Witte Connects the Constitution to Calvinism

Mstislav Fedorchuk

On Monday, September 21, a large crowd of Colgate students and professors packed into the Persson Hall Auditorium to attend a lecture given by Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law, Alonzo L. McDonald Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory Law School, John Witte, Jr.

Witte’s presentation, titled “The Calvinist Roots of Constitutional Rights,” was focused predominantly on tying modern ideas of constitutional rights, often labeled as “products of the Enlightenment,” to the growth and spread of Calvinism in Western Europe. Witte argued that the forerunner to Enlightenment ideology developed during the late 16th century as a response to pogroms against Calvinists, when writers like Theodore Beza synthesized common Calvinist sentiments into a list of basic rights. These, according to Witte, became early versions of the common historical terms, including the social contract theory, separation of powers, the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment and the populist right to subvert governments that abuse its subjects. Over time, these ideas were distributed, secularized and refined by Enlightenment philosophers, resulting in the foundation of the United States Constitution.

“Rights cannot be exported,” Witte said during his talk. “They are derived from the culture and shared experiences of the community.”

Witte’s presentation was well received by those in attendance. In the conversation following the lecture, students often commented that Witte was “eloquent” and “circumspect” in his approach to the issue.

“He has a certain aura about him,” first-year David Downing said of Witte. “He is a wonderful speaker and, whether you agreed with what he said or not, his approach definitely got you thinking.”

The presentation, sponsored by Colgate’s Institute for Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PP&E), was meant to touch upon the Institute’s theme for this year, “Liberal Democracy and Its Limits.” Students were asked to ponder and analyze the values of modern government and to contemplate where the division between democracy and individual discretion lies in the 21st century.

The goal of all this questioning is to encourage students to truly assert and come to terms with their beliefs of government and its origins, because, in the Institute’s own words, “Although liberal democracy has become the prevailing regime aspiration, much about it remains unknown and much is contested…Is it good for all times and all places…[and does it] foster the civic virtues needed to sustain it?”