G.K. Chesterton once remarked that America was “a nation with the soul of a church.” This remark is frequently held up as an apt description of a country that remains relatively religious even as Europe secularizes, that’s still highly moralistic in its understanding of itself and its role in the world, with a history of producing cults and undergoing periodic spiritual awakenings. America does not have an officially established church, so Chesterton’s remark points to something different: an unofficial religion and system of values that pervades the country’s politics and culture and sensibilities, something often referred to as America’s civil, or civic, religion. But if Chesterton’s remark is true, and America’s soul is a church, what kind of church is it?
Marilynne Robinson is one of the most famous contemporary authors directly and persistently trying to explore that question, and her latest essay collection, The Givenness of Things, extends her inquiries. An instructor at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Robinson is primarily known for her fiction. Her gorgeous first novel Housekeeping was followed by a celebrated trilogy set in a small town in Iowa. The first of that trilogy, Gilead, won the Pulitzer Prize and has been highly praised by, for example, President Obama (earlier this month, the New York Review of Books published a two-part interview of Robinson conducted by the President himself.)
With The Givenness of Things, however, Robinson has now produced more books of non-fiction than she has novels. As a whole, these works propose an answer to the question of America’s religious identity: The country’s unofficial religion often was and should continue to be Calvinist liberalism. The phrase may seem an odd one, but such a system of thought, as Robinson has it, has often undergirded the American order. Somewhere along the way, however, the country drifted away from its faith, to its great detriment. Her work is an attempt to call America back to a form of faith that’s deeply rooted in the Calvinist tradition but also broad enough to offer ethical and political guidance to people of many religions (or none at all).
The attempt is, however, unlikely to be successful. For all her skills as a writer and a thinker, Robinson is a preacher without a congregation. If a coherent national ethos emerges out of the polarizing cultural upheavals America is currently experiencing, it is likely to be considerably more secular, or considerably more conservative, than Robinson’s project.
Calvinist liberalism, in Robinson’s telling, is a system of thought that (obviously) takes inspiration from the Reformation theologian John Calvin. Calvin is often understood to be an intolerant purveyor of an inhumane theology, but Robinson contends that this perception is deeply biased and inaccurate. On the contrary, she argues, he taught an ethos of human sacredness. Every human has a soul—is made in the image of God—and that as a result we should therefore treat each other with respect, awe, and unconditional generosity. The Incarnation of Christ—God becoming man—only confirms this human sacredness.
Robinson’s particular theology, however, poses several problems. First, Robinson’s use of the word “liberal” may trade on an equivocation. She means “liberal” simply to be “generous,” but also to imply political liberalism (in the American, not the British, sense). She herself politically leans Left, and seems to assume that the one implies the other, and vice versa, without acknowledging or arguing for it explicitly. This creates moments of dissonance in the essay collection.
Second, it’s not clear what Robinson thinks about the other traditional doctrines of Calvinism—for instance, predestination. In The Givenness of Things, she indicates that predestination is a theological question that can’t be answered, and therefore seemingly not worth talking about much. Yet if you strip down Calvinism to the ideas that humans are sacred, that the Incarnation dignifies man, and that all people should be treated in light of those teachings, it’s not clearly what’s distinctly Calvinist about all that, as opposed to generically Christian.
Robinson’s approach to untangling that last issue can roughly be described as historical, and is at least part defensible. Calvinism may not be the only system of liberal theology, she argues, but it is in fact that source that Americans have typically drawn from (“Calvinism is uniquely the fons et origo of Christian liberalism in the modern period,” she wrote in an earlier book). Religious awakenings, often inspired by Calvinist principles, have gone hand-in-hand with movements to reform the country. Robinson has stressed, for example, the central role that Christians steeped in Calvinist theology played in abolition and in establishing colleges in the Midwest like Knox, Grinnell, and Oberlin that furthered the cause.
This Calvinist liberalism continued to influence American culture and politics up to the recent past. In an essay titled “Awakening,” Robinson argues that the Civil Rights Movement represented a kind of “third great awakening.” She writes that it is remembered as a civic, not a religious movement, but “the distinction between the civic and religious is never clear, and was certainly not clear in this case.” Martin Luther King invoked American civic religion when he made use of the famous words from the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” For Robinson, this is a religious statement, but it is also civic statement, because even non-religious Americans can accept its ethical content. And this shining moment of reform-minded civic religion was deeply bound up with the role of Christian churches, in this case especially African American churches.
The Civil Rights Movement therefore shows American religion functioning exactly as Robinson likes: Churches lead by an ethos of human sacredness launching a movement to better America—and doing so in such a way that large swathes of the nation could get behind it. Religious conversion renewed our love for the human person, unleashing energies that transformed society to the good.
But at the moment, American religion no longer appears to works that way. “If American civil religion can be said to have a congregation,” she writes in the aforementioned essay “Awakening,” “I was a member in good standing—until certain shifts became apparent in the meaning and effect of religion in America.” By this, she seems at least in part to mean the replacement of Calvinist liberalism with conservative evangelicalism, motivated (in her view) by fear and fixated on the wrong issues. Robinson wants us to walk back that shift. But even if you accept her account of American history—she’s not the only one to see the Civil Rights Era as a golden Christian moment—the kind of Calvinism that Robinson offers cannot serve as a basis for the American order today because there is no broader constituency who identifies with it and few entrenched institutions that can advance it. Robinson pinpoints mainline Protestant churches as the traditional carriers of Calvinist liberalism, and wants them to reclaim the cultural place that she thinks rightly belongs to them.
Mainline Protestants belong to the historic denominations of American Christianity such as Presbyterianism and Congregationalism, and stand in contrast to non-denominational evangelicals, compared to whom they tend to be more liberal politically and theologically. But the truth is that there aren’t many mainliners left—the mainline denominations have hemorrhaged members, and even those who remain are too theologically unmoored for Robinson’s taste. In her own words, they run “seminaries that a make a sort of Esperanto of world religions and transient pieties, a non-language articulate in no vision that anyone can take seriously.” Robinson wants mainline churches to be rooted in traditional language and serious theology even while being open to doctrinal innovations like same-sex marriage. There will always be some people who find that vision appealing, but on the whole it has proven to be a tightrope too difficult for any large body of American Christians to walk.
Instead, it’s the groups at the opposite sides that are growing. At Five Thirty Eight, Leah Libresco has measured the current strength of religious groups (including the unaffiliated) by seeing what their net demographic change would be projected out, when today’s conversion, retention, and fertility rates are taken into account. The two biggest demographic winners on this account are evangelical Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated, while Catholics and the mainline lose out. The unaffiliated are growing faster than evangelicals, to be sure, but they lose some of that advantage when their below-replacement fertility rate is taken into account.
Based on current evidence, then, America’s religious future belongs to one of those two groups. Perhaps a fourth great awakening will sweep America, giving renewed vigor to mainline churches and reversing disaffiliation. But in the meantime, Robinson’s Calvinist liberalism doesn’t have enough institutional or cultural support to reverse the trends apparent today. There are robust Protestant Churches in America—the ones filled with the demographically strong evangelicals Libresco points to. But Robinson fears at least some of these evangelicals have given Christianity a bad name, and she is not writing for them.
Perhaps she should be. Many of these churches consider themselves to be in the Calvinist tradition, and many are more open to her focus on liberality than Robinson might know. In the end, she could probably do more good helping religious traditionalists rejigger their priorities than she could fighting a losing battle to rebuild the mainline or convert the disaffiliated.
The Givenness of Things is not only a work about the intersection of politics and theology. Indeed, the book’s best parts don’t touch explicitly on that topic at all. The most compelling essays are those that explore a circumstance Robinson is much taken with: Based on what we’ve learned about fundamental reality—think Quantum Physics—we should expect the universe to behave much more strangely and inconsistently than it does. The order and regularity of the universe as we experience it therefore is a puzzle, and Robinson’s writing on it are the best parts of the collection.
But it’s her theory of America’s Calvinist heritage that touches most directly on many of the questions currently being debated in the country’s conversation about itself, including the so-called “culture wars,” the debates about America’s history occasioned by the increasingly widespread rejection of figures from the country’s path, and the fight over what values and philosophies will govern American society. Unfortunately, the parts of The Givenness of Things that deal with those questions are the weakest series of essays Robinson has yet produced. Some passages shine, but those that do essentially repeat claims she defended at greater length in earlier works.
Robinson’s themes are the same as they’ve always been, and, as themes, they have never been more timely. But to get her best writing, start at the beginning of her career, not with The Givenness of Things.