calvinists who adapted and accommodated to a new world.

    We should also note, remembering Chris Hedges’ link between idolatry and self-worship, that much, if not most, of what we know as American Exceptionalism is a product of a people’s self-image than Biblical teaching. Being exceptional was what Americans, starting with the Puritans, claimed about themselves. And we should ask if the mission they accepted as their own was why they saw themselves as being special and above others. For if this is the case, might we conclude that many of the early references that our forefathers made to God’s providence also reflected more on how they thought of themselves than their faith in God.

    There is a very rewarding secular motive for thinking of one’s own group as being exceptional. That motive would be the permission one gives oneself to assume privileges over others. However, if one is on a mission from God, one’s control and acquisition of what belonged to others could now be justified rather than cause for disturbing the conscience. And if this is the case with our forefathers and American Exceptionalism, we have to wonder if Calvin would rejoice in this distant descendant of his. For we should note that this belief in being exceptional has made those not in the in-group pay a very high price.

  10. Q:Wazza, I still don’t get why of all articles this one has elicited such strong responses.

    So, why did you post it?

    I don’t get it either. Steve, Q and Bones seem to find it reasonably interesting and not very controversial.

    Greg on the other hand hates it. I know it didnt format very well, so its hard to read without paragraph breaks. But other than that I didnt think there was anything very objectionable.

    Greg also mentioned that he’s annoyed with me politicising my posts. I am interested in the intersection of politics and religion. There seems to be an interest in politics among most of the other participants though…

    I am sorry Greg for annoying you. Also sorry about that narky comment about the ads.

  11. I don’t get Greg’s abrasive rejection of the post either. I think we need to encourage a broader spectrum of commentary on the blog not criticise someone for producing what is, in my opinion, an informative piece worth considering, even if we do not agree won’t to necessarily.

    It shows, as Q pointed out, the American perspective of its role in in the world since inception. I think they struggle with their identity because they do not have the same degree of definable history of the rest of the world. Australians have less of a problem with it because they can trade ancestry in more secular way.

    The US struggles with his levels of guilt and confusion over the way in which it’s national identity has come into being, but tries to compensate by versions of history which tend to exclude the European influences which led up to the formation of the nation as it is today.

    Calvin, of course, was a European, but the theology he impressed on people was extremely political as well as providing a spiritual aspect.

    The article could have set up an interesting conversation, so I see no problem with it in this regard.

    Greg has vered to the left and it has shown in responses to posts on the ACL and Calvin’s anniversary. No explanation for his rough commentary, only threats to pull the post down.

    If you have a point to make, Greg, articulate it so we can understand why you have aversions to these things rather than using dismissive clichés with no substance.

  12. Maybe I like the article because I love history, and American history in particular.

    I’ve always wondered about the War of Independence and the Civil War and Christian attitudes to them. i.e. were some Christians opposed to fighting against England e.g. on the basis of being in submission to authority. And yes, there were those who were against.

    As one writer pointed out, if the majority of Americans at the time would have been Methodists, things might have worked out differently.

    Also the Civil War. Always amazed me that Christians could go to war against each other – both sides singing hymns. And I’ve learned that the reasons for the Civil war were a lot more complex than I had thought.

    But the beginnings of America are interesting. The overwhelming number of Christians of a Calvinist persuasion and their attitudes to Catholics etc is something hard to understand now.
    (In some of the colonies, Catholics weren’t allowed to hold office – and in some parts it was illegal to even send children overseas for Catholic education. Just the fact that for a very long time Catholics were only 1% of the population shows are very different world.

    The background also explains why (and correct me if I’m wrong) JFK was the first Catholic President and it was such a huge thing.

    Also the big movements in the 19th century – Mormons who saw themselves as moving to another promised land, the SDAs, JWs, and later the Pentecostals in Asuza who saw themselves as being the fulfilment of prophesy.

    Americans I’m sure see themselves differently. Both right wing and left wing often seem to have a sense that American “has” to do things in the world – though what that is is of course different.

    Again I think the article is interesting because many Americans (esp evangelicals) keep pointing back to the original settlers and the “call of God” and special blessing on America.
    So, they would have no problem with this article and see it in a positive light. On the other hand some no doubt make the opposite political point. But there’s no denying the beginnings of America esp until the Revolution. Having such a majority of Christians of a certain stream thinking they are establishing something more than just a new territory has to have an impact.

    Just like Australians are again very different. Live overseas or just talk to people of other countries a lot and you see it. (It’s funny explaining to Asians that I’m not really that ashamed about the convict history. Also, try telling people the meaning of the words to Waltzing Matilda, and then wait for the questions about why any country would be interested in singing about a sheep stealer who suicides.)

    As to the political nature of the post….well, maybe it’s proving to be hard for politics to not come up.

    Maybe Greg was also trying to be fair because he told Steve off for a political post.

    Anyway, if you’re still reading Greg, you are probably right about the post – and you are the boss. But if Steve and I aren’t offended or upset it probably can’t be too terrible a political point.

    But the main thing I’d suggest is this. Wazza is a completely crazed pinko ratbag who gets his theology off the back of some gay organic cornflakes box – but he usually fights like a gentleman.
    So, I thought you could have made your point to him a little more diplomatically.

    Kinda felt sorry for him. Left wing kooks like him can often be very sensitive….. 🙂

  13. So politics, C3 and Hillsong can no longer be talked about.

    What’s Justin Beiber been up to lately?

    Anyone know?

  14. Last I heard he was repenting, and unsuccessfully looking for a place to get baptised in New York with the HIllsong church, but couldn’t find a venue.

    Which is amazing…

    Another reason why sprinkling makes sense!

  15. I have not threatened in any way to pull the post down. That’s just you reading shot into others comments that just isn’t there.

    I’ve asked you before to point out evidence that I have veered (a word you continue to misspell) to the left. I am no further left than I have shown myself to be for sometime now!

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