Peter Feuerherd’s recent column at JSTOR Daily discusses sixteenth century Protestant Reformer John Calvin and his influence on capitalism. Calvin is viewed negatively by most moderns, both because of his identification with the doctrine of predestination – that God has eternally elected those who will be saved – as well as for a common, if not quite accurate, styling of the Weberian hypothesis, that Calvin and Calvinists believed worldly affluence to signify divine election.
My favorite novelist is also Barack Obama’s. That shouldn’t be a problem, you might say—two people of widely different political opinions can love the same beautiful things. As Paul Seaton has observed on this site, studying Marilynne Robinson’s nonfiction, marked as it is by her very conventional academic-liberal political opinions, is not very conducive to appreciating the exquisite subtlety of her fiction.
The New York Review of Books late last year published an extensive conversation between the President and the novelist (which Joe Knippenberg commented on here). Obama and the author of Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), and Home (2008) come to an immediate meeting of minds, or rather hearts, on their faith in “democracy,” which, the ostensibly Calvinist Robinson posits, is based on “the willingness to assume well about other people.”
Asked by the President to explain the convergence between her Christianity and her “concerns about democracy,” Robinson offers the simplest possible explanation: she believes “people are images of God” and that “democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level.” To the President’s and the novelist’s joint chagrin, though, the “loudest voices” for Christianity in American politics don’t really take their Christianity seriously; supposedly they fail to follow Christ’s injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Robinson has gone so far as to describe Christian America as “associating the precious Lord with ignorance, intolerance, and belligerent nationalism.”
In the days since Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns passed away, the former’s angry disputes with his fellow Straussians have received a lot of commentary. There are those who say it was all quite childish. And you know, a lot of it was, precisely because the differences so often seemed small or, when examined closely, not really differences at all. Still, some of the differences are real enough to merit our close attention.
On the more general issue of which student of Strauss is more faithful to the true and complete teaching of Leo Strauss, the most obvious response is that the capable students of any great teacher always grab on to part of what he (or she) taught and confuse it with the whole. Marx and Hegel. Alexandre Kojève and Hegel. Maybe even Aristotle and Plato.
In literary terms, Marilynne Robinson is a national treasure. In political terms, not so much. “When she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad she was horrid,” as the nursery rhyme has it. Robinson might not even mind my saying that, by the way. As an essayist she deliberately tries to make countercultural moves, intellectually and spiritually. Unfortunately, Robinson’s political views as expressed in her latest collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, are far from countercultural if by that we mean unusual. They’re off-the-shelf liberal. Like her hero, President Obama, she is disinclined…
Possibly no figure out of the American past today enjoys a greater prestige than Roger Williams – and for none is esteem based on so little familiarity with his deeds or so comprehensive an ignorance of his words. – Perry Miller  Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and champion of religious liberty, is one of those figures in American history the biographies of whom almost always reveal more about the biographer or the times in which they were written than about the subject. An enigmatic character, Williams’s biographers have tended to treat him as if he were of a…