Religion By Another Name

How Liberal Fury Over Trump & Brexit Is Reminiscent Of Calvinism

By Professor John Haldane (Baylor University/University of St. Andrews)

January 15, 2017         Picture: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters.

This article is part of The Critique’s January/February 2017 Issue “Stick It To The Man: A Year Of Anglo-American Populist Revolt Against A Changing Culture And An Obtuse Political Establishment.”


There is nothing very new in the idea that religion has played an important role in recent American politics. For over forty years socially conservative Evangelicals, subsequently joined by traditional Roman Catholics, have exercised some influence on the Republican Party through campaigns on particular moral and social issues, most enduringly abortion, more recently marriage, and now religious liberty.

This has favoured socially conservative, religiously affiliated candidates seeking Republican nomination at various levels of political life, but whatever their personal attitudes most candidates have judged it prudent to take account of the religious constituency. Thus in the early stages of the campaign for the presidential nomination Donald Trump described the bible as his ‘favourite book’, and subsequently in the course of thanking Evangelicals for their ongoing support produced the copy given him by his mother [1] . Later in the final debate with Hilary Clinton he made a point of expressing his opposition to partial-birth abortion and anticipated that were he elected President his conservative supreme court nominations might result in a reversal of Roe vs Wade. [2]

Christian support does not lie solely on the political right, however, for liberal Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics have been keen to associate themselves with aspects of ‘progressivism’ particularly where these may be described as furthering social justice, and have advocated for Democratic candidates and liberal policies. There is also the interest of American Jews in policies affecting Israel. They have the highest percentage voter turnout of any ethnic group and it is likely that Trump had this constituency in view when he tweeted “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th” – a reference

to the decision of the Obama administration not to veto a Security Council resolution denouncing Israeli settlements. [3] There is also the new religious dimension in American politics introduced by a growing Muslim presence.

While the attitude of politicians and commentators towards the involvement of religious groups generally depends on whether they judge the latter to be aligned with, or opposed to their own positions, there is a seemingly impartial theme struck by more abstract commentary which is the need to separate politics and religion. This sometimes invokes the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment (mis)representing it as a constitutional separation of Church and State; but more recent commentary suggests first, that religion is a disruptive and aggravating factor in policy disputes, and second, that recourse to religious claims and concepts should have no place in reasoned public debate. [4]

As regards the first point, while it may be true that religiously inspired or reinforced advocacy is sometimes strident and self-righteous, often it is not, and those characteristics are also common among self-styled liberal secularists who are evidently hostile to religious belief. The underlying issue here has less to with religion and irreligion than with the extension and intensification of the culture wars between conservatives and liberals.

The point about the terms of public debate sometimes invokes recent philosophical discussions of the idea of public reason. This was brought to the fore by the late John Rawls in his book Political Liberalism (1993) and in subsequent writings where he sought to set the terms of fairness in political deliberation and debate given the facts of difference and disagreement. While aiming for an overlapping consensus of values he thought that comprehensive moral and philosophical doctrines could not reasonably be invoked, and this seemed to exclude religious views. There are, however, two issues with this. First, if applied impartially as an exclusionary principle it also debars ideological liberalism, utilitarianism, moral cosmopolitanism, and every other comprehensive view. Second, the principle itself is specious, or at any rate controversial. There may be something to be said about how mutual recognition among citizens calls for respectful discourse but that requirement can be met while yet invoking fundamental beliefs; while the call to set those aside intensifies the sense of alienation from the political order. Moreover, the actual deployment of ‘public reason’ arguments suggests a selective scepticism towards religion and a bias against allowing it space in the public square.

Still keeping in mind the theme of the relation between religion and politics, I want to turn from the avowedly religious to the secular liberal progressive side of political debate, not to draw a contrast but to indicate a similarity. For I suggest that this constituency may itself be seen in religious terms, more specifically ones drawn from the history of Christianity, particularly in the wake of the Protestant Reformation.



The attempt to define ‘religion’ and thereby ‘religious’ is bound to fail since the underlying concept has no essence, rather it consists of an indeterminately bounded cluster of partly overlapping features. That said, some of these are formal in character whereas other relate to content. So far as the latter are concerned it is characteristic of religion to propose a broad conception of human nature and of ultimate value and, regarding the former, to advance this in the form of a doctrine propounded authoritatively and requiring acceptance. How far that demand reaches turns on whether the advocates of the doctrine regard the faith as universalist or sectarian, i.e as embracing and applying to all mankind or only to believers.

So conceived, religion involves distinctions between right belief and practice (orthodoxy and orthopraxy) and conflicting thought and deed (heterodoxy and heteropraxy), and relatedly between conformism and heresy. The enforcement of the former and suppression of the latter in each case typically involves censorship and sanction. Not all religions have central authorities with the power to enforce these measures but in many cases the work is devolved to, or enthusiastically adopted by zealots.

Connected to the question of universalism or sectarianism is the matter of whether a faith seeks institutional establishment, the most familiar expressions of which are imperial and state religions. Famously, the Reformation and the consequent religious wars of Europe led in 1648 to the ‘peace of Westphalia’ which confined denominations to states in accord with the principle Cuius regio, eius religio ‘whose realm, his religion’, while also allowing some restricted scope for difference within principalities.

This, however, did not extend to heretical groups and newly founded denominations, and the desire of members of those to live freely according to their consciences was a significant cause of immigration to the low countries and then to north America. This history was part of the background to the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, drafted by Jefferson in 1777 and passed into law in 1786, and to the Establishment Clause of the US Bill of Rights (1791) stating that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

This brief conceptual and historical note is relevant to understanding the current state of American, and to a degree British politico-cultural establishments, and the insurrections against them represented by the Brexit Referendum vote and the trump Presidential election, but there is another element required to complete the analysis and it is theological.

Within Christianity there is a series of longstanding debates about the relation between, and respective roles in salvation of Divine grace and human action, and of faith and works. What positions one takes on these matters depends in part on one’s view about sin and culpability for it – both personal and inherited, original, or structural, sin. At one extreme there is the view that humanity is so mired in sin and in its effects that it has no merit whatsoever. God might do well to destroy or to damn it, and if he does choose to save any such action is utterly gratuitous. At the other extreme is the belief first associated with the English monk Pelagius (360-418) that human beings are basically good and that wrongdoing is a humanly curable effect of social circumstances and upbringing. Man, according to Pelagianism, is therefore redeemable through his own efforts.



The religious history of the United States began with Calvinism as avowed by the Pilgrim fathers and by the Congregationalist Puritans, but they differed precisely over issues of establishment and toleration. Writing in response to the suggestion that the early colonists had been nonconformists who had come to New England to found a refuge for persecuted consciences, Samuel Willard, the Congregationalist Minister of the third Church in Boston responded:

“I perceive they are mistaken in the design of our first Planters whose business was not Toleration; but they were professed Enemies of it, and could leave the world professing they died no libertines. Their business was to settle and (as much as it lay in them) secure religion to Posterity, according to that way which they believed was of God” (Ne Sutor ultra Crepidam [‘shoemaker, [judge] not beyond the shoe’ (Boston, 1681).

Already by that period other denominations had made their way to America and this trend increased in the following centuries so that, encouraged by the abstract ideas of ‘enlightened’ philosophy and by the empirical facts of religious diversity, the United States developed a broadly tolerant public culture so far as religion is concerned. Arguably the high tide of this, given that he was an adherent of Roman Catholicism (the ‘religious imperialism’ against which the diversity of Protestants were united) was the election in 1960 of John F. Kennedy.

Had he not been assassinated he would likely have been re-elected in 1964 so the period of his presidency would have coincided with the growth and first full flowering of the counter-cultural movement. That had several elements but among these were opposition to traditional religion which was seen as intolerant and oppressive. It is important, however, to stress the significance of the word ‘traditional’, for while some in the movement were anti-religious others favoured ‘spirituality’, and various kinds of religious syncretism of universalist intent. Inspired by these and by Rousseau’s idea of innocence in the state of nature, they espoused a form of ‘neo-Pelagianism’. There was something of a revival of these beliefs and attitudes in the ‘New Age’ movement, but unlike the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s and 70s that had little political impact or interest save in relation to environmentalism.

What one might expect then is that the legacy of the 1960s counter-cultural movement would have been an increasing tendency towards toleration and an awareness of the dangers of ideological establishment and of sectarianism. In fact, however, while the language of toleration, liberalism, and progress has been used repetitively and reverentially, the movement of thought and practice has been towards factionalism, division and denunciation. One virulent manifestation of this is the tendency among liberals to denounce social conservatives first as stupid and then as wicked. Both denunciations represent a move away from the idea that ‘man is basically good’, but the latter in particular is indicative of a revival of Calvinism, be it in a secular idiom.

Against this background consider the accusation by Hilary Clinton in a broadcast campaign speech:

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. … Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.” (New York City, September 9, 2016)

Here I am not concerned with the merit or otherwise of these remarks but with their sentiment, vocabulary and logic. This is the language of moral and religious denunciation. The irredeemable are those who are beyond salvation, and since they are still alive they must be predestined to whatever fate awaits them. Whether their attitudes are a cause, a consequence, or a manifestation of their characters could be a matter for theoretical discussion but the core idea is that some people are wicked, and the practical implication of this would seem to be that they should somehow be identified and contained.

How might that be achieved? One means is by law, another is by social stigmatization. In the nineteenth century J.S. Mill wrote:

“There is a degree of folly, and a degree of what may be called (though the phrase is not unobjectionable) lowness or depravation of taste, which, though it cannot justify doing harm to the person who manifests it, renders him necessarily and properly a subject of distaste, or, in extreme cases, even of contempt … a person may so act as to compel us to judge him, and feel to him, as a fool, or as a being of an inferior order: and since this judgment and feeling are a fact which he would prefer to avoid, it is doing him a service to warn him of it beforehand, as of any other disagreeable consequence to which he exposes himself”. (On Liberty (1869) IV, 5).

Two aspects of this are important to note. First, Mill is concerned with matters which he believes should not be the subject of law; and second, it is evident that he does not presume that those whom he judges low or tasteless are irredeemable. On the contrary he thinks that the threat of receiving such a judgment may prompt self-correction. In the contemporary situation, however, the sanctimoniousness of the liberal political class, commentariat and faithful followers is like that of the 17th century Calvinist establishmentarians. Their world is partitioned between the virtuous and the vicious, and increasingly law as well as public stigmatization are deemed proper means of suppressing dissenters. In decisions given in 1992 and 2011 the US Supreme Court rejected efforts to limit speech on grounds of content, arguing in the second case that:

“[S]peech deals with matters of public concern when it can ‘be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community’ or when it ‘is a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public.” (Snyder vs Phelps, 2011)

Such has been the rate of ‘Calvinisation’ of American liberalism, however, that in the six years since that case was brought there has been an intensification of efforts to constrain the expression of views deemed unacceptable. One means of this is the extension of the concept of a ‘safe space’. Originally, as the term suggests, this was conceived of in terms of physical place(s) but it has been extended to a variety of discussion fora, and interpreted as a requirement on educational and other institutions to make value and policy statements in line with certain moral and political ideas. One rhetorical implication of such designations is that places of similar function that are not so defined and constrained are thereby ‘unsafe places’. Apart from stigmatization this contributes to the exclusion and sanctioning of dissenters.



My thesis is that just as religion and politics were intermingled in the earliest Colonial period of North America, and notwithstanding the trend towards secularization intensified in the last forty years which created the impression that the remnant of this lay exclusively with the avowedly religious, who tended also to be socially conservative, the fact of the matter is that the general concepts of orthodoxy, true belief, and moral character, and the practices of censorship, sanction and exclusion are again features of American politics and culture, now exercised in relation to a broad conception of human nature and of ultimate value. Ironically perhaps the principal advocates of this in doctrinal form, propounded authoritatively and requiring acceptance, are self-styled ‘secular progressives liberals’.

What then of the future? In answering this one might look to the past and to the fate of attempts such as those described by Samuel Willard who claimed on behalf of the first New England Christians that they ‘professed themselves enemies of toleration, whose business was to settle and (as much as it lay in them) secure religion to posterity’. That attempt was made practically impossible by increasing religious diversity, and deemed contrary to Law by the Constitution. But one may also look to the present and to the recent elections to the White House, to the Capitol, and to the Governorships and Assemblies of the individual states which may suggest a popular rejection of the latest trend towards ideological establishment. What of the United Kingdom? It is perhaps no accident that the largest vote against remaining in Europe, seen generally as a snub to the political class and media, came in England where the tradition of religious establishment (and of periodic dissenting reactions) persists not just in the constitutional position of the Church of England, but in the attitudes of those who inherit the aura of divinely ordained authority, be it transposed into a secular form. The permeation of political thought by religious attitudes and concepts has gone on in the West for a millennium and an half beginning in Europe and continuing in America. It is unsurprising, therefore, that even in a secular age those features survive, both among political ideologues and among those who react against them as against the coercive dogmatists of old. The struggle for freedom of belief and its conscientious expression was long fought and the need of it is ongoing. Willards’ Calvinists were opposed to toleration, progressive liberals espouse it but misrepresent it as a demand for approbation and celebration when in fact it is the necessary virtue of forbearing that with which one disagrees. Fear of strife, and of the need of toleration to limit the risk of it, is the beginning of political wisdom.

[1] See CNN 26 September 2015:

[2] For a transcript see Washington Post,19 October 2016:

[3] See Reuters, 23 December 2016:

[4] See, for example, Garry Gutting, ‘Should Religion play a Role in Politics?’ New York Times, 27 July 2011; Abraham Foxman, ‘Keep Religion out of Politics’ Huffington Post, 15 January 2012; and Teresa Wiltz, ‘Oh Lord, can’t we keep religion out of Politics?’ The Guardian, 14 October 2013.

John Haldane
John Haldane
John Haldane is the J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, USA; and Professor of Moral Philosophy and Senior Fellow of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He is also Visiting Professor in the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue at the University of Birmingham, Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Chair of the Royal Institute of Philosophy London. Apart from his academic work he is a frequent contributor to press and broadcasting in the UK and more widely. From 2005 to 2016 he was a Consultor to the Vatican Pontifical Council for Culture.

“How many newsworthy issues, which should have been the rightful domain of philosophy, have been usurped in recent years by religion, law, and psychology?”

Lee McIntyre

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