Tuesday, November 18, 2003


Spooner is the clearest writer on the murky subject of voting, and it certainly goes against the grain to question the underlying assumptions of politics as he does. Our modern civic religion insists upon our participation in ballot-boxing, but it’s not justified. There are many traditions which take a much different path, and these lead to a libertarian vision of a free society wherein people are interconnected through tradition, compact and contract with coercion either minimized or eliminated completely. Let me expound on a prominent one: Calvinism.

In the Reformed Tradition, Calvin addressed the issue in a different manner, but as you will see, it applies to this issue. This perspective has been a major factor in ecclesiastical history (particularly Presbyterian) as well as with political history, and is part of the reason for the success of those countries influenced by the Reformed Tradition. He redirects Christian action from participating in misdirected and unchristian governments (ecclesiastic and secular) to that of avoiding religious corruption and political participation in sinful governments that tolerate heretical behaviour.

Calvin’s “On Shunning the Unlawful Rites of the Ungodly” Was written to persuade a friend to leave Roman Catholicism. His friend asked if it was possible to remain outwardly Catholic while inwardly being of Reformed convictions. At the time was a large group of people in Reformation Europe, referred to as Nicodemites (after the Pharisee Nicodemus of John 3), often in important positions, and for whom conversion to the Reformed faith would mean disaster. Such people could lose their family, their incomes, and even their lives (certainly after the renunciation of the Edict of Nantes). The question can be phrased thus: "Is it lawful for a person who has renounced Popery in his heart to conform outwardly to its rites, for the purpose of avoiding persecution, or for any other imaginable cause?"

Calvin said he should remove himself immediately from fellowship with the Roman Church. Calvin outlined why the Roman Catholic Church is a false church and why true Christians can have nothing to do with the blasphemies and idolatries found within. Even being in the presence of the mass can give the appearance to others of conformity to sin against the second commandment. Calvin described Roman Catholic worship and the Mass and argues "that those only preserve the holy religion of God who profane it by no defilements of unhallowed superstitions, and that those violate, pollute, and lacerate it, who mix it up with impure and impious rites."

Calvin lays out the Reformation principle of worship (cf. Heidelberg Catechism QA 96). Then he applies the Reformation principle of worship to the Roman Catholic Church and shows us clearly why we can have no fellowship with a false church which has not repented of its blasphemy and idolatry in the last 500 years.

Calvin dealt specifically with the issue of participation in the mass, advising that those who had turned from Roman Catholicism should cease attending the mass. He also objected to any "display of contempt" for the mass that might be regarded as "sheer impiety against God."7 He refrained from laying down religious obligations on people "in regard to things … which ought to be left free" and understood fellowship with sacrilege not in terms of "mere proximity of place … but inward consent, and some kind of outward manifestation indicative of consent.

In many respects, Calvin was an early proponent of the separation of Church and State. Both Church and State were responsible to God and should not rule over each other. Divine/Natural Law should form the foundation for all secular government, and God establishes States to enforce Divine Laws.

Calvin believed that ministers, elders and deacons should be appointed by the people, and he had no bishops, cardinals, or popes in his ecclesiastical hierarchy (these views formed the governmental basis for Presbyterianism) under the proper principle of agency. He believed that the populace should obey the law, unless commanded to do what is contrary to God's Law. To Calvin, unjust rulers or dictators could be removed by the populace.

Calvinism accepted business as a legitimate aspect of human endeavor. Tawney noted "Its enemy was not the accumulation of riches, but their misuse for the purposes of self-indulgence or ostentation." In this way, Calvinism reunited the spheres of economy and religion and gave moral sanction to the freer movement of the market principle. Businessman's activities were never for himself but always sublimated to a religious ideal that his work was to manifest devotion to God through selfless diligence. This theology established Calvinism as the new faith of the urban traders and merchants of northern Europe as well as the rest of the Protestant territories throughout the world.

For our purposes, however, the issue of shunning is crucial in our understanding of the response Reformed Christianity gives to sinful governments, and gives an important insight as to the behavior of the Christians influenced by Calvin (and his influence is in almost every Protestant tradition) as well as those influenced by John Knox (I’m not going to cover him here—that would make this post far too long—if it isn’t already too long!).

Living under a sinful government (and this certainly includes all governments to one extent or other) leaves a Christian obligated to one of two alternatives: 1) breaking the government of sin through resistance/overthrow (as advocated in “Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos”) or secession; or 2) turning your back on all contact with government. The first alternative is that of a revolutionary response and clearly one of the reasons for the support of the American Revolutionary War. The second response, shunning, was practiced by many of the members Reformed Churches, although now mostly by Amish, Mennonites and Doukobors.

This second response was a fundamental underpinning of why the Reformation is responsible for the phenomenal rise of the prosperity in countries where Protestantism was prominent. Not through participation in the government, but through avoiding and ignoring the state, not participating or supporting the government in any way possible. This is a somewhat different response than that of Tawney and other historians, but is the conclusion that I have arrived at.

There is a notable literature in Christian writings on politics, particularly at the personal level, where non-voting and nonparticipation in governmental affairs is advocated. Unfortunately, this is not well recognized. It should be, however.


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