Thomas Jefferson was involved in producing the Constitution of the United States. Fortunately, he left us clear writings as to the meaning of the Establishment Clause—the clause that forbids government involvement in religious matters that would mean government showing favor to one religion over another.
Our neighbors “across the pond” often write to us to express their amazement that while their church is very much part of their state institutions, it is hardly a force of any consequence, whereas in the U.S., they hear we have actually undertaken an experiment in secular government, but are inundated by religious influence and intrusion to a degree they find unbelievable and shocking. They ask “why?” We answer, “we’re not entirely sure.”
I don’t know what makes one state-involved religion relatively benign—as is the case in some modern European nations—and what makes religion a force for death and human rights abuses in some other regions of the world. But I’m willing to wager that if a definitive answer to that question is ever found, it will involve quite a lot about paranoid fear and also something about religious fundamentalism, which is involved with feelings of near certainty in the face of inconclusive—someone less generous might say “ridiculous”—evidence to support unjustified conclusions. Actually, this attitude is often the root of paranoid fear. We have all observed, as well as heard, that “the truth has nothing to fear from investigation.” But poorly justified “truth,” has a great deal to fear from free inquiry and open debate; and, so, protecting such “truth” actually requires some level of suppression of evidence and contrary thoughts. And when I say “some level,” with regard to protecting religious ideas, I shouldn’t need to explain what “levels” that includes.
The “wall of separation” was described early on by a Baptist, Roger Williams. He viewed the wall as a protection of private practice of religion. And, no doubt it does protect religious freedoms—which many religious people daily demonstrate they are either unable or unwilling to understand. Later, the “wall” was described by Jefferson to mean religion’s influence in politics—a prohibition against religious involvement on the secular side. Really, these are not two sides of a coin, but two ways of describing one side only: No religion may call “shotgun.” They must all ride in the same seat as far as the government is concerned. The problem, missed by many, is that in a world where each person carries their own personal and unique concept of “god”—you can’t so much as pray to a “god” with governmental endorsement without stepping on some toes—not merely those of the godless, but those of other religious people as well, who don’t share your personal views on religion. For example, what of those who would pray to the “gods,” instead? It really is best for everyone—religious or not—to allow free private practice and not issue government decrees or endorsements of anything regarding religion or religious worship, whenever it is not an absolute dire necessity to intervene against oppression, both on behalf of religious citizens, as well as on behalf of those they have been known to oppress.
Recently, and unsurprisingly, the SBOE in Texas decided to downplay Jefferson’s role in American history, and include, rather, a list of others who influenced American history and thought, including one, John Calvin, who was a man, among many others, involved in the Reformation. First let me say that there is no doubt the ideas of the Reformation—of which Calvin was certainly a part—have influenced American thinking in the realm of religion to this day. There is some suggestion he also influenced capitalism and democracy, although whatever his idea of “democracy,” it would have clashed considerably with just about everything represented by our Constitution, if his actions and writings constitute any indication. Still, I must admit that, religion being the powerful mechanism it surely is in the U.S. today, impacting religious thought is no small matter. I think it’s fair to say religion in our country would not be what it is today without Calvin’s influential ideas within the Reformation. However, to read that as complimentary would be to miss my meaning entirely.
Some of Calvin’s fine thoughts still in circulation include the following:
1. God’s absolute sovereignty:
Just as the Taliban promotes, whatever your god asks you to do, obey without question—no holds barred. And frighteningly, just like the Taliban, Calvin believed that anyone who didn’t accept the “truth”—as he understood it—deserved execution. Free speech? No. Open, public dialog and debate? No. Capacity to criticize religious thinking? Again, no. Just as, for want of a sense of humor, a rabid mob of Muslims became intent on murdering a Dutch publisher, Calvin saw little reason to allow anyone to criticize what he knew was god’s intent here on Earth—and live. In fact, in response to a fellow theologian’s criticisms, he wrote:
“Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here, but I will not give my word for if he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive.” (1)
For the record, we get a lot of “ravings” e-mailed to us at AETV. But I have yet to hear anyone involved with our program suggest, even as a joke, that we ought to consider silencing these people for eternity. Honestly, they are some of the greatest sources of humor on the list—if, perhaps, not also somewhat tinged with a sad and pathetic quality. Pity and humor seem a more appropriate response to “raving” than murderous impulses.
But back to Calvin, who, it turns out, was able to make good on his word. Servetus—who was a man of some scientific accomplishment in addition to a theologian—was burned at the stake—along with his books, it should be noted—for “heresy.” Ironically, put to death by Calvin’s supporters, who were, as labeled by a differently thinking church authority, simply another brand of “heretic.” And also ironically for one of his ideas being that infant baptism was incorrect—a position most protestants would today agree with. When Servetus was facing trial, and possible death, for his ideas, Calvin compassionately wrote:
“I hope that sentence of death will at least be passed on him; but I desired that the severity of the punishment be mitigated.” (2)
By “mitigated,” Calvin did not mean sentencing Servetus to 100 hours of community service instead. He meant that he preferred beheading to immolation. And he demonstrated this preference as well when he consented to the beheading of Jacques Gruet. To be fair to Calvin, though, Gruet was guilty of having written a letter which, I’m sure it was demonstrated, “threatened god,” as well as god’s emissaries here on Earth. And there can be no doubt of Gruet’s guilt, as he made a full confession—under torture.
2. Total depravity of the human condition:
The Wikipedia entry states: “The term ‘total’ in this context refers to sin affecting every part of a person, not that every person is as evil as possible.”
I’m grateful to have this clarification. Just so we are all on the same page, it’s not so much that human beings are totally evil, as that every part of every human being is polluted with evil.
This doctrine is, itself, perhaps arguably, the most “totally depraved” contribution to the world stage religion has ever supplied us—especially as it is taught to children as soon as they’re able to grasp the concepts involved. For one person to believe such a ludicrous and dysfunctional concept about himself would be merely shocking. For many to believe such a thing undermines humanity and society, and can only be combated with as much real education as we can unrelentingly hurl at it.
Like many marketing schemes, religion invents a problem, exaggerates it to frightening proportions, applies it to as many as possible (in this case everyone), then sells the solution at a hefty individual and social price. The problem it invents in this case results in mistrust of one’s corrupted self, of all one’s corrupted neighbors, and even of one’s corrupted children and parents. And when an idea like this catches fire, anyone who rejects it can only be suspect of being so utterly corrupt they cannot see their own corruption. That person—the one saying humans are basically alright for the most part—becomes, unbelievably, the threat to social harmony and cohesion. What a backward and perverted social perspective. But yes, it certainly has influenced American culture, I must sadly concede.
Predestination is not, strictly speaking, “determinism.” However, they have a bit in common. If anything drives unavoidable fate, it is determinism. If god drives it, it’s predestination. There is certainly an irony to theists who accept this doctrine claiming that without god they would have no reason to go on living. But beyond the humorous aspects, the obvious problem in this idea is that anything and everything that occurs can be defended with divine preordination—from 9-11 to any dictator’s divine right. Combine this with number 1 above, and you have the perfect recipe for brutal politics. And I daresay that number 2 only functions to dismiss critics of the institution produced by 1 and 3, out of hand.
Calvin had all sorts of other wonderful and interesting ideas, including some about Jews, which his supporters can only defend by saying he may not have been as bad as some of the other anti-semites of his day. Still, it isn’t exactly anything to brag on:
“I have had much conversation with many Jews: I have never seen either a drop of piety or a grain of truth or ingenuousness—nay, I have never found common sense in any Jew.” (3)
My main objective in all of this is to demonstrate that a man like Calvin would openly oppose our current Constitution in the U.S., where we actually allow open public dialog and debate, and we allow free and unhindered expression of religion—by anyone, no matter what they believe, or don’t.
As I have admitted already, we have examples of the church and state living, relatively speaking, harmoniously in some regions of the world. However, we have other examples where church and state, relatively speaking, demonstrate lethal and oppressive combinations. And in those states, what do we see? We see staunch believers who adhere to the three Calvinistic concepts listed above, for which the man is most remembered. Considering the continued efforts of Christian fundamentalists—admittedly influenced by Calvin—to affect political power in this nation—why on Earth would anyone assume they’re not interested in religious impositions upon society? What would be the basis for assuming this well organized group of religious zealots is fighting for political influence with the noble goal of preserving a religious freedom we already enjoy—rather than a goal of imposing religious oppression by instituting self-serving, government-sanctioned religious privilege?
By all means, feel free to teach children about Calvin and Calvinism and his influence on American thinking in our schools. Be sure to teach them, as well, how extremely lucky we are that Calvin’s relaxed attitudes with regard to comingling religious and state authority, to purposeful deadly effect, were ultimately not embraced by this nation. In fact, they represent, eerily and precisely, the same views driving the terrorist actions with which we are waging war in the world at this moment: God is sovereign and demands the death of anyone who criticizes Him or His messengers.
I wonder whether that will be included in our new Social Studies Curriculum Standards here in Texas when Calvin is mentioned? Like the fundamentalist-groomed children in science classes “challenging” overwhelming scientific consensus, one wonders whether free-thinking children will raise a hand to ask whether it is, in fact, true, that Calvin promoted executing people for expressing their ideas and questions? And, if so, isn’t it rather a boon that we escaped a number of the man’s toxic political influences, if not his religious ones?
I’m happy to say the church in the U.S. no longer burns people who don’t agree with them. But it is impossible to miss that this protection is offered, thankfully, by secular laws imposing on religiously prescribed dictates, rather than any divine prohibition. It is, in fact, quite fortunate we did not take our cue from the Bible—or Calvin’s view of it—when it came time to author our national laws and Constitution.
Thankfully reason prevailed, once again, over religion. But the price, as always, is eternal vigilance.
(1) Drummond, William H. (1848). The Life of Michael Servetus: The Spanish Physician, Who, for the Alleged Crime of Heresy, was Entrapped, Imprisoned, and Burned, by John Calvin the Reformer, in the City of Geneva, October 27, 1553. London, England: John Chapman. pp. 2.
(2) Calvin to William Farel, August 20, 1553, Bonnet, Jules (1820–1892) Letters of John Calvin, Carlisle, Penn: Banner of Truth Trust, 1980, pp. 158–159. ISBN 0-85151-323-9.
(3) Lange van Ravenswaay, J. Marius J. (2009), “Calvin and the Jews”, in Selderhuis, Herman J., The Calvin Handbook, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., ISBN 9780802862303 (translation from the Dutch, Calvijn Handboek, 2008 by Kok, Kampen).