The Calvinist Roots of American Anti-Intellectualism

EJ Spode
27 min readFeb 12, 2024

By EJ Spode.

People love to argue about the worst column Tom Friedman ever wrote, but for my money, Friedman’s worst was always his 2002 column, “An Islamic Reformation,” in which he opined that what the Arab world needs is “Islamic Protestantism.”

The funny (and/or) depressing part of that column wasn’t the idea of Tom Friedman telling Muslims what to do with their religion (although that certainly is funny and/or depressing). Rather, the crazy part was Friedman’s idea that the Protestant Reformation in Christianity brought about religious moderation or thoughtfulness or open-mindedness. To the contrary, the Reformation was an open revolt against the Renaissance, against science, against any form of culture, activity, and political or scientific thought that was not directly and irreducibly grounded in some religious leader’s (Calvin’s) literal reading of the Bible. It had no truck with religious freedom, and its penalties for going off program only involved decapitation if you were LUCKY. More likely, you would be burned at the stake.

Famously, Voltaire wrote about Calvin and the theocracy he established in Geneva (and about Luther and the reformer Zwingli, who set up a similar operation in Zurich), “If they condemned celibacy in the priests, and opened the gates of the convents, it was only to turn all society into a convent. Shows and entertainments were expressly forbidden by their religion; and for more than two hundred years there was not a single musical instrument allowed in the city of Geneva.”

In this Voltaire was being uncharacteristically restrained. Not only was instrumental music banned, but so was all secular music, all plays, all unapproved literature, all dancing, and all singing in harmony. Yes, whether sinfully bad or sinfully good, harmonic singing was even banned in church.

While it is always good fun to ridicule a Tom Friedman column, I was shocked to subsequently learn that other people thought his idea made perfect sense, not least of which was the omnipresent Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who defended the thesis in her 2015 book in Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. In her view, Islam needed the equivalent of our Protestant Reformation because, as she put it, the Reformation had brought about “the liberation of the individual conscience from priestly authority” and thus “opened up space for critical thinking in every field of human activity.”

I began to wonder: Were she and Friedman really this astoundingly ignorant of the Protestant Reformation in Christianity? Were they also ignorant of the effects of the Reformation in American culture today?

The sanitized story about Protestantism that has been passed down to us is that it represented a revolt against corruption in the Church and brought a focus on Biblical writing rather than Church traditions as a source of authority. And it was indeed about those things. Partly. But more than that it was a revolt against an idea, espoused by Saint Aquinas, that we can come to know nature without the aid of religion (in the insider terminology, we can understand nature without the help of grace). The idea that part of the world that could be known and understood without aid of religion helped ignite the Renaissance but was an idea that Calvin in particular could not tolerate. In his view, separation of grace and nature would lead to no end of troubles; every aspect of our lives (science, culture, etc.) needed to be brought under religious control.

Calvin’s views about science, for example, are perhaps best illustrated in his thoughts about the heliocentric model of the solar system, which he paused to address in his “Sermon on 1 Corinthians 10:19–24.”

“We will see some who are so deranged, not only in religion but who in all things reveal their monstrous nature, that they will say that the sun does not move, and that it is the earth which shifts and turns. When we see such minds we must indeed confess that the devil posses them, and that God sets them before us as mirrors, in order to keep us in his fear.”

What makes this interesting is not that it tells us something about the deep dark history of the Reformation. What makes it interesting is that those very same dark impulses and ideas have survived and have been embedded within American Protestantism and within American culture more generally. In the early part of the 20th Century — beginning with the Scopes Monkey Trial — the movement began to metastasize and began to exercise its natural anti-intellectual proclivities in the culture at large. As with many forms of cancer, this one metastasized slowly, and it’s growth went largely unremarked and unnoticed… until now. And now? Now it is serving as the driving engine in the rise of American anti-intellectualism, and, if you bother to look at actual details, you come to understand quite a bit about contemporary American culture.

For example, this lasting imprint of Reformation thinking explains the rise of dominionist/reconstructionist religious movements and their political agents (e.g. Ted Cruz) and it provides the epistemology that has fueled American anti-intellectualism (e.g. the rise of George W. Bush and Sarah Palin and the Texas textbook wars). It explains America’s fact-resistant public discourse that has percolated all the way up to so-called liberal media like the New York Times and NPR. And oh yeah, it even explains Donald Trump. But all that comes later. First, we need to take a trip down the memory hole.

When the Reformation theologians took control of Geneva, it became a theocratic nightmare that would have made even the strictest Islamic Statists blush. Yes, some historians have argued that Calvin’s Geneva was not, strictly speaking, a theocracy, but it is hard to imagine what hairs had to be split to reach that conclusion. By 1555, after Calvin had defeated the “Libertines”, all biblical sins were categorized as crimes in the city, and they had the biblical punishments to match. Adultery was punished with the death penalty, but with a certain sense of Protestant panache. Whereas in Christian Constantinople the executioner sewed his victims in a sack, to hide them from the light, in Geneva, they threw them into the river with their eyes open, both for the edification of the adulteress and that of the spectators.

An early (1850) Calvin biographer (Paul Henry) remarked approvingly on Calvin’s plan for the moral upbringing of Geneva’s children.

“There is great beauty in the earnestness with which the authority of parents is defended. In the year 1563, a young girl who had insulted her mother was kept confined, fed on bread and water, and obliged to express her repentance publicly in the church. A peasant boy who had called his mother a devil, and flung a stone at her, was publicly whipped, and suspended by his arms to a gallows as a sign that he deserved death, and was only spared on account of his youth. Another child in 1568, for having struck his parents was beheaded. A lad of sixteen, for having only threatened to strike his mother, was condemned to death; on account of his youth the sentence was softened, and he was only banished, after being publicly whipped, with a halter about his neck. [p. 361]…”

You might try to cast theocratic Geneva as simple 16th Century religious exuberance, and yes, I suppose you could SAY that. The problem is that this movement (and it’s exuberance) never went away but merely went into hiding. Beginning with the Mayflower, the Reformation’s more enthusiastic followers made their way to American shores, where they sought religious freedom… for themselves if not exactly for anyone else. Radical Reformationism embedded itself in this newly invaded land, and, apart from the occasional moral panic and witch trials, it successfully passed as the sort of religion that might coexist with ideas like Democracy and science and culture. Mostly.

In the early 20th Century — in the wake of Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” and our new understanding of where we came from and where we stand in the Universe — most American seminaries began to try and come to grips with these new discoveries. Creation narratives would need to be understood in a new, metaphorical, way. Attempts were made to help us to use Christianity to help come to grips with our new understanding of ourselves and our goals and responsibilities in such a world.

This liberalization of American theology met with resistance, and some Reformed theologians ended up leaving established seminaries. Whether they were purged or just left to escape all the liberalism depends on you ask and, honestly, doesn’t really matter. Our story concerns two Reformation theologians who would be the key to the growth of fundamentalist thinking in American seminaries and Evangelical universities: John Gresham Machen (1881–1937) and Cornelius van Til (1895–1987).

[van Til and Machen on left]

The first move was by Machen, who left the rapidly liberalizing Princeton Theological Seminary to form Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. The seminary was designed to teach Reformed (Calvinist) and “Orthodox” Presbyterian theology. Although tiny, the seminary was profoundly influential and spun off numerous other seminaries and students that would be influential in the Evangelical/Reformation movements in the United States.

Machen, who also formed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, was progressive in some respects — he believed in the separation of church and state, for example — but that part of the doctrine began to unravel quickly at Westminster (perhaps unsurprisingly given that Calvin himself set up his a theocracy in Geneva).

The main point of departure from Machen’s “liberalism” came from the theologian Cornelius van Til (1895–1987). Like Machen, van Til left Princeton Seminary and came to teach at Westminster, where he taught for over 40 years (retiring in 1972). van Til was a giant in evangelical thinking; his influence on evangelical Christian thought has been compared (by evangelical scholars) to the influence of Immanuel Kant on secular thinking. Think about that for a second.

The route to understanding van Til involves understanding his epistemology (his theory of knowledge) . van Til held that knowledge cannot come to us via rationalist or empirical methods (or any combination of the two). The only real route to knowledge is via adopting a Biblical Christian worldview and accepting the basic dogmas of Christianity.

What is the argument for this position, you ask? Well, if you are on the outside, there is no direct argument for the view. The position only makes sense from the inside. More, specifically, on van Til’s view, everyone starts with their own presuppositional framework. That presuppositional framework might be a Cartesian framework, or an Enlightenment framework, or a Christian one. van Til argued that discourse across different presuppositional frameworks was impossible. In this sense, there is a strong Calvinist assumption that one is “chosen” (by God) to a particular framework.

However, these presuppositional frameworks are not all equal (or at least from the internal Christian perspective they are not). Only one of them is true; only one allows the possibility of knowledge, and it is not the Renaissance framework or the Enlightenment framework. Similar to Marx’s claim that the state is the sole repository of truth, on van Til’s view, the (Reformed) Church is the sole repository of truth.

But the Church is not merely the sole repository of truth. It is also the sole repository of “rational thought” period. Thus, van Til argued that rational thought is only possible within the framework of Christian presuppositions.

This idea is tied up in the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity; sin makes it impossible to reason clearly. When man fell in the Garden of Eden, it was not just man’s ethical will that fell — his intellect fell too! It follows (once you drink the Kool-Aid) that all rational thought presupposes a belief in the basic tenants of Christianity. To put it bluntly, if you aren’t the right kind of Christian you can’t be rational.

Now I want you to kick back a bit and fire up that thinking pipe of yours and give this a ponder for a moment. It isn’t just that man is flawed or wicked or something. The idea is that rationality — the capacity for thinking itself — requires that people be in step with Fundamentalist Christian teachings. Anything that is not driven by those teachings is not merely wrong — it is straight up irrational nonsense.

van Til also argued that the Church was the sole repository for law and morality. This is the doctrine known as “theonomy” — in contrast to “autonomy” — the idea is that moral laws can only come from God, they cannot come from man or exist independently of God. Thus the only genuine moral law was Mosaic Law — the Ten Commandments and other elements of Old Testament law. Any other law or ethical principles would be pseudo laws and principles. This is why, for some Evangelicals, it is a BID DEAL that monuments to the 10 Commandments be in our courthouses and schools.

As we will see in a bit, van Til’s ideas are wired into the DNA of the evangelical Christian community and are taught widely in Christian seminaries and colleges. If you went to an Evangelical Christian college, chances are that you had a teacher that was either trained by van Til or a student of van Til and almost certainly every professor you had rests somewhere in the van Til intellectual genealogy.

Given Van Til’s idea that The Church is the sole repository of knowledge, reason and morality, you might think that he would take the next step and argue for some form of theocracy. He did not do so, however; he did not advocate that a Christian government was mandated. Not surprisingly, a number of Evangelical Christians have wondered why van Til did not make that next, very obvious step.

One astoundingly important Christian thinker, Rousas John Rushdoony (1916–2001), took van Til’s ideas to their obvious conclusion. Rushdoony received a BA in English from Stanford in 1948 and a Masters degree in education in 1950, but he was largely self-taught in the topics on which he wrote. He read very broadly in philosophy and wrote a number of books and essays that were clearly philosophical in scope and aim. His first book, By What Standard?: an Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius van Til, was a work on epistemology, grounded in van Til’s work.

Rushdoony, taking van Til’s ideas to their logical conclusion, reasoned that secular attempts at acquiring knowledge were not merely resulting in failure — they were resulting in sinful, invalid nonsense. He further held that the only knowledge that non-Christians possessed was stolen from Christian sources.

Rushdoony also drew the obvious prescriptive conclusion. If thinking outside of the Christian framework only leads to sinful, nonsensical error — perhaps catastrophic error — we need to eliminate such thinking. In Rushdoony’s view, it was time to abandon the Enlightenment ideas about liberal, open-ended discourse. That was the sort of fuzzyheaded thinking that got us into this mess. Basically, anything secular would have to be put to the flames, from Darwin to Kant to you name it.

Rushdoony also argued (also consistent with his basic assumptions) that all education should be Christian based. I mean, how could he not argue this given the assumption that secular thinking led inexorably to error and nonsense? A secular government shouldn’t be involved in education at all. ‘Secular education’ was an oxymoron.

Rushdoony thus became a key player in the rise of the Christian home schooling movement — writing on the topic and advocating home schooling as early as the 1960s. He eventually played a key role in the 1987 lawsuit, Leeper vs. Arlington, in which a group of Texas home-schoolers sued for the right to school their children at home. Lead attorney on that case — Shelby Sharpe — said that Rushdoony’s testimony as an expert witness “was way beyond anything I’d hoped for.” … “It was one of the few times in my career that I ever saw a witness destroy the attorney who was trying to examine him.”

Rushdoony wrote a profoundly influential book The Institutes of Biblical Law (1972) — the title riffing on Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. In this 890-page tome, Rushdoony argued that not only should we reinstate Mosaic Law (a conclusion consistent with van Til’s theonomy), but we should also reinstate its penal sanctions. Homosexuality, adultery, incest, lying about your virginity, striking your parents, witchcraft, idolatry, apostacy, and public blasphemy all required the death penalty. Generously, he left it open whether adulterers would be thrown in the river sewn in bags or with eyes open.

The whole idea of Rushdoony’s project was to rebuild society on Christian principles. Say what you will about Rushdoony, but he was honest about what he thought, and he didn’t think democracy was a good idea, to put it mildly. In The Institutes he wrote that “the heresy of democracy has since then worked havoc in church and state … Christianity and democracy are inevitably enemies.”

Right now you are thinking, “that shit is pretty extreme.” Ha! Silly apostate. You ain’t heard nothing yet. Rushdoony’s view, which he preferred to call “reconstructionism,” didn’t go far enough for his acolyte and son in law, Gary North who went the extra mile to advocating full on theocracy. North’s view is sometimes called “dominion theology” or “dominionism” in that the basic premise was that the Kingdom of God was not going to come after Christ’s return; it was our job to install it now. Christ’s kingdom on earth was to be a theocratic government based on Calvinist principles and Old Testament law. We are now in Ted Cruz’s father’s territory.

All of this talk of installing Old Testament law was too much for van Til, who distanced himself from the movement even though it seemed like a very obvious extension of his own views, and to be fair, thinkers like Rushdoony had borrowed from van Til with the sort of fealty they otherwise reserved for Calvin himself. Unappreciative of this fealty, however, in 1972 van Til wrote “…I am frankly a little concerned about the political views of Mr. Rushdoony and Mr. North and particularly if I am correctly informed about some of the views Gary North has with respect to the application of Old Testament principles to our day. My only point is that I would hope and expect they would not claim such views are inherent in the principles I hold”. Van Til was right to be concerned, because on the face of it such views appeared to be completely “inherent in the principles” he held.

The problem is that you can object to drowning adulterers and hanging disobedient children all day long, but based on what argument, Cornelius? YOU were the one that invented the term “theonomy” and YOU were the guy that said the Bible is the only source of knowledge, and here are the relevant verses.

“He that strikes his father or his mother shall die the death.”
–Exodus 21:15

“He that curses his father or his mother shall die the death.”
–Exodus 21:17

“If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother…all the men of the city shall stone him with stones, that he die….”
–Deut. 21:18, 21


So far you might be thinking that we are talking about an inconsistent nutball theologian preaching to his small if much more consistent flock, and a handful of zealot followers on the fringes of American culture. In this thought, you would be wrong. Really wrong. Like, sinful nonsense wrong. Rushdoony and his followers were a lot closer to the center of whatever pulls the levers of power in the United States than you or I will ever be.

Rushdoony had an enormous influence in American politics and religious life, in part through his Chalcedan Foundation, which served as a think tank that provided content for conservative churches and radio and Television evangelists. He was, no exaggeration, the wizard behind the curtain when Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others began conquering media markets. We rarely saw Rushoony’s influence, except on rare occasions like his death, when his son-in-law Gary North penned his obituary:

“Rushdoony’s writings are the source of many of the core ideas of the New Christian Right, a voting bloc whose unforeseen arrival in American politics in 1980 caught the media by surprise. This bloc voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan. Two weeks after Reagan was inaugurated, Newsweek (Feb. 2, 1981) accurately but very briefly identified Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Foundation as the think tank of the Religious Right. But the mainstream media did not take the hint. They never did figure out where these ideas were coming from. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were on television, and the media’s intellectuals, such as they are, believe that television is the source of world transformation. Rushdoony in 1981 was almost unknown outside of the leadership of New Right/New Christian Right circles. So he remained at his death.”

God bless Newsweek magazine for noting that his Chalcedon Foundation was the think tank of the Religious Right. But shame on it (and the rest of the media) for not paying any attention to what was actually going on in that institution. The papers published by that “think tank” would have made clergy in 1555 Geneva proud. If your point of departure is the idea that we need to bring back Old Testament laws and punishments, there are still plenty of I’s to dot and T’s to cross. For example, in Geneva they hung disobedient children, but the young ones were only hung by their armpits. Well, what age was that? In a (1999) publication on the Chalcedon website, the middle teens were offered as a good cut-off. (The author knew just how far to go, too, leaving open the possibility of future essays; does middle teens mean 15? 16?)

The papers about the proper age to stone children missed the scrutiny of the media as it normalized the Reagan era think tank. Indeed, because the Chalcedon foundation was so close to the center of US power it HAD to be normalized by the American media establishment, and it was thus largely portrayed as a right-wing religious group with quaint ideas about sexual freedom, but you know, sensibly concerned with religious liberty and thus, at bottom, well situated within the American political project.

What also went unscrutinized were Rushdoony’s teachings about “the heresy of democracy,” as well as his claims that “Christianity is completely and radically anti-democratic; it is committed to spiritual aristocracy.” Democracy was, he told us, “the great love of the failures and cowards of life.”

Now, of course, this is what they say on the inside. What the neo-Reformationists project to the outside world is another matter altogether. When talking in public, the claim is always “religious liberty.” But this is, as they will admit if you catch them in a moment, a ruse.

Gary North was crystal clear about this in a 1982 essay.

So let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political, and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God. Murder, abortion, and pornography will be illegal. God’s law will be enforced. It will take time.

Note the van Tillian presuppositionalism in the claim that there is no neutral position. Note also that North’s principal goal is to educate people in that presuppositionalist philosophical position: “train up a generation of people” to see that there is no neutral position. The talk of “religious liberty” is just a ruse to be used until we construct a Bible-based society. At that point, (stealing a metaphor from Wittgenstein) the religious liberty talk can be kicked away like a ladder.

You might suppose that North’s views are fringe stuff, but it really is not fringe in today’s evangelical churches, or even in American conservative politics. Religious rule — whether we want to call it Reconstructionism, Dominionism, or Theocracy is a leading idea and its proponent are spreading these ideas through the Promise Keepers , Randall Terry’s Operation Rescue “Family Research Council.” Perhaps the key organization for advancing these views, however, has been National Policy “The Council for National Policy, a political think tank the members of which have included our friends Rushdoony and Gary North, as well as Tim LaHay (the author of the “Left Behind” books), several members of the Coors family, shipping magnate J. Peter Grace, Edwin J. Feulner Jr of the Heritage Foundation, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Senator Trent Lott, Senator Don Nickles, former United States Attorneys General Ed Meese and John Ashcroft, Col. Oliver North, Grover Norquist, and, inevitably, Sara Palin.

Far from being fringe, reconstuctionist/dominionist ideas are driving conservative politics in the United States. The group is so wired in to the Republican establishment that the speakers in a 2006 meeting included speakers included then NRA President Sandra Froman, the ever-frothy Sen. Rick Santorum, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, Heritage Foundation president Edwin Fuelner Jr., the recently departed Phyllis Schlafly, anti-taxation leader Grover Norquist, U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, Oliver North and Robert Bork.

Today the CNP is led by Family Research Council leader Tony Perkins, who a key advocate of Ted Cruz in the recent Republican primaries, as outlined in great detail in a recent issue of The “National Review.

Perkins, of course, is not the only evangelical who supported Ted Cruz in the recent Republican primaries. Ten Cruz and his father caught some criticism for attending a conference hosted by the author and pastor Kevin Swanson. What caught the media attention was Swanson’s anti-gay rhetoric, and his calls for the death penalty for gays (this in line with others, like Rushdoony and North have advocated). What did not receive the attention of the media, nor, so far as I know, any academics, has been the philosophical writing of Swanson. In his book Apostate: The Men Who Killed the Christian West, Swanson, like van Til and Rushdoony, sees the problem emanating from a time when we attempted to unhook human reason from Biblical religious teachings.

Chapter by chapter, Swanson walks through the history of thinkers and writers that have supposedly led to the death of the Christian West: Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, Bentham, Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Dewey, and Sartre, each receives a chapter cataloging their contribution to this failure. But the first such chapter is dedicated to Aquinas, who supposedly started the whole problem by introducing the possibility of natural revelation, and more generally the possibility that humans might know anything independently of church teaching. Why is Aquinas problematic? Swanson’s answer is Calvinism 101: “the natural man’s reason has been clouded by layers upon layers of demonic deception (2 Cor. 4:4), and he is incapable of providing a solid basis for truth and ethics by his own reasoning capabilities.” Swanson concludes that, “in a fundamental sense [the unbeliever] will think wrongly about everything.”

You might think that this line of thinking would have to subsume the entirety of the history of university education and the quest for knowledge. But in case you needed a reminder that one person’s modus ponens is another person’s modus tollens, Swanson is there with the reminder.

As we consider the causes and processes that brought about the slow and steady 800-year erosion of the Christian faith in Italy, German, France, England, Scotland, and America, we must start with the first universities — where the great humanist incursion began. The University of Bologna commenced its work in 1088. By the 1270s, there were universities at Paris, Orleans, Toulouse, Montpellier, Cambridge, Oxford, Padua, Bologna, Nables, Salerno, Salamanca, Comra, and Lisbon. These academic institutions were established on humanist ideas that served as the foundation for the humanist renaissance.

This was the point at which Aquinas became the great culprit and earned his place as the first philosopher discussed by Swanson.

Thomas Aquinas really believed that natural man in his fallen state could build a reliable system of philosophical knowledge on “human reason.” He did not believe that man’s reason was seriously tainted by the fall into sin. …Contrary to what Aquinas taught, the bible does not represent two different kinds of thinking or knowledge (Provers 2:1–6, Col. 2:1–3). There is only one source and one fountain of learning, and this is the Lord Jesus Christ.

I suspect that the preceding will sound absurd to many readers, but I can assure you that this is not an outlying position in the Evangelical movement — even within Evangelical colleges and Universities. If you have attended a Christian college in the past fifty years, chances are you are assigned a book called Escape from Reason, and it made precisely the same point that Swanson is making, beginning with a critique of Aquinas. The book was written by a figure who was without question the most important intellectual figure in Evangelical Christian thinking. His name was Francis Schaeffer.

Through the 1970s Schaeffer published a number of books and by 1980 he had become a tour de force in Christendom. His 1977 film — Whatever Happened to the Human Race — energized the conservative movement in the United States, and several people in American conservative politics have spoken of its influence on the — ranging from Michele Bachman to Ralph Reed. In 1981 he published a book called A Christian Manifesto (the title a play on Marx and Engel’s “Communist Manifesto” ), which called the evangelical movement to reject abortion. It sold 250,000 copies and ignited the evangelical anti-abortion movement.

As I noted earlier, Schaefer (like Rushdoony and Swanson) believed that the great intellectual failure of the West could all be traced to … drum roll…St. Thomas Aquinas. This is how he laid the blame on Aquinas in Escape from Reason.

In Aquinas’s view the will of man was fallen, but the intellect was not. From this incomplete view of the biblical Fall flowed all the subsequent difficulties. Man’s intellect became autonomous…. From the basis of this autonomous principle, philosophy began to take wings, as it were, and fly off wherever it wished, without relationship to the Scriptures.

Aquinas’s error was thinking that human reason could function independently of God. In Chapter 2 of Escape from Reason, Schaeffer contextualized the key issue — the independence of human reason — in the context of the Reformation and the Renaissance.

We come therefore to an overlapping of the Renaissance with the Reformation. To this problem of unity the Reformation gave an entirely opposite answer from that of the Renaissance. It repudiated both the Aristotelian and the Neo-platonic presentation. What was the Reformation answer? It said that the root of the trouble sprang from the old and growing Humanism in the Roman Catholic Church, and the incomplete Fall in Aquinas’s theology which set loose an autonomous man. The Reformation accepted the biblical picture of a total Fall. The whole man had been made by God, but now the whole man is fallen, including his intellect and will. In contrast to Aquinas, only God was autonomous.

I think we are beginning to see a pattern with the nature/grace business .

In a recent interview with Richard Marshall here on 3am Magazine, the philosopher of biology Eliot Sober worried that the theory of evolution was too closely associated with atheism. In Sober’s thinking, this was putting the possibility of teaching evolution at risk. It is better, he argued, to point out that the theory of evolution is consistent with divine intervention. Sober may be a brilliant philosopher, but he is hopelessly naive about his anti-intellectual adversaries. In the first place, you can say that evolution is consistent with divine intervention, but can you make it consistent with the idea that humans were created in their current form within the last 10 thousand years? Well, according to a Gallop poll, that is exactly what 46% of the US population believes: We were created in our current form, within the last 10,000 years.

But even if you could clear these hurdles, Sober is missing the point about religious fundamentalism in the United States. The problem is not that the theory of evolution is incompatible with God’s intervention. The problem is that the theory of evolution is the product of autonomous human reason and not Divine revelation. It rests upon the distinction between nature and grace and thus, whatever role it affords God, it is inherently “sinful,” “irrational,” “nonsense.”

This is a point that everyone — not just Sober — needs to be alert too. The core philosophical position underlying Reformed Christianity as expressed by writers like Rushdoony, North, Swanson, and Schaefer is not about the US Constitution or guns or abortion or states rights or taxation or the teaching of evolution or any of the other dog whistles of the religious right in the United States. Nor is the key point of the Protestant revolution about corruption and the selling of indulgences. No, at its core, the Reformation is a rejection of 600 years of Renaissance and Enlightenment thinking. It is a call to reject all thinking that is not grounded in Biblical thought — to the extent that in Swanson’s case the very idea of the liberal university is called into question. Persons that don’t ground all of their thought in Biblical teaching are “irrational,” and “in error.” Evolution and climate change? Well, they are not merely in error because they get some facts wrong; they are in error because they are not grounded in the scriptures, and there is no other source of truth.

There is nothing at all wrong with questioning core assumptions of the Western intellectual tradition. My concern is that the philosophical views presented by van Til, Rushdoony, North, Swanson, Schaeffer, and others, although profoundly influential, are going unremarked and unchallenged by the allegedly “liberal” (in the historical sense) academy. Or, to put it another way, these batshit crazy ideas are getting a free pass, and the question is: Why?

Sorry. That wasn’t a rhetorical question. I really have no idea except to say that it involves a whole lot of intellectual cowardice on the part of our academics and media commentators. But perhaps I can atone for my ignorance by answering a different, more topical, question.

At the beginning of this essay, I promised to say something about Donald Trump. Throughout this election cycle, pundits and academics have marveled at the acceptance of Trump by some (if not all) conservative Christian leaders and their flocks, even while Catholics have wanted nothing to do with Trump. On the face of it, this acceptance by Evangelicals is a head-scratcher. Why would people that value piety and modesty and turning the other cheek and being kind and forgiving, etc. be in league with Trump of all people?

The answer, of course, is that they don’t support Trump because of his lack of piety or any other aspect of human character that they particularly value and which he inevitably lacks (modesty, kindness, forgiveness, you can name them all). Trump’s function is that he is their field general in their most important battle — the battle against the autonomous human reason.

I’m serious. This is the battle that matters above all others to the Evangelical right. You can fight against abortion, taxes, gun laws, no prayer and the teaching of evolution in schools, all day long. The problem is that if secular reason is still a thing, well then it is going to be an obstruction to all of those goals. Thus the real battle begins nearly 750 years ago, with Aquinas carving out a role for nature and ultimately the ideas of the Renaissance and Enlightenment and everything since.

But why is Trump the ideal general for this battle? Because while he isn’t really FOR anything — everyone knows his views on abortion and guns and gay rights are ambivalent at best –he is definitely AGAINST rational discourse. He debases the very idea of so-called logical debate. He is indifferent to refutation by “facts”. He sticks to his guns in the face of unrelenting “evidence” to the contrary. He repeats his claims despite all the “facts” and “evidence” that his pointy-headed foes produce to the contrary.

People sometimes say that they like Trump because he speaks his mind and because he talks and thinks like they do, and this is often read as code for people liking his racism. But it is more than that. Trump sounds familiar because he is doing on a grand stage what they are told to do every day from pulpits across America. They are told to stick to their guns and to reject the evolution crap and the carbon dating crap and more generally the logic and inductive science crap, and they know that it is HARD. But here is Trump, a man who can proudly, unashamedly, stand up to Renaissance and Enlightenment-forged principles of rational inquiry and rational discourse.

It is true that other politicians have blown anti-intellectual dog whistles for them before. G.W. Bush was a master of this with his bragging about poor grades and his cultivated mispronunciation of words. But it is one thing to hear dog whistles and another to see someone standing tall and rejecting dispassionate reason, inductive reasoning, and trust in the product of academic research. Some fundamentalist Christians are willing to forgive Trump everything else, simply because he is the angel blowing the trumpet for the new age of anti-reason.

Of course, this assault on reason is hardly limited to Evangelical Christians today. As I said before, certain key Reformation ideas have metastasized in our culture, and even in places that are supposedly liberal — like universities — these ideas have taken root, albeit in strangely mutated forms. Thus we have disciplines and radical movements that think they are being progressive by rejecting modernism, when in point of fact they are recycling a new version of Calvin’s Geneva — one with all the public shaming and excommunications and new forms of violence in the service of principles that must go unchallenged, for the very act of questioning them is to sin.

Ironically, Ayaan Hirsi Ali imagines herself the victim of this kind of silencing for having an honorary degree rescinded at Brandeis (rescinded because of her invectives against Islam). It is ironic, because she levels this silencing charge even while praising the religious movement (The Reformation) that inexorably led to an intellectual culture in which the silencing of debate is valorized.

I began this essay by poking fun at Hirsi Ali and Tom Friedman and others for their suggestion that Islam needs a Protestant Reformation of its own. But the sad fact of the matter is that Islam has already had its own Calvin-style Reformation with the rise of Wahhabism — a movement not so distant from our own Reformation in its call for literal readings of it’s holy book, repudiation of saint worship, rejection of the corruption and infallibility of (mostly Shia) imams, rejection of rational argumentation in matters of faith. It is sad, because Islam was once a great nurturer of science and literature and mathematics, and it was through Islamic scholars like Ibn Rushd (Averroes), for example, that Europeans like Aquinas initially came to rediscover the works of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers.

The point is not that Islam should be immune to criticism. The problem is that even as we cast disparaging glances at fundamentalist Islam, we are losing an important battle of our own — a battle in which centuries of hard-fought victories against ignorance and bigotry stand to be lost, a battle in which the outcome, if we lose, is a new, self-inflicted Dark Age. We can no longer afford to normalize this anti-intellectualism in our universities and our media. In the meantime, we have no business wasting precious time criticizing other cultures while religion-based anti-intellectualism freely metastasizes in our own.

As the Good Book says, “how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”



EJ Spode

Writes about Philosophy, Crypto Anarchy, Cryptocurrencies, DeFi, Generative Linguistics. More info: