WASHINGTON — Calvin is discovering a new popularity in America. No, not the character from the Bill Watterson comic Calvin and Hobbes, but John Calvin, the 16th-century French Protestant Reformer.

The rise of this latest wave of neo-Calvinism, which follows another revival at the beginning of the 20th century, is all the more surprising because overall church attendance in the United States has declined from 43% in 2004 to 36% in 2014, according to Barna, a California-based research institute. 

At Capitol Hill Baptist Church, which proudly characterizes itself a Calvinist congregation, the pews are no longer empty. Moreover, the average age of the faithful in this church not far from the Capitol in Washington, D.C., is around 30 years old, as opposed to 70 two decades ago, pastor Mark Dever explains.

“Faith has ups and downs without always knowing why. But it’s true that the U.S. has been deeply transformed this last century,” Dever says. “From the country that was founded by white Anglo-Saxons to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, including important immigration and intense secularization of the society, some Americans now wish to go back to basics, to what the Bible teaches.”

Collin Hansen, editorial director of Gospel Coalition, which promotes Calvinism in evangelical churches, offers another explanation. “A number of major churches in the U.S. provide good advice to live one’s present life to the maximum. It’s often very emotional. These churches avoid talking about pain. We Calvinists don’t see things this way. It’s not possible to disregard pain. On the contrary, God uses it to draw attention.”

Hansen believes that doubts about the excesses of modern consumer society have pushed people to cling to strong markers such as the Scriptures, which 25-year-old Barton Gingerich seems to confirm. “Young people go to church to know what it says in the Bible,” says Gingerich, a researcher at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington. “They don’t want to hear what they can find themselves on YouTube.”

The concept of predestination, which holds that all has been willed by God and is at the heart of Calvin’s teachings, apparently doesn’t scare them.

Changing the world

Helping to lift American Calvinism are several leading Protestant figures. Preachers such as Tim Keller or Mark Driscoll are celebrities that encourage a more literal reading of the Bible.

Dever isn’t surprised. “Americans are driven by a real desire to change the world and themselves. In Europe, people are more resigned.”

Pastor Mark Dever preaching — Photo: James Thompson

Gordon Graham, director of the Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology, linked to Princeton University’s theology seminar, sees other reasons for this revival. “Mainstream Christian churches have become weak by embracing progressive causes like abortion and same-sex marriage. Neo-Calvinism is an answer to this.”

According to Isabelle Graesslé, head of the International Museum of the Reformation in Geneva, Calvinism advocates an individual conversion, personal salvation and the power of the Holy Spirit. Some Calvinists even consider the World Council of Churches, based in Geneva, as “some sort of new Antichrist.”

Mistrust of the state

American Calvinism is, of course, not new. It was very much a part of the early history of the United States. Its influence was considerable as soon as the Pilgrim Fathers, the English puritans who had found refuge in the Netherlands, reached Massachusetts in the 17th century. They founded universities, including the Calvin College in Michigan. “Their intellectual relation to America had a real impact,” Gordon Graham notes. Many credit them with the famous American spirit of individualism, the work ethic and even the American dream.

Even though neo-Calvinists are not directly involved in politics, they tend to be opposed to big government, a state that is too intrusive. Graham, for example, says the Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism law adopted by Congress after 9/11, is thoroughly contrary to Calvinist principles.

“Every sphere of life obeys to the sovereignty of God,” Graham says. “Calvinists don’t like the state intervening to standardize everything or to monitor people.”

Needless to say, they were outraged to learn that the National Security Agency was monitoring the Internet activity and telephone conversations of innocent Americans.