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Friday, September 20, 2013

A Review Of Calvin And American Exceptionalism

For the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's birth, Damon Linker wrote an article for the New Republic titled, Calvin And American Exceptionalism. Noting the contributions attributed to Calvin regarding Capitalism and representative government, Linker focussed on how Calvin contributed to the Americans' sense of their own uniqueness and mission.

According to Linker, the link between Calvin and American Exceptionalism has to do with two main ingredients: an already special sense of self or one's group demonstrated by his followers who came to the New World and God's providence. That special sense of self started with the Puritan's mission to create their own purified Church and society and, in my opinion, possibly something like Calvin's Geneva. It was there that the Church was not only concerned with purifying itself, it wanted to thoroughly cleanse all of society as civil government provided a source of additional discipline to bolster Church rule. Evidence showing that the Puritans imitated Calvin and Geneva here came in their treatment of witches and some other denominations. Quakers, for example, were initially persecuted and even martyred by the Puritans.

So when the Puritans and other Christian sects arrived in New World, they saw themselves as the New Israel, partly for their exodus from England, and they trusted that God would establish them. Linker traces this back to Calvin's view of the Old Testament. For the Puritans, their view of their mission in believing that God was creating in them a "new heaven, and new earth." Thus, they believed that America was God's chosen instrument to bring the Protestant Gospel to the world. But as the Puritan religious influence waned, Linker noted that trust in God's providence in maintaining America and its role of being the New Israel were maintained.

However, Calvin's influence here received a shot in the arm through the Great Awakening according to Linker. He notes that there was a change in the people's perception of God's working providence. The people began to contrast themselves and who they were with those in Europe who were experiencing many troubles. Americans wanted to be seen as providing an alternative to tyranny. The colonies became a place for "political and religious" freedom. Here, we should note that if those who came over from England were being influenced by Calvin to create a pure church and society, we have to ask, because Linker did not, whether this change was due to following Calvin. For though he did not have strong feelings about the organization of society, he favored aristocracy to a democracy. In addition, becoming a place of political and religious freedom seems to break from the model set in Calvin's Geneva.

According to Linker, Americans maintained their belief in God's providence and their belief that they were the New Israel only the mark of this Israel became their unique free government. This belief in themselves was strengthened by the Second Great Awakening. It was with this Second Awakening that Americans combined eschatology to their view of providence by wondering if they were to be a "model for millennial perfection." Linker states that this new millennial ingredient along with the continuing belief in God's providence helped spark Manifest Destiny.

According to Linker, as America continued to progress, the inevitability and dominance seen in Manifest Destiny acquired a larger scope. Thus we American hegemony and the purpose of this global form of Manifest Destiny was to redeem it.

In a short article, Linker does us a favor. He helps us discover the roots of American Exceptionalism and there is a link between this exceptionalism and Calvinism, though there seems to be a stronger link between this American concept of its own uniqueness with Calvinists who adapted and accommodated to a new world. 

We should also note, remembering Chris Hedges' link between idolatry and self-worship, that much, if not most, of what we know as American Exceptionalism is a product of a people's self-image than Biblical teaching. Being exceptional was what Americans, starting with the Puritans, claimed about themselves. And we should ask if the mission they accepted as their own was why they saw themselves as being special and above others. For if this is the case, might we conclude that many of the early references that our forefathers made to God's providence also reflected more on how they thought of themselves than their faith in God.

There is a very rewarding secular motive for thinking of one's own group as being exceptional. That motive would be the permission one gives oneself to assume privileges over others. However, if one is on a mission from God, one's control and acquisition of what belonged to others could now be justified rather than cause for disturbing the conscience. And if this is the case with our forefathers and American Exceptionalism, we have to wonder if Calvin would rejoice in this distant descendant of his. For we should note that this belief in being exceptional has made those not in the in-group pay a very high price.


2 comments:

Bill said...

Very well said. It's good to see that some are aware of and pursuing the origins of the notion of "American exceptionalism". It's been disheartening to see that concept being increasingly embraced these days. A doctrine that permits a group to assume privileges over others (as you well say) can come at a high price to those deemed unexceptional.

Curt Day said...

For as long as the people who pay the highest price for our pursuits are invisible, we say, What, me worry?. Meanwhile, what is hidden from sight, perhaps by design, is our selfishness.

BTW, our leaders use this mission from God based exceptionalism as a marketing tool for American pursuits. I doubt that they need to go through any gymnastics to resolve guilt for the high price others pay for their policies.

It good to see others who are saddened by America's presumptuous practices and policies. Thank you for visiting the blog and commenting.