To the extent anyone remembers Anne Hutchinson today, it is as a colonial religious leader who has been read backward into history as a proto-feminist icon.
Her split with the civil-religious authorities in the Massachusetts Bay Colony is seen as an early example of the American theme of the separation of church and state. A monument on Boston’s Freedom Trail calls Hutchinson a “courageous exponent of civil liberty and religious toleration.”
She was also, it must be said, a bit of a nut. Hutchinson’s split from the established church of Massachusetts sparked what is now known as the Antinomian Controversy. It was America’s first major religious debate, and is surprisingly still relevant in our more secular society.
What Is Antinomianism?
The controversy’s roots lay in the colony’s theology of Calvinist predestination, the idea that God has willed all things in advance, including the salvation or damnation of individual souls. Those predestined to be saved—known as the elect—were still, however, expected to act correctly and follow God’s law. The Calvinist understanding, however, was that mere adherence to the law would not justify salvation; only God’s grace could do that. Those he damned, therefore, were damned because he understood their sinful nature in advance and let them fall.
It is a complicated system to explain, and the tenses get tangled up when speaking about eternal omnipotence. The basic message: salvation is beyond our control, but you still have to behave yourself.
This is where Hutchinson comes in. Taking predestinarianism to its logical conclusion, she began to hold private religious meetings where she declared that people’s outward behavior was not necessarily tied to the state of their souls. If the choice was God’s alone, personal behavior was irrelevant; the elect were, therefore, not bound by the law.
As their movement gathered steam, the antinomians also began to stress personal revelation as being equal to biblical guidance in determining who, exactly, was among the elect. Hutchinson claimed to know who the good people were, regardless of whether they acted in a manner that anyone could actually call good.
On that point, Hutchinson clearly split from mainstream Calvinist opinion. Because Massachusetts colony united church and state, it landed her in court. After a trial, she was convicted and banished from the colony. After a time in Rhode Island, she moved on to present-day New York state, where she and her family were massacred by natives, a sad end to an interesting American story.
What It Means Today
But what does all of this mean for today? In the secular movements that have taken the place of faith in daily life for many Americans, a similar idea is increasingly prevalent. It is often lumped in with the more general, more consistent trend of tribalism, but antinomianism has reemerged in the partisan responses to the post-Weinstein revelations about sexual misconduct in high places.
There was a time when a complicit press kept politicians’ private morality private. When that journalistic consensus began to fray around the time of Gary Hart’s presidential candidacy, what replaced it was a secular antinomianism. Politicians and reporters started to condemn private immorality, but only if it was committed by someone who was already their political enemy. Those they considered “good” could break the rules as they chose.
The Left’s defense of President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s was implicitly—and often explicitly—based on the idea that, because he did so much for their cause, he should be defended from right-wing attacks, no matter their merit. Someone who so perfectly advanced the cause of women (as the Left defined it) could not have sinned against women himself. Clinton was “good,” so rules about good behavior did not apply to him.
Some just dismissed Clinton’s victims’ claims as lies. This was more run-of-the-mill tribalism. But others said that even if it were true, it wouldn’t matter because Clinton was on the right side of history. As Andrew Sullivan wrote earlier this month on that point, partisans of the Left are only now coming to admit that this may have been wrong, and only after Bill Clinton, old and term-limited, is of no further use to them.
They still reject any implication that Hillary Clinton had any role in the cover-ups. Even while professing to now believe Clinton-accuser Juanita Broaddrick, Sullivan writes, their acceptance is incomplete. “As soon as Broaddrick’s story starts to impose on today’s tribal loyalties, and possibly impugn Hillary, it loses credibility. Suddenly, Broaddrick’s account is ‘wildly unlikely.’”
This is more of the same. Perhaps in another 20 years, when Hillary is also a distant memory, we will have a new reckoning with that part of history.
The Lesser of Two Evils Is Still Evil
The revelations of sex scandals that began with Harvey Weinstein have thrown many politicians into Clinton’s place, but without Clinton’s popularity. The result has been the same, though, as supporters of each accused man line up to proclaim their continued allegiance, even if the accusations are completely true.
We saw the beginnings of this in the accusations of sexual misconduct against Donald Trump in 2016. Plenty said the charges were all lies, political skullduggery, not worth anything. But also there was another disturbing pattern of statements. “Sure, he’s bad, but all politicians are bad.” “He’s bad, but Hillary is worse.” “Oh, he did it, but who cares, it’s not a big deal.” These justifications cross over from tribalism to actively compromising one’s beliefs.
Is any political movement so great that we should justify gross immorality in its leaders? And if so, how much misbehavior? How gross the misconduct? If the cause is everything, is there any malfeasance that we must not accept?
We are seeing the limits of what partisans will justify in the scandals surrounding Roy Moore, Al Franken, and John Conyers. Each of these men has his supporters, some of whom disbelieve the charges, and others of whom believe, but excuse.
This second group is easily the more troubling of the two. Like the colonial antinomians, they do not simply deny their man’s transgressions, nor wish to abandon the rules of conduct entirely: they obey the rules but say that certain folk are so good—according to their own judgement of the good—that the rules do not apply to them.
These justifications stem in part from a belief that society is irretrievably broken, that we must accept deeply immoral leaders because the alternative is even more immoral leaders. The world is, indeed, a broken place, and no person is as purely good as we would wish him to be. But the answer is not to abandon all judgement and embrace the purely pragmatic choice of electing a miscreant to high office. That deprives us of the law itself, and invites a descent into moral anarchy. The existence of sin does not mean we must give up on virtue.
Let’s Make Better Options
Yesterday, Tully Borland wrote in these pages that choosing Moore could be justified in part because “If one can’t vote for someone who is better (that is, less bad or less evil) or who is equally bad but has better policies, then one should opt out of politics and the voting process altogether.” This offers us a false choice between political quietism—never voting—or accepting complicity in a sinful system. If those are the limits of our choices, the result will be exactly the politicians we are now getting, and worse. To get good leaders, decent people must participate in the system and demand better.
That argument alone would have been bad, but in justifying Moore’s conduct, Borland edged into secular antinomianism. “To have a large family,” he writes, “the wife must start having kids when she is young. The husband needs to be well-established and able to support the family, in which case he will typically need to marry when older.”
If the choice is between the lesser of two political evils, why defend the personal conduct? The result attempts to set Moore above the moral law, and purely for political reasons. That is a graver error that just honestly disbelieving the charges against him.
Franken’s defenders are even more bold, having long ago jettisoned conventional morality. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Garrison Keillor called it “pure absurdity” to demand Franken’s resignation from the Senate over actions committed “in a spirit of low comedy.” Keillor, himself, was immediately sacked from NPR after revelations of his own misconduct, but even had he been simon-pure in that regard, his argument was blemished with antinomian justification. Does anyone believe he would have defended, say, Bob Packwood so vigorously? Or any other Republican?
Defenders of Conyers are more prominent, but just as gross. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called Conyers an “icon in our country” while clumsily diverting from the previously accepted theme of believing those who accuse men of sexual assault. Her reasoning is telling, if rambling: “He has done a great deal to protect women — Violence Against Women Act, which the left, right-wing is now quoting me as praising him for his work on that, and he did great work on that.” Because he worked to pass a law that the Left thinks advanced women’s rights, his own personal transgressions against women are allowed.
The two Democrats’ defenders reject morality as something that that applies universally, and would replace it with the law of power—different standards for the elect. Instead of fighting that, defenders of Moore ask the Right to do the same.
There are no perfect people walking the Earth, and every candidate for office will be flawed in some way. But it is an overreach to say that because we tolerate profanity and traffic tickets that we must also accept adulterers and molesters, if they’re on our side of the aisle. Some things are too big to ignore. Sometimes, it’s better to lose.