Richard Mouw: Calvinism at the National Prayer Breakfast

What would John Calvin say about the interreligious engagement of the National Prayer Breakfast?

When I told a friend that I would be attending the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC, he suggested a follow-up to my book “Calvinism at the Las Vegas Airport” would be “Calvinism at the National Prayer Breakfast.”

It was an intriguing suggestion, and I did keep it in mind as I sat the next morning in the large banquet room at the Washington Hilton. The prayers and readings, and especially the moving speeches by both featured speakers, Tony Blair and President Obama, were well-crafted, highly nuanced treatments of faith in public life. Neither of them could be accused of following a simple-minded “civil religion” line. Each of them was speaking as committed Christian to a more general audience, and indeed to a more general culture, in which they were appealing beyond the community shaped by their—and my—Christian convictions. They were calling people of good will to work together for the common good.

There I sat, then—seated next to a Muslim mufti from Libya—as a Calvinist who was asking what John Calvin what have thought about what I was seeing and hearing. And the fact is that some of the Reformer’s pronouncements would have supported the pleas of Blair and Obama. Calvin could use quite positive terms to describe the moral and civic capacities of humanity in general. Sin does not destroy our shared social nature, he tells us: “there exist in all men’s minds universal impressions of a certain civic fair dealing and order. Hence no man is to be found who does not understand that every sort of human organization must be regulated by laws, and who does not comprehend the principles of those laws.” We do well, then, to celebrate the “many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good.”

But Calvin could quickly turn to more negative assessments. While people in general do understand the principles of civic fairness, he quickly adds that the human mind “limps and staggers” after truth in its pursuit of the good life. In people whose hearts have not been transformed by Christ, he says, the civic “virtues are so sullied that before God they lose all favor,” so that anything in them “that appears praiseworthy must be considered worthless.”

In his biography of John Calvin, the Berkeley historian William Bouwsma saw this kind of tension in the Reformer as evidence for “two Calvins,” one with broad “humanist” sensitivities and the other obsessed with the need for drawing strict boundaries. As I sat at the National Prayer Breakfast, the more generous Calvinist loomed large for me. The other Calvin was not completely absent, though. I allowed him to issue his warnings. But this time around I celebrated the display of civic virtue as stood with the rest of the crowd in a standing ovation to each of the featured speakers.

Richard J. Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary.