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”?)

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A Paradox Epistemology Won’t Solve

Once upon a time Andrew Sullivan edited The New Republic. Once before that time, Sullivan was a graduate student in political theory at Harvard. He was and still is a practicing Roman Catholic. He is also of English descent and gay. Those may be reasons why he spotted way back when he was a graduate student what many contemporary converts never seem to contemplate — namely, that being American and Roman Catholic are incompatible identities. The same goes for Reformed Protestants, though you’d never know about any tension between church and nation — unless the nation is blowing it — from the every-square-inchers, the neo-Confederates, or the God-and-country Calvinists who dominate mainline and sideline Presbyterian churches. But Roman Catholicism comes to the U.S. table with different bags and Sullivan understood why thirty years ago:

There was a moment on the pope’s recent visit to Chile that still lingers in the mind. Tear gas was fired into the crowd in Santiago, Rioting broke out within a stone’s throw of the altar. And John Paul II knelt to pray. Faces were turned toward him, looked up to him to take sides; and instead he proceeded to pray. The act was moving, but more important it was ambiguous. The pope’s presence alone was to measure the extent of his commitment.

Political explanations for the pope’s behavior—the advice of local bishops, his personal experience in Poland, the dangers of encouraging violence—have been offered, but they fail to capture the drama of what was really happening in Santiago. It would be better to ask why the pope was there at all. The answer is simple: the Second Vatican Council. That event, decades distant, contains the clue to the pope’s predicament. After over 20 years, the Council’s most enduring effect has been to have removed the possibility of a complete separation between the Church and the modern world
(a separation represented perhaps most clearly by the late 19th-century papacy). For the Vatican, a political engagement with the world, a compromising commitment, is in full swing. It was such an engagement that was articulated in Santiago, where the ironies implicit in living the apostolic life in the modern world were bluntly revealed.

The Second Vatican Council was aware of the risks of opening a dialogue with the modern world, though the text of its proceedings breathes an optimism now quaintly anachronistic. In its mass of documents issues were grasped with unnerving directness. Pope John XXIII’s opening address to the Council was the first papal document addressed not merely to the faithful, but to “all men of good will,” He reached out even to the Communist world, by drawing a distinction between the systems of belief that it represented and the men and structures that enforced these beliefs, “Besides,” he continued, “who can deny that those movements, insofar as they conform to the dictates of right reason and are interpreters of the lawful aspirations of the human person, contain elements that are positive and deserving of approval?”

More significant, though less noticed, was the peace that the address made with liberalism. As Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out at the time. It rather easily laid to rest the long-standing confrontation between natural rights and natural law, by conflating the two. John XXIII both asserted the necessity For “freedom” and attempted to make it compatible with the moral strictures with which natural law constrained us. Catholics had a natural right to freedom, but they were not entitled to use that right for any ends they chose. Catholics were not “free” to accumulate wealth without
limit, nor to exploit, nor to commit adultery, nor indeed to commit any sin. Yet the admonishing rhetoric deliberately suggested that they were still “free” in a modern and politically charged sense of that word. It was, it is, an explosive mix.

These overtures made sense within the historicism of the documents, especially Pacem in Terris. It talked of a “new order” in which “the conviction that all men are equal by reason of their natural dignity has been generally accepted.” This was an order as inevitable as it was largely unsubstantiated in the text. It presented an opportunity for the Church to assist in the creation of a universal common good by which nations could address one another. A notion of progress had entered the spirit of the Church, bound up with particular political structures and ideas. And yet at the same time the Church was to maintain an independence from them. In subsequent years that independence proved rather paradoxical. . . .

. . . it is argument, not assertion, that is needed for the discussion inaugurated by the Vatican Council. That discussion can no longer be wished away. And that discussion will go nowhere fast unless it acknowledges the contradictory nature of Catholicism in the modern world. This Weigel, the happy synthesizer, does not do. By declaring natural law to be compatible with America, by making the solution so comprehensive and so simple, by articulating a theory that will banish all the complexities, Weigel misses something essential in the fate of the modern Church: its uncertainty. History has not provided the Church with a comfortably Hegelian purpose by which everything has been, or will be, resolved. It has instead presented faith with a moral challenge, with a choice that includes both good and evil. Far from showing the inevitable triumph of natural law, modernity has
seen the destruction of even the concepts that make natural law thinkable again. Weigel’s confidence misses the depth of this crisis, and its consequence for Christianity. Modernity leaves Christians with a challenge to gamble. We do not know whether alliance or attack is the safest option. But we do know that escape, or a cozy coincidence of philosophical and political opposites, is no longer possible.

Weigel’s book represents just such an escape from the dilemma that Hanson’s book describes. The escape is certainly coherent; but its coherence is its flaw, since it transforms the risk of faith into a safe bet. In so doing, it obscures the essence of the Christian calling: to act in radical doubt, in the knowledge that any action, even the best intended, can be a manifestation of evil. This is the risk for the Catholic Church in world politics. It is this uncertainty that explains the anguished expression on John Paul’s face as he knelt to pray in Santiago. And it goes some way, at least, toward explaining the contemporary challenge, even in America, of the cross to which he turned.

Thanks for Nothing, Confederates

If you guys had merely held a referendum on secession instead of shooting guns, we might find Christian support for a U Sexit strategy comparable to British believers’ support for Brexit (via Chris Gerhz):

Practising Christians are the most likely among faith communities in England to support the Eurosceptic ‘Brexit’ position.

Muslims, meanwile, are the most Europhile of all the religious groups, a new survey has found.

The findings came in the new Populus Hope Not Hate survey which throws light for the first time on what different religious groups feel about the EU referendum in June.

“All the questions suggest that professing Christians are currently more likely than average to take up Eurosceptic positions, with Muslims the most Europhile,” reports religious researcher Clive Field.

Terry Teachout explains why U Sexit may be necessary (thanks to Rod):

In a totally polarized political environment, persuasion is no longer possible: we believe what we believe, and nothing matters but class and power. We are well on the way to becoming a land of jerking knees.

Never before have I felt so strongly that Americans are talking past instead of to one another. It is, I fear, our future and our fate—which is why I have come to believe that I will live to see Red and Blue America negotiate a “soft disunion.” No, there won’t be a second civil war. I can’t imagine the citizens of Blue America waging a shooting war over much of anything, least of all continued union with people whom they disdain. (Red America is a different story.) But the gap that separates the two Americas has grown so deep and wide that I find it increasingly difficult to imagine their caring to function as a single nation for very much longer. If I’m right, then I expect that they will ultimately find a more or less polite way to stop doing so.

Isn’t polarization what happens when we place personal over national identity? But just try issuing yourself a passport that will get you past customs. Not even calling the church an embassy will work:

Leeman descends from global height in his Preface to mountain-top height in his Introduction. And here, one gets a sense of his concerns. “A fundamental assumption of…many democratic Westerners, is that local churches are one more voluntary organization.” (21) In contrast, claims Leeman, “The church is a kind of embassy, only it represents a kingdom of even greater political consequence to the nations and their governors. And this embassy represents a kingdom not from across geographic space but from across eschatological time.” (22)

Isn’t that treasonous?

Serious Politics

Why does Tim Challies find this wise or insightful?

10 Guidelines for Christian Voters
APRIL 22, 2016

1) Make God’s Word your primary voting guide. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 110:105).

2) Pray before casting your vote. Ask the Lord, first, for guidance as you vote. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him…” (Prov. 3:5-6). Pray also for the candidates even the ones whom you do not like. “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:1-2).

3) Vote for a candidate who upholds Christian principles. Are his/her views on important social and moral issues biblical? Religious freedom. Will the candidate hinder you from exercising your faith in Jesus Christ, or will he/she protect your liberty as a Christian? Sanctity of human life. Will the candidate promote abortion, or will he/she fight for the sacredness of life in the womb? Marriage. Will the candidate endorse (so-called) “same-sex marriage,” or will he/she uphold the biblical definition of marriage—a union between one man and one woman only? Each candidate should be evaluated in light of these and other moral questions. As followers of Christ, we must not “give approval to those who practice” what God has declared to be morally evil (Rom. 1:32). . . .

Mass incarceration of African-Americans?

Policing and victims of urban crime?

Free trade?

Immigration?

Middle-eastern foreign policy?

National sovereignty?

This “Christian” counsel does nothing for the common good. But it is the perfect identity-politics for Christians to push back against gay or transgender or adultery advocates. Booyah!

Help From Across the Pond

Additional returns on Protestant efforts to transform culture:

Taken together, Stewart, Sutton, and Wacker offer important new perspectives on the means by which America was born again. America has become a holy nation, but those who are most responsible for it so often refuse to recognize it. But these books also suggest the extent to which evangelicalism itself has been born again. In the course of the past century, even as its cultural power steadily increased, the “old-time religion” has been revolutionized. Across the board, the doctrinal and political specifics that once shaped popular Protestantism have given way to what evangelical-turned-Catholic sociologist Christian Smith has described as a “moralistic therapeutic deism.” This religious style mimics the structure of evangelical theology while advancing only a few of its ethical demands.

Investigating this trend, Todd M. Brenneman’s Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (2014) analyses the rhetorical and media strategies of several best-selling evangelical ministers. Despite some differences, Brenneman argues, Max Lucado, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, and other celebrity preachers share a common exhortative style. Their pitch mixes ideas that are often atypical of the evangelical theological heritage in a mélange of unreason and sentiment. In their presentations, theology is reduced to clichés that reiterate the image of a “fatherly God desperately in love with his children…a God who is infatuated with human beings.” . . .

As the recent books discussed here suggest, the religious and political divisions that have so often beset born-again Protestants have become increasingly pronounced. In this era of “designer” religion, as believers become increasingly divided in their religious and political convictions, their moments of common purpose become ever more difficult to identify. Evangelical religion has won America at the price of its own evisceration. Contemporary evangelicals might have much more in common with those associated with “the heretical origins of the American republic” than they could ever have imagined. They tried to change the nation by re-inhabiting the zeitgeist, but the zeitgeist swallowed them in mid-transformation. For the evangelicals who made it all possible, the redemption of America has come at enormous cost.

Too bad evangelicals didn’t learn from Roman Catholics about the danger of identifying faith with place:

The West, still primitive, discovered through the Crusades the intensive culture, the accumulated wealth, the fixed civilized traditions of the Greek Empire and of the town of Constantinople. It discovered also, in a vivid new experience, the East. The mere covering of so much land, the mere seeing of so many sights by a million men expanded and broke the walls of the mind of the Dark Ages. The Mediterranean came to be covered with Christian ships, and took its place again with fertile rapidity as the great highway of exchange.

Europe awoke. All architecture is transformed, and that quite new thing, the Gothic, arises. The conception of representative assembly, monastic in origin, fruitfully transferred to civilian soil, appears in the institutions of Christendom. The vernacular languages appear, and with them the beginnings of our literature: the Tuscan, the Castilian, the Langue d’Oc, the Northern French, somewhat later the English. Even the primitive tongues that had always kept their vitality from beyond recorded time, the Celtic and the German [Footnote: I mean, in neither of the groups of tongues as we first find them recorded, for by that time each—especially the German—was full of Southern words borrowed from the Empire; but the original stocks which survived side by side with this new vocabulary. For instance, our first knowledge of Teutonic dialect is of the eighth century (the so-called Early Gothic is a fraud) but even then quite half the words or more are truly German, apparently unaffected by the Imperial laws and speech.] begin to take on new creative powers and to produce a new literature. That fundamental institution of Europe, the University, arises; first in Italy, immediately after in Paris—which last becomes the type and centre of the scheme.

The central civil governments begin to correspond to their natural limits, the English monarchy is fixed first, the French kingdom is coalescing, the Spanish regions will soon combine. The Middle Ages are born.

The flower of that capital experiment in the history of our race was the thirteenth century. Edward I. of England, St. Louis of France, Pope Innocent III., were the types of its governing manhood. Everywhere Europe was renewed; there were new white walls around the cities, new white Gothic churches in the towns, new castles on the hills, law codified, the classics rediscovered, the questions of philosophy sprung to activity and producing in their first vigor, as it were, the summit of expository power in St. Thomas, surely the strongest, the most virile, intellect which our European blood has given to the world.

Two notes mark the time for anyone who is acquainted with its building, its letters, and its wars: a note of youth, and a note of content. Europe was imagined to be at last achieved, and that ineradicable dream of a permanent and satisfactory society seemed to have taken on flesh and to have come to live forever among Christian men.

No such permanence and no such good is permitted to humanity; and the great experiment, as I have called it, was destined to fail.

While it flourished, all that is specially characteristic of our European descent and nature stood visibly present in the daily life, and in the large, as in the small, institutions, of Europe.

Our property in land and instruments was well divided among many or all; we produced the peasant; we maintained the independent craftsman; we founded coöperative industry. In arms that military type arose which lives upon the virtues proper to arms and detests the vices arms may breed. Above all, an intense and living appetite for truth, a perception of reality, invigorated these generations. They saw what was before them, they called things by their names. Never was political or social formula less divorced from fact, never was the mass of our civilization better welded—and in spite of all this the thing did not endure.

Who's Afraid of a Secular Faith?

Chris Gerhz is worried about Islamophobia among evangelicals in the United States:

In the 2015 edition of its annual American Values Survey, PRRI asked about a number of topics, but coming a day after multiple Republican candidates proposed that Christian and Muslim refugees be treated differently as they seek asylum in the U.S., this finding stood out:

73% of evangelicals agree that the “values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life.”

Kidd, American Christians and IslamNow, a majority of Americans (56%) feel this way, as do majorities in every Christian group. (Non-Christians and nonreligious are more likely to disagree than agree with the statement, and black and Hispanic Americans are evenly divided.) But that 73% number is ten points higher than the next most Islamophobic group (white mainline Protestants).

But he is also worried about secularization as a solution:

I almost don’t know where to start, I’m so appalled by that 73% number.

Probably the best place is to question how much evangelicals or any other Christians ought to worry about sustaining “American values and way of life.” Insofar as there’s such a thing as “national values” and they’re consistent with the values of he who is “the way, the truth, and the life,” then sure, try to uphold them. But this just makes me more concerned about evangelical susceptibility to different kinds of secularization.

One way out of the problem is at least to decouple U.S. and Christian identity. If the U.S. is not a Christian nation, then it should conceivably be open to law abiding people of all faiths. If notions of religious freedom, equality before the law, republicanism, constitutionalism, federalism, are not revealed in holy writ, then we don’t need to attach to them religious meaning or consequence. So if evangelicals abandoned Christian nationalism, if they regarded the church — not the nation — as the locus of Christian identity, they might have a different reaction to Muslims living in the United States.

And isn’t that exactly what secularity is? A recognition that the heavenly city is not bound up with the earthly city? If we can’t identify God’s way with Rome, Geneva, Scotland, or the Netherlands, then Christians should be less invested in the religious identity of civil authorities who are only temporal (read secular), that is, rulers who are provisional and not of eternal or spiritual significance.

In which case, doesn’t that make a secular faith the solution to Islamophobia? (See what I did there?)

The State of the Nation

Another round of travel allowed for more sustained sampling of the news and those matters that afflict our great pretty good land. A few random thoughts:

Forgiveness
Can Bill Cosby ever receive the forgiveness that Dylann Roof has found (at least from the AME church members in Charleston — the government of the United States is a whole lot more demanding)? And why is Cosby’s sexual dalliance and proclivity so despicable when the nation is celebrating a kind of sex that the same nation used to regard as deviant? At least if you want an illustration of God’s righteous standard, just look at the way the United States condemns/ed Bill Cosby and Joe Paterno.

Transcendent
Rachel Dolezal proves that transracial is illegitimate but Caitlyn Jenner proves that transgender is fine. But what about transnational? What if I am a Irish person trapped in an American body? Can I change my nationality? If I can’t, then don’t we have another barrier to be toppled? Or is it that the nation-state is almighty while race and gender are ephemeral?

The Nation’s Greatest Threats
I used to think that a hate crime raised the stakes of criminal activity, though I would have assumed that killing another person was hateful. After all, our Lord said that if you hate another man, you are guilty of murder. But after coverage of the the shootings in Chattanooga, I learned that terrorism is even worse than a hate crime. But the reports were not clear on the order of threats and the Department of Homeland Security has yet to rank them. Here’s an initial stab:
1. Terrorism
2. Islamism
3. The Confederate Flag
4. Hate Crimes

Blame the Victim
I’m with President Obama in trying to overturn many of the pernicious penalties associated with the War on Drugs (see, it wasn’t on the list of the nation’s greatest threats). Pardoning those sent to prison on old drug laws makes sense. But if these convicts are victims of bad legislation, is Greece also a victim of overly strict banking rules? Yet, I heard some commentators explain that Greece is truly responsible for their actions and needs to face the consequences of a bad economy and poor government. So if you can say that about a nation, why not about persons? Or might Greece plead insanity? But that didn’t work for James Holmes, who was found guilty for twelve counts of murder during his shooting spree in a Colorado movie theater.

I can only conclude that Americans are conflicted about blaming people for crimes or misdeeds, except when it comes to Bill Cosby and Joe Paterno.

How Others See U.S.

They sound a lot like U.S.

The Good:

America is a blessed nation. Visiting New York and seeing Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty is a great reminder of how much blessing has been brought to and through America. For many decades, with all its faults, the USA has been a bastion of liberty and freedom. Its hard not to love America.

The Bad:

it was an incredible experience to share with Tim Keller and Alistair Begg. God continues to bless the US with such pastors. Alistair is a gift of God, (from Scotland!) whose local church and wider ministry is a significant factor in the US Church. He has a wonderful ability to explain and proclaim the Word of God clearly. Tim is just the sharpest exegete of culture I know – the fact that he is also a superb exegete of the Bible and brings the two together is what makes his ministry so helpful to many of us beyond his own congregation. But it was not just the well known pastors. One of the things I loved about the conference was the fact that so many ‘blue collar’ pastors were there, battered and bruised, and hungry for the Word of God. I felt at home with them! I love Tim Keller and Alistair Begg, both of whom are great gifts to the Church and for me personally a great help to my ministry, but the Basics conference was not about them.

The Ugly:

We need to pray for this because all is not well in the US. Its political system is in trouble – prone to corruption, dumbing down and short termism. It is terrifying that someone with the reputation and inabilities of Hilary Clinton could actually become the most powerful person in the world – primarily because she has the backing of the corporate world which will grant her $2 billion of a war chest. . . .

All is not well in the church either. I don’t like the celebrity culture, the emphasis on money, the corporate business mentality or the view that America = Christianity. Yes much has been given to the Church in the US, but to whom much has been given, much is required. I think that a great deal of the Church in the US is self-obsessed, consumerist, dumbed down and shallow. How else can you explain a Church where Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer and Rob Bell are significant figures? But its not just the obvious false teachers. My fear is that the Church is being invaded by the culture, rather than the other way round.

So there are good celebrities (TKNY) and bad ones, exegetes of culture who don’t analyze celebrity culture. And there are good politicians — Jeb Bush? — and bad, Hilary. I was hoping for an outsider’s perspective.

Independence Day in Calvinist "Rome"

After a stimulating conference in Hungary on international Calvinism, yesterday conferees concluded their visit by taking a tour of Debrecen, the stronghold of the Hungarian Reformed Church, and the place where on April 14 (which was yesterday), 1849, the Hungarians declared independence at the city’s Great (not pretty good) Church. Here’s one account of what happened:

Hungary had been ruled successively by Turkish sultans and Austrian emperors for centuries when the 1848 upsurge of revolutionary nationalism in Europe struck Budapest, where liberty, equality and fraternity were rousingly declared, the single political prisoner left in gaol was freed (a tiresomely loquacious old soul he proved to be) and the Habsburg regime was forced to accept a Hungarian national government. The new, eighteen-year-old Emperor Franz Josef’s attempt to regain control was countered the following year by a declaration that ‘the perjured House of Habsburg-Lorraine’ had broken every tie of mutual obligation between itself and Hungary. ‘Therefore the House of Habsburg is for ever deposed from sovereignty over Hungary and declared to have forfeited the throne and to be excluded and banished in the name of the nation.’ Henceforth, Hungary was independent. ‘We inform all the peoples of the civilised world of this fact,’ the manifesto went on, ‘in the firm conviction that it will accept the Hungarian nation, as the youngest but not unworthy brother, into the ranks of independent nations.’

The proclamation’s author was a radical journalist and agitator of forty-six named Lajos Kossuth, an ardent Magyar chauvinist although himself, ironically, of mixed Slovak and German stock. The Magyars were now in the minority in Hungary, outnumbered by Serbs, Croats, Romanians and Germans, and this was one of the complicating factors in the situation. Kossuth’s political pamphleteering against Austrian rule had earned him several years in prison for subversion in the 1830s and the sentence made him a popular hero, though his opinions were too extreme for many of the progressive intellectuals of the day. Elected to the Hungarian parliament, or Diet, in 1847, and a brilliant and inspiring speaker, he demanded the removal of the dead hand of Austrian absolutism as the essential preliminary to political and social reform. Bold, magnetic, resourceful and high-handed, he was appointed minister of finance in the new national government.

When a Croat army invaded Hungary in September 1848 to restore Austrian control, the Diet appointed Kossuth to head the committee of national defence. He organised a surprisingly successful Hungarian army and inspired the mass demonstrations which propelled the remaining rump of the Diet into issuing its manifesto of independence on April 14th, 1849. The Diet now appointed him Governor of Hungary.

That act of independence hardly fixed things for Hungarians or Hungarian Calvinists in a very complicated part of Europe. But as folks at the conference learned, the Reformed churches of central Europe are alive and kicking. Even though they may not be up to the standards that Presbyterians and Reformed promote in the Land of the Free, it’s hard to blame a communion that has had to deal with the Habsburgs and the Communists. And comparisons of United States’ and Hungarian Calvinism may teach a lot about how important environments are for the fauna that bloom as Reformed Protestantism. They may even teach yet again how positive religious liberty really is even if it also means freedom for a lot of objectionable stuff. No one said it would be all good.

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.