Thursday, April 06, 2006

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare - Part Two: Calvinist Settlers

While most mainline Protestant denominations and evangelical churches have jettisoned some of the core tenets of Calvinism, ideas about punishment and retribution brought to our shores by early Calvinist settlers are so rooted in the American cultural experience and social traditions that many people ranging from religious to secular view them as simply "common sense." What Lakoff calls the "Strict Father" model gains it power among conservatives because it dovetails with their ideas of what is a common sense approach to morality, public policy, and crime.

To understand where this "common sense" comes from, and why it is tied to the Strict Father model, requires that we trace the influence of Protestant Calvinism.

Martin Luther founded Protestantism in a schism with the Catholic Church in 1517, but it was John Calvin who literally put it on the map in the city of Geneva, which is now in Switzerland. In the mid 1500s, Calvin forged a theocracy--a society where only the leaders of a specific religion can be the leaders of the secular government.

Calvinists believed that Adam and Eve disobeyed God and tasted the apple from the tree of knowledge at the urging of an evil demon. As a result of this "original sin," the betrayal of God's command, all humans are born in sin. God must punish us for our sins; we must be ashamed of our wrongdoing; and we require the harsh yet loving discipline of our heavenly father to correct our failures.

Calvinists also believe that "God's divine providence [has] selected, elected, and predestined certain people to restore humanity and reconcile it with its Creator" (Zakai, 1992). These "Elect" were originally thought to be the only people going to Heaven. To the Calvinists, material success and wealth was a sign that you were one of the Elect, and thus were favored by God. Who better to shepherd a society populated by God's wayward children? The poor, the weak, the infirm? God was punishing them for their sins.

This theology was spreading at a time when the rise of industrial capitalism tore the fabric of European society, shifting the nature of work and the patterns family life of large numbers of people. There were manyof angry, alienated people who the new elites needed to keep in line to avoid labor unrest and to protect production and profits.

Max Weber, an early sociologist who saw culture as a powerful force that shaped both individuals and society, argued that Calvinism grew in a symbiotic relationship with the rise of industrial capitalism.

As Sara Diamond explains:

Calvinism arose in Europe centuries ago in part as a reaction to Roman Catholicism's heavy emphasis on priestly authority and on salvation through acts of penance. One of the classic works of sociology, Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, links the rise of Calvinism to the needs of budding capitalists to judge their own economic success as a sign of their preordained salvation.

The rising popularity of Calvinism coincided with the consolidation of the capitalist economic system. Calvinists justified their accumulation of wealth, even at the expense of others, on the grounds that they were somehow destined to prosper. It is no surprise that such notions still find resonance within the Christian Right which champions capitalism and all its attendant inequalities.

What Calvinism accomplished was to fulfill the psychic needs of both upwardly mobile middle class entrepreneurs and alienated workers. Middle class businessmen (and they were men) could ascribe their economic success to their spiritual superiority. These businessmen and others who were predestined to be the Elect of God could turn to alienated workers, and explain to them that their impoverished economic condition was the result of a spiritual failure ordained by God. Their place in the spiritual (and economic) system was predestined.

This refocused anger away from material demands in the here and now. Because of their evil and weak nature, those that sinned or committed crimes had to be taught how to change their behavior through punishment, shame, and discipline.

Sound familiar? The Republican "Contract with America" and other legislative "reform" measures involving social welfare are implicitly built around early Calvinist ideas.


Ammerman, Nancy T. 1991. "North American Protestant Fundamentalism." In Fundamentalisms Observed, The Fundamentalism Project 1, eds., Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991).

Diamond, Sara."Dominion Theology," Z Magazine, February 1995, online archive.
Marsden, George M. 1991. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans.

Moore, R. Laurence. 1986. Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max. [1905] 2000. The Protestant Ethic and the "Spirit" of Capitalism and Other Writings. Edited, translated, introduction, and notes by Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells. New York: Penguin Books/Putnam.

Zakai, Avihu. 1992. Exile and Kingdom: History and Apocalypse in the Puritan Migration to America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ported from Talk to Action
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God, Calvin, and Social Welfare: A Series
Part One: Coalitions
Part Two: Calvinist Settlers

Based on the Public Eye article "Calvinism, Capitalism, Conversion, and Incarceration"

Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates

The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates