Tuesday, 8 November 2016

The Wesleyan Clinton and the Calvinist Trump

I've tended to say little on this blog about today's US Presidential election since the two candidates were determined.

It occurred to me today (while I was on my exercise bike this morning, in fact) that the key factor in the differences between the ideas of the two main candidates is actually their religious upbringing. 

This may sound odd at first, given that both the practicing Methodist Hillary Clinton and the nominally Presbyterian Donald Trump are associated with denominations which, in the United States and elsewhere in the western world, are seen as classical (and essentially interchangeable) expressions of middle-of-the-road Christianity.  In fact, in many countries, such as Canada and Australia, denominations exist which combine Methodist and Presbyterian components among others.  (I happen to be a minister in one of these denominations.)

However, there are some real differences (at least in the history of these denominations) in terms of their views about the nature of humanity.  This may give some idea about the ideas that motivate both candidates.  (From my own perspective, I grew up in a Methodist congregation, studied theology in a mostly Presbyterian setting, and am now a minister in a denomination in which Methodist and Presbyterian dimensions are present.)

Presbyterianism, from its founding in the 16th century by John Calvin in Geneva and John Knox in Scotland, had a strong sense of pessimism about human nature.  Calvin's theology says that our human nature is corrupt in its very being.  "Total depravity" is a typically Calvinist term about our human nature.  Churches following in the heritage of Calvin and Knox tend to have a pessimistic view of human nature.  According to Calvin, we are predestined by God to either good or evil, and most of us are predestined to evil.

Generally, politicians on the political "Right" tend to have a Calvinist view of human nature.  This is the case whether the individual politician is religiously a "Calvinist" or not, whether the politician is religiously a Christian or not, and whether the politician is personally religious (of any sort) or not.  Political conservatives tend to have a gloomy (Calvinist?) view of human nature, and tend to call their followers to vote for them according to a shared sense of (Calvinistic?) gloom.  This can well be the case with Mr. Trump.

Methodism, founded in the 18th century in England by the brothers John and Charles Wesley, took a different view.  The Wesleys rejected predestination.  They embraced the notion that human beings have free will, that we can choose good or evil. 

Methodism, following the Wesleys, has had a much more optimistic view of God than churches following in Calvin's theology.  Methodism has also had a much more optimistic view of humanity.  Methodists typically look for the best in people.  It's difficult to find a person of a Methodist background talking about the "total depravity" of humanity.  People of Methodist background are more likely to look for the virtues of others and celebrate them, rather than to denounce the transgressions of others.  The far more hope-filled language of Ms. Clinton may reflect her Methodist upbringing.
Inclusivity is also a Methodist characteristic.  Methodist churches (and churches such as mine with a strong Methodist influence) practice "open communion".  We don't turn people away from the Lord's table.   In the wider world, Methodists see it as a good thing when all our human communities are inclusive of people of all sorts and conditions.  Methodists typically like to build bridges, not walls.

In any event, I hope this reflection, which began on an exercise bike, may be useful to some of us as we contemplate the sources of the thinking of the two candidates, both the Wesleyan Clinton and the Calvinist Trump.

1 comment:

  1. From the discussion on this post on my FaceBook page, one of the issues here is that much of the history of the Presbyterian-Reformed grouping of churches is about the process in the late 18th through mid-20th centuries where these churches dropped their insistence on a strictly Calvinist theology, while retaining a Calvinist-influenced approach to church government (representative councils) and worship (teaching-oriented).

    As a result, not everyone in a Presbyterian or Reformed church has a Calvinist theological stance.

    However, many political conservatives (such as Trump) have a strongly Calvinist-influenced set of social attitudes, regardless of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof).


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