eyes on the U.S.

Rugged Individuals: Revival Of American Calvinism

Mark Dever, senior pastor of Washington's Capitol Hill Baptist Church
Mark Dever, senior pastor of Washington's Capitol Hill Baptist Church
Stéphane Bussard

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!