Blackwater: A Calvinist Crusade?

What does John Calvin have to do with the fighting in Iraq? More than you’d think, according to Jeremy Scahill, the author of Blackwater: the Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Some of the first that you may have heard about Blackwater was back in April, 2004 when four Americans were ambushed in Fallujah; their bodies dismembered, burned, and hanged on a bridge over the Euphrates amid cheers of “Allah is great.” It turns out that these men were professional security bodyguards trained by Blackwater and hired by the United States government. In past months you may have noticed Blackwater in the news again; some of their men being charged with obnoxious behavior and murder. As I write, Blackwater has become a daily news item. Who are these guys, anyway? Jeremy Scahill alleges that Blackwater’s heart, vision and drive is rooted in the Dutch Calvinism. Its owner, Erik Prince, is a son of Holland, Michigan where the seed of a Christian community was planted and flourished for a time.

Mr. Scahill explains it likes this: “Dating back to the community’s founding, Holland had long been run by Christian patriarchs. In 1846, with a sea-weary clan of fifty-seven fellow Dutch refugees, Albertus Van Raalte came ashore in western Michigan. Prince’s predecessor had fled his home country because he had ‘undergone all manner of humiliation and persecution through his defiance of the religious restrictions imposed by the State church.’ …After arriving in the United States aboard his vessel, the Southerner, Van Raalte led the clan to the shores of Lake Michigan, where he envisioned a community free to live and worship within the tenets of his brand of Dutch Reform, and without any outside influence. … Virtually the same description could be applied to Edgar Prince, and eventually to Erik, born nearly a century after Van Raalte’s death” (2-3). The author continues, “Ed Prince was not an empire builder. He was a kingdom builder. … For him, personal success took a back seat to spreading the Gospel and fighting for the moral restoration of our society” (8).

After his death, his son Erik continued to pursue his father’s vision of moral restoration with billions of dollars in cash at his disposal. His father had established the Prince Corporation of Holland, and the very successful business was sold to Johnson Controls for $1.35 billion in cash. His sister had also married into the DeVos family, which founded the marketing firm Amway, linking the family with billions of dollars more. Erik gave generous financial support to right wing politics, religious organizations such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, colleges, mission groups, etc., linking him with a host of powerful men. At some point, he converted to Roman Catholicism and supported conservative Catholic groups as well. His vision and money was a perfect match for men like Chuck Colson and Richard Neuhaus who articulated the vision of Catholics and evangelical Christians working together to christianize the world. In a speech at Calvin College in 2002, Chuck Colson praised Erik Prince and “talked extensively about the historical foundation and current necessity of a political and religious alliance of Catholics and evangelicals. Colson talked about his work, beginning in the mid-1980s, with famed conservative evangelical Protestant minister turned Catholic priest Richard Neuhaus and others to build a unified movement. That work ultimately led in 1994 to the controversial document “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” The ECT document articulated the vision that would animate Blackwater’s corporate strategy and the politics practiced by Erik Prince—a marriage of the historical authority of the Catholic Church with the grassroots appeal of the modern conservative U.S. evangelical movement, bolstered by the cooperation of largely secular and Jewish neoconservatives” (20). Finally, Erik Prince and the vision expressed in the ECT document would be linked to the United States government. Mr. Scahill continues: “the ECT was not merely a philosophical document. Rather, it envisioned an agenda that would almost identically mirror that of the Bush administration a few years later, when Neuhaus would serve as a close adviser to Bush, beginning with the 2000 campaign. … The manifesto was years in the making and would greatly assist the unifying of the conservative movement that made George W. Bush’s rise to power possible” (20-22).

With a vision in place to Christianize the world, connections with men in high places, plenty of money, experience as a Navy SEAL, and business savvy, Erik Prince began to develop “Blackwater,” a world class military training camp in a swamp in North Carolina. The U.S. military had been steadily downsizing, and plans to use private military personnel were in the works. When terrorists attacked the Twin Towers, Blackwater was ready to help with the response. As the war developed, Blackwater grew exponentially as it received millions of dollars in contracts from the U.S. government. Now Blackwater has become one of the world’s most powerful mercenary armies, with enough power to overthrow the governments of the smallest countries in the world. It has plans to build two more training camps, one in Illinois, and one in California.

Jeremy Scahill is very alarmed that such power is in the hands of conservative Christians. He writes, “What is particularly disturbing about the “expanding role” of Blackwater specifically is the issue of the company’s right-wing leadership, its proximity to a whole slew of conservative causes and politicians, its Christian fundamentalist agenda and secretive nature, and its deep and longstanding ties to the Republican Party, U.S. military, and intelligence agencies. Blackwater is quickly becoming one of the most powerful private armies in the world, and several of its top officials are extreme religious zealots, some of whom appear to believe they are engaged in an epic battle for the defense of Christendom. The deployment of forces under this kind of leadership in Arab or Muslim countries reinforces the worst fears of many in the Islamic world about a neo-Crusader agenda masquerading as a U.S. mission to “liberate” them from their oppressors” (374-375).

Scahill puts together a vast amount of research and provides a compelling story. When this information is viewed in light of the theological movement of the Federal Vision and the goal of a kingdom of God on this earth, I am inclined to agree that once again a distorted view of the kingdom of God could be producing a 21st century crusade. We watch the developments with godly discernment, and busy ourselves with the preaching of the gospel, raising our children in the fear of the Lord, and the gathering of God’s people into the kingdom of heaven. John Calvin would have nothing to do with the compromise and unity of evangelicals with the Roman church to christianize the world. Neither do we. “For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come” (Hebrews 13:14).