Saturday, July 11, 2009

Calvin 500

In March, Time Magazine listed “Ten Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” Third on their list and nestled among other notions like “reinstating the interstates” was something they called “the new Calvinism.” It’s not that easy to see, however, how this old world view is somehow repackaged, alive and changing the social order as we approach the 500th birthday of its originator this July 10.

People are quick to associate Calvinism with a Puritanical sternness and a fatalistic, predestined fate, but laying aside what some would argue are distortions of Calvinism, let’s consider John Calvin the man, how he affected his world in the 16th Century, what role he may have played in how we developed as a culture and how his ideas may be affecting us even today.

Calvin was one of several 16th Century architects (though some say THE chief architect) of the Protestant Reformation. He established a body of theology and connected it to the soul of what was a fledgling Protestant revolution, documenting his beliefs in his Institutes which he wrote in 1534 at the age of 25.

In Calvinism, common labor was considered “a calling from God,” as sacred as serving as a priest or minister. Every task, no matter how menial, was accomplished with a sense of duty to mankind.

Education in Calvin’s day was limited to the aristocratic class, so he launched an academy in Geneva, Switzerland training people in whatever “God had called them to do.” It was revolutionary in the 16th century for a college to teach law, medicine, math and engineering. When Calvinism arrived in the American colonies, the first colleges – Harvard, Dartmouth, Brown, Yale, Rutgers and Princeton – were launched to train Calvin influenced teachers.

Calvin believed that the pillars of Western law, order and justice were founded in Mosaic Law, and as such engineered the codification of laws based on scripture. Influenced by Calvin, Sirs Edward Blackstone and William Coke established what we now refer to as the Common Law which later formed the basis for laws in the Colonies, and are still in application today.

Deeply rooted in Calvinism is a true love of freedom and free market capitalism. Through the hard work of one’s “calling” and the excellence pursued by the measure of a just God, common workers would invest in private capital, risk taking, personal and private ownership, while showing charity towards the poor. Wherever Calvinism spread, it was often followed by investment in capital, productivity and an improvement of the standard of living, while other parts of Europe usually were stricken by poverty under absolute monarchal rule.

Derived from the eldership model of the Bible, Calvin promoted representative government, the limitation of government power, a plurality of leadership, and branches of government with checks and balances where no one branch would rule without the symmetry and balance of the other branches, to preserve individual liberty. It is no wonder that historians like 19th Century German author Leopold Von Ranke would say that “John Calvin was virtually the founder of America,…”

Besides a change in tone and content emanating from today’s pulpits which are challenging people’s beliefs, do we not see other trends exhibiting the invisible hand of a resurgent Calvinism? What about reforms in education strategy? How about the reform and restructuring of world markets?

To cite an example, earlier this month, Boston’s Mayor Tom Menino surprised teachers and constituents by giving a powerful speech on school reform where he advocated the “transformative change” available to Boston through “charter schools.”

The zeitgeist of a new Calvinism is also subtly inspiring the work ethic of boomers, influencing them to rethink taking their retirements. A June 2009 article in the Journal of the American Enterprise Institute discusses “The Coming Entrepreneurship Boom,” which the authors claim is occurring not in spite of an aging population but because of it. We’re likewise witnessing the death throes of gigantic, bureaucratic, government protected conglomerates, like GM, which are faltering as they compete ineffectively against agile, rapidly growing and competitive small businesses.

And what about those freedom loving, empathetic Twitterers who have been overtly supporting the street demonstrations for freedom in Iran?

As we approach the celebration of the 233rd anniversary of the birth of our own Independence, we should consider that there was once another revolution that predated our own which not only had an impact on our Founders but remains active and alive even today influencing change through an emerging and new reformation resembling a very, very old one.

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