It probably wasn’t marked on your calendars, but yesterday was the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, the severe and systematic reformer who shaped modern Protestantism and modern Western society in ways too numerous to list. Sometimes directly through his writings, sometimes through the example he set in Geneva, and sometimes through disciples such as the Scots reformer John Knox, Calvin’s imprint on Christianity, particularly in America, is hard to overstate. A wide variety of major Protestant faith communities, including the Congregationalists who dominated colonial and and early-American New England, the Presbyterians, and the Southern Baptists, for all their differences today, were rooted in Calvinist theology. Calvin also had a major impact on the Church of England, and through it on all its many religio-cultural descendants.
But Calvin’s influence went far beyond religion, and far beyond its legendary encouragement of capitalism, particularly in this country. As Damon Linker explains today in The New Republic, Calvin’s central focus on the unconditional sovereignty of God helped spawn an unshakable faith in “Divine Providence” that in turn fed the highly ecumenical concept of America’s special destiny:
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.
And, as Linker notes, a divinely sanctioned “American exceptionalism” has continued to shape thinking about America’s role in the world ever since:
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.”
I somehow doubt George W. Bush was particularly aware that his foreign policy rhetoric owed anything to a dour sixteenth century Frenchman. That’s how thoroughly the “Calvinist consensus” has seeped into American soil, and why the quincentennial of Calvin’s birth passed with so little public notice in the United States.