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John Calvin and the Supreme Court

American political life is so awash in the veneer of Christian piety that we hardly recognize the abnormality of the situation or the corruption of both church and civil society that ensues. Would be court prophets abound of every theological stripe, eager to trade theological and biblical integrity for the glamour of associating with the political class. And politicians readily shroud their self-interested agendas in prayers and pieties as vacuous as the incessant “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America” that concludes most political rhetoric these days. Inconvenient prophets are quickly discarded and discredited; witness the speed with which Obama fled Jeremiah Wright when the preacher spoke the truth about America’s idolatries and then refused to be silenced or handled by the candidate’s “religious advisors.” Jesus is invoked at town meetings when zoning matters are to be discussed, while drone strikes killing alleged terrorists along with the almost inevitable “collateral” victims are launched without benefit of clergy (though no doubt forthcoming memoirs will document “deep spiritual soul searching”).

Most days I long for far less of this sort of religion in the political sphere. But there are times when I’m tempted to think that a tougher Calvinist vision reminiscent of our Puritan forebears might be useful. For much of what passes for religion in general and Christianity in particular in the public spaces these days is naively optimistic about the human condition, devoid of the Calvinist notion that there is an “inherent corruption of our natural gifts,” leaving in place some capacity for reason to “distinguish between good and evil,” but ultimately leaving the human will “depraved,” and in “misshapen ruins.” (Institutes, Book II, Chapter II, section 12). Evil, greed, and self-interested behavior are seldom seen by us to be deeply woven into the fabric of our lives (at least American lives), but is rather assumed to be an aberration when it appears, and often dismissed as foreign or imported.

This innocence about sin and naivete about the need for appropriate restraints is stunningly evident in recent decisions by the Supreme Court. Note the questionable assumptions underlying much of what we have seen emanating from the nine judicial sages:

  • American individuals and institutions have grown beyond our historic racism enabling affirmative action initiatives in higher education to be discarded and safeguards for ensuring voter rights to be eliminated.
  • Unfettered spending in political campaigns will lead to a flourishing of free and healthy political speech rather than corrupting our political processes with wealth.
  • Americans will use their right to bear arms in prudent ways that protect themselves and our most vulnerable citizens.
  • And most recently, Americans will be so sensitive to the religious pluralism of our society that prayers at public meetings will always demonstrate respect for persons of multiple faiths or of no faith.

All of this, of course, displays a remarkable trust in human nature, all of which is not only highly selective of the religious texts we claim to honor, but also in denial of facts verifiable by careful and even casual observation. Diversity on campuses is diminished where affirmative action is scrapped. Voting rights are limited where federal oversight is eliminated. Unregulated firearms flood our streets, making owners and innocent citizens alike far less safe.

This week’s Court decision allowing self-regulated prayers at government meetings in Greece, New York, displays a similar naivete. As Justice Kagan argued in her dissent, assumptions about some inherent willingness by the majority to respect the minority are ill founded:

In arranging for clergy members to open each meeting, the Town never sought (except briefly when this suit was filed) to involve, accommodate, or in any way reach out to adherents of non-Christian religions. So month in and month out for over a decade, prayers steeped in only one faith, addressed toward members of the public, commenced meetings to discuss local affairs and distribute government benefits. In my view, that practice does not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.

No doubt most Christians in this country celebrate the Court’s decision, a decision that ironically denies or ignores a core insight of their faith, not to mention empirical evidence, and will likely end up promoting the direct violation of the “original intent” of the framers of the Constitution.

I am no more interested in making Calvinist Christianity the state religion of our nation than I am of enshrining atheistic ideologies of one sort or another in the public domain. Our history has been a model for how a secular state has allowed personal and corporate spirituality to blossom and contribute. But the Puritans did bring with them a important reminder that a healthy distrust of human nature is in order, and that appropriate public restraints and encouragements (Calvin’s “Second and Third Uses of the Law”) are vital not only for protecting the interests of the minority, but for the flourishing of the whole.

John H. Thomas
May 8, 2014

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