The coveted Spotty (tm) - graphic by Tild
by Steve Timmer
Aug 30, 2020, 3:00 PM

Diane Ring wins a Spotty ™

While taking Stephen B. Young to the woodshed

There were three good letters in the Star Tribune today remarking on Stephen Young’s paean to Calvinism last week. (I wrote about it, too, in Stephen Young’s Magical History Tour.) Here’s the one I like the best; it wins the coveted Spotty™:

In his Aug. 23 commentary, Stephen B. Young offers a “grand” and simplistic analysis of Calvinism’s influence on the American Revolution and the establishment of U.S. government. His article omits far too much historical information, which raises questions about the validity of his sweeping claims.

The Calvinists in New England may have had a vision of community, but it was limited. Ultimately they did not extend that to the Indigenous inhabitants (there was plenty of 17th-century conflict with the “savages”). The New England colonies and then states had slavery, first of Native Americans, then of Africans. They were key participants in the slave trade as well. Obviously, they were not uniformly opposed to slavery, as Young claims. It raises serious questions about his incredibly sweeping assertion that Calvinists were responsible for abolitionism (Quakers were not an offshoot of Calvinism; in fact, they were persecuted in New England), Reconstruction and the civil rights movement. This is not to undermine the nobility of the purpose stated in the Mayflower Compact, but we must acknowledge how limited that vision was in practice.

To read Young, one might think that the Enlightenment had no impact on the founders. But many historians view it as the most immediate influence. This includes French philosophers such as Descartes, Voltaire and Rousseau. Certainly Calvinist influence is not absent, but nor is it dominant. Then, of course, there is no mention of Jefferson, Madison, Washington and the Southern founders, who were not heirs of Calvinism. Relegated to the section of the country to which Young appears to believe slavery was confined, do they not count?

No one I know on the left considers the U.S. “irredeemable.” No one I know or have read considers racism “the complete story of what has shaped America.” Exaggeration and distortion are another sign of simplistic analysis, whether it be from the political right or the political left. So let’s acknowledge the whole, messy (and, yes, at times evil) contradictory reality of our history. That’s the base from which we can begin to move forward.

Diane Ring, Edina

The writer is a retired teacher of U.S. history.

Remember, a Spotty™ is awarded, in the name of my old alter ego, to the writer of an op-ed, letter to the editor, or blog story or comment that I wish I had written myself.

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