Viewpoint - Truth to Power

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There is a joke that goes ‘What is a Calvinist’s favourite day? Election day’.

If you don’t get that joke, I won’t try to explain it. But if you do, it’s probably a reminder that Calvinism is often defined, or rather caricatured, by a narrow and often biased reference to one doctrine. Calvinism, as faithful readers of this column will by now know, is not, however, confined to one issue, doctrinal or otherwise.

It is, in fact, a basis for a worldview, a way of encapsulating the whole of reality. It views the Bible not only as something to be read, but as something by which everything else is to be read. So it has everything to do with everything; there is nothing into which Calvinists will not poke their noses.

Which is the reason that, from Calvin onwards, it has been a characteristic of the movement that it has not been afraid to speak truth to power. From Calvin in Geneva to Knox in Scotland to the Huguenots in France to the Puritans in England: the theology of the Reformation never tired of speaking its views into the face of the civil powers.

So yes, election day ought to be a favourite for Calvinists, but not for the reason of the joke. It is a day on which we all get our opportunity to cast our vote for the representative of our choice in Parliament, and the government of our choice in Westminster. That democratic principle itself is in no small part due to the defence of individual liberty which the Reformation helped to recover. But it is also of interest to our Calvinism that we use it well.

So I write these lines in the tradition of bringing the claims of truth to bear on the process and outcomes of democracy, and in the hope that next year’s Holyrood election, for which the campaigning is bound to start soon, will learn some lessons from this one.

It is always difficult to be a parliamentary representative of a Bible belt constituency, and the Western Isles is the nearest thing that Scotland has to a Bible belt. The Calvinistic mindset will always want more than politics can deliver; politics will always defer to the least offensive position, which is usually not that of the Calvinists.

But there are some things that this particular Calvinist has not appreciated over the campaigning of the last few weeks. The Labour leader, for example, used unnecessarily offensive language during an interview out of which the word ‘Hell’ became one of the public slogans of the campaign. In fairness to the candidate for our own constituency, I did not see it emblazoned anywhere here, but it is poor campaigning that cannot employ purity in public speech.

None of the parties, as far as I can observe, stopped campaigning on Sundays. I realise that the secularisation of our society has led to the near obliteration of Sunday as a day of rest, but a day of rest it ought to be. Secular politicians need a rest from the pursuit of power, and Calvinists need a rest from secular politicians. It has been depressing to read in Monday’s headlines that Sunday offers no let up on the campaign trail; do our aspiring politicians not know that kingdom, power and glory ought to be ascribed not to men but to God?

Few of the parties have addressed the real concerns of Christians about the marginalisation of Christianity from public life. There is good evidence for discrimination against Christians and Christian bodies in our society; yet the promises of the politicians revolve around concepts of tolerance, fairness and equality. Social cohesion, however, requires more than that: it requires morality, righteousness and conscience, all of which get buried under the jargon of political correctness.

And much of the campaigning has been in the aftermath, and with continued discussion, of the independence referendum, which has only served to blunt the issues. I assumed that parties on both sides of last year’s public vote would stand by their promise to accept the outcome. I naively thought that meant that the issue had been decided, so that the result of a ‘no’ vote would be a resumption of debate on the substantive issues affecting our national interest.

Instead, we have been led, in my view, down blind alleys in which nationalism of both sorts has become an idol and not just an ideology. Calvinism can do worse than remind aspiring politicians to debate the politics of the moment.

But if all we can do is criticise, then we Calvinists are not true to our profession either. We are duty bound, after all, to pray for those who are in authority, for kings, queens and civil magistrates. We not only believe that the church is not a kingdom subject to Christ’s rule, but that our democratically elected government also owes its primary loyalty to him.

For that reason, therefore, we are under obligation to pray for our Parliamentary representatives, to honour them for the sake of their office, to remind them of their accountability to God, and to co-operate with them in the interests both of the Church and the State. Such political and religious ideals seem a world removed from the secular society we have become, but if we do not begin with ideals, where shall we end up?

Calvinists, of course, never did have a monopoly on political philosophy; nor did they ever have undiminished success in the implementation of their own brand of political thinking. Nor were they in complete agreement on how it should be implemented. But they were all insistent, at various stages of history, that left to ourselves we would create a society in our own image and interests. Ultimately, nothing could be more nightmarish. Real transformation comes from above, not from below.

Which is the reason, ultimately, why Calvinists do prefer Election day above all others.