Franklin and the French

When Ben Franklin made Philadelphia great:

In 1776 Franklin was the most potent weapon the United States possessed in its struggle with the greatest power on earth. Lord Rockingham observed at the time that the British ministers would publicly play down Franklin’s mission to France, but “inwardly they will tremble at it.” The British government had good reason to tremble. Franklin was eventually able not only to bring the French monarchy into the war against Britain on behalf of the new republic of the United States but also to sustain the alliance for almost a half-dozen years. Without his presence in Paris throughout that tumultuous time, the French would never have been as supportive of the American Revolution as they were. And without that French support, the War for Independence might never have been won. (Gordon Wood, The Americanization of Ben Franklin, 171)

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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”?)

Make America Great (just like England, France, Russia, and Germany)

Ron Granieri reminds that idolizing one’s nation is something that came to Americans late:

We begin with England. Formerly a semi-barbaric province of the Roman Empire, England re-imagined itself during the Reformation as a specially favored place, threatened by Spanish tyranny and Inquisitional obscurantism. As this story developed, this favored land defended itself thanks to its native creativity and bravery and the divine blessings of a Protestant Wind.

The poet of English exceptionalism was, of course, Shakespeare, who, sunning himself in the glow of Gloriana herself, wrote less than a decade after the defeat of the Armada these immortal words in Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands, —

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

Those last lines in particular suggest the ultimately defensive nature of English exceptionalism, the idea that the blessed plot could retreat behind its moat and revel in the perfection of the “little world.”

Don’t forget France:

England’s great rival as it grew into a world power was France, and France also displays the imperial temptation of exceptionalism. Threatened with extinction in the 15th century after English victories at Agincourt and elsewhere, the French monarchy reasserted itself in part thanks to a sense of exceptionalism. Jeanne d’Arc heard divine voices calling her to save France from the invaders and to restore a divinely sanctioned order—a crusade that made her a saint to her fellow Frenchmen and a dangerous witch to her English coreligionists.

After going through its own internal religious struggle during the Reformation and Wars of Religion, France then reasserted itself as a special model of its own, thanks to the Absolutism of Henry IV, Cardinal Richelieu, and Louis XIV. This organization of the state magnified French power and led to triumphs in wars that expanded the size as well as the wealth of France. The more that France imagined itself to be special, the harder it was for French leaders to keep it to themselves. Henry IV was assassinated in 1610 on the eve of a major campaign against France’s Habsburg rivals; Richelieu opened the era of secular warfare when he allied France with Protestant Sweden against those same Habsburgs during the Thirty Years’ War; and Louis XIV spent virtually his entire reign attempting to expand France into its “natural boundaries,” while asserting France’s claim to cultural leadership on the continent and beyond.

It was the French Revolution, however, which especially marked French Exceptionalism. Shaped by their interpretation of Enlightenment thought, the Revolutionaries initially imagined France as an island of new thinking in a sea of obscurantism. When Revolutionary France declared war on Austria and Prussia in 1792, France’s initial posture was completely defensive. The revolutionary anthem embraced during the first months of war, the Marseillaise, called on the “children of the fatherland” to rush to arms and march on to fight off invaders “so that their blood can water our fields.” After the surprising French victory at Valmy that September, however, which offered the chance to go on the offensive, Revolutionary France dropped its defensive pose and embraced the mission to expand and spread the benefits of revolution. Victory at Jemappes in November 1792 was just the beginning, and by the time the Revolution had been co-opted by the military dictator and future Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, the Marseillaise was associated with expansion and conquest. Indeed, when writing his 1812 Overture, Tchaikovsky drowned out the Marseillaise with God Save the Tsar to symbolize Russia’s deliverance, turning the revolutionary anthem on its head as a hymn to monarchy triumphs.

Exceptionalism Russian-style:

France’s rise in the 19th century provoked two other large cultures to action and to develop their own sense of exceptionalism.

The first was Russia. Already having developed its own historical narrative about shaking off the “Tatar yoke” and defending Christianity against the Asiatic hordes, Russia was uncertain about its place in the larger world. Leaders such as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great had hoped that selective embrace of western ideas would make Russia modern and strong, and they pursued aggressive expansion of Tsarist power at home and imperial conquest abroad. But it was the mystic Alexander I, in the wars against Napoleon, who tried to formulate a specifically Russian vision of conservative stability and engagement with Europe, heavily flavored with Orthodox religiosity. Alexander’s Russia was the architect of Napoleon’s defeat, though the Hundred Days and Waterloo robbed Russia of its role as the Corsican’s conqueror. Alexander also joined with Metternich of Austria in creating the Holy Alliance as a vehicle for preserving the postwar order. Alexander’s vision faltered on his own odd personality and his early death, and he bequeathed a mixed legacy to his successors. After the failed liberal Decembrist revolt in 1825, Nicholas I and subsequent conservative Tsars rejected the liberal ideas of the West and adopted a more defensive posture toward the outside world, but continued to believe that Russia had a special mission. As the “third Rome,” Russia imagined itself as the defender and cultivator of Christian civilization, which encouraged imperial wars against the Turks in the south and expansion into Siberia in the east. By the mid-19th century, conflicts between Slavophiles and Westernizers marked differences within the Russian elite, though both groups could be motivated to expand Russia.

And then there was Germany:

Which brings us to France’s other rival, Germany. In a way, Germany was born to consider itself exceptional. It was a German philosopher, Johann Gottfried Herder, who first explicitly developed the idea that every individual culture had its own unique Volksgeist. That was Herder’s way of reacting to the universalist claims of French Enlightenment thought, using its principles to develop the idea that the Germans—indeed, every people—were different from other peoples, and thus each nation should cultivate its own identity and also govern itself. The French may have invented the idea of modern nationalism to serve their revolutionary purposes, but the Germans were the first culture to shape it both retrospectively and prospectively developing a historical narrative to impose coherence on a scattered collection of territories with no natural boundaries. Thus, various past leaders whose Germanness was, at best, notional, from Arminius to Frederick the Great, were absorbed into a nationalist narrative that made the creation of the German empire the inevitable product of historical logic, irrefutable in the eyes of scholars who had themselves created it in the first place.

German nationalism offered, in AJP Taylor’s famous phrase, two faces: to the West, it offered the eager face of the mimic and aspirant, attempting to measure up to the cultural trendsetters across the Rhine. To the East, however, the Germans offered the cold sneer of cultural superiority, justifying centuries of conquest and dominance over allegedly inferior cultures of the East. By the 20th century, as the German Empire emerged as a powerful state in its own right, German opinion leaders tired of the earnest mimic pose and complained of the encirclement of Germany by envious inferiors.

This new attitude crested during the First World War. Novelist Thomas Mann was the most distinguished of thinkers who attempted to explain this by distinguishing authentic German Kultur, with its deep appreciation of art, community, and history, and the shallow, materialistic civilisation of France and Britain. . . .

In bringing up the Nazis, I realize I have just violated Godwin’s Law, but in this case, it is unavoidable. For the Nazis took ideas of exceptionalism and imperialism to their logically illogical conclusions. The greatest temptation for a people that considers itself exceptional is to conclude that it is superior, and that superiority justifies spreading the word to other peoples—even imposing this allegedly superior system on them and removing those people who stand in the way. Indeed, as Mark Mazower’s monumental work, Hitler’s Empire, has demonstrated, the Nazis essentially applied the lessons European powers had perfected in their overseas empires to their European empire. By forcing Western Civilization to recognize the barbarous implications of their conquests, the Nazis delivered a fatal blow to justifications for empire.

One lesson is that American exceptionalism is pretty ordinary.

The second is that the United States had a real chance to be exceptional by not following the ways of European greatness. A modest republic of hardworking and self-discipline citizens with a limited government was what some had in mind. That would have been great.

Those Were the Days (again)

What a church with discipline (and even a little 2k) looks like:

[The] argument for Trump recalls an earlier episode in Catholicism and political theology, the condemnation of L’Action française (AF) by Pope Pius XI in 1927. AF was an anti-liberal political movement in early twentieth-century France. It was a monarchist and nationalist movement centering on the French literary figure Charles Maurras, who held that in order for France to become great again, she must exhibit a national, religious, and political unity that could only be achieved by sloughing off liberal republicanism and embracing “integral nationalism.”

Maurras himself had lost his Catholic faith and was an agnostic, but his “throne and altar” politics appealed to many Catholic clergy and laity. Maurras saw the Catholic Church as a French institution capable of uniting Frenchmen politically. The Church was basically an instrument for implementing Maurras’s cry of “la politique d’abord,” or “politics first!” (Compare this with Trump’s recent appeal to evangelical Christians.) Maurras was also politically anti-Semitic, for Judaism was not French and not a religion capable of uniting the French. Maurras later obtained the sixteenth seat in L’Academie française, the same seat occupied by Cardinal Dupanloup in the nineteenth century. He supported the Vichy regime and spent five years in prison after World War II for doing so. He died with little support, even though he had influenced an entire generation of French politicians and intellectuals, Charles de Gaulle among them.

In spite of Maurras’s anti-Semitism and because his movement promised restitution and renewed privilege for a beleaguered Church, many Catholics supported AF. The waves of the French Revolution had continued to break over the Church in France, with the most recent assault at the time being the 1905 Law of Separation, which finally separated the Church from the Republic, except that all Church property was placed under state ownership and under the management of government-supervised lay committees. To many French Catholics, the Law of Separation showed the futility of Leo XIII’s ralliement policy of trying to find a modus vivendi for French Catholics in the Third Republic’s secular democracy. Hence the swing to anti-liberal, monarchist, restorationist movements like AF, movements generally labeled “integralist.”

One of the Catholics supporting AF was Jacques Maritain, who had affiliated himself with AF on the advice of his spiritual director, Fr. Clérissac. Maritain hoped that he could temper the components of integral nationalism incompatible with Catholicism through his association with Maurras in their joint publication Revue Universelle, for which Maritain wrote for seven years.

The Vatican had contemplated a condemnation of AF for some time, and the Holy Office’s desire to place Maurras’s writings on the Index was checked only by the outbreak of World War I. But late in 1926 after hearing of more French Catholic youth joining AF, Pius XI prohibited Catholic membership in AF’s “school” and Catholic support for AF’s publications. In early 1927, the official condemnation and excommunications began, shocking many French Catholics. Two French bishops lost their sees for failing to comply with the condemnation, and the great ecclesiologist Billot lost his cardinal’s hat. Papal ralliement was here to stay, and any party spirit suffused with pagan attitudes was deemed incompatible with Catholic political involvement. The condemnations were a watershed moment for Maritain, who quickly began to reevaluate his political and social commitments in light of his ultimate commitment to the Catholic faith. His apology for the condemnation of AF, Primauté du spirituel (1927), set the trajectory for his most famous political works, Humanisme intégral (1936) and Man and the State (1951). These works later influenced the Fathers of Vatican II, including Pope Paul VI.

It is possible for popes to act even when they are not temporal princes.

The Vatican wanted Catholics to refuse an attractive but ultimately self-defeating choice in supporting AF, and today American Catholics face a similar sort of choice. Now Trump is dissimilar to Maurras in many ways. The latter was revered for his intellectual and literary ability and had coherent and firm philosophico-political commitments, while Trump has demonstrated a shocking ignorance of Christianity and malleable, opportunistic political positions. Although both in a sense promoted the “liberty of the Church,” Maurras did so through throne and altar restorationism while Trump does so through an appeal to religious liberty.

So what’s the lesson?

The lesson from the AF crisis bears mentioning today. The Church, both her teaching office and her living members, constantly must discern whether new means for political action are compatible with a genuine concern for the common good and the integrity of Catholics involved in politics.

Is such discernment the consequence of losing confidence in the bishops?

Who is going to save our Church? Do not look to the priests. Do not look to the bishops. It’s up to you, the laity, to remind our priests to be priests and our bishops to be bishops. Archbishop Fulton Sheen

But I thought episcopacy and apostolic succession was what made Protestantism look like such a poor alternative for western Christians.

Not In My Expertise's Backyard

Academics are a touchy lot. First, the liberal Roman Catholic academics who questioned the bona fides of a man who writes op-ed columns for — get this — the liberal New York Times!!!. Now, a history prof (thanks to John Fea) in Wales who faults Niall Ferguson for not showing poper deference to professional specialization in an op-ed column about Islam and Europe:

Gibbon, then, saw the demise of the Roman empire in the fifth century as a peculiarly western tragedy; it was also one that risked happening again. No modern specialist of the period would accept Gibbon’s analysis as anything more than the posturing of an Enlightenment intellectual decrying the forces of “superstition” and “barbarism”. That Ferguson chooses to do so fits neatly with the primacy and ascendancy of the West in his historical vision. In this he is not alone: a string of right-wing commentators in the United States have expounded a similar vision equating modern America with ancient Rome, and issuing dire warnings that it risks a similar fate. This perspective has been subject to withering deconstruction by the late Jack Goody, who argued in his The Theft of History (2006) that much of world history has been shoehorned into a narrative framework derived from and designed to satisfy the experience of the West. It also purposefully leaves out of the picture the dynamic interactions and genuinely shared histories of the West and the rest of the world. But that is not a story that suits an agenda of “us” pitted against “them”.

What’s odd about this quibbling is that I don’t suppose Dr. Humphries would disagree with Ferguson about the barbarity of the Paris attacks. So barbarism, as bad as that word it, carries a degree of plausibility after what we’ve seen from the efforts of ISIS.

Nor do I suspect Dr. Humphries would really dispute the primacy and the ascendancy of the West to which Ferguson appeals. Sure, Humphries likely laments that supremacy as much as Ferguson celebrates it. But would Europe and North America really be facing Islamic terrorists if not for the dominance of the West in the Middle East? In fact, would the West even be the source of a global political and economic order had not Europeans began to fight back against Muslims first in the Crusades and then in the Reconquista and beyond? Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World was partly inspired by a hope to find more precious metals to fund the defeat of Islam. Would Jack Goody’s point about the “theft of history” even make sense if not for the West (for good — my living in the U.S. — and for ill — slavery) dominating the globe?

Again, that’s not to say that the West is innocent or should be celebrated. It doesn’t take a lot of historical imagination to appreciate Muslim resentment about the presence of Christians and westerners in formerly Muslim dominated territories. It may not even take much imagination to acknowledge that all people celebrate war and defeat of enemies — think the Battle of Lepanto and the Rosary. But simply to fault Ferguson for insensitivity to the standards of historical journals in the service of an op-ed piece while also failing to concede the sources of the historic opposition between Christendom and Islam, whether in its overtly Christian or secularized versions for Europeans, is to get lost in the weeds of academic pretense.

Would the French and Muslims be served better by reading historical monographs or by recognizing the antagonism divides them?

What Did Charlie Hebdo Accomplish?

The drive back from the annual American Historical Association meeting (and other points northeastern) brought the missus and me lots of coverage of the killings of editors and cartoonists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo yesterday in Paris. As unnerving and tragic as those deaths were and as close to the events as reporters still stood, the dominant narrative of the event was the need, courage, and danger of free speech. Many French and English journalists conducted interviews that indicated the enormous debt they owed to the editors, writers, and cartoonists of the magazine for standing up for free speech. In fact, the Protestant Federation of Churches in France issued the following statement:

We reiterate that the secular republic and its values, including freedom of conscience, democracy and press freedom remains for us the foundation of our life together.

This fairly modern, liberal, and republican line (it is striking to hear the French identify with “The Republic” while Americans who inhabit a republic of similar vintage talk about “The Constitution”) is fairly at odds with the experience of most modern, liberal residents of republics. None of us actually enjoys freedom of speech. Sean Michael Winters, for instance, noted that he is unwilling to use the freedoms he has:

I am not Charlie. I am not as brave as the editors at that newspaper were, continuing their satire even after the death threats and after their offices were fire-bombed. To point out another obvious difference, I am not a satirist and I do not go out of my way to poke fun at other people’s religion. But, they did and – you will pardon the expression – God bless them for it.

In other words, most people even in free societies and even when writing for the wider public censor their thoughts. From deciding not to tell your wife the truth about the chair she purchased to holding your thoughts about the pastor’s sermon, we do not live in a world that allows us to say whatever we think. Some people show more caution than others, and this is of course different from governments censoring citizens. But little in the reporting yesterday suggested any awareness of the layers of free speech.

What has already emerged, however, and this will likely continue for a while, is the chance of drawing attention to the inconsistency of those who condemn these killings. For instance, Mark Tooley observes that the World Council of Churches’ statement about the deaths stands in sharp contrast to the organizations former failure to uphold freedom of speech during the Cold War:

These statements are not bad, and Tveit’s affirmation specifically of the “freedom to print and publish” is especially notable. During its darkest Cold War days of accommodating Soviet Communism and its global proxies, the WCC was often scandalously silent about the freedom to print and publish, among many other freedoms suppressed by dictatorships.

At the risk of adding to such scapegoating, I can’t help but think about the complexity of freedom of speech when it comes to talking about race in the United States or to talk in general at most of the United States colleges and universities. Peter Lawler’s post about campus dissent stands in sharp contrast to outpouring of praise for freedom of speech (folks who talk about microaggressions and social sins should take note):

Now a big difference between the Communists and today’s politically correct is that the (typically perverse) nobility of the Old Left was that it was moved by the plight of people who had little to no property. And so they wanted to use the power of government to redistribute resources from one class to another. There’s still some of that idealism on campus, and even some professors who claim that they have the duty to be socialists to counter the capitalist propaganda that they say dominates the media and so much of ordinary life in America. The genuinely throwback socialists often love liberal education, and I often think I have more in common with them than with libertarian economists, despite the fact that the astute libertarian futurists have a better handle on what the future will probably bring.

Richard Rorty complained that when the Left went from being Old to New it lost interest in the issue of economic injustice and got about the business of eliminating every trace of cruelty and indignity — all the aggressions both macro and micro — from American discourse. Justice became making everyone — rich and poor, black white, straight and gay, and so forth and so on — absolutely secure in his or her freely chosen personal identity. Some of that progress has served the cause of decency, but it’s way out of control. Because the new political correctness reaches its height of self-righteous self-consciousness on campuses, it becomes pretty much unsafe to say anything judgmental or controversial or against reigning democratic and “extreme autonomy” prejudices.

During much of the press coverage yesterday I kept wondering whether someone would step up to explain how Charlie Hebdo’s provocations had actually helped French society. After all, if you provoke people to the point where the police (public servants) need to guard your offices, you might be more of a public nuisance than a cultural asset. Then again, and I don’t know the climate of French campuses, if residents of France enjoy more freedom than their fellow republicans in the U.S. to say what they think without fear of hurting hearers’ feelings, then Charlie Hebdo may have performed a valuable service.

Postscript: Michael Sean Winters added this comment in his praise for those who died yesterday:

The values of a culture that says it is fine to behead homosexuals are worse values than those of a culture that says it is not fine to behead homosexuals. The values of a culture that seeks to keep women in third-class status are worse than the values of a culture that seeks to open opportunities for women. The values of a culture that demands adherence to a strained, fundamentalist reading of a religious text are worse than the values of a culture that acknowledges pluralism and seeks to find peaceful ways for people of different religions to live together amicably. These values are not merely different. Cultural relativism only gets you so far. Our values, our liberal values, are better. I do not have to like this cartoon or that essay, I may regret the sense of license our commitment to liberty allows and even encourages, many and deep are my reservations about the seraglio of the Enlightenment, but I would rather be a citizen of the Fifth Republic of France than a slave in territory governed by ISIS. So would everybody except the evil and the deranged.

By that logic, Winters would also likely prefer to be a citizen of a libertarian U.S. than a member of pre-modern Christendom. In fact, he acknowledges that the history of Western Christianity has not always been appealing:

Just as Catholicism has had to break from its own barbarisms, haltingly to be sure, and insist that its faith be expressed in humane ways, indeed that inhumane expressions of the our Catholic faith are a contradiction of that faith, so too must our Muslim brothers and sisters find the arguments and the ideas and the critical mass of supporters to break their faith free from these murderers who claim to act in their name. The thing that we Catholics can do, especially those of us who are not afraid to call ourselves liberals, is create relationships with humane Muslims, work with them for the common good, highlight their culture and its contributions, and encourage them as they seek to remove the cancer that is currently eating away at their religion. We can share with them the ups-and-downs of our Catholic history in this struggle, noting that sometimes those ups-and-downs occurred in the same person, as when the venerable Saint Thomas More sent heretics to the flames. History, the catalogue of humanity, is itself a great humanizing force in any culture, whether its study prepares a person for a job in the 21st century marketplace or not.

Similar reservations haunt the performance of pre-modern Protestants. In which case, those of us Christians (Roman Catholic or Protestant) who enjoy the blessings of liberty need to do a little more reflection on where those freedoms came from. That they originated at the time of the founding of the American and French republics is not a reason to suggest that medieval Christendom or confessional Europe had nothing to contribute to the legal and political outcomes of the modern West. But the Council of Trent and the Westminster Assembly did not produce the Bill of Rights for a reason. And that reason should lead every modern Christian to express some gratitude (i.e. two cheers) for the Enlightenment.

Reformation Day Sobriety Test

Travels and responsibilities from a former life have taken me to Wheaton College this weekend for the closing public events of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. I directed the place from 1989 to 1993 and learned much from the Institute’s senior directors and many programs. In reflecting on my time at the Institute the past few weeks, I recognized that much of the literature on evangelicalism has accentuated the positive, from the upbeat corralling a disparate group of Protestants under the seemingly tidy umbrella of evangelical to telling stories of evangelical figures or institutions that have been filled at times more with wonder than woe. This positive disposition certainly goes with evangelicalism more than with Calvinism. Having Jesus in your heart is a different mindset from remembering your sinfulness and the need for a savior. But this sunny side of evangelical history may also explain the need I felt to hit back with Deconstructing Evangelicalism.

Enough about me.

During my perusal of Wheaton’s campus I came across a display by the French department on — of all things — the Reformation, Reformation Day and all that. Among the factoids on the brochure that audience members of the booth could take away was this one about Protestantism in France (would we call it “evangelical”?):

Today, the nation of France practices religious tolerance. However, the majority of French citizens consider religion to be a private affair. In spite of this, the number of Protestant churches in France has been rapidly growing since the 1800s; there are approximately 600,000 practicing Protestants in France today.

To evangelicals used to reading of up to 35 percent of Americans identifying as evangelical (roughly 120 million), that seems like a paltry figure. From the perspective of the little old OPC which continues to hover around 30,000 members, the France figures seem like a hades of a lot. But to keep it all in perspective, the figures from sixteenth-century France may be the most relevant. Considering that Reformed Protestants had captured 10 percent of the kingdom’s population, which numbered roughly 15 million Huguenots, 600k looks pretty feeble.

So to all those celebrating the Reformation today, drink to console your sorrows.

Protestants and Assimilation, Republican Style

One more thought about republican forms of government and what they require of believers who would be citizens. Analogies between twentieth-century France and the nineteenth-century United States suggest that Americans demanded conformity from “outsiders” in ways comparable to the French more recently. The great complaint about Roman Catholic Irish and German immigrants was that their submissiveness to the papacy (as if), a foreign prince, would make them unworthy and unreliable republican citizens. The United States made similar demands on Mormons who had their own civil authority in the office of the apostle, who at least in the days of Brigham Young was also the governor of the Utah territory. For Utah to gain admission as a state, Mormons needed to abandon polygamy. Republicanism makes its demands.

Conversely, have Protestants had little trouble acquiescing to the republic’s norms? One thinks of the Huguenots, for instance, who assimilated pretty much wherever they went without the slightest whiff of the dissent that characterized their days of resistance in the Old World.

And then one thinks about the tradition of covenanting in Scotland and Ireland, a variety of Reformed Protestantism that earned the reputation for submitting to no one except king Jesus. A. T. Q. Stewart observed in 1977 that the Presbyterian “is happiest when he is being a radical.” He went on:

The austere doctrines of Calvinism, the simplicity of his worship, the democratic government of his Church, the memory of the martyred Covenanters, and the Scottish unwillingness to yield or to dissemble — all these incline him to that difficult and cantankerous disposition which is character of a certain kind of political radicalism.

Of course, the United States did not demand Covenanters to conform to republican norms to be assimilated. Instead, the Covenanters until around 1980 self-selected and opted out of the republic’s political life — no voting, no vows, no running for office, and no service in the military, a form of Reformed Protestant Anabaptism.

But with the exception of the ideals of sixteenth-century Scotland, Protestants came to terms fairly easily with republican government. The reason stems largely from their not having a state or monarch who was their ruler and the chief executive of their faith.

The lesson: most Reformed Protestants are 2K and they don’t even know it.