This article was published in 1992. It was the last issue of the journal I published entitled Symbiotica. As the source of funding had dried up, I moved on to bigger and better things, namely, translating for an Amsterdam-based company by the name of Financiële Diensten Amsterdam BV.
The article explores the origins of the United States from a Christian perspective, emphasizing the ambivalent nature of the founding. This ambivalence lies in the exaltation of liberty at the expense of authority and “divine right,” or, in other words, higher law and authority grounded in a legitimacy higher than the popular will. That ambivalence is now bearing fruit in the triumph of the entitlement mentality and the humanistic rights-oriented annihilation of the rule of law.
The article now follows:
America in the Context of Christendom
© 1992 Ruben Alvarado
This edition published 2013 at commonlawreview.com
The United States of America has ever been regarded as a new departure in history, enshrouded in hope, and in promise, not only with respect to her own citizens, but to the world as a whole. America has been a symbol of all that the human race has considered good; she at least has seen herself in that light, but it is no exaggeration to claim that this perspective has been shared by many others through the time since her inception. America has been, for better or worse, the Redeemer Nation of the modern era.
There are those skeptics who consider such a claim fantastic. America is the land of mindless consumerism, of merciless competition, of the strong triumphing over the weak, of the “look out for number 1,” “me first” generation. America is the land of unbounded individual freedom, according to those who either admire or detest her for that very reason. Those who think highly of America on this account, though, are as wrong as those who thereby excoriate her. Individual freedom is not, at bottom, the essence of America.
The real America can only be seen in the light of historical fact. The reasons for the ambivalence which marks attitudes towards America can only in that light be appreciated. Such ambivalence springs partly from misunderstanding concerning what America is really all about – i.e., in what her purpose at bottom really consists – and partly from concern about the way America has gone about fulfilling the destiny for which there does exist fairly universal, and accurate, consensus. America’s legacy and America’s destiny are indeed different from those of other nations, and if the reading presented in this article is correct, they are crucially important to the progress of history. What exactly they are, though, is crucial to formulating an attitude about America. It is just this knowledge which is nearly universally lacking today, even though vague notions about it continue to stir about the collective consciousness.
Thus – to the historical facts, to which must be turned, as is so often the case for clarity on confused contemporary issues. What is America’s history? Nothing more than an extension of European history. America is the fruit of European expansion. It is also the heir of a European destiny.
Errand in the Wilderness
The enterprise of its colonization came at a crucial time. It is not coincidental that it only began in earnest as warfare convulsed the continent of Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century. The conflict of constitutional liberty vs. the absolute state which underlay this warfare was resolved, for the most part, in favor of the absolute state. Thus, the upholders of the true inheritance of Europe were forced either into submission or exile. For a good number of the exiles, America was the ultimate destination.
Although these exiles streamed in from Scotland, Germany, France, and elsewhere, Holland and England were the chief colonizers of North America. The rationale underlying their colonizing effort was the same: to counter the presence of Catholicism in the Old World and the New; to bring the Protestant gospel to America; and to create prosperous settlements which would not only bring prosperity to their patrons in Europe but also serve as models for European society seen to have veered from the right path.
Dutch Calvinism and Christian Mission
An agenda was developed over the course of the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries by colonial projectors in these countries, an agenda which reflected the strong Calvinist influence among them. With the blossoming of international Calvinism during this time there was developed a full-orbed world-view and cultural perspective, rooted in the work of the School of Salamanca in Spain; (1) this world-view is reflected strongly in the original aims and purposes of these projectors.
A good example of this was the Calvinist Willem Usselincx, a well-to-do tradesman who migrated to Holland wheile his native Flanders remained under Spanish dominion. Usselincx tirelessly pushed for the formation of a Dutch West-Indies Company which would establish permanent settlements in the New World, to bring the gospel, along with Christian civilization, to the native inhabitants. It was Usselincx’s idea that exposure to Calvinist civilization would be the best way to bring the native populations over to Christendom, and of course over to the Calvinist side vis-a-vis the Latin powers. Peaceful trade with the natives would have a better effect on them than forceful subjection: “the Indians would become more civilized and become accustomed to labor in order to enjoy the fruits of labor. This could be effected better and more capably, at less expense and perils, in times of peace than of war.” (2) In Usselincx’s view, this contrasted with the approach of the Spaniards and Portuguese, who according to him allowed the natives to remain in their dismal state, or what is worse, enslaved and oppressed them, without making any effort to improve their lot.
Usselincx the layman was accompanied in this missionary zeal by members of the Reformed clergy. The Zeeland minister Godried Udemans presented his ideas on the matter in justifying the missions of the Dutch East India and West Indies companies, delivering a positive evaluation of economic activity as conducted by God-fearing businessmen along the way. One noteworthy element of his exposition lies in his recognition of the concept of a community of nations, with freedom of trade between them being in the best interests of all. The formation of public trading companies was made necessary by the claims to world empire on the part of Spain and Portugal, supported by the Pope. Udemans pointed out the necessity of combining military, political, and economic efforts in these public monopolies in order to effectively carry out trade in a hostile environment. Things had been brought to this point through the failure of the Catholic powers to allow free trade. Udeman’s argument thus echoes that of Grotius’s Freedom of the Seas, and constitutes another expression of the theocratic jus gentium. (3)
In this connection it seems appropriate to point out the contribution of the Dutch theologian Gisbertus Voetius to the development of the Protestant mission enterprise. Voetius was a Reformed minister, theologian, and university professor, renowned among English-speaking Puritan and Presbyterian circles for his mastery of Calvinist doctrine and casuistry. The unofficial leader of the Dutch Reformed Church itself, Voetius was dubbed by his enemies, “the Pope of Utrecht” (Utrecht being the name of the city and of the university in which he lived and worked). To Voetius may be attributed nothing less than the development of the first comprehensive Protestant theology of Christian mission, developed chiefly though not exclusively in the cause of the colonial effort. (4)
The approach to colonization and missions typefied in these writers, as has been noted, followed in broad outline the agenda of the School of Salamanca. The Vitorian approach to the claims of the Papacy and the Empire, the relationship of church and state, international relations, “natural” and “spiritual” communication, freedom of the seas, freedom of trade, the rights of heathen nations, all were followed. (5) This uniformity of approach to the idea of mission and colonization was common coin to those within the orbit of Reformed Protestantism.
Virginia and Redemption History
A consistent application of the entire agenda was developed by English writers promoting the colonization of Virginia. The exposition is remarkable in its fidelity to the Christian conception of the jus gentium which was yet in the ascendancy at this time. (6)
The colonization of the New World in general and Virginia in particular was viewed as being of central importance in God’s providential plan. The New World would witness the next great act in redemption history. (7) The fact that God had left the New World hidden until this time had to do with His purpose in dividing the nations at the Tower of Babel. Rather than let them destroy each other, He created the nations and separated them so that they would have to seek each other out in future ages. He set them under his “law of nature,” which taught them to build societies and develop culture in order to sustain their lives. The creation was given to man for his sustenance, even though he abuses it in his fallen state. But because God is gracious, He still allows the heathen the blessings of some form of civil life. They retain the right to their lands, their possessions, their lives, which cannot by violence be rightfully taken away. (8)
The sunken state into which man was fallen was one out of which he must laboriously struggle. The disparate groups into which he had been divided would slowly work to reestablish a form of the unity which was lost through God’s righteous judgment. In order to facilitate this process, God scattered the fruits of the creation in different places throughout the world, so that commerce between nations would be more desirable – and salvation would follow in its wake. As Miller put it, “International trade was conceived in the bed of religion.” (9) Thus, trade was established wherein surpluses were exported, and shortages were remedied through imports; as Purchas put it, “mutual Necessitie, the Mother of mutuall Commerce,” was decreed by God “that one should not bee hungry, and another drunken, but the superflueitie of one Countrey, should supply the necessities of another, in exchange for such things, which are here also necessary, and there abound.” In this manner mankind again became one body, “each communicating with other for publike good.” God had brought Columbus on the scene only when Europe had already been fashioned, through commerce, into a single economic community, and the Europeans had the technical ability to maintain overseas trading networks. (10)
But this was not all; it was much rather the lead-in to the main event: the prosecution of the Christian mission. As Miller describes it,
Then, because one of the parties to this commerce conducted according to the law of nature happens to be a Christian people, the crowning touch in God’s intricate scheme is applied: as they go forth to trade and colonize, Christians automatically carry the Gospel with them, and when mankind has been once more united by the merchants, it can be made one in profession by the preachers. (11)
This gave the entire rationale for economic enterprise. The pursuit of profit was to be conducted as a prolegomena and a support for spreading the gospel and building the church. Wrong motives would lead to God’s curse, just as right motives would bring His blessing. Christians had no dispensation from the laws of the creation; they had to work by the sweat of their brow, just like pagans did. What Christians did have was the opportunity to make wise use of these laws, in full knowledge of what they were about. The promise of economic reward was God’s way of encouraging them to obedience. Virginia was a rich land given in covenant to the settlers; their obedience would bring blessing. (12) The promise was “an example of that sweete sanction of the law, when the Lord doth allure men to keepe it, by the abundance of his blessings.” (13)
The agreement between this view of the colonization effort and that developed by Francisco de Vitoria and the School of Salamanca is readily observable. International trade has a fundamental role to play in God’s purpose for the nations, as a lead-in to the spread of the gospel and the Christian church. Vitoria spelled out this agenda with his exposition of the rights of natural and of spiritual communication. It was the rise of mercantilism in the seventeenth century, which went hand in hand with the triumph of absolute monarchy and the sovereign state, which worked to eliminate this Christian-theocratic understanding of the law of nations. But, as I am emphasizing here, the theocratic agenda played a crucial role in the colonization effort in the New World.
New England and the Renewal of Christendom
Nowhere did the consciousness of Christian mission reveal itself more fully than in the colonization of New England. Here the idea was to escape the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War on the continent, and of Stuart tyranny in England, in order to establish a society in which the ideals of the Reformation could be further realized.
New England, as founding father John Winthrop declared, would be “a city on a hill,” a shining example to Europe of what the Reformation was really all about. It would represent fulfillment of the Reformation, and would produce the cream of the crop of international Calvinism. Indeed, in the perspective of its founders, it was never meant to take on a separate existence but simply to serve as one element of a multi-pronged strategy to free Europe from the clutches of Jesuits and Hapsburgs.
Miller has emphasized this underlying agenda:
. . . Winthrop and his colleagues believed fully in the covenant [with God], . . . because they could see in the pattern of history that their errand was not a mere scouting expedition: it was an essential maneuver in the drama of Christendom. The Bay Company was not a battered remnant of suffering Separatists thrown up on a rocky shore; it was an organized task force of Christians, executing a flank attack on the corruptions of Christendom. These Puritans did not flee to America; they went in order to work out that complete reformation which was not yet accomplished in England and Europe, but which would quickly be accomplished if only the saints back there had a working model to guide them. (14)
It was tyranny, ecclesiastical and political, against which the Reformation was directed; it would be liberty, ecclesiastical and political, which would be established in the New World through the efforts of these saints. “This errand was being run for the sake of Reformed Christianity; and while the first aim was indeed to realize in America the due form of government, both civil and ecclesiastical, the aim behind that aim was to vindicate the most rigorous ideal of the Reformation, so that ultimately all Europe would imitate New England.” (15)
Land of the Free
To the great consternation and eventual disillusion of the original founders (and those who later remained faithful to the original ideal), New England never became that model for European society it was originally designed to be. It rather began to take on a life of its own, much as its sister colony, Virginia, did to the south. The “holy commonwealth ideal” gradually lost its grip on both rulers and ruled in New England. (16) The high pitch of religious fervor could not be maintained among successive generations which were never exposed to the kind of persecution and religious warfare to which Reformed Protestantism had been over the course of the first half of the seventeenth century. (17)
It would be wrong, however, to think that this “errand into the wilderness” was a failure, even from the perspective of the original founders. Apart from the narrow objective of planting a pure and incorruptible society on those far shores (a project ever doomed to failure this side of eternity), which they did not succeed in achieving, they did achieve a broader objective: establishing the basis for a society which continued the medieval constitutional tradition which was undergoing such fundamental corruption on the continent. In other words, the Christian jus gentium found new lease on life through its transplantation to new soil. (18)
The Classless Society
This is evident, first of all, upon examination of the institutions for secular life. They seemed to grow spontaneously in the new climate, on their own account, as it were, almost apart from any deliberate effort to establish or encourage them. An environment in which everything had to built from the ground up – no ready-made “establishment” was there to acquire and bend to one’s interest – and a predisposition, on the part of newcomers, to start from scratch, selectively implementing their European heritage, combined to ensure the erection of a new and unique society, a society fundamentally different from Europe’s, but taking forward elements of equally fundamental importance from Europe. America was, simply put, the anti-Baroque version of European society.
This new society, as was quickly discovered, was not to be grounded in class distinction, rank, and hierarchy, but rather upon mutual cooperation in providing for mutual needs. The Old World system of rigid compartmentalization into professional and occupational monopolies could not be established, although it was here and there attempted. Scarcity of labor, abundance of land, the lack of a developed division of labor encouraged the settlement of a yeomanry with many skills and broad experience. The frontier required those of an adventurous spirit and adaptable character, unafraid of the unexpected, capable of facing the responsibility of carving out a place for oneself in a society in a state of cultural infancy. (19)
Self-Reliance: the Communitarian Individual
A basic trait of Americans, therefore, was a spirit of self-reliance. That one could trust in his own efforts to provide for oneself, that one work so as not be a burden to others, or to be continually bailed out or saved from the tasks, the burdens, and responsibilities of adult life – this became a basic element of the American psyche. To be independent, to make one’s own way in the world, to be one’s own master with respect to the larger society, this was what it was to be an American.
It is a mistake to confuse this spirit of self-reliance with one of egotistical individualism. The ideal of self-reliance was never meant to be realized in a state of isolation. Self-reliance referred to the ability to support oneself in society, not out of it. Self-reliance is an affirmation of community in that it affirms life in community and makes life in community possible through the cooperative effort of free men. Not that this was an affair of men apart from women, either: the term “men” is used as a generic description of human beings. Men and women worked together; free men needed free women. What this meant was that the family was the fundamental social institution; it made self-reliance possible. A single person, male or female, was almost never capable of an independent existence in this society. Individuals were always attached to families. The marriage bond created an economic entity; marriages were founded primarily on the basis of a couple’s readiness and willingness to work together. The self-reliant society was built of such families.
De Tocqueville’s comments are illuminating in this connection. (20) He writes of how on the one hand American women exhibited more independence of character, and enjoyed more freedom before marriage than was the case for their counterparts in Europe; and on the other hand, how they considered it no degradation to submit to the headship of their husbands upon marrying. For De Tocqueville, the key to the paradox lay in the voluntary nature of this submission: “No American woman falls ito the toils of matrimony as into a snare held out to her simplicity and ignorance. She has been taught beforehand what is expected of her and voluntarily and freely enters upon this engagement. She supports her new condition with courage because she chose it.” (21) And although the occupations in which men and women worked were different, and an equality of competencies was denied between them, the fundamentally equal value of their occupations and their abilities was affirmed. The realm of feminine occupation was domestic, that of masculine, the public arena; but in a world in which the propertied household was the central unit of culture and economy, domestic engagement meant far more than it would come to mean in the twentieth century. De Tocqueville’s conclusion should not be disregarded:
As for myself, I do not hesitate to avow that although the women of the United States are confined within the narrow circle of domestic life, and their situation is in some respects one of extreme dependence, I have nowhere seen woman occupying a loftier position; and if I were asked, now that I am drawing to the close of this work, in which I have spoken of so many important things done by the Americans, to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply: To the superiority of their women. (22)
Family and Property
Families, then, were established upon property – real property: land, house, tools, storefront, whatever the means of production might be for the particular calling engaged in. The protection and preservation of property was universally acknowledged as one of the chief aims of political society. Again: this not out of a spirit of selfish individualism, but out of the recognition that property ownership was indispensible to the realization of an independent existence in society. It was family and independence which made property an indispensable element of the social order.
Freedom of Association
Upon this basic foundation of family and property, the principle of free association provided Americans with the means to obtain the benefits of ordered cooperation apart from the guiding hand of central government with its established professionals in guilds claiming a monopoly of competence. Freedom of association became the backbone of American social life, a fact brilliantly brought out by de Tocqueville. As he described it:
Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or the man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association. (23)
According to de Tocqueville, it was this penchant for forming associations which enabled Americans to combat the selfish individualism which he saw as an ever-present danger to their society. Associations replaced the class structure of Europe as the means of ordering society effectively. De Tocqueville summarized his view of the importance of this associational life in three pithy sentences:
In democratic countries the science of association is the mother of science; the progress of all the rest depends upon the progress it has made.
Among the laws that rule human societies there is one which seems to be more precise and clear than all others. If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased. (24)
Not only did associations frame social life, but they also effectively channeled political activity. Civil (private) associations and political (public) associations were mutually reinforcing. While in Europe, the formation of associations for some political end was often looked upon with suspicion by the government as a form of conspiracy against the public interest, in America it was considered healthy in that the same people who formed political associations were active in private life undertaking enterprises which required stable government for their success. Political associations were a seedbed of civic responsibility in that through them the people put into practice the rights and responsibilities of active citizenship; through them as well, they learned how to function as active members of group life. Political association, which most citizens engaged in out of personal interest in government, had the effect of preparing citizens for activity within private associations, for it taught them the skills necessary to successful participation. (25)
Sacred Cause or Sacred Cow?
The trademark, then, of American society was the concept of liberty: the triumph of freedom over tyranny. The American ideal formed the antithesis to the idea of order which gained the ascendancy in Europe. American ideology was grounded in the concept of liberty, and its institutions were legitimized in terms of their capacity (whether actual or perceived) to foster and further the ideal of liberty. The roots of this ideal, as has so far been emphasized, lie in the Christian-theocratic tradition of the jus gentium; but, as history, by the providence of God, is the product of sinful men, the course of events in eighteenth century America took the tradition of liberty down a path deviating fundamentally from its original.
The King That Could Do No Right
The “sacred cause of liberty” came to fullest expression in the War of Independence (1776-83) in which thirteen English colonies became full-fledged, independent, sovereign states. The roots of this revolution were similar to those of which underlay the wars for constitutional liberty against absolute monarchy in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was ironical, however, that the revolt was actually conducted against the English Parliament and not the English king. The contradiction in which republicanism was involved on this point, in which kingship itself was seen as the source of the problem, and that the removal of kingship was the solution, was never satisfactorily cleared up; the revolution went forward, as the ideology demanded, not against Parliament, but against George III. America’s Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson and signed on July 4th, 1776, made this quite clear: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let the facts be submitted to a candid world . . . .” At which point, 17 separate charges are laid directly to the King’s account.
Thus, kingship was the avowed enemy, and representative government, the solution. Representative government guarded the liberties of the people; kingship spoiled the people’s liberties and made them slaves. This was the ideology of republican liberty as it had been developed in the Netherlands and in England in the seventeenth century and was carried forward by American patriots, especially Thomas Paine (who would so prominently figure in the ideological defense of the French Revolution as well). It was, clearly, not necessarily Christian; in fact, for reasons which shall be explored below, its war against kingship easily merged with a war against orthodox Christianity itself. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense (published in January 1776), a model of this sort of republicanism, did more than anything else to crystallize revolutionary opinion in the colonies, (26) steering it away from a reliance upon historical rights and liberties towards a natural rights basis.
Kingship was the root of all evil; Parliament was corrupted through its dependence upon the king; liberty could be established only through the establishment of a thoroughgoing representative and popular government, with no individuals or families elevated to a position of hereditary or dynastic prominence. This was the goal of America’s war of independence, ironically achieved in no small measure with the help of monarchical, aristocratic Bourbon France. But with independence came a host of problems the likes of which the new states had never before had to face. The element which had bound the former colonies together was common subjection to the English crown; the necessities of war had held them together in the face of that crown; with the evaporation of these two elements, the new states, bound together in the Articles of Confederation (1781), found it difficult to accomplish anything in the way of common policy.
The Unavoidable Solution
What was needed, many thought, was a new national government which could bind the states together through central administration. Unity could only be achieved through central government: this was the monarchical principle in disguise. But, of course, nearly no one wanted a return to monarchy (with the exception of arch-centralist Alexander Hamilton, and even he had his doubts). What could be done?
The solution was provided in large part by “the angry young man” (27) James Madison. The states would be bypassed, as well as the Congress, even the Articles of Confederation, through a direct appeal to the People. The direct connection between individual and central government, through national representation, formed the key to creating a new focus of allegiance which would supersede allegiance to the individual states. The Constitution of the United States, ratified in 1789, was the culmination of Madison’s agenda.
Alexander Hamilton, along with Madison one of the chief spokesmen of the Federalist party which championed a strong central government, knew what needed to be added to this new form of government in order to enable it to maintain national unity: mercantilist economic policy, a central bank, central planning – in short, ultimate control of the economy by the state. His agenda generated vehement opposition on the part of most Americans, who saw him as betraying the very essence of American liberty. Quite so; Hamilton nevertheless recognized a basic truth. Liberty is an insufficient basis for national unity; order is quite as important to its achievement. The balance between order and freedom, authority and liberty, had to be struck, and in a popular democracy it can only be struck through the instruments of fiscal and monetary policy. Not coincidentally, these institutions were developed not under monarchical but under popular regimes. (28) Although Americans would have it differently, time has demonstrated that they have not been able to endure without importing these instruments, even in the very teeth of their stated beliefs. “But though the American future might belong to Hamiltonian practice, it belonged to Jeffersonian ideology.” (29)
Theocracy vs. Centralized Government
Significantly, these institutions would develop under the same regimes in which orthodox Christianity and the Christian church were being denied an independent role in the public life of the nation. With ratification of the U.S. Constitution, freedom of religion was transformed into religious pluralism: the myth of neutrality became established at the heart of the American democracy. This achievement went hand in hand with the bypassing of the individual states and their constitutions, most of which had established orthodox, Trinitarian Christianity as the religion of the state (without denying the denominational principle). The direct appeal to “the People” made by the Constitution made was not simply a way of going over the heads of the individual states; it was a way of going over the head of the Triune God. This was achieved in the last section of Article Six: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” (30) Gary North explains the significance of this clause in his crucially important book, Political Polytheism: the Myth of Pluralism:
We must understand what this means. It means that civil officers are not under an oath to the God of the Bible. It means that in the exercise of their various offices, civil magistrates are bound by an oath to a different god. That god is the American People, considered as an autonomous sovereign who possesses original and final earthly jurisdiction. This view of the sovereign People is radically different from anything that had been formally stated or publicly assumed by previous Christian political philosophers. The People were no longer acting as God’s delegated judicial agents but as their own agent. (31)
The tradition of Christian constitutionalism was denied by violating the rights of the intermediate political bodies (states’ rights) as well as in denying the sanctioning, sovereign authority of the Triune God in Christ. (32) It was a convenient way for a leadership which had lost its faith in the Christian God to nevertheless establish themselves in positions of supreme authority over a new nation as yet unsure of its very existence. What is remarkable is that the American people actually went along with it. “A great reversal in the legal structure of the nation took place when the Constitution was ratified, and this is revealed by the alteration of the oaths required to hold representative (hierarchical) office. A great change in public thinking also took place subsequent to ratification.” (33)
This position, actually, was inherent to that of the budding evangelical movement as manifested in the so-called “Great Awakening” of the mid-1700’s (with reprises through the nineteenth century). A strongly anti-clerical, anti-ecclesiastical, and antinomian Christianity steadily gained ground in all denominations, which generated an inclination toward a separatist approach between church and state. This kind of Christianity among the broad reaches of the American population went hand in hand with the cultured skepticism of the elites; both together spelled the end of Christianity as a public-juridical religion. (34)
It is apparent when comparing the American heritage with the legacy of the theocratic jus gentium that fundamental elements of continuity are mingled with sharp discontinuities. America is the “land of the free,” as her national anthem puts it; it is, however, a freedom heavily compromised and fundamentally flawed. Freedom on a humanistic basis is an absolute freedom, and it leaves the door wide open for the savior state to come in and rectify its abuses through the humanistic concept of control. Humanism is marked by this basic dialectical relationship between absolute freedom and absolute control. (35) The social contract is an attempt to reconcile these two: individual rights (freedom principle) vs. the common good (utility principle). America is caught up in this dialectic, just as are all the other Western democracies. America still has a fundamental, a crucial, role to play in the world today, because America is uniquely the heir of the legacy of Christian liberty, a legacy which in Europe was more or less done away with through the triumph of absolute monarchy. It is for this reason that the world continues to look to America to give leadership and direction; it is for this reason as well that America comes in for so much criticism from the other nations of the world. This criticism stems from envy of its preeminent position, no doubt; but it also stems from deep disappointment in the lack of strong, clear, and genuinely righteous leadership from a country of which so much is expected.
But how much could ever be expected from a modern democracy anyway? They are founded on inherent contradictions: they are divided against themselves. Their contradictions were taken on when they decided to post-Christianize themselves. And thus their quest for liberty, prosperity, and peace continues to come to grief, although by the grace of God progress (how is it still possible?) can yet be discerned. Democracy is having to discover the hard way the path so carefully laid out so long ago by Christian constitutionalists, the shapers of the jus gentium, the founders of the true law of nations. (36)
True progress, of course, lies in recovering and reinvigorating that tradition. That is, it lies in repudiating the course taken with the ratification of the U.S. Constitution; secular humanism, it must be said, has proven to be a dead end. American presidents are fond of repeating the claim, “America is great because she is good.” Maybe so; but good by what standard? And how can a “Redeemer Nation” carry on without acknowledging the Redeemer?
1. In many ways, Calvinism constituted the fulfilment and culmination of the work of the School of Salamanca. The “School of Salamanca” is the rubric under which Francisco de Vitoria and his followers were identified. For more on this school and its relation to Calvinism, refer to some articles previously published in Symbiotica: “Vitoria’s New World Order” (I,3) and “Nationhood and the Future of Europe,” parts 1 & 2 (I,4; II,1).
3. For more on Grotius’s work, see my article “Two Kinds of Democracy,” in Symbiotica, vol. II, no. 2 (Spring 1992), pp. 8ff. Not much in English exists concerning Udemans. For short surveys of his work, see Simon Schama, The Embarassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (New York: Knopf, 1987), pp. 330-1; Jelle C. Riemersma, Religious Factors in Early Dutch Capitalism, 1550-1650 (The Hague: Mouton, 1967), pp. 67, 81, 84; C.R. Boxer, The Dutch Seaborne Empire, 1600-1800 (London: Penguin, 1988 ), p. 127.
4. Jan A.B. Jongeneel, “Voetius’ zendingstheologie, de eerste comprehensieve protestantse zendingstheologie,” in J. van Oort et. al., De Onbenkende Voetius (Kampen: J.H. Kok, 1989), pp. 117ff. This fact belies the oft-repeated claim of evangelicals that prior to William Carey and the rise of the “modern” missions movement, Protestantism had no vision for mission work in the strict sense, apart from colonization.
6. The following description is taken from Perry Miller’s article, “Religion and Society in the Early Literature of Virginia,” in Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1956), pp. 115ff. Miller there sketches an outline of Samuel Purchas’s Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrims (London, 1625; Glasgow, 1905-6), I, 1-45, XIX, 218-67), which argument I reproduce here.
17. The recently published volume International Calvinism: 1541-1715, ed. Menna Prestwich (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985) gives a detailed overview of the course of international Calvinism during this period, not only from the familiar perspectives of Geneva, England, Scotland, and the Netherlands, but also from the crucially important areas of France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Bohemia and other parts of Eastern Europe. One good reason why one thinks only of the first-named series of countries in connection with Calvinism is that only in those countries did Calvinism manage to maintain itself as a viable cultural force. However, prior to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), Calvinism was a vibrant force in all these areas. The Thirty Years’ War is of crucial importance because through it Calvinism was effectively extinguished on the continent.
18. This is not to say that the project was an unmitigated success, especially in terms of the jus gentium which, it is argued here, was the unwritten constitution of the new land. Doubts arise most seriously with reference to the treatment of the various tribes of American Indians. If there were failures here, they were failures in terms of that jus gentium, and as such do not bring into question the enterprise of colonization itself, but rather the way in which colonization was carried out. The theocratic jus gentium spelled out in clear terms the rights of all peoples, including those of the Indians. The unfortunate circumstance was that the Christian churches were rendered more or less powerless to hold secular rulers to account in terms of a higher standard of justice. The abandonment of theocracy (whose further implications will be discussed below), contrary though it may sound to modern ears, meant also the abandonment of the rights of non-Christians in the face of humanist Europe.
20. Alexis de Tocqueville was a French nobleman and a keen social commentator, whose remarks remain relevant to this day. He toured the United States on French government business in the early 1830’s; while there, he gathered information for a study of American democracy. The result was Democracy in America, a two-volume effort which has stood as a landmark of sociological insight ever since its publication (the first volume was published in 1835, the second in 1840).
25. Ibid., pp. 123ff. The affinities between de Tocqueville’s remarks concerning American associationalism and the associational theory of Johannes Althusius are striking, and thus serve to highlight the continuity between these traditions in Europe and America. However, see n30 below.
26. Richard L. Perry (ed.), Sources of Our Liberties: Documentary Origins of Individual Liberties in the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights (Chicago: American Bar Foundation, 1978), pp. 315-316.
29. J.G.A. Pocock, “The Varieties of Whiggism from Exclusion to Reform,” in Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 273.
32. It is crucially important to note the difference between the kind of federalism advocated by Christian constitutionalists such as Johannes Althusius, and that put forward in the U.S. Constitution. The former, in the tradition of medieval Christendom, is built upon lesser associations, meaning that the relation between the individual and the sovereign authority is mediated through a hierarchy of intervening structures of authority. The latter, on the other hand, seeks to avoid them through establishing a direct relation between individual citizen and central government. It is no coincidence that the former also recognizes the public role of the church, while the latter rejects such a role. The church mediated the relationship between ruler and ruled in Christian constitutional tradition, and fostered the formation of an associational society; in a modern democracy such as was established by the U.S. Constitution, there is no mediation between ruler and ruled, only a direct confrontation between them. For more on Althusius’s constitutionalism, see my article, “Nationhood and the Future of Europe: Part II,” Symbiotica, v. II, no. 1 (Winter 1992).
35. This opposition forms a continuing theme in the works of The Dutch Calvinist philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd. He terms it the nature/freedom ground motive (nature=control). For a good summary statement, see his New Critique of Theoretical Thought, (Jordan Station, Ontario, Canada: Paideia Press, 1983 ), part I, pp. 190ff.