Calvin or Francis: Whose Vision Should Inform American Politics?

By Casey Chalk
July 4, 2017

John Calvin or Pope Francis — whose political vision is a salve to the trials of 2017? Many conservatives, such as Ian Speir at Public Discourse, have cited Calvin’s contribution to the classical, rights-based Liberalism of such Founding Fathers as John Witherspoon and James Madison, whose “Calvinist theology and political philosophy imparted a firm belief that self-interest could be harnessed, ambition checked, and power balanced within government so that liberty and the common good were made secure.” Others, in turn, have cited the Roman pontiff as a paragon of the Left’s political projects, such as acceptance of homosexuality, or promotion of immigration and climate change reform. As a former Calvinist-turned Catholic, I’ve reflected a great deal on both.

Every fourth of July my Presbyterian church in Virginia would convene and celebrate, attending the local parade and enjoying a communal potluck. One July 4th my pastor distributed a series of quotations from various historians and American Founding Fathers lauding the deep Calvinist heritage of America, particularly in reference to religious freedom and our form of government.

One quote by German historian Leopold von Ranke—which the pastor conceded was a bit hyperbolic—asserted that “Calvin was virtually the founder of America.” Whatever truth there may be to this claim, I now have very different opinions about Calvinism’s role in American politics, particularly its tendency to engender libertarian opinions I find corrosive to our society.

Media have acknowledged that Calvinism has enjoyed a bit of resurgence in recent years, particularly among Generation X and Millennials. This is for a number of reasons, including its emphasis on Scripture, tradition, and liturgy; its theological cohesiveness, and the doctrinally robust sermons that issue from Reformed (another word for Calvinist) pulpits. These were certainly reasons I was attracted to Reformed theology and practice as a college student. However, as I deepened in my understanding of Calvinism, I also found myself increasingly drifting toward more libertarian political views — a tendency I observed with many members of my younger Calvinist cohort. I think there are a number of reasons for this.

Slouching Towards Libertarianism

First, the role of the individual looms large in Calvinist thought. According to the doctrines of sola scriptura and Biblical clarity, it is up to the individual to understand what the Bible means, particularly in reference to salvation. According to Calvin, God chooses some for eternal salvation — called “the elect” — and some for damnation, and it is everyone’s responsibility to determine if they are indeed predestined for heaven. Unsurprisingly, divergences of Biblical interpretation — what sociologist Christian Smith calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism” — are legion. Presbyterians, known for their proclivity to splinter, are nicknamed the “Split P’s.”

Calvinist theology is also fundamentally contractual and legal in its understanding of how God relates to man. “Forensic justification” stems from the idea that men are all condemned to hell at birth because of their sin; only Jesus’ gracious willingness to suffer God’s wrath on the cross saves them. Chosen Christians are then declared righteous in the courtroom of God, their sinfulness forensically transferred to Jesus, while God graciously agrees to look upon them as vindicated. Yet the justified remain, in a phrase attributed to Luther, “snow-covered dunghills.”

Finally, and perhaps most influential on many Calvinist’s political opinions, a dominant stream of Reformed thought adheres to some variation of the “two kingdoms” politico-theological philosophy. This teaches that the world of religion and the world of the state are two entirely separate spheres, and the twain should never meet. One prominent adherent of this school of thought, Hillsdale College professor and Presbyterian historian D.G. Hart, argues: "Efforts to use Christianity for public or political ends fundamentally distort the Christian religion."

The focus on individualism, legal relationships, and separating religion and politics often coalesces into a system of thought that leads many Calvinists (though of course not all) to focus their attention on maximizing individual political freedom, downplaying political bonds among members of society, and nurturing a deep suspicion of centralized government.

Communal Living over Individualism First

Contrast this with the Catholicism I embraced seven years ago, with its thoroughly communal identity, what Pope Francis has called a "Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets," one that "heals, promotes and reinforces interpersonal bonds" (Evangelii Gaudium, 49, 67). For example, the Catholic Church, operating in union with its leadership throughout the world, determines the right reading of the Bible. Moreover, all Catholics get to play a role in this, exercised through what is called the sensus fidelium, or sense of the faithful, which is the "the supernatural appreciation of faith on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals" (Lumen Gentium 12)

Nor, says Rome, did Jesus die only for the elect, an idea Calvinists call “limited atonement.” He died, in St. Paul’s words, “for all” (2 Corinthians 5:15) Catholicism’s salvific understanding is neither primarily legal, as if God acts as judge before he acts as Father. God is in one sense Father to all mankind. Our Catechism teaches that we call God “Father” because He has “loving care for all his children” (CCC 239).

Finally, Catholicism rejects a libertarian lean that discourages Christians from applying the faith to political and economic problems, a modern trend that Pope Francis has derided as representing an "economy of exclusion" that is "incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own" (Evangelii Gaudium, 54). The Catholic social doctrine of human solidarity, John Paul II declared, is “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual,  because we are all really responsible for all” (Sollicitudo rei Socialis).

We see solidarity at work in US Catholic bishops’ decades-long call for universal health care. Moreover, Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris in 1963 asserted the right “to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services.” Or consider the importance of preserving the environment, something Pope Francis urged in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, which exhorted nations to pursue more concerted, united efforts to combat various environmental threats.

I do not intend by this brief comparison of Calvinism and Catholicism to argue God is in favor of one political party over another. Indeed, in contrast to solidarity, which may strike some as more liberal, subsidiarity — the idea that the smallest or least centralized competent authority should handle political goals — rings more conservative. Moreover, Pope Francis has railed against such evils as abortion and euthanasia — often the targets of conservative politics -— just as he has promoted more "liberal" causes. Rather, I want to highlight two competing religio-political visions for America: one individualized, skeptical of government, and unforgiving of those not predestined to enjoy the fruits of America’s wealth. The other is communal, more optimistic regarding government, and willing to place some things — such as access to jobs, the health of its citizens, and the well-being of families — over an emphasis on individual rights.

On this Independence Day, Christians should consider which political vision is more in tune with the moral teachings of Christ. I think especially of the Good Samaritan, whose sense of kinship extended beyond his own religious community to all humanity, even his natural enemies. There are deep moral imperatives — taught by Jesus Himself — that should impress upon us as we remember who is our “neighbor.” As St. Paul himself declared to a crowd of Greek pagans at the Athenian Areopagus, quoting one of their own poets: “We are [all] His offspring” (Acts 17:28).