I Finally Understand Objections to Lutheranism

Lutherans are pink:

Religious and cultural Lutheran values have shaped Nordic societies for centuries. But instead of encouraging capitalism as in Calvinist Europe, Lutheranism promoted a social-democratic welfare state in the Nordic world.

As this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this issue is highly topical.

Robert H. Nelson, professor of economics at the University of Maryland, develops these arguments in Lutheranism and the Nordic Spirit of Social Democracy: A Different Protestant Ethic. He probes the large role a Lutheran ethic played in the development of the Nordic welfare state and the Nordic social-democratic political and economic system during its golden years from the 1930s to the 1980s.

Nelson sees this Lutheran ethic as parallel to the Calvinist ethic famously examined by the German sociologist Max Weber In his book the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Nelson also compares the American and Nordic ideas of the welfare state in a novel way, discussing the greater influence of Calvinism in the United States as compared with Lutheranism in the Nordic countries.

According to Nelson, fundamental Nordic values, such as a strong work ethic, complete equality between men and women, and others manifested in social democracy are all derived from Lutheran teachings as embodied in the Lutheran ethic.

The Lutheran ethic emphasized The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” in the pursuit of an individual calling. This has been the foundation of the concept of 20th century Nordic social solidarity, in particular, states Nelson.

The upside? U.S. is not simply Christian but a Calvinist nation.


Except, the Puritans were not exactly capitalists. If you read John Winthrop’s Model of Christian Charity, you would think he’s a socialist.

When It Was Unthinkable that the State Would Affirm God

Thanks to his typing skills, Mark Van Der Molen reproduces a remark that Alan Strange made in his discussion at Reformed Forum on the spirituality of the church:

The separation of church and state, the distinction of church and state is something entirely different from the separation of faith from politics, or even God from State. None of those men believed in the separation of God from State. Even in public ways, all of them believed….basically Thornwell argued and so did Robinson, that it is immoral. Any state that is atheistic is immoral. They both argued that. If you read Robinson and Thornwell, and particularly Hodge, I think you will see they have clear points of integration. They have them in any number of ways, they all believed that it was immoral and unthinkable that the State would deny God or Christ in a general way.

(Alan, if you’re reading, I’m not picking on you. I am using your remarks to clarify, in which case disagreement may be beneficial.)

First, I do wonder about the difference between an atheistic and an idolatrous state. If the false gods are no gods, isn’t then every state without the Triune God revealed in Holy Writ an atheistic state. Is Turkey any better than the Soviet Union if the former acknowledges Allah in some way but the Soviets denied God? What about a Jewish state like Israel? Or how about a Mormon state like Utah? If states become immoral by virtue of atheism, aren’t they also immoral by denying the true God?

That puts Alan and Van Der Molen, perhaps, closer to the Puritans and a confessional state than to Robinson and Hodge who seemingly welcomed a secular government like the United States but rejected an atheistic state.

But keep in mind the progression of states that include God in their operations:

Puritans — they admitted only Puritans and excluded Baptists, Quakers, and Lutherans (for starters)

1820s U.S. — was friendly primarily to Protestants though all faiths could worship, which was a decisive break from 1640 Boston and 1550 Geneva

1950s U.S. — American society recognized a tri-faith monotheism informally of Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews while also putting God on coins and in the Pledge of Allegiance, which was a break from 1820s Protestant dominated America

2010s U.S. — American society apparently has no religious standards and may even give sectarian faiths a hard time, which is a break from 1950s tri-faith America

The trend here is toward greater diversity and toleration. 2kers are trying to stop the bleeding by reconfiguring what God requires. The 2k conclusion, tentatively, is that God does not reveal a definite pattern for politics. The church is one thing, the state another. 2kers also try to learn lessons from the past and how earlier efforts to establish religious standards could not compete with the movement of peoples or the growing authority of the nation-state to regulate its citizens affairs in a way that achieved a measure of social unity.

What critics of 2k need to do is stop showing how 2k departs from the past. We get that. What critics need to do is not foment fear for disagreeing with Calvin or Winthrop — as if Protestants have post-canonical authorities whom we must follow. Critics need to propose an equation for God-and-state that is either required by God’s word (especially the part where Paul recommends submission to Nero) or that does justice to the lives that Christians now lead and somewhat enjoy.

2k is not novel in one sense. It advocates the spirituality of the church which is a part of the Western Christian tradition going back to Augustine, Paul, and Jesus. In another sense it is new — in the novos ordo seclorum way. 2k proposes a re-consideration of political theology in the light of modern social arrangements that is still true to Scripture and Reformed theology.

Is that any more scary than suggesting that the United States ban idolatry?

The American Jesus on the Un-American Calvin

Zach Hunt has read Calvin and he is disgusted. Here’s part of what he has to say to Calvin himself:

[Quotations from Calvin on predestination and human wickedness] are, as you demonstrate so well, the logical conclusions of your theology of divine sovereignty and, therefore, at the very heart of what you believe about God. Worse, this isn’t a case of you overstating without thinking through the conclusions. You’re clear that this sort of God who ordains genocide, murder, rape, children abuse, and every other conceivable horrendous act is the God you worship. . . .

The bigger issue I have, John, is that you have a tendency (cause I’ll be the first to admit they’re not all like this) to create incredibly arrogant and sometimes hateful followers who are just as cold, calculating, and callous in their theology and selective in their use of scripture as you are. Just like you, too many of your prominent followers today denounce their critics as heretics while praising God for a whole host of evil things that happen in the world from earthquakes and tornadoes to the marginalization, oppression, and destruction of people made in the image of God.

John, I don’t know how to say it any other way – you’ve got a bad habit of making disciples that aren’t very christlike in their love, mercy, compassion, and grace towards others.

This may or may not be a fair reading of Calvin, but it does do justice to those parts that are hard to square with modern notions about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And yet Americans continue to think that Calvinism bears some special and positive relationship to a political order committed to freedom, equality, and tolerance. In most narratives of American origins, the lines between John Winthrop’s Massachusetts and George Washington’s Philadelphia are smooth, straight, and easy to follow.

Could it be that Americans need to take a page from the Turks who seem to know that the caliph Suleyman the Great was not a forerunner of Ataturk? Consider, for instance, what ??? had to say about the current Turkish television sensation, “Magnificent Century”? Here is an interesting bit from Elif Batuman’s Feb. 17, 2014 piece on the series, “Ottomania: A Hit TV Show Reimagines Turkey’s Imperial Past.”

The debate over “Magnificent Century” touches on one of the key issues in Turkish politics: the question of national identity. Who were the Ottomans – enlightened cosmopolitans or decadent sociopaths? Who was Suleyman? Who are the Turks? For the first eighty years of the republic, national identity was defined largely by the figure of Kemal Ataturk, with his tailored suits, his commitment to scientific positivism and ballroom dancing, his devotion to an adopted daughter who became Turkey’s first female fighter pilot, and his emphatic rejection of all things Ottoman. Ataturk’s picture is on every denomination of Turkish currency, and hangs on the wall of every public building. It is a crime to insult his memory. . . .

The Ottoman revival has its roots in the Cold War, when the main political polarity in Turkey wasn’t Islamist versus secularist but pro-Communist versus anti-Communist. In Turkey, a NATO member and a U.S ally, widespread internal violence between leftist and rightist groups culminated in a military coup, in 1980. The new government addressed the threat of leftism by opening the Turkish market to global competition, and by promoting Islam as an ideological alternative to Communism. One result of these measure was the rise of a new class of observant Muslim businessmen – entrepreneurs who described themselves as “Islamic Calvinists,” characterized Muhammad as a merchant, and cited the Koran as an authority on limiting economic intervention by the government. Where Kemalism had its basis in economic isolationism and cultural Westernization, these businessmen wanted just the opposite: Western-style capitalism and a Turkish culture. In the Ottomans, they found the ready-made idea of a prosperous Muslim elite, trading on an equal footing with Europe but preferring halvah to profiteroles.

In some ways Turkish developments parable simultaneous U.S. history. During the Cold War, especially before 1965 when race, sex, gender, and war divided Americans, Calvinism and the Reformation became a bus stop on the modern ride from the Dark Ages to Enlightenment and the United States’ new order for the ages. In other words, religious roots became useful to both the Turks and Americans to justify national involvements. You can even compare the Religious Right to the Islamo-Calvinists – Americans who refashioned their religious and national heritages to concoct a national identity that made secular humanism illegitimate.

But unlike Turkey where the contrast between republican progress and religious past was always stark under Ataturk’s unruly eyebrows, in the United States the tension between the Puritans and the Founders was glossed or ignored. Americans, from Julia Ward Howe and Perry Miller to Rick Santorum, have rarely if ever been willing to acknowledge that Winthrop’s communitarian, religiously demanding, and exclusive Massachusetts was not what Ben Franklin, James Madison or even John Witherspoon had in mind for the United States (whether confederated or federated).

That dishonesty may be responsible for the secularist and atheistical reaction against the faith-based exceptionalism of the last four decades. It doesn’t make it pleasant or civil, but when you constantly hear about America’s Christian origins as a later iteration of the Puritans errand into the wilderness, you may want to push back.

At the very least, this dishonesty helps to explain why an HBO television series on Massachusetts Bay’s pastors’ wives will not becoming to Netflix soon. Not even the producers of Christian sentimental entertainment could turn those godly women into a series, say “Sectarians in the City,” where the distaff side of the Gospel Coalition could feel good about their small group Bible studies, enjoyment of sex, and cosmetic choices. Although, if someone could provoke the female allies to get their hubbies to read Anne Bradstreet, maybe the New Calvinists would stop being so d—d nice.

2K Reinforcement

Richard Gamble, my colleague in history and fellow elder in the OPC church plant in Hillsdale, has a new book, In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth. It is a deconstruction of the Puritan and American abuse of the biblical metaphor when applied to either Massachusetts Bay or the United States. Here’s a tantalizing excerpt (thanks to our friends at The Imaginative Conservative):

Whether Jesus had in view only his chosen disciples, his followers in general, or the universal Church he promised to build, he clearly did not address the metaphors of salt, light, and city to the Roman Empire of his day. He could have done so. Others living during roughly the same era did just that. A century earlier, the Roman statesman Cicero combined two of these three images when he warned his fellow Senators at the time of Catiline’s conspiracy that he “seem[ed] to see this city, the light of the whole world and the fortress of all the nations, suddenly involved in one general conflagration.” Centuries earlier, the Athenian general and statesman Pericles had praised his city as a model to all the Greeks. Jesus, in contrast, gave these metaphors to his Church and not to an earthly kingdom. At some point in history—we will never know when—someone first applied the city metaphor to something or someone other than Jesus’ disciples, to something or someone outside the boundaries of the Christian church. That may not have happened for many centuries. It may not have happened first and only in America. But along the way it became commonplace to talk about America as the embodiment of Jesus’ hilltop city.

It is not natural or inevitable that America should have been given this sacred identity. The path from first-century Palestine to twenty-first century America is not an obvious one. Nor is the path from a sermon about life in the Kingdom of God to blogs about national destiny. Along that path, individual Americans did something to Jesus’ metaphor that changed it. Gradually or abruptly, intentionally or not, they helped remake the “city on a hill” from “a metaphor into a myth,” to borrow a phrase from historian Michael McGiffert. Even if we cannot pinpoint the exact moment of transformation, we will see in the following pages that at one time Americans chiefly used the “city on a hill” to describe something transcendent and theological, and then at a later time chiefly to describe something earthly and political. The transition required nothing less than the unmaking of a biblical metaphor and the making of a national myth.