Abram Van Engen, an associate professor of English at Washington University who recently published a book on the intersection of Calvinist theology and politics in New England, is pleading with people not to conflate Calvinism (or, more accurately, the Calvinism of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC)) with the political positions of one Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education. Van Engen is concerned that that the mainstream media is making too much out of DeVos’s ties to the CRC and Calvin College, a private academic institution in Grand Rapids, MI which boasts both DeVos and Van Engen among its alumni. Welcome to America, where it has been a time-honored tradition since before the founding of this liberal polity to tar-and-feather Christians for their religious affiliation, only most of that was directed at Catholics and came not from the secular media, but Van Engen’s forebears. This is not to say that secularists haven’t had a field day going after Catholic politicians, judges, academics, journalists, etc. for their religious beliefs in more recent times; it’s only that it’s a tad bit ironic to find a Calvinist crying “foul!” over a tactic his coreligionists once employed wantonly.
As for the substance of Van Engen’s apologia, which has as its central thesis that Calvinists can indeed be good secularists, too, and that DeVos’s views are not necessarily a perfect reflection of the amorphous orthodoxy of the CRC, he’s probably right. Growing up in DeVos’s West Michigan, I can certainly attest that many CRC-goers are as secularized, liberal, intramundane, and materialist as the finest products of the American public-education system. The CRC, no less than other “magisterial” Protestant sects, has had no problem dialing-down its beliefs to fit with the times while turning the Great Commission into a call for social-justice action.
Consider, for instance, Van Engen’s discussion of the Reformed trope “advancing God’s kingdom.” That phrase is not a call for theocracy, Van Engen assures, but rather “a service-oriented vision of vocation.” At Calvin College “[s]tudents are called to serve, and they can serve in many ways” such as “regularly . . . work[ing] in the world for racial reconciliation. Why? Because racial reconciliation advances God’s kingdom.” Does it? Setting aside the fact that “racial reconciliation” is, at best, an ambiguous concept, there is no Scriptural basis for holding that the Kingdom of God amounts to a liberal-democratic dreamland to be established on this side of the eschaton, nor are “racial issues” (in the contemporary, secular sense) in themselves a concern of the Gospel. Yes, all men are made in the image and likeness of God, and racialism has no place in the Christian consciousness (especially since it is a modern ideological construct), but marching during a “Black Lives Matter” protest is a far cry from leading souls to Heaven.
Let me express in no uncertain terms with Van Engen’s observation that “those who pray together ‘thy kingdom come’ in the Lord’s Prayer, across many different Christian faith traditions every day, can still disagree quite powerfully about what exactly that kingdom looks like and how it comes about.” For Apostolic Christians whose horizon has not be clouded—such as faithful Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox—Christ’s Kingdom remains “not of this world”; “for we have not here a lasting city, but we seek one that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). Or, to quote from the Epistle to Diogentus, they “live in their own countries as though they were only passing through.” Whatever concerns Christians once, and always should, have with earthly cares means nothing unless it is oriented toward man’s final end, God.
In closing, I want to acknowledge that American Catholicism, no less than Van Engen’s cherished CRC, is riddled with compromises, contradictions, and outright capitulations to the liberal status quo. Many American Catholics would likely agree with Van Engen’s tactic of trying to show why being a “good Calvinist” (of the CRC variety) can mean being a “good American,” which, in the end, means being a good secularist. For shame. However, faithful Catholics can at least take comfort in the fact that the Church’s authentic doctrine is unblemished, that her true teachings on the proper relation of Church and state remain—as they say—“on the books,” and that regardless of the world’s temptations, the only true peace, joy, and happiness, like “every perfect gift,” “is from above, coming down to use from the Father of lights” (James 1:17) rather than spewing forth from the liberal ideology that dominates here below.