A novelist’s lonely struggle to recover the religion-inspired liberalism of America’s founding ethos.
When I Was a Child I Read Books
by Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pp.
“People always ask me if I’m talking about the same thing again,” novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson told a crowded lecture hall at the University of Chicago in the spring of 2011. “The same thing” being French Protestant theologian John Calvin and his influence on American history. “And the honest answer would almost always be ‘yes.’” Her lecture that day was titled “The Freedom of a Christian,” and it traced an idea of freedom to the New England Puritans, the theology of Calvin, and back all the way to the Old Testament. “Freedom,” in the language of these foundational texts, “is something we give to one another, rather than something we claim for ourselves,” she explained.
Robinson burst on the literary scene in 1980 with the publication of her novel Housekeeping, a story of orphaned sisters being raised by an eccentric aunt in small-town Idaho. Her second novel didn’t appear until a quarter century later. Gilead, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2004, was written in the voice of an ailing Calvinist minister in Iowa recording his family history for his young son. Four years later she published Home, a companion piece set in the same time and place as Gilead but from the perspective of different characters. Robinson also produced a volume of essays (The Death of Adam), an exposé on the British nuclear industry (Mother Country), and a rebuttal to the claims of evolutionary psychology (Absence of Mind).
The political implications of Robinson’s work emerge with particular clarity in her new collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books. The force of these decades of speculations and explorations has been summoned with some urgency by the 2008 economic crisis and the punitive responses—on both the populist right and the technocratic center—that have followed. The “language of public life has lost the character of generosity,” Robinson writes in the introduction, “and the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased out of historical memory.”
Words like “generosity” and “largeness of spirit” are not clichés in this instance. For Marilynne Robinson, human life expands or contracts based on how we define ourselves. And the American founding, contrary to the bitter nostalgia of the Tea Party right and the cynical debunking of the postmodern left, was staked on the idea that humans are capable of much more than our contemporary ideologies admit. This great democratic, progressive ambition comes, Robinson claims, from New England Calvinism.
Competing with other, more conservative religious interpretations of America, New England Calvinism spread through the Midwest in an effort to create a culture that was resistant to slavery and came to exert a disproportionate influence on the nation as a whole through educational institutions and revival movements. The legacy of this distinctive religious culture is a large part of what is at stake in contemporary debates over taxes, spending, and the safety net—whether we know it or not.
Throughout her diverse body of work, Robinson tends to return to certain themes over and over again. She treasures and respects the characters in her novels, however dire their flaws. She fiercely resists reductive descriptions of humanity in her essays, whether they come from Freud, Skinner, or Darwin. She admires the radical religious impulses, now typically at least half forgotten, behind institutions like liberal arts colleges, public education, and country churches. Robinson celebrates the noble impulses found in American history and letters, the Bible, modern science, and ancient culture. And she repeatedly extols the virtue of “reverence,” a capacity to attend to, learn from, dignify, and defend the natural world and, especially, one’s fellow humans. Whether in history or in fiction, this capacity for reverence is fraught with political implications.
“There is clearly a feeling abroad that God smiled on our beginnings,” Robinson says in the volume’s central essay, “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism.” She is referring most obviously to the writing and politics of Glenn Beck, David Barton, and most of the Republican presidential candidates— none of whom, it is clearly implied, truly understand those beginnings. “If we really did attempt to return to them,” she insists, “we would find a recurrent, passionate insistence on bounty or liberality” and “enjoying the great blessings God has promised to liberality to the poor.” The essay argues for the sort of claim Robinson is virtually alone among American public intellectuals in making. “Calvinism is uniquely the fons et origo of Christian liberalism in the modern period,” she writes, “and this liberalism has had its origins largely in the Old Testament.”
A movement of the Protestant Reformation, Calvinism originated in France and was carried to Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Great Britain by exiles fleeing religious persecution. Among the distinctive features of Calvinist Christianity is a conviction that society as a whole may be good and just. (Scarlet letters and sumptuary laws are more commonly remembered today, but the local organization of charity and relief was probably a more important development in the sixteenth century.) This conviction derived in part from the importance placed on the Old Testament as a source for social ethics, an importance Lutherans and Catholics—and the Anglicans who founded the American South—did not share. Robinson identifies the many passages in the Old Testament urging and commanding something long rendered in Calvinist Bible translations as “liberality,” that is, “an ethics of nonjudgmental, nonexclusive generosity” toward freed slaves, widows, orphans, the landless, and other people in need.
This is the sense in which the word “liberal” entered the American lexicon, Robinson claims, whereas in England it migrated from the French Revolutionary discourse of liberty. Neither ashen-faced oppressors nor rugged individualists, the Puritan founders of New England relied repeatedly on these biblical injunctions, from John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity onward; they were “central to American social thought from the beginning.” And this biblical ethos and the laws it directly inspired have not been uniformly superseded in our own more secular age. “A glance at the treatment of the great class of debtors now being evicted from their homes in America and elsewhere should make it clear that, from the point of view of graciousness or severity, an honest comparison” between the Old Testament and our own laws “is not always in our favor.” This is not new material for Robinson; the radical abolitionist preacher in Gilead is remembered for emptying the offering plates of a prosperous church into his hat to distribute to people in need, however conventionally undeserving.
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