What The Economist Gets Wrong About Calvinist Baptists

Today is the 504th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin (July 10, 1509) -- and the 497th anniversary of misunderstanding Calvinists.

To commemorate the event, let's look at a recent notable example provided by The Economist. The article is out-datedly titled, "Dippers divided" and the subhead is "Where evangelicals disagree." Where evangelicals disagree, apparently, is on whether to maintain,

the "theocon" alliance in American politics between Catholics and evangelicals, who have set aside their doctrinal differences (over the Virgin Mary, for example) to take a joint stand against abortion and in favour of the traditional family.

What could be causing the rift between Catholics and evangelicals. According to The Economist, the alleged culprit is Calvinists in the Southern Baptist denomination.

. . . the effectiveness of the Catholic-evangelical axis may be compromised by a deepening ideological fissure within the evangelical camp; or more specifically within America's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, which has about 16m members.

Broadly speaking, the difference is over whether Jesus Christ died to save mankind as a whole, or sacrificed himself only for a particular group of human beings, the elect, whom God had chosen in advance. The latter view is associated with John Calvin, the French reformer of the 16th century; critics find it too fatalistic, and inconsistent with the idea of a loving God. Taken to its logical extreme, some say, Calvinism can lead to an introverted, exclusive mindset: if most of humanity is irrevocably damned, what's the point of engaging with the world?

Who is this "some" who "say?" Probably the same "some" who claim that premillennial dispensationalists (who are rarely, if ever, Calvinists) also believe that if most of humanity is irrevocably damned (see: the Left Behind novels), there is no point of engaging with the world. Of course, these same groups -- Calvinists and dispensationalists -- are frequently portrayed as also wanting to create a theocracy in America, so who knows what to believe. The "some" have a tendency to "say" contradictory things.

The Economist adds,

The perceived leader of the Calvinist camp is Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He has helped to ensure that many of the young Baptist ministers now starting their careers have a Calvinist way of thinking. In many cases they are out of their step with their flock, and that can lead to stormy pastoral situations.

Change the opening "The" to an "A" and that paragraph is mostly right -- predicated on the "Calvinist way of thinking" being actual way Calvinists think and not the caricature presented earlier. A few more paragraphs detail some of the controversy over Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention. The reporting on the controversy is rather uncontroversial, until they slip in the F-word:

Neither party will have the slightest truck with liberal ideas. But even among fundamentalists, there can be hard arguments over what the fundamentals are.

So now the opposite of theologicaly liberal is "fundamentalist" rather than, say, theologically conservative? Ugh. You already know what we at GetReligion think of that term so I'll let that slide without further comment. Now back to the Calvinism:

Will the outcome of this argument make a difference to anybody outside the world of Baptist theology? Yes, because as well as being hard-line over salvation, the Calvinists oppose any blurring of the boundaries between Christian denominations. So there are limits to their willingness to co-operate with higher-church Christians. "The Calvinists have a very anti-Catholic theological stand," I was told by David Key, director of Baptist studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology.

Mr Mohler, for example, responded to the general excitement over the election of Pope Francis by recalling that evangelicals utterly rejected the Catholic idea that the pope was Christ's vicar on earth. In another statement, he said that Catholics and evangelicals might still agree on sexual and reproductive issues, but he also stressed that evangelicals could not accept the validity of the pope's office.

Let's examine some of the many confusions in those two short paragraphs. First, Calvinists do not oppose "any blurring of the boundaries between Christian denominations" because Calvinism is not a denomination. Calvinism is a theological system that crosses numerous denominational boundaries; you can be a Calvinist and be a member of a "low-church" denomination (e.g., Southern Baptist) or you can be a Calvinist and a "higher-church Christian" (e.g., Anglicans). Second, the limits to Calvinists willingness to co-operate with Catholics is almost purely on a theological level. But this is a trait shared by all Protestants. That's why we're called Protestants.

The Economist assumes that disagreements about theological matters (e.g., the validity of the pope's office) will cause conservative Calvinist evangelicals to refuse to work with conservative Catholics on social and political issues. Obviously, they are unaware that this is the exact opposite of what most Calvinist evangelicals believe.

Within evangelicalism, the use of the term ‘co-belligerence' was popularized by the Calvinist intellectual Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer, whose influence on evangelical politics is incalculable, emphasized the importance of activism that leads neither to compromise nor separatism because of theological differences. As Schaeffer once wrote, "A co-belligerent is a person with whom I do not agree on all sorts of vital issues, but who, for whatever reasons of their own, is on the same side in a fight for some specific issue of public justice."

Indeed, this view is not only shared by many evangelicals, it is the exact same position taken by Dr. Mohler. Here is Mohler's own words:

. . . with the cultural challenges now before us, Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox should stand without embarrassment as co-belligerents in the culture war. The last persons on earth to have an honest disagreement may also be the last on earth to recognize transcendent truth and moral principles—even the sanctity of human life itself.

This quote is from an essay Mohler published in the the ecumenical(!) journal Touchstone titled "Standing Together, Standing Apart: Cultural Co-belligerence Without Theological Compromise." The date: July 2003.

Francis Schaeffer, the godfather of the Religious Right, wrote about co-belligerence 33 years. Albert Mohler, the "perceived leader of the Calvinist camp", wrote about co-belligerence 10 years ago. For Calvinists, the concept of working together with Catholics goes back more than 400 years (Calvin himself worked with the French Catholic Inquisition on the Michael Servetus heresy trial). In other words, Calvinism is likely to have the exact opposite effect that The Economist seems to think it will have.

This is an embarrassing unforced error by one of the world's most esteemed newspapers.* But other journalists can learn from their mistake and can avoid such shame-inducing gaffes by using a technique that has worked for four centuries: When you want to know what Calvinists think, ask them.

*For historical reasons The Economist refers to itself as a newspaper. Since Carter's Rule of Religious Labels states that "Use a religious label a person would use to describe themselves and avoid using ones they would not," I figure a similar principles should apply to publications.

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