Wilson Was a Calvinist, but He Got Calvin Wrong
Second, while Magee does point out similarities between Wilson and Kuyper, as well as Wilson's probable presence at Kuyper's famous Stone Lectures at Princeton in 1898, Magee acknowledges that there is no evidence that Wilson was directly influenced by Kuyper at all. He does not seem to have invoked Kuyper or his ideas in his writings and speeches. The similarity between the two owes more to the fact that, in their respective academic contexts, they breathed the same philosophical and theological air, which included Calvinism, progressivism, transformationalism, and Hegelian philosophy.
Wilson, however, saw the political developments of his time as advancing world redemption in a way that Kuyper did not. The Federal Council of Churches echoed this in 1912 by stating that Wilson's presidential campaign had communicated that "our social order must be fashioned after the Kingdom of God as taught by Jesus Christ." Such an intense connection between the gospel and politics was far more stark and problematic than Kuyper's own rhetoric suggested. Kuyper tended to speak of politics as informed by a Christian worldview, but nevertheless as a function of God's creation ordinances and common grace, distinct from Christ's kingdom.
To be sure, Wilson self-consciously sought to follow a Calvinist political theology of transformation. As Curry puts it:
Wilson taught his students that John Calvin was the "great reforming Christian statesman." Summarizing Calvin's impact on Wilson, Magee argues that Wilson's understanding of the Christian statesman mandated the reconstruction of "his own society in covenantal patterns," along the lines of Calvin's Geneva. For Wilson, therefore, participation in politics was not an option, but a "necessary . . . outcome of this Calvinist faith."
This is all true enough. But what neither Curry nor Magee clarify is that Wilson's reading of Calvin was clearly shaped by the dominant post-millennialism of Wilson's day, which tended to interpret the great reformer through the lens of social gospel transformationalism. Calvin always identified Christ's kingdom with the proclamation of the gospel and the establishment of the church. Because of his distinction between the spiritual and political kingdoms, Calvin never spoke about politics in terms of the advance of the kingdom of God, except insofar as magistrates were responsible to protect and establish the true church.
So when Curry writes that Wilson had no sense of Reformed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's classic distinction between "moral man and immoral society" (a distinction by which Niebuhr sought to preserve realism about the level of righteousness that is achievable in institutions and large groups of human beings in complex circumstances), he tells us far more about Wilson than he does about Calvin (let alone Machen or Kuyper). Calvin was a stark realist when it came to his understanding of politics, as well as the progress of peace and justice in this world. He constantly emphasized that the life of the church would always be a life under the cross, until Christ's return.
None of this is to take away from Curry's thought-provoking observations—or Magee's fuller argument—regarding Wilson's problematic fusion of Christianity and politics. Nor is it to question Wilson's faith. It is to suggest, however, that just because Wilson was a devout Presbyterian does not mean that his political theology was faithfully Calvinist or Reformed. No doubt Wilson's great rival, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, equally devout and equally Reformed, would have viewed the Democratic president somewhat differently.
In fact, Curry and Magee leave us right where they should, sobered by the tragedy of Wilson's conflation of Christianity and politics. As Curry ends his essay:
Magee concludes that the tragedy of Woodrow Wilson "had more to do with Jerusalem than Athens. It was a tragedy of faith." And so it was. The lesson of Woodrow Wilson's presidency is not that Jerusalem has nothing to say to Athens in the realm of international politics; rather, it is that good intentions inspired by misguided theology can lead to disastrous foreign policy consequences.
The antidote to idealism of the Wilsonian sort is a deep knowledge of the contours of history, a keen understanding of the moral ambiguities that delimit human action in the "meanwhile" in which we live, and a commitment to honing the virtue of prudence in defining the purposes to which we direct national power. In short, Reinhold Niebuhr is not a bad place to start after all.
As political theologians in tune with the real Calvin (rather than the Calvin of his social gospel and transformationalist interpreters) might add, such an antidote could have included a better knowledge of Calvin himself. Wilson's idealism might have been tempered by the great reformer's insistence that Christ's kingdom is spiritual and can never be conflated with the passing affairs of this age. In short, Calvin's two kingdoms doctrine is not a bad place to start either.
Matthew J. Tuininga (M. Div., Westminster Seminary California) is a doctoral candidate in Ethics and Society at Emory University, where he is writing his dissertation on John Calvin's two kingdoms political theology. He has worked as a legislative correspondent for Congressman Dave Weldon and as a counter-terrorism intelligence analyst for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He blogs at www.matthewtuininga.wordpress.com.