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Calvin or Francis: Whose Vision Should Inform American Politics?

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).


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Christopher Wolfe

    Casey, that’s a false dilemma

    • NDaniels

      The answer is neither Calvin’s or Jorge Bergoglio’s vision is consistent with our founding Judeo-Christian principles, because both Calvin and Jorge Bergoglio deny the essence of Trinitarian Love.

      • WHAT?!?!?!

        • NDaniels

          “And he said to me: Write: Blessed are they that are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he saith to me: These words of God are true.”

      • NDaniels — Would you mind please expanding that argument out a bit more? How do either of them deny the essence of Trinitarian Love?

        • NDaniels

          The Essence of Trinitarian Love Is objective, thus our founding Judeo-Christian principles are objective and not subject to Time or Space, or someone’s personal opinion.

          Subjective truth will eventually lead to moral indifference as it is no longer God, The Ordered Communion of Perfect Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Who Declares what is Good.

          When this Nation was founded, Christians from various denominations recognized the self-evident truth that God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Is The Author of Love, of Life, and of Marriage.

          Today, many Baptized Christians deny that God Is The Author of Love, of Life, and of Marriage, and, for example, condone same-sex sexual relationships and abortion, denying the Sanctity of human life, and the Sanctity of the marital act and thus marriage and the family.

          No Faithful Catholic would deny the Sanctity of human life, and/or the Sanctity of the marital act, and thus marriage and the family as God intended at any point of Time or Space in God’s Universe, just as in that period of Time in Salvation History when our Nation was founded, no Christian denomination, including those influenced by Calvinism, would have denied that God Is The Author of Love, of Life, and of Marriage, by denying the Sanctity of human life, and the Sanctity of the marital act and thus marriage and the family.

          The denial of The Unity Of The Holy Ghost (Filioque), is the source of all heresy; There Is only One Word of God, One Truth of Love Made Flesh, One Lamb of God Who Taketh Away The Sins of The World, Our Savior, Jesus The Christ, thus there can only be One Spirit of Perfect Love Between The Father and The Son, Who Proceeds from both The Father and The Son, in The Ordered Communion of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity.

          While it is true that Judeo-Christian principles have influenced all aspects of our lives, and have often served to complement and thus enhance the value of the State; everytime we have substituted subjective truth, for objective truth, we have suffered greatly individually and as a Nation.

          Slavery, abortion, euthanasia, identifying persons as objects of sexual desire/inclination/orientation, all objectify the human person, who from the moment of conception, has been Created in The Image and Likeness of God, equal in Dignity, while being complementary as a beloved son or daughter, Willed by God, worthy of Redemption.

          • How does any of what you’ve written above relate to your earlier comment that Calvin and Pope Francis deny the essence of Trinitarian love?

          • NDaniels

            American Politics should always remain true to our founding Judeo-Christian principles.

            “You Are The Christ, The Son of The Living God.”(The- singular, proximate, demonstrative)

            The fact that both Calvin and Jorge Bergoglio believe that there exists various denominations of The One Word of God, in essence, is a denial of The Christ. Once you deny The Way, The Truth, and The Life (Light) of Love, The Word of Love Made Flesh, anything can become permissible, including a denial of our Founding Judeo-Christian principles.
            “IAm Who IAm.”
            The Truth of Love does not evolve; The Truth of Love, Was In The Beginning, Is Now, and Forever Will Be.
            We cannot transform Christ; Christ Transforms us.

          • Please provide evidence that “Calvin and Jorge Bergoglio believe that there exists
            various denominations of The One Word of God.”

          • NDaniels

            Both Calvin and Jorge Bergoglio deny the teaching authority of The Magisterium.

            The Magisterium or Teaching Authority of the Church

            by Fr. William G. Most (HT EWTN)

            “By the Magisterium we mean the teaching office of the Church. It consists of the Pope and Bishops. Christ promised to protect the teaching of the Church : “He who hears you, hears me; he who rejects you rejects me, he who rejects me, rejects Him who sent me” (Luke 10. 16). Now of course the promise of Christ cannot fail: hence when the Church presents some doctrine as definitive or final, it comes under this protection, it cannot be in error; in other words, it is infallible. This is true even if the Church does not use the solemn ceremony of definition. The day to day teaching of the Church throughout the world, when the Bishops are in union with each other and with the Pope, and present something as definitive, this is infallible. (Vatican II, Lumen gentium # 25). It was precisely by the use of that authority that Vatican I was able to define that the Pope alone, when speaking as such and making things definitive, is also infallible. Of course this infallibility covers also teaching on what morality requires, for that is needed for salvation.

            A “theologian” who would claim he needs to be able to ignore the Magisterium in order to find the truth is strangely perverse: the teaching of the Magisterium is the prime, God-given means of finding the truth. Nor could he claim academic freedom lets him contradict the Church. In any field of knowledge, academic freedom belongs only to a properly qualified professor teaching in his own field. But one is not properly qualified if he does not use the correct method of working in his field, e.g., a science professor who would want to go back to medieval methods would be laughed off campus, not protected. Now in Catholic theology , the correct method is to study the sources of revelation, but then give the final word to the Church. He who does not follow that method is not a qualified Catholic theologian. Vatican II taught (Dei Verbum # 10): “The task of authoritatively interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on [Scripture or Tradition], has been entrusted exclusively to the living Magisterium of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.”

            Salvational Love is both personal and relational because Love exists in relationship. It is not Loving or Merciful to desire Salvation for me but not for thee.
            Christ Has Revealed, through His Life, His Passion, and His Death On The Cross, that no greater Love is there than this- to desire Salvation for one’s beloved.

            “Love one another as I Have Loved you.”

          • You haven’t provided any evidence to substantiate your claim that Pope Francis denies the magisterial authority of the Church. Moreover, Pope Francis has on a number of occasions during his pontificate expressly manifested the ordinary magisterium (e.g. his encyclicals). Nothing that I know of re: Pope Francis’ statements on ecclesial communions outside the Catholic Church would suggest he in any way believes them to be actually identified with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

            As for Calvin, your argument seems to be this: Calvin denies the essence of Trinitarian love because he denies the magisterial authority of the Church. That conclusion does not follow from the premise. What do you mean by “essence of Trinitarian love”?

            I certainly welcome criticisms of Calvin’s Trinitarian theology (keep in mind I’m an ex-Calvinist), but what you’ve written above doesn’t obtain.

          • NDaniels

            Page 117, of the pope’s book, On Heaven and Earth, in regards to same-sex sexual unions:
            “If there is a union of a PRIVATE NATURE, THERE IS NEITHER A THIRD PARTY NOR IS SOCIETY AFFECTED. Now, if this union is given the category of marriage and they are given adoption rights, there could be children affected. Every person needs a male father and female mother that can help them shape their identity. – Jorge Mario Bergoglio
            Approval of same-sex sexual unions is approval of same-sex sexual acts.
            Prior to being elected pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, by condoning same-sex sexual acts in relationships that he referred to as private, did not include children, and were not called marriage, denied the Sanctity of the marital act. To deny the Sanctity of the marital act, is to deny that God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Is The Author of Love, of Life, and of Marriage, and thus deny Salvational Love, God’s Gift of Grace and Mercy.

          • The book you are citing is not an exercise of the extraordinary or ordinary magisterium. What you have cited above from the book does not constitute condoning of homosexual acts. Moreover, when Pope Francis was an Archbishop, he made very plain comments re: the inherent sinfulness of homosexual acts, and fought against the country’s same-sex marriage law, calling it the work of the devil.

            Calvin’s denial of the Catholic Church does not necessarily constitute denial of the Trinitarian essence, because the Catholic Church and the Trinity are not identical. The Church is an ad extra act of divine love, not an essential quality of it. Otherwise one would be arguing that the Church is a necessary, rather than a contingent being.

          • NDaniels

            You are simply mistaken. Prior to being elected pope, Jorge Bergoglio condoned same-sex sexual unions as long as they did not include children and were not called marriage, and thus excommunicated himself from Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

            Outside The Catholic Church there is no Salvation. It is Through, With, and In Christ, in The Unity of The Holy Ghost, that Holy Mother Church exists.
            One Bridegroom, one Bride, on earth.
            One Bridegroom, One Bride, (One Holy Mother Church), in Heaven.
            The Sacrifice of The Cross, Is The Sacrifice of The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity.

          • You as an individual person, based on your own interpretation of Scripture and various Church decisions, have determined that Pope Francis has met some arbitrary measure (established by you) by which he is excommunicated from the Church and thus an illegitimate pope. You, “NDaniels,” are not in a position to make such a judgment regarding Pope Francis’ communicant status within the Church. Nor is the arbitrary measure you’ve established sufficient warrant to undermine the legitimacy of Jorge Bergoglio’s election as pope.

            in the peace of Christ, Casey

          • NDaniels

            With all due respect, Casey, although it is true that The Deposit of Faith is not open to personal interpretation, The Catholic Church Has always proclaimed that God Is The Author of Love, of Life, and of Marriage, and that a Faithful Catholic must render onto God what belongs to God. Catholic Canon 750 is clear in regards to that which a Catholic must believe with Divine and Catholic Faith. It is not possible to condone the act of abortion, and same-sex sexual acts without denying that God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Is The Author of Love, of Life, and of Marriage. To deny that God Is The Author of Love, of Life, and of Marriage, is to deny The Divinity of The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, and thus deny Salvational Love, God’s Gift of Grace and Mercy.
            One cannot deny The Divinity of The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, without denying The Essence of Trinitarian Love.

    • brians

      I shared the same first impression of the title, but the article does go on to lay out a legitimate either/or: individual-ism or communal-ism. The title, though, does seem a bit click-baity, and doesn’t fit the substance of the article.