Jamie Smith’s Bait and Switch

I was afraid that neo-Calvinism’s refusal to distinguish the sacred and secular would go here — that is, to a defense of civil religion. Jamie Smith’s latest editorial does just that.

Mind you, he is aware of the defective versions of civil religion, especially the one that has sent U.S. soldiers “to die face down in the muck of Vietnam” (thank you, Walter Sobchak):

civil religion is what we get when we divinize the civitas, when devotion to “the nation” trumps other allegiances and inspires a fervor and passion that is nothing short of religious. David Gelernter names this in his 2007 book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. Walter McDougall’s more recent book The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, which Robert Joustra reviews in this issue, identifies the same problem in its subtitle: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest. In McDougall’s argument, civil religion carries the usual whiff of irrationality: the hard-nosed rationality of national interests is compromised because of vaunted values and misguided mythologies.

But Smith still thinks civil religion is salvageable.

The envisioned good of a diverse, pluralistic, yet civil society that liberal democracies hope for is not a generic vision. It has a particular history—rooted in Christianity—and demands particular virtues. In short, the very project of a well-functioning, pluralistic, liberal society depends on the formative power of tradition-specific, “illiberal,” non-democratic communities that can inculcate virtues of hope, respect for dignity, commitment to truth, and more. Families, synagogues, churches, mosques embed their members in a Story that makes such virtues “make sense.” These non-political spheres of society cultivate people who become the sorts of citizens who know how to be patient and forgiving precisely because they believe in something beyond the state.

See what he did there? Civil society in liberal democracies owes its existence to Christianity. In those societies synagogues, churches, and mosques embed citizens in “a Story.” They become patient and forgiving.

Christianity did that? Or was it the Enlightenment (which owes its existence in part to medieval and early modern Europe). Maybe by using the indefinite article in “a Story” you can get away with blurring churches, synagogues and mosques into one happy, fuzzy, gentle, and kind civil society. But that is certainly not the experience of most western societies where Christians ran things and established their churches.

Smith really pours it on when he leads the following cheer:

But one of the by-products of a healthy church forming citizens of kingdom come is that they are then sent into the earthly city with Christlike virtues that also contribute to the common good. We might miss this because it doesn’t primarily play itself out on a national scale; rather, it is enacted at the parish level, in a thousand different neighbourhoods. There we also find Christians, Jews, and Muslims collaborating for the sake of the vulnerable, the lonely, and the marginalized while also nourishing the virtue incubators we call families.

Well, in point of fact, when Christians go into public with a comprehensive w-w they have to be especially aware that they are not like Jews or Muslims. Pot down the w-w gauge and perhaps you have less conviction about being distinct from those people who do not profess Christ. But I don’t know how Smith gets the Chamber of Commerce view of Christianity’s civil nature from Christ’s own words:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Matt 10:34-35)

That explanation of the antithesis is what makes Abraham Kuyper’s pillarization of Dutch society so intriguing. The Netherlands was not the American melting pot (or even the Canadian multicultural stew). It was a series of religious subgroups that kept to themselves the way that states’ rights advocates in the United States thought about relations between local and federal government.

But if Christians want a seat at the table of a liberal international order that preserves democracy from autocracy, Smith does a pretty good impersonation of 1950s mainline Protestantism.

Not Every Square Inch but 25% of the Columns

Here is a good overview of what taking every square inch looked like in the Netherlands. The outcome was pluralism, not the magistrate enforcing both tables of the law. A Calvinist labor union, not rich Presbyterians living luxuriously:

For centuries, the Dutch knew just who they were: mostly blond- or red-haired, blue-eyed, white, straight-talking, Calvinist capitalists who believed in God, family, hard work, and doing the right thing. Looking around, a Dutchman saw himself in his neighbors, and that was reassuring. Collaborating with them, he built dikes, pushed back the sea, and established the shipping industry that made this low-lying country safe and prosperous.

By opening its borders to Jews and Protestants in search of freedom of religion (think of the Pilgrims who came to Holland before going to America), the Dutch gained a somewhat deserved reputation for tolerance. I say “somewhat” because this same openness did not extend to Catholics, whose religion was that of the hated Spanish king the Dutch had once been subject to. As a result, Catholicism was banned in the Netherlands in the 1580s, and the Catholic hierarchy was not allowed back in for two-and-a-half centuries. Still, even this conflict got smoothed out in time. Catholics eventually claimed their place in the twentieth century as one of the four “columns”—alongside the Protestants, socialists, and laissez-faire liberals—that upheld Dutch society. This created a unique social arrangement in which like associated with like, each in its own sector. Thus did each group have its own schools, trade unions, newspapers, and sports clubs.

This form of societal organization lasted until the late 1960s, when it quickly unraveled in the face of secularization and rising individualism. By this time, increasing numbers of mostly Muslim immigrants had begun arriving. The first group came from Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, in the 1940s. In subsequent decades, larger numbers of Muslims came from Turkey and Morocco as “guest workers.” Finding much to appreciate in Holland, many stayed on to raise families here, establishing in the process a largely Muslim economic underclass.

If this made the Dutch uneasy, that feeling has been exacerbated by the current migration crisis. The Dutch take pride in their reputation for inclusion and tolerance. (During the First World War, Holland took in a million Belgian refugees.) As a small country that was itself occupied by Germany in World War II, Holland knows the importance of helping people in wartime. But the rapid influx of refugees in 2015, when over a million came to Europe from the Middle East and Africa, caused concern. Just a short walk from my workplace, in Nijmegen, 3,000 refugees were given temporary housing. It was a generous humanitarian gesture that also sparked worries in the surrounding community; fortunately, the refugees were soon relocated to better, more permanent housing without any significant problems arising.

That kind of cultural transformation has a very different feel from the kind that keeps getting a second wind in North America, where cultural transformation is all about the arts, sciences, and professions, and has little to do with people making a living or governing a society. Like this:

Wherever Christians may be tempted toward slothful disengagement from the world, we want to raise up voices that can wake us from our doldrums. We want to feature the contributions of scholars, practitioners, and ordinary people who can draw our attention to corners of the world we may have forgotten.We want to find the places and activities that are shot through with God’s creational grace. In short, we want to be at the forefront of the grassroots resurgence of Christian engagement with the arts, culture, and society.

One place neo-Calvinists seem to have forgotten is Kuyper’s Netherlands.

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”?)

Rush Hour in Kampen

Over a decade ago I participated in a conference at Kampen sponsored by the theological institute of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands Liberated. After clearing my head from the cobwebs of jet lag, I looked out my downtown hotel window to observe teams of Dutch cyclists. They were not out for exercise but dressed in business attire on their way to work.

David Danelo finally helps make sense of that arresting sight.

About 230,000 Dutch citizens died during World War II, or 2.5% of the wartime population of nine million, many from disease and famine as much as violence. Before World War II, bicycles had come quickly to Holland, and the flat terrain made cycling the most affordable and functional form of public transport. After Nazi Germany occupied the Netherlands in 1940, soldiers confiscated bicycles and recycled the metal and rubber for war materiel. Dutch citizens responded by making bicycle possession a protest symbol; as Nazi convoys careened through Amsterdam’s streets, Dutch cyclists would join hands, up to four abreast, and slow their pace to thwart the convoy’s progress. Even today, Dutch football fans are often seen holding bicycle signs during matches against Germany, and Dutch citizens feels no shame in asking new German acquaintances to “give me my bike back.”

Neo-Calvinist Reality Check

David Koyzis can’t help but notice that Kuyperianism didn’t work out so well:

As a young man I was shocked during a visit to Amsterdam to see the proliferation of “sex shops” and the brazenness of the city’s red light district. In the four decades since then the Netherlands has come to be known for its permissive attitude towards euthanasia, recreational drugs and, of course, sexual expression. What happened? And why did it happen so quickly, that is, within two generations of Kuyper’s death?

So what happened? Koyzis thinks that institution building got in the way of evangelism:

Kuyper’s efforts led to the establishment of a variety of explicitly Christian organizations parallel to their secular counterparts. (The painter Piet Mondrian grew up in this Gereformeerd subculture.)

As Kuyper’s heirs immigrated to North America, they brought over his penchant for establishing and maintaining Christian institutions of all sorts, including a network of Christian day schools, a Christian trade union, more than one political organization, and a network of institutions of higher education. I myself have long been committed to these efforts and have taught at one of these affiliated universities.

Nevertheless, I have found myself wondering whether Kuyper’s perhaps too peaceful coexistence with the forces of secularization in 1917 might not have been sufficient to maintain the subculture he led over the long term. Kuyper certainly wouldn’t have been pleased by his followers’ failure to evangelize, and pillarization needn’t lead to a lack of outward strategy, but historically such power-sharing agreements place a premium on reaching a least-common-denominator form of consensus and toning down differences. In a pillarized society, the distinct subcultures became adept at erecting and maintaining barriers against the other subcultures, yet the consociational arrangements they come up with have tended to be short-lived.

I am not going to enter into debates about consociations that may play to Koyzis’ strength as a political scientist, but the habitual turn of the neo-Calvinist mind to matters public and political instead of spiritual and churchly, may actually point to what went wrong. In point of fact, the institutions that Kuyper helped to found were valuable not simply for erecting a sense of Calvinist identity but most importantly for passing on the faith to another generation and keeping the existing ones in it. Whether those institutions were always necessary is one thing. But their aim I suspect was ultimately religious not temporal, that is, to propagate and maintain the faith once delivered. If all the Reformed Protestants who participated in Kuyper’s institutions had maintained the faith and if their children had remained in the church, chances are those institutions would still be vigorous and large.

But once those institutions became ends in themselves, the genie left the bottle along with subsequent generations. The issue is not evangelism vs. institutions — the old problem of the Pretty Good Awakening. It is keeping institutions on point. And the point is creating and sustaining believers who can say:

My only comfort in life and in death is I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

Five Burroughs (obsolete variation of borough), Eight Kingdoms

To what kingdom does New York City belong? Cutting through the redemptive historical hooey surrounding certain claims made on behalf of Manhattan Island, may we speak of New York City as a kingdom? Hardly. Even Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to restrict Big Gulps is not going to make him a divine right monarch. So, when thinking about two kingdom theology is it possible even to apply the word “kingdom” to civil polities that are not ruled by monarchs?

This may seem a tad precious, but it is a question that the recent posting of Twenty-Seven propositions about two-kingdom theology invites. Matt Tuininga has already reacted and not so favorably (which may show how fruitless it is to interact with folks who are more intent on finding contradictions or tensions than they seem to be in actually promoting the kingdom of God). Here are several of the assertions that caught my eye (bold is supposedly the 2k view):

22. The family is part of the common kingdom.

The institution of the family is formed by God and is to be directed to the glory of God. It is agreed that it is an institution shared by unbelievers, but unbelievers misdirect or suppress the direction the institution should take.

23. The Christian is a dual citizen, as a citizen of both the spiritual kingdom and a citizen of the common kingdom.

It is agreeable that we share and interact with unbelievers but the term “kingdom” could confuse if such activities are thought in spatial terms as some “realm” governed by some different king or different ethic.

24. The unbeliever is a citizen only of the common kingdom.

This is generally agreeable, but with same caveat as #23 on the definition of “kingdom.”

25. The Christian lives under a dual ethic, namely, the natural law-justice ethic governing life in the common kingdom and the grace-mercy ethic governing life in the spiritual kingdom.

The Reformed confessions and scripture testify we live under a unified Biblical Christian ethic, not a dual- antithetical ethic that depends on which “kingdom” we are operating in. Thus, for example, the Christian family is not guided solely by an ethic of lex talionis justice, but also an ethic of mercy and forgiveness.

26. The common kingdom pertains to temporal, earthly, provisional matters, not matters of ultimate and spiritual importance. It includes matters of politics, law, and cultural life more generally.

The Reformed confessions do not exclude the kingdom of God as being manifest in these earthly matters of law, politics, and cultural life more generally.

27. The spiritual kingdom pertains to things that are of ultimate and spiritual importance. Insofar as this spiritual kingdom has earthly existence, it is found in the church and not in the state or other temporal institutions.

See comment on #26.

One thing that is highly dubious about these propositions and responses is the language of “the Reformed confessions do or do not” assert this or that. In point of fact, the Reformed confessions say little about kingdoms. When they do they apply the language of kingdom almost exclusively to spiritual realities. The civil magistrate has nothing to do with actually promoting or extending these spiritual realities because the magistrate’s rule (obviously the Westminster Divines and Guido de Bres were hardly fans of monarchs) only extended to outward not to internal or spiritual realities.

For instance, the Belgic Confession uses the word kingdom only one and it does so in Art. 36 by invoking the “kingdom of Jesus Christ.” The magistrate may “promote” the kingdom of Christ but does not establish it, something only God can do, and something to which the word, sacraments, and prayer are means and the magistrate may not minister.

In the Westminster Standards, we see eight uses of the word kingdom (“heaven” 8.5, 23.3, 30.2; “Lord Jesus Christ” 25.2; “God” WLC 53; “Satan” WLC 191, WSC 102; “power” WLC 191; “kingdom” simply WLC 196, WSC 107; “grace” WSC 102; “glory” WSC 102). The only time the word occurs close to the work of the magistrate is in Chapter 23 where the confession says explicitly that the magistrate may not assume the use of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

The attempt then by critics of 2k to assert that the kingdom of Christ, or of heaven, or of grace, or of glory may be identified with the kingdoms or boroughs of this world is to confound the kingdom theology that undergirds the Reformed churches in their understanding of the church and its ministry. It is also why the critics of 2k are at odds with John Calvin who wrote at the beginning of his discussion of civil governments the following:

. . . before entering on the subject itself, it is necessary to attend to the distinction which we formerly laid down (Book 3 Chap. 19 sec. 16, et supra, Chap. 10), lest, as often happens to many, we imprudently confound these two things, the nature of which is altogether different. For some, on hearing that liberty is promised in the gospel, a liberty which acknowledges no king and no magistrate among men, but looks to Christ alone, think that they can receive no benefit from their liberty so long as they see any power placed over them. Accordingly, they think that nothing will be safe until the whole world is changed into a new form, when there will be neither courts, nor laws, nor magistrates, nor anything of the kind to interfere, as they suppose, with their liberty. But he who knows to distinguish between the body and the soul, between the present fleeting life and that which is future and eternal, will have no difficulty in understanding that the spiritual kingdom of Christ and civil government are things very widely separated. Seeing, therefore, it is a Jewish vanity to seek and include the kingdom of Christ under the elements of this world, let us, considering, as Scripture clearly teaches, that the blessings which we derive from Christ are spiritual, remember to confine the liberty which is promised and offered to us in him within its proper limits. For why is it that the very same apostle who bids us “stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not again entangled with the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1), in another passage forbids slaves to be solicitous about their state (1 Cor. 7:21), unless it be that spiritual liberty is perfectly compatible with civil servitude? In this sense the following passages are to be understood: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). Again, “There is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all and in all” (Col. 3:11). It is thus intimated, that it matters not what your condition is among men, nor under what laws you live, since in them the kingdom of Christ does not at all consist. (Institutes IV.20.1)

I understand that Calvin’s Geneva is not the United States of America and that the civil magistrates there enforced some laws congenial to critics of 2k. But those are the same magistrates that executed heretics and forbade Roman Catholics from worshiping within the city. I doubt they would have allowed Mormon congregations or Jewish synagogues either. Which is to say, for the zillionth time, the critics of 2k have no coherent understanding either of the theology that prompted an pastor employed by the state from identifying the kingdom of Christ with the urban polity of Geneva or the political arrangement for which they long. (Ironically, the Netherlands in the hey day of the Synod of Dort was a republic where folks like Descartes and Spinoza could hold their views freely and that also was a home to arguably the largest population of Anabaptists in Europe.) If they want the magistrate to enforce all of God’s law, they will receive a lot more than they bargain for.

Then again, if all they want is to criticize 2k, have at it. It’s a free country that allows grousing about the magistrate (instead of honoring the emperor as Paul and Peter teach). It’s even a free church where their views of the kingdom of grace, falling as they do outside the confessions’ precise discussion of the kingdoms, do not get them in trouble. We will continue to forebear with them even if they are not as charitable.

A Word on Behalf of the Dutch

As much as Old Life gives grief to neo-Calvinists, readers should not take this criticism as a kind of ethnocentrism in reverse against the Dutch. In fact, in the temporal kingdom, the Netherlands has many attractions. And the history of the Low Countries is fascinating if not inspiring in ways that Abraham Kuyper presented it.

Here’s proof. I am teaching a seminar this fall on place and home and am assigning Witold Rybczynski’s very good book, Home: The History of an Idea. This astute architectural historian, who used to be my neighbor back in Philadelphia, devotes an entire chapter to the Dutch home and its importance for the history of domestication. He begins the chapter this way (and look, mom, Calvinists hands are tied behind Dutch backs):

The United Provinces of the Netherlands was a brand-new state, formed in 1609 after thirty years of rebellion against Spain. It was among the smallest countries in Europe, with a population one-quarter that of Spain, one-eighth that of France, and with a landmass smaller than Switzerland’s. It had few natural resources — no mines, no forests — and what little land there was needed constant protection from the sea. But this “low” country surprisingly quickly established itself as a major power. In a short time it became the most advanced shipbuilding nation in the world and developed large naval, fishing, and merchant fleets. Its explorers founded colonies in Africa and Asia, as well as in America. The Netherlands introduced many financial innovations that made it a major economic force — and Amsterdam became the world center for international finance. Its manufacturing towns grew so quickly that by the middle of the century the Netherlands had supplanted France as the leading industrial nation of the world. Its universities were among the best in Europe; its tolerant political and religious climate offered a home for emigre thinkers such as Spinoza, Descartes, and John Locke. This fecund country produced not just venture capitalists and the speculative tulip trade, but also Rembrandt and Vermeer; it devised not only the first recorded war game, but also the first microscope; it invested not only in heavily armed East Indiamen but also in beautiful towns. All this occurred during a brief historical moment — barely a human lifetime — which lasted from 1609 until roughly the 1660s, and which the Dutch call their “golden age.” (51-52).