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Calvin And American Exceptionalism

Once an idea is unleashed upon the world, there's no telling where it will lead. That is one lesson to be drawn from studying the astonishing influence of John Calvin's theology on the subsequent history of the world. Born five hundred years ago today, Calvin deepened the Protestant Reformation by building on Martin Luther's break from Rome, formulating a sternly ascetic version of Christian piety that, as Max Weber powerfully argued more than a century ago, inadvertently laid the psychological groundwork for the development of capitalism. Others have noted the surprising ways that Calvinist ideas helped to legitimize representative political institutions. Less widely acknowledged, though no less historically significant, is the profound impact of Calvinist assumptions on the formation of American patriotism -- and in particular on the country's sense of itself as an exceptional nation empowered by providence to bring democracy, liberty, and Christian redemption to the world. It is this persistent theological self-confidence (some would say over-confidence) that distinguishes American patriotism from expressions of communal feeling in any other modern nation -- and that demonstrates our nation's unexpected but nonetheless decisive debt to John Calvin.

Early modern Christians in the Calvinist tradition strongly emphasized the absolute sovereignty of God, insisting that God ultimately controls all events in the natural world and human history. In the exacting language of the Presbyterian Church's Westminster Confession of Faith (1649), "God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest to the least, by his most wise and holy providence." The various Protestant groups that affirmed these and other similarly austere Calvinist doctrines longed to establish a purified Christian church independent of existing ecclesiastical institutions. In England, this desire placed these "Puritans" and other Christian separatists at odds with both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, resulting at several points during the late-sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in civil unrest and violent persecution.

Many of the radical Calvinists who resolved to leave England to establish colonies in the newly discovered continent of North America believed themselves to be reenacting the exodus of the Hebrews from bondage in ancient Egypt. Having freely joined in a covenant with God and resolved to build a purified church and holy city in the New World, the Puritans boarded their ships confident that the Lord would guide and protect them on their "errand into the wilderness." When William Bradford stepped off the Mayflower in 1620, he quoted Jeremiah: "Come let us declare in Zion the word of God." Ten years later, John Winthrop wrote in the midst of his voyage to America, "The work we have in hand, it is by mutual consent through a special overruling providence . . . to seek out a place of cohabitation and consorting under a due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical." Once they established the New England colonies, many of the leading Puritans became more convinced than ever that it was within their communities that the Lord would "create a new heaven, and a new earth, new churches, and a new commonwealth together."

It didn't turn out that way, of course, as conflicts and dissention within the colonies led to numerous schisms, expulsions, and the eventual dilution of the strenuous Puritan ethic. Yet the idea that the original colonists had come, with God's aid and assistance, to establish a new Israel on American shores managed to persist. Late in the seventeenth century, Cotton Mather claimed that John Winthrop had been "picked out for the work" of founding New England "by the provident hand of the most high," while William Bradford was a "Moses" who happily served as "an instrument" of the Almighty in establishing "Israel in America." Minister Thomas Thacher of Boston's Old South Church concurred with the judgment, boldly asserting that "we are the people that do succeed Israel." Clergyman and historian Thomas Prince nicely summed up the theological consensus on the topic when he observed in 1730 that "there never was any people on earth so parallel in their general history to that of the ancient Israelites as this of New England." (This was, of course, more than two centuries before the nefarious "Israel Lobby" set up shop in the nation's capital.)

Having made the basic analogy between Puritan New England and ancient Israel, some extended the comparison even further, to speculate about the perhaps decisive place of the American colonies in sacred history. In Calvinist interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, Israel was usually portrayed as a nation chosen by God to preserve his law until His Son arrived to purify and promulgate it throughout the world. Israel was thus a divine crucible and a providential conduit for the gospels. And so, it seemed, was America -- a nation chosen by God to proclaim the repristinized Christianity of the Protestant Reformation to all peoples.

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.

This confidence received an additional boost from the Second Great Awakening that swept through wide swaths of the new nation in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Many of those caught up in the intense revivalistic fervor of the time became convinced that they were living through the last days of human history prior to the advent of a thousand-year reign of Christian peace and prosperity on earth. Millennial hopes and fears left long-lasting marks on older Protestant sects (like the Baptists and Methodists) and inspired the founding of eccentric new ones (like the Mormons and Seventh-Day Adventists). But they also added an eschatological dimension to American thinking about providence. What if God had created the United States to serve as the model for millennial perfection that would prefigure the second coming of Christ? Such questions had titillated the minds of American Christians since the time of the Puritans, but they began to be posed with renewed vigor as millennial passions reached unprecedented heights in the 1810s and ‘20s.

The ideology of "manifest destiny" that emerged in the 1840s and inspired the policy of westward expansion through the remainder of the century was an outgrowth of this newly millenarian form of Calvinist providentialism. The man who coined the term, journalist John L. O'Sullivan, insisted that it was "by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which providence has given us for the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government." Decades later, after the closing of the frontier, writer Robert Ellis Thompson penned a study of The Hand of God in American History, which likewise proclaimed that from the time of the first settlements to the Spanish-American War God had "shaped the course of our national history for his own ends." It was a sentiment amplified by statesman-historian Albert J. Beveridge in a speech before the U.S. Senate in which he voiced unambiguous support for American annexation of the Philippines. As far as Senator Beveridge was concerned, God

has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adept at government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race he has marked the American people as his chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world.

Economic and scientific progress directed by God and actualized by Americans, divinely ordained political accomplishments issuing in divinely sanctioned global hegemony by the United States, and God's election of America to redeem the world -- these were the essential elements of American providence at the dawn of the twentieth century.Over subsequent decades, as the political, economic, military, and cultural power of the United States expanded beyond anyone's expectations, providential thinking continued to play an important role in defining American national identity and in setting the terms of public debate. Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy outlook, including his proposal for a League of Nations that would make possible an era of global perpetual peace, grew out of his strong faith America's providential role in the world. The World War II propaganda campaign frequently appealed to identical convictions. And politicians from both political parties regularly cast the Cold War as a quasi-eschatological conflict between forces of darkness and light -- with God clearly standing on America's side of the battle. Even Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party's answer to the "anti-intellectualism" of Dwight D. Eisenhower, spoke unapologetically in 1952 about the "awesome mission" that "God has set for us," which was nothing less than "the leadership of the free world." In more recent years, the cadences of the Calvinist consensus could be heard in Ronald Reagan's rhetorical evocations of America as a "city on a hill" and George W. Bush's frequent assurances that history moves in a "visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of liberty."

No commemoration of John Calvin's birth can be complete without recognizing this momentous American legacy. Whatever our views of American exceptionalism and its complicated human consequences, it is Calvin who deserves to be recognized as its unintended instigator.