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Religion & Philosophy

The Prism of Calvin’s Political Legacy in the United States

Author: James D. Bratt, Professor of History
Posted on: Jul 7, 2009

The writers of the American Constitution were guided by the theology of Calvin and the philosophy of Hobbes.

On the contrary, they were resolute secularists who cared neither for nor about the doctrine of predestination.

The American polity grew organically from roots planted by the Pilgrim Fathers in 1621 and continued to manifest that Reformed original in spirit and shape at least until the 1960s.

On the contrary, the separation of church and state, mandated for the federal government in the First Amendment and fully realized on the state level fifty years later, was unthinkable in any Calvinist setting.

The spirit of the Puritans held sway across the American nineteenth century, as attested to by a score of foreign visitors and pioneer church historians.

On the contrary, Calvinism was unfit for the self-determining citizens of a free republic; appropriately, the youth of the United States is identified as the Methodist Age in American church history, and its industrial maturity with Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish immigration that instantiated in practice the pluralism that the founders had mandated in theory.

That all of these mutually contradictory statements are more or less true is one index of the paradoxical nature of American society. It also illustrates how challenging it can be to trace the influence of a religious tradition like Calvinism across the many twists and turns and new departures of so vast and variegated a land as the United States. Part of our response must be to take care in measurement, for sometimes the “less” in the characterization “more or less true” can be quite “less” indeed.

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