“Open Thy Hand Wide”: Moses, Calvin & the Origins of American Liberalism

This morning I saw that Al Mohler–a prominent spokesperson for what is called conservative evangelical and, most interestingly for the purposes of this discussion, Reformed, Christianity had shared a short piece in the National Review with the alarming subtitle:

“Schools see it as their job to make kids reject their parents’ conservative values.”

The author, Dennis Prager, is perhaps not known for moderation in his opinions, but I found the piece a fascinating example of exactly the kind of polarization in thinking that Marilynne Robinson describes in the introduction to her book The Death of Adam, a collection of essays that all

“assert, in one way or another, that the prevailing view of things can be assumed to be wrong, and that its opposite, being its image or shadow, can also be assumed to be wrong. They undertake to demonstrate that there are other ways of thinking, for which better arguments can be made.”

In the post, Prager pits equality against liberty, a “secular America” against a “God-centered one” and “multiculturalism” against a “unifying American identity.” His values–and those of his readers–are the older, more traditional values. He assumes that one either must regard America as

 ” ‘the last best hope of earth’  or else little more than an imperialist, racist, and xenophobic nation.”

It is notable that the article is titled “Conservative Parents, Left-Wing Children,” as if “liberal” were too kind a word to apply to these prodigals. Re-reading Robinson’s When I Was A Child I Read Books recently, I enjoyed her discussion of the term as it occurs in English Puritan translations of the Bible, and in Puritan thought more generally.

“in Renaissance French, liberal meant ‘generous,’ and of course the word occurs in the English Puritan translations, the Matthew’s Bible and the Geneva Bible, which were followed in their use of the term by the 1611 Authorized [King James] Version.”

Robinson, who is well-known as an admirer of John Calvin’s who just so happens to have read the man’s works carefully and extensively (perhaps exhaustively), argues that the concept of ‘liberality’ comes from Deuteronomy 15:13-14 and is “central to American social thought from its beginning.”

She quotes Calvin’s sermon on that text:

“If we thank God with our mouthes, confessing that it is he which hath blessed us, & in the mean while make none account of such as he has sent to doe us service in the increase of our living, by taking paynes and toyle for us; all our thanking of him is but lip-labor & utter hypocrisy.”

and again on the question of begging and provision for the apparently unworthy:

“if a man forbid begging, & therewithal doe no almes at all it is as much as if he did cut the throtes of those that are in necessitie. Nay, we must so provide for the poore, and redresse their want, that such as are stout beggars and apparently seeme not to be pitied may be reformed.

We do this not because they are deserving, Calvin says, but because of the image of God in them. From Calvin’s Institutes: 

“The Lord commands us to do ‘good unto all men,’ universally, a great part of whom, estimated according to their own merits, are very undeserving; but here the Scriptures assists us with an excellent rule, when it inculcates, that we must not regard the intrinsic merit of men, but must consider the image of God in them, to which we owe all possible honor and love.”

Robinson then shows how John Winthrop, in his famous address to the newly arrived Puritans in Massachussetts in 1630 (“A Modell of Christian Charity”) makes a similar argument for generosity, and how that man known little more than for one fiery sermon, Jonathan Edwards, made a similar case again, going further to insist that

“The proper objects of our liberality are not limited to ‘those of the same people and religion’ [yea, a plea for tolerance and multiculturalism from this “intolerant” Puritan father!?] because ‘our enemies, those that abuse us and injure us, are our neighbours, and therefore come under the rule of loving our neighbours as ourselves.”

Edwards, like Calvin and Winthrop, insist that there can be no exception or excuse to liberality. Edwards, in a most un-libertarian fashion, even says that relief provided “by the town” (of which he does not, apparently, disapprove) still does not excuse the Christian from her obligation. Here is Edwards:

“[I]t is too obvious to be denied, that there are in fact persons so in want, that it would be a charitable act in us to help them, notwithstanding all that is done by the town.

Nor is there any sense that charity is only for those who are completely destitute:

“It does not answer to the rules of Christian charity to relieve only those who are reduced to extremity.”

Finally, Robinson again:

“There is clearly a feeling abroad [in that National Review piece!] that God smiled on our beginnings, and that we should return to them as we can. If we really did attempt to return to them, we would find Moses as well as Christ, Calvin, and his legions of intellectual heirs. And we would find a recurrent, passionate insistence on bounty or liberality, mercy and liberality, on being kind and liberal, liberal and bountiful…[t]hese phrases are all [Jonathan] Edwards’s and there are many more like them.”

So going back to where I started–that “Reformed” Christian leader’s recommendation of the piece that urges a return to “Judeo-Christian” and “traditional American” values, I can only paraphrase the inimitable Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride:

“You keep using those words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean.”

And that probably goes for those who’d claim the label ‘liberal’ but who see religion–and especially Christianity and certainly people like John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards–as enemies of their cause. I suspect that the truth may be far less easily divided along ideological lines.

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Evangelicals Divided Over NYC’s Move Toward Government-Funded Rat Contraceptives

The National Institutes of Health has just given the company Senestech a grant of $1.1 million as its owner, Loretta Mayer, works to figure out a way to get New York City subway rats on the Pill. Subway rats, says Mayer, can find solid food easily, but are constantly on the search for liquids. Paul Jones, the manager of NYC transportation authority trash disposal, notes that rats, like most New Yorkers, crave caffeine; their favorite drinks, according to Jones, include Red Bull and (what else?) lattes. Soon there’ll be something else on the menu of the underground cafés that are the subway system: birth control smoothies. Mayer’s company is tweaking the formula to appeal to New York rats’ palates; while Asian rats have taken their birth control with shots of roasted coconut, dried fish, and beer, New York City rats seem to prefer pepperoni.

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It has set off a firestorm of controversy, coming in the wake of Mayor Bloomberg’s unsuccessful shame-campaign against underground rat pregnancies. One poster shows a hairless rat pup, its face contorted with grief, with the caption, “I’m six times more likely to get crushed by the 7 train because you had me in the subway!” Other rat constituents expressed frustration over the proposed bans on sweet beverages larger than 16 ounces. “That Bloomberg,” fumed one midtown rat, “does he even realize that by cutting into the humans’ freedom to super-size, he stops that trickle-down by which we rats survive?”

Handed down from City Hall, the rat contraceptive mandate has ignited even more ire from many different quarters. The Catholic Archdiocese of New York condemned the move, and many prominent evangelical rats have joined them–as Amy Frykholm points out in the Christian Century, evangelical rats appear to be “more in tune with Catholic teaching than Catholics rats are.” Many have declared it a question of religious liberty. “Health officials in China have been giving rats food-flavored birth control pills for years, and Joe Biden actually sympathizes with this campaign of forced sterilization,” says one evangelical leader who asked that he not be named. “Is this really the model we want to follow?”

“The effective separation of rat sex from rat procreation may be one of the most important defining marks of our age—and one of the most ominous,” says Albert Mohler, president of the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention. The New York Times quoted Mohler warning evangelical rats to be wary of the “contraceptive culture,” which regards baby rats as “impositions to be avoided rather than as gifts to be received, loved, and nurtured.” Mohler insists that people and rats of conscience must protect the freedom of rats follow the command—or blessing—in Genesis: “be fruitful and multiply.”

Meanwhile, there’s another issue that many people of faith haven’t considered: the fact that the rat contraceptives may, in fact, prevent a fertilized egg—a tiny rat embryo—from implanting in the mother rat’s uterus, meaning that what’s happening looks to some more like an early abortion than contraception. This potentially ‘abortifacient’ effect bothers the consciences of many, who insist that the difference between contraception and abortifacient is crucial: “It’s an important distinction, both linguistically and scientifically,” says Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University and a contributor to both the Atlantic and Christianity Today, who also serves on the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States: “Whatever ambiguities persist around the rat birth control smoothie in its various flavors, it’s time to start facing them honestly,” she wrote in The Atlantic.

While most evangelicals are at least able to agree upon condoms as a morally licit choice in family planning, male rats are not eager to accept them, complaining that the barrier method interferes with intimacy. Enter Bill Gates, who recently announced a startup grant of $100,000 to the person who designs “the next generation rat condom that significantly preserves or enhances pleasure” and promotes “regular use.” If successful, the measure would not only prevent unintended rat pregnancies, but also help prevent the spread of infection.

Still, people of faith are divided. While some evangelicals are weighing the possible merits of making contraceptives available even to unmarried rats, others, like Matthew Lee Anderson, argue that the move would be a concession that evangelicals should simply not be willing to make, suggesting that it moves against a “consistent biblical ethic of sexuality”; this puts him at odds with the National Association of Evangelicals, which stated that “while we never want to promote or condone sexual immorality among rats [,] we are told that contraceptives can reduce abortions and we want to stop abortions.” Jenell Williams Paris, professor of anthropology at Messiah College, agrees: “Churches discussing contraception with single rats isn’t about giving up. It’s about being in a relationship with them.”

Tim Keller, of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, simply urges more Christian rats to move into the city in order to be a part of shaping rat culture. “We must love the rats of our cities,” he said, “because in the cities you can influence the rats that have the most impact on the world; the rats that shape culture.” Perhaps that is the most hopeful way forward—through loving engagement and honest dialogue over pepperoni (or coconut and dried fish) smoothies—whatever our various convictions on contraception, or the politics and policies surrounding it.