Christendom Exceptionalism

Not sure what Peter Leithart is working on, but recent posts on medieval and early modern Europe have shed new light on the claims that exalt Christendom and blame Protestantism for ushering in a disordered, licentious modernity.

Just how united was Christendom, you ask? Not much:

In a 1971 essay, H.G. Koenigsberger challenged the notion that the Reformation broke up a unified Europe. He criticizes historians and social scientists for assuming a norm of unity: “We have assumed that the theological and ecclesiastical unity of Catholic Christendom was its natural condition and that, in consequence, the Reformation was a dramatic break in this condition which ran counter to all previous Christian experience and which, in a sense, destroyed the natural order of things.”

Much of the essay presents an analysis of the kind of unity that existed in pre-Reformation Europe. Koenigsberger poses the question this way: “For the thousand years of the Middle Ages, Christendom and its institutions remained obstinately divided, and Christians remained distressingly prone to engage in deadly wars with each other. Why was it that only the Church survived as a unified institution?”

His first answer is sardonic: “it did not do so. Throughout the Middle Ages there existed Christian churches in Africa and Asia which were never in communion with Rome at all.”

The more elaborate answer answer is that “medieval unity, insofar as it existed, was a function of an economically poor society. The small surpluses of production of any given area would not be wanted in the adjoining area, which was probably producing the same commodities, but rather in much more distant areas. Medieval trade was, therefore, small in volume but covered large distances.”

Craft skills were specialized and scarce, and thus craftsmen had to be mobile: “Bell founding was a highly skilled and specialized craft. After a master founder had cast the three or four, or even six or eight, bells for the church of a small town, he would have to move on, for there would be no further work for him in this town nor, very likely, in the neighbouring towns. It was the same with all other skills, from the cathedral builder to the learned scholar, from the forger of fine weapons . . . . Different areas of Europe might advance in certain skills, as Flanders did in the weaving of fine cloth; but no single area of Europe could support all of the skills which European society required. Only the whole of Europe could do this.”

Cultural unity thus depended on a “thin crust of men highly skilled in the production of sophisticated commodities or in the performance of complex services. This upper crust was international in education, attitudes, and often, physical mobility; for this was the only way it could function.” Cultural unity depended on a low rate of entry into this upper crust. European unity was a unity of the “1%.”

Sounds like modern America. Substitute media elites, policy wonks, federal government workers, Ivy League professors, and Hollywood types for “thin crust of men highly skilled in the production of sophisticated commodities or in the performance of complex services” and you an American exceptionalist unity that rivals Christendom’s.

That means, the Reformation was not a break with the past but a fulfillment of medieval Europe:

Signs of centrifugal forces are evident throughout the centuries leading up to the Reformation – reforming movements within the church, sometimes breaking free into independent movements; rival papacies, with kings taking sides, anticipating the anti-papalism of their sixteenth-century Protestant counterparts. The conciliar movement tried to arrest this process but “the defeat of this movement, and the subsequent concentration of papal energies on Italian power politics made it virtually impossible for the Church to adapt itself to the changing conditions of European Society.”

Koenigsberger acknowledges that the Reformation broke the camel’s back, but sees it as the culmination of several centuries of mounting instability. He identifies two factors that made the sixteenth century decisive in this process: “the increasing political tension between the monarchies and the papacy over the question of the control of the institution of the Church and its personnel in the different countries of Europe; and the spread of the printing presses, which made the Bible available to the Christian laity and thus undermined the claim of the Church to act as the indispensable intermediary between God and man.”

Now if we reboot those arguments about the Reformation as the forerunner of 1776, we have lines of continuity between Roman Catholicism and Americanism.

The Whig historians will set us free!

What Kind of Art Will American Greatness Leave Behind?

Talk about greatness after you watch The Great Museum, a documentary about The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna:

The museum was the creation of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary. Opened in 1891, the museum (a combination of two) holds the Habsburgs’ formidable art collection and makes many of the effects of the Holy Roman Emperor accessible to the general public. As much as the Protestant and republican in me wonders about that kind of wealth, concentration of power, and even accumulation of relics, it doesn’t take a high school diploma to understand that The Great Museum should be on my bucket list and should likely have been higher than the Louvre or London’s National Gallery. Say what you will about the Habsburgs, they acquired lots of stuff that people interested in history and art want to see.

(Although, I could not fight the impression that the art world, even as accessible as it is now compared to when it fenced in for only the aristocracy and friends to enjoy, has become one big commodity to be bought and sold. The documentary has one auction scene that took the missus and me back to The Red Violin, arguably the best historical treatment on film of the changing value of a musical instrument. Let’s just say, moderns know monetary value better than artistic achievement. I’ll confirm that by noticing that even though the Republic of Austria subsidizes the Great Museum with significant Euro’s, admission in 2013 to the Great Museum was almost 34 Euros — $37. Ouch!)

Meanwhile, back in the greatest nation on God’s green earth, the feds debate whether to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Stephen Limbaugh keeps it real when he warns about the NEA’s ideological outlook:

Be it the misuse of funds, waste, or deleterious governing philosophy, the National Endowment for the Arts has proven to be a recidivistic cultural butcher.

The NEA’s process for cultivating art is informed by standards set by universities and critical theorists. Those standards of what qualify as “acceptable” contemporary art seem to be any phenomena that offends an individual’s inherent aesthetic disposition. Preferential treatment is given to those works that 1) are able to evoke the most unpleasant reaction and 2) are created with the least amount of discernible purpose. This destructive artistic praxis is thoroughly documented, and there are few examples of NEA-backed art that does not adhere to it.

Be that as it may, so what? Even if the NEA retains their funding, will the artists they subsidize produce anything that will command attention in three centuries? Anything like Peter Brueghel’s Tower of Babel (the film’s closing image)? Can a top hat worn by President Wilson really compare with the Bratina of King Ladislaus IV of Poland?

I don’t think so.

Constructing Neo-Calvinism

How do you go from the Puritans who had laws on the books for the execution of disobedient and recalcitrant male adolescents and who refused to let Presbyterians set up shop in Massachusetts, to Calvinism as the glue that makes Americans think the U.S.A. is exceptional?

Damon Linker explained way back on the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birthday:

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.

Lo and behold, Americans were on the ground floor of turning Calvin into a political theologian of national greatness, but the French also beat the Dutch to the punch, as Bruce Gordon explains in his biography of Calvin’s Institutes. Emile Doumergue’s biography first published in 1899 included this:

Far from being a man who seeks retirement or turns from the world and from the present life, the Calvinist is one who takes possession of the world; who more than any other, dominates the world; who makes use of it for all his needs; he is the man of commerce, of industry, of all inventions and all progress, even material.

(Did someone say, “stay thirsty, my friend”?)

What If Historical Inquiry Isn't Comforting

Kevin DeYoung has a pretty positive spin on John Witherspoon’s commitment to Protestant unity without lapsing into doctrinal indifferentism:

Although he remained staunchly committed to and invested in Presbyterianism his whole life, Witherspoon was not a man of narrow party spirit. In his Treatise on Regeneration (1764), Witherspoon noted, “I am fully convinced, that many of very different parties and denominations are building upon the one ‘foundation laid in Zion’ for a sinner’s hope, and that their distance and alienation from one another in affection, is very much to be regretted.”[9] In his farewell sermon in Paisley, Witherspoon warned against “going too much into controversy” and developing “a litigious and wrangling disposition” that would lead Christians—and here he is quick to add the qualification “I mean real Christians”—into “innumerable little parties and factions.”[10] He longed for the day when the “unhappy divisions” among “protestants in general” would be “abolished” and those truly centered on Christ crucified would “be no longer ranked in parties and marshaled under names” but only strive with each other to see “who shall love our Redeemer most, and who shall serve him with the greatest zeal.”[11]

This ecumenical streak in Witherspoon was not borne out of doctrinal indifferentism. His desire for unity, for example, did not encompass Socinians, Pelagians, Catholics or any other group holding religious views he deemed antithetical to true biblical Christianity.[12] Witherspoon had no patience for the latitudinarian kind of unity he found among his colleagues in the Moderate Party.[13] In conjunction with the publication of his St. Giles’ sermon before the SSPCK (1758), Witherspoon penned a robust defense for pointing out error entitled “An Inquiry into the Scripture Meaning of Charity.”[14] With characteristic verve, Witherspoon attacked the increasingly popular notion among enlightened clergy that “charity was a far more important and valuable bond among Christians than exact agreement on particular points of doctrine.”[15] For Witherspoon, Christian unity was not rooted in downplaying doctrinal distinctives (least of all among those who could not be counted true believers), but in stressing the theological similarities that existed among born again Christians from a variety of denominations. “No man, indeed,” Witherspoon wrote, “deny it to be just, that every one should endeavor to support that plan of the discipline and government of the church of Christ, and even the minutest parts of it, which appear to him to be founded upon the word of God. But still sound doctrine is more to be esteemed than any form.”[16]

This is a plausible reading of some of the material, though Witherspoon remains a mystery to many who have studied him — Mark Noll is still puzzled why Witherspoon threw out Edwards’ idealist philosophy when he started as president of the College of New Jersey. Explaining Witherspoon can be almost as difficult as reading Pope Francis’ tea leaves.

But what Kevin needs to keep in mind is what Witherspoon’s politics and civil religion might have done to facilitate doctrinal indifferentism. In his widely circulated sermon on behalf of independence, the Scotsman said this:

. . . he is the best friend to American liberty, who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion, and who sets himself with the greatest firmness to bear down profanity and immorality of every kind. Whoever is an avowed enemy to God, I scruple not to call him an enemy to his country. Do not suppose, my brethren, that I mean to recommend a furious and angry zeal for the circumstantials of religion, or the contentions of one sect with another about their peculiar distinctions. I do not wish you to oppose any body’s religion, but every body’s wickedness. Perhaps there are few surer marks of the reality of religion, than when a man feels himself more joined in spirit to a true holy person of a different denomination, than to an irregular liver of his own. It is therefore your duty in this important and critical season to exert yourselves, every one in his proper sphere, to stem the tide of prevailing vice, to promote the knowledge of God, the reverence of his name and worship, and obedience to his laws.

One way of reading that is that Witherspoon felt more in common with a Methodist who lived an upright life than a Presbyterian who insisted on perseverance of the saints. The kicker here is that Witherspoon aligns such a pursuit of holiness with the American cause, thereby enlisting a form of moralistic Protestantism on the side of patriotism and nationalism.

Witherspoon is not necessarily to blame for crafting a recipe that liberated a devotion that supported American independence from the “circumstantials” of Presbyterianism. He had help — lots of it. But since we live at a time where unsexy America promotes both Christian morality and American exceptionalism to the detriment of sound moral theology and ecclesiology, I do tend to conclude that in Witherspoon we have the seeds of Protestant liberalism and its Christian Right progeny.

Everywhere you turn in history, you step on Sideshow Bob’s rakes.

Less American Than Thou

Thanks go to Tommie Kidd for actually recognizing that confessional Protestantism may be a category distinct from evangelicalism (all about me alert):

The second group are Reformed/confessionalist Christians, often associated with traditional Presbyterian or Reformed denominations such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. This is the easiest category of the four, because many of these Christians would tell you that they are not evangelicals, even if the media would regard them as such. Some of these folks will tell you that they might be evangelicals, but that the doctrines and confessions of Reformed Christianity are the center of their faith, not the born-again feelings of typical American evangelicals. D.G. Hart is one of the preeminent examples of the Reformed critics of evangelicalism.

But Professor Kidd is not going to abandon evangelicalism. He merely wants to create space between evangelicalism and American nationalism (read exceptionalism):

there are many evangelicals who have reservations about the blending of American national history with their faith. Our faith needs to be focused on Christ, the paleos say, and rooted in the deep, wide tradition of orthodox church history. We do not base our faith, in any sense, on the personal beliefs of Jefferson, Washington, or Adams. Especially when viewed from the perspective of the global church, American civil religion looks peculiar, at best. Yes, Christianity played a major role in the American founding, but that fact does not place the founding at the center of Christianity. The paleos admire many of the founders, but do not wish to read the founders alongside Scripture, as Barton would have us do in his Founders’ Bible.

This concern would be a lot more forceful if Professor Kidd were to identify with a particular communion rather than a generic evangelicalism no matter how paleo (like Oleo?). He may so identify in his personal life, but he like a lot of historians who write in Conference on Faith and History (instead of a Conference on Church History) circles claim to belong to Christianity without actually being restrained by the shape and teaching of a particular church. And this is where Kidd’s description of confessional Protestantism could take a correction. Yes, the doctrines of Reformed Protestantism are important to confessional Presbyterians but that is at least because those doctrines are confessed by a communion and bind its officers and members together (in some way).

The alternative to an ecclesial Protestantism is the very sort of evangelicalism with which Kidd seemingly identifies. And part of the reason why evangelicals since Whitefield have held the visible church in low esteem is because it gets in the way of those cooperative endeavors from orphanages and Sunday school to solving world hunger and forming academic guilds. When the United States broke with Theodosius and disestablished religion, Christians did not give up national churches but they — evangelicals included — turned the nation into a church.

If paleo-evangelicals like Kidd want to disabuse evangelicals of their nationalism, a quick remedy would be to turn denominational or churchly by adopting a higher allegiance to the church (and letting it be tested by submission to ecclesiastical authority) rather than turning a critical eye to the nation. But the problem there for Protestants on both the evangelical “right” and the mainline left is that allegiance to a particular church and its teachings, liturgy, and government looks sectarian — sort of like attachments to states like Michigan or Pennsylvania look backward. The solution to one big, vacuous, and uncritical allegiance (American exceptionalism) is not another big, vacuous, and uncritical allegiance (evangelicalism).

Mr. Jefferson and Gubmint

Since I am doing a lot of reading of Mencken these days, I was curious to see what the bad boy of Baltimore had to say about the Declaration of Independence and its author. The following excerpt from his review of Albert Jay Nock’s, Jefferson (1926) seems as apt these days as when Nock and Mencken first wrote about the nation’s third president. And it suggests that libertarianism, contrary to its critics, is not as bad as all that:

Of the Jeffersonian system Mr. Nock offers a clear and comprehensive account, disentaingling it from the trivialities that party history has thrown about it. The essence of it, he says, is to be found in what would be called, to-day, Jefferson’s class consciousness. He divided all mankind into two classes, the producers and the exploiters, and he was for the former first, last and all the time. But there is no consolation in the fact for for the Marxians who now rage in the world, for to Jefferson producers meant far more than mere handworkers. A manufacturer, if he made some useful thing, was also a producer, so was a large landowner, if only he worked his land; Jefferson regarded himself as a producer, and his friend Jimmie Madison as another. Living in our own time, no doubt, he would put Henry Ford in that category; Henry, in fact, put himself there, and with no little show of reason. The only genuine non-producer, in the Jefferson lexicon, was the speculator — that is to say, the bonder, the promoter, the usurer, the jobber. It was against this class that he launched all his most awful thunderbolts of invective; it was this class that he sought to upset and destroy in the ferocious and memorable campaign of 1800. His failure was colossal. Driving that class out of the executive offices and making life very warm for it in the hall of legislation, he only shoved it into the courts, and there it has survived gloriously ever since, gradually extending and consolidating its power. Since Marshall’s day the American courts have suffered many vicissitudes and entertained many heresies, but in one department, at least they have kept the faith heroically: they have always protected the virtuous and patriotic bond-holder.

That is a useful reminder of where the power in the U.S. (and the world) still resides even after the banking failures of 2008 and the federal government’s bailout and “reforms” of Wall Street. And yet, Mencken still found a kind word to say about Jefferson’s outlook:

[Jefferson] was less the foe of the Federalists than of government in general. He believed that it tended inevitably to become corrupt — that it was the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men. The less there was of it, the better he liked it, and the more he trusted it. Well, that was a century ago, and wild doctrines from the barricades were still in the air. Government has now gone far beyond anything dreamed of it in Jefferson’s day. It has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a state religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and their thumbs in every pot. But it still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men. (Mencken, Prejudices: Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Series, 448-49)

No amount of turning the magistrate into the good and Christian ruler can undo what the Psalmist sang, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.”

A July 4th Homily

The Foreign Policy Research Institute rolls out this piece by Walter McDougall every year on the nation’s “High Holy Day” and it is worthy of repeated consideration. Here is the introduction:

The spiritual qualities of public rhetoric in American politics, courtrooms, churches, schools, and patriotic fetes used to be so pervasive, familiar, and unobjectionable that we citizens just took it for granted (until the advent of litigious atheists). Our national motto is “In God We Trust.” Our Pledge says we’re a nation “under God.” Our Congress and Supreme Court pray at the start of sessions. Presidents of all parties and persuasions have made ritual supplications that the United States might be blessed with divine protection. The last stanza of “America” begins “Our father’s God to thee, author of liberty, to thee we sing” and ends by naming “great God,” not George III, “our King.” The last stanza of the “Star Spangled Banner” asks our “heaven rescued land” to “praise the Power that has made and preserved us a Nation.” “America the Beautiful” asks that “God shed His grace on thee.”

Most Americans, even today, would likely agree with Boston Puritans John Winthrop, John Adams, and Jonathan Mayhew, Princeton Presbyterian Jonathan Witherspoon and his disciple James Madison, Virginian Anglican (and Freemason) George Washington, and Deists Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin that Americans are “called unto liberty” (a phrase from Paul’s epistle to the Galatians)—that we are a new chosen people and ours a new promised land, and that our mission is to bestow liberty on all mankind, by example if not exertion. To be sure, the majority of Americans always found it easy to identify the God who watches over America with the God of their Protestant theology. But thanks to the free exercise of religion—the “lustre of our country” ensured by the First Amendment—religious minorities have been free to embrace the American Creed with equal or greater fervor.

Thus did Bishop John Carroll, founder of the American Catholic Church, “sing canticles of praise to the Lord” for granting his flock “country now become our own and taking us into her protection.” Thus did Jewish immigrant Irving Berlin liken Americans to the Children of Israel being led through the Sinai: “God Bless America, land that I love, stand beside her and guide her through the night with a light from above.” When Americans of all sects or no sect gather in civil ceremonies to praise their freedom, honor its Author, and rededicate themselves to their nation’s deals, they do not merely prove themselves a religious people, they prove the United States of America is itself a sort of religion, a civil religion, or as G. K. Chesterton put it in 1922, “a nation with the soul of a church.”