Ethics and Community

Vision for Society

The most common term for Protestant thinking about the ultimate goal of human life is the Kingdom of God. This is Jesus' term in the gospels for the establishment of God's reign on earth, evidenced in perfect harmony with God's will and in perfected human communities. The debate among Protestants is about when this Kingdom will be fully experienced—now in part? only at the end of the ages?—and how it will come to be—only by God's direct action in some future time, say through the return of Jesus Christ? in and through human efforts?

The earliest Protestant reformers believed they were living in the end times and that their reform of the Church would play a role in the imminent return of Christ. They expected human governments to keep sin in check enough to make possible the preaching of the Gospel, but they did not expect radical improvement in human societies.

John Calvin certainly did not expect a progressive spiral of history leading to some sort of utopia on earth. Humans would remain in an imperfect and fallen state until the end times. But Calvin's actions in Geneva clearly show that he also did not think human society would necessarily be some sort of chaotic dystopia. The church in Geneva was run by a consistory, which was a body that included both clergy and lay people (elders). One of the roles of the consistory was to advise the city council on how to make Geneva as just and godly a city as possible. Calvin advised the city council to regulate dress, parties, and the use of makeup by women. (The rigor of the "godly" standards of behavior for all Genevans is likely one cause for Calvin's expulsion from the city between 1538 and 1541.)

Calvin's cautiously optimistic prospects for society are based on his belief that, in order for God's providential plan to unfold, and for the elect to be saved, society must be functional enough for the Gospel to be preached and the sacraments to be celebrated. To facilitate enough social order for this to occur, part of God's grace was to send governments that, while never perfect and often very unjust, kept human depravity in check. Even the non-elect were endowed with conscience and will to live a (relatively) moral life.

Some Anabaptists have believed that one of the duties of the Church is to model for the rest of society what the Kingdom of God is like, thus they have historically been less likely to cooperate with what they perceive to be a fallen society. In a most extreme understanding, like the Amish, they separate entirely, rejecting the norms of an ungodly world. Others might resist the pressures of government as conscientious objectors, refusing to vote or take oaths in a court of law, etc.

During the 19th century many American Protestants interpreted the singular reference in the Book of Revelation to a thousand-year (millennial) reign of Christ in such a way that they believed that Christ would return to rule on earth before the saved are gathered into heaven. This interpretation is called "post-millennialism," literally "after the millennium." The task of Christians then was to prepare for this coming of the Kingdom of God by making the earth a worthy place for Christ's return. This led to times in the history of Protestant churches when they have been slightly more optimistic about the prospects and purpose of building a good society. For instance, many of the reforms of the Progressive Era in the United States (1890s to 1920s) were led or undertaken with great participation by Presbyterians. Such reforms included temperance, women's suffrage, prison reform, and educational reform. Perhaps the culmination of Presbyterian Progressive energies came in the Presbyterian Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), who, as President of the United States, entered World War I in part because he believed a victory over Germany could end all wars. He also invested great effort in the founding of the League of Nations. (Though he did not succeed in getting the United States Senate to ratify it, the League was a forerunner of the United Nations, established after World War II.) He believed that an international body dedicated to dialogue and diplomacy could greatly improve international cooperation.

One writer on the possibilities for society from the Reformed tradition who remained perhaps closer to Calvin's thought was Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), who grew up German Reformed. Niebuhr's view of society was informed by a Calvinistic view of human nature as sinful at its core, and thus the real possibilities of establishing a perfect human society were very limited. In his classic work Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) he argues that even when individuals act selflessly, their actions are almost always in the service of a group that is acting selfishly. This is true of nations, classes, and races. His blueprint for creating a "just enough" society (a truly just society was humanly impossible) through the practice of non-violent resistance was influential on the civil rights movement. His tone of cautious optimism (we can and should do better, but we will never do very well) recapitulates the tone of Calvin's efforts in Geneva.

For much of the 20th century, conservative Protestants were largely "pre-millennialists." Based on a different reading of the Book of Revelation, pre-millennialists believe that Christ's thousand-year reign on earth would come at the end of history, following a period when earth would be ruled by the Anti-Christ, a powerful opposition to the Church and the Gospels. This is a largely pessimistic view of human history that does not believe that the task of Christians is to make the world better in preparation for Jesus' return. Human history, according to this belief, is on a downward trajectory, and therefore the primary task is to save as many souls as possible so that when Christ returns those souls will be among those gathered to himself. Thus conservative Protestants developed a largely isolationist mentality, devoting their energies primarily to their own churches, communities, and families.

After World War II, however, conservative Protestants began to re-enter the public square in an effort to improve American society. The demise of Christian society under the Nazi regime had demonstrated what could happen when Christians forego involvement in political and cultural circles. The popularity of Billy Graham and the establishment of conservative Christian magazines, like Christianity Today, contributed to a lessening of conservative isolationism. By the last quarter of the 20th century, many new voices were calling for increasing public involvement. Led by Jerry Falwell (founder of the Moral Majority), James Dobson (founder of Focus on the Family), Pat Robertson (host of the 700 Club), and others, they found some success influencing public policy beginning in the presidency of Jimmy Carter, but more particularly in the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Both liberal and conservative Protestants have developed a high public profile in the last three decades, working within the common premise that in some sense, the government should be facilitating the work of the gospel. Liberal Protestants, claiming faithfulness to gospel values, have directed their efforts primarily toward such issues as economic disparities, the federal budget, environmental crises, immigration reform, etc. Their vision for society includes a government that implements and achieves the Christian ethos. Conservatives have also become increasingly politically engaged, largely on the Republican side of the aisle; their vision, similar to Calvin's, is to develop a government that keeps depravity in check, does not obstruct the free exercise of the Church, and makes possible the implementation of Kingdom values by individual Christians. Their efforts to repeal the legalization of abortion, to resist the public acceptance of homosexuality, and to limit governmental powers have been some of the most contentious issues. While these issues remain important to the next generation of conservative leaders (Warren, Hybels, Franklin Graham, etc.), the current leadership is far more likely to make common cause with liberal Christians on other issues such as poverty, global warming, and the fight against AIDS.



Study Questions:
1.     What is post-millennialism and pre-millennialism, and how do these interpretations affect political postures among Protestant communities?
2.     Who was Niebuhr and what was his theory of society?
3.     How has Protestantism linked itself to contemporary politics, both on the liberal and conservative sides?

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