In America's Christian faith, a surprising comeback of rock-
ribbed Calvinism is challenging the Jesus-is-your-buddy gospel of
Snow falls resolutely on a Saturday morning in Washington, but
the festively lit basement of a church near the US Capitol is
packed. Some 200 female members have invited an equal number of
women for tea, cookies, conversation - and 16th-century evangelism.
What newcomers at Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) hear is
hardly "Christianity for Dummies." Nor is it "Extreme Makeover: Born-
Again Edition." Instead, a young woman named Kasey Gurley describes
her disobedience and suffering in Old Testament terms.
"I worship my own comfort, my own opinion of myself," she
confesses. "Like the idolatrous people of Judah, we deserve the full
wrath of God." She warns the women that "we'll never be safe in good
intentions," but assures them that "Christ died for us so we
wouldn't have to." Her closing prayer is both frank and
transcendent: "Our comfort in suffering is this: that through Christ
you provide eternal life."
It is so quiet you can hear an oatmeal cookie crumble.
IN PICTURES: Calvinism at Capitol Hill Baptist Church
Welcome to the austere - and increasingly embraced - message of
Calvinism. Five centuries ago, John Calvin's teachings reconceived
Christianity; midwifed Western ideas about capitalism, democracy,
and religious liberty; and nursed the Puritan values that later cast
the character of America.
Today, his theology is making a surprising comeback, challenging
the me-centered prosperity gospel of much of modern evangelicalism
with a God-first immersion in Scripture. In an age of materialism
and made-to-order religion, Calvinism's unmalleable doctrines and
view of God as an all-powerful potentate who decides everything is
winning over many Christians - especially the young.
Twenty-something followers in the Presbyterian, Anglican, and
independent evangelical churches are rallying around Calvinist, or
Reformed, teaching. In the Southern Baptist Convention, America's
largest Protestant body, at least 10 percent of its pastors identify
as Calvinist, while more than one-third of recent seminary graduates
New Calvinism draws legions to the sermons of preachers like John
Piper of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Here at CHBC,
the pews and even rooms in the basement are filled each Sunday,
mostly with young professionals. Since senior pastor Mark Dever
brought Calvinist preaching here 16 years ago, the church has grown
sevenfold. Today it is bursting at the stained-glass windows.
Yet the movement's biggest impact may not be in the pews. It's in
publishing circles and on Christian blogs, in divinity schools and
at conferences like "Together for the Gospel," where the rock stars
of Reformed theology explore such topics as "The Sinner Neither Able
Nor Willing: The Doctrine of Absolute Inability."
"There is a very clear resurgence of Calvinism," says Steven
Lemke, provost and a professor at the New Orleans Baptist
The renewed interest arrives at a crucial inflection point for
American religion. After reviewing a landmark opinion survey last
year that showed a precipitous decline in the number of people who
identify themselves as Christian, Newsweek declared ominously that
we may be witnessing "the end of Christian America."
In some ways, Newsweek may have understated the shift. Five
hundred years after Martin Luther posted his 95 theses challenging
the Roman Catholic Church, some religion watchers see not just a
post-Christian America but an unraveling of the Protestant
Reformation itself. Their alarm is rooted in surveys that show a
watering down of Christian beliefs.
Now come the New Calvinists with their return to inviolable
doctrines and talk of damnation - in essence, the Puritans, minus
the breeches and powdered wigs. …