Monday, May 22, 2006

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare - Part Four: Apocalypse and Social Welfare

It's hard for many Americans to understand how theological disagreements and beliefs about the Second Coming of Christ and the apocalyptic End Times can play a significant role in how people vote for public policies and political candidates. For many influenced by the Christian Right, however, theological and apocalyptic beliefs shape their political participation in profound ways.

The word apocalypse refers to the idea that there is an approaching confrontation between good and evil that will reveal hidden truths and forever transform society.

For Christians the Apocalypse involves the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. This is tied to a Biblical prophecy of a vast Battle of Armageddon where God triumphs over Satan and then decides which Christian souls are saved and rewarded with everlasting life.

In England, the Calvinist Puritans developed an "apocalyptic tradition [that] envisioned the ultimate sacralization of England as God's chosen nation" (Zakai, 7). This "chosen" nation would play a special role in the End Times, and was seen as fulfilling in some important way the Biblical prophecies in the book of Revelation.

Puritan settlers from England transferred this notion of a chosen nation to the New World colonies, where apocalyptic fervor and millennial expectation was common. If you think that time is running out, salvation--the saving of souls--takes on a central importance. After the United States was founded, these ideas were transformed into an aggressive variety of evangelizing to save souls for Christ before the final apocalyptic judgment that would send the unsaved to a fiery sulfurous lake called Hell.

From the pre-Revolutionary colonial period and up through the Civil War in the 1860s, most Protestants in the United States understood the timetable of the apocalyptic End Times prophesied in the Bible in a specific way called "postmillennialism." This meant that they believed that Jesus Christ would return only after Christians had converted enough people to establish a Godly Christian society purified and prepared for his triumphant arrival. This period was generally thought to last one thousand years or a lengthy period of time, and the word millennium refers to a thousand year span of time. Since Jesus was expected to return at the end of the millennium, the belief is known as postmillennialism.

According to Michael Northcott, the postmillennial apocalyptic view in America "involves the claim that the American Republic, and in particular the free market combined with a form of marketised democracy, is the first appearance in history of a redeemed human society, a truly godly Kingdom" (Northcott, 42).

This could be interpreted in different ways. Social progress, especially in the framework of the Quakers and Unitarians, could be linked to the idea of preparing the kingdom on earth for the coming kingdom of God. In this progressive version of social welfare the focus is on changing social institutions. Another religious phenomenon, however, shifted the focus of social policies toward individual solutions as part of a theological split in Protestantism.

The Second Great Awakening, ran from the 1790s to the 1840s. Theologically, this involved "a vigorous emphasis on `sanctification,' often called `perfectionism'" (Martin, 4). Sin was seen as tied to selfishness. Good Christians should strive to behave in a way that benefited the public good. This in turn would transform and purify the society as a whole in anticipation of the coming Apocalypse. America was seen as a Christian Nation that would fulfill Biblical prophecy, but it was individuals--not society--that needed to seek perfection in the eyes of God.

According to Martin, the evangelical Protestants involved in the Second Great Awakening:

...were so convinced their efforts could ring in the millennium, a literal thousand years of peace and prosperity that would culminate in the glorious second advent of Christ, that they threw themselves into fervent campaigns to eradicate war, drunkenness, slavery, subjugation of women, poverty, prostitution, Sabbath-breaking, dueling, profanity, card-playing, and other impediments to a perfect society (Martin, 4).

These theological beliefs were widespread, and they influenced public policy. In the mid 1800s, Protestants seeking the abolition of slavery sang "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord," and that line in the Battle Hymn of the Republic was a direct reference to the apocalyptic End Times.

Some of the aspects of this second evangelical revival were institutionalized into existing Protestant churches such as the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists; and these denominations grew even as they remained separate from the evangelical movement. Meanwhile, the Anglicans, Quakers, and Congregationalists who directly opposed the evangelicals began to fade in importance (Hutson).

By the late 1800s, most of the major Protestant denominations (called "Mainline" denominations) had found some accommodation with the discoveries of science and secular civic arrangements such as the separation of church and state favored by Enlightenment values (Ammerman). In addition, by the beginning of the 20th century there was "a growing interest by churches in social service, often called the Social Gospel, [which] undercut evangelicalism's traditional emphasis on personal salvation" (Martin, 6). So there was a growing split between Christian evangelicals and Christians in the mainline Protestant denominations.

This split took several forms, including a disagreement over the timetable of the apocalyptic End Times. Most mainline Protestants remained tied in some way to postmillennialism, with its emphasis on social and political activism and a script that pushes the expected return of Christ into the future, or otherwise de-emphasizes actual date-setting. Many evangelicals, however, had embraced a form of apocalyptic belief called "premillennial dispensationalism." In this view of the End Times, Jesus returns before the millennium of the perfect utopian society under the rule of God.

The "dispensations" are epochs believed to be prophesied in the Bible, and most premillennial dispensationalists think we are approaching the last epoch or "dispensation" and therefore the End Times are at hand. Evangelical premillennialists look at worldly events and then scan the Bible's book of Revelation for "signs of the times," by which they mean signs of what they think are the approaching End Times. This means the Bible has to be read as a literal script of past, present, and future events; and it increases the urge to convert people to a "born again" form of Christianity and thus save souls before time literally runs out (Martin, 7-8.). These ideas became central to several groups of Protestants, today represented by denominations such as the Southern Baptists and the Assemblies of God (Oldfield 1996, 14)

One way to read the book of Revelation is as a conspiracy theory in which Satan's agents attempt to build a collective one-world government and global religion in order to trick true Christians and prepare for the showdown between good and evil. Many evangelical and fundamentalist premillennialists concerned with the End Times looked at the burgeoning U.S. government apparatus under Roosevelt, the spread of Soviet and Chinese communism, and the United Nations as all part of the prophetic End Times Antichrist system (Oldfield 2004). In the same way, domestic social welfare policies that were built around collective institutional solutions rather than personal salvation not only promoted sin and sloth, but could also be framed as tied to Satan's End Times strategy.

Ammerman, Nancy T. 1991. "North American Protestant Fundamentalism." In Fundamentalisms Observed, The Fundamentalism Project 1, eds., Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, pp. 1-65. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Hutson, James. 1998. "Faith of Our Forefathers: Religion and the Founding of the American Republic," Information Bulletin, The Library of Congress, Vol. 57, No. 5, May. Online at

Martin, William. 1996. With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America. New York: Broadway Books.

Northcott, Michael. 2004. An Angel Directs The Storm. Apocalyptic Religion & American Empire. London: I.B. Tauris.

Oldfield, Duane Murray. 1996. The Right and the Righteous: The Christian Right Confronts the Republican Party. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

___. 2004. "The Evangelical Roots of American Unilateralism: The Christian Right's Influence and How to Counter It," Foreign Policy in Focus, Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, March,

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
Part Three: Roots of the Social Welfare Debate
Part Four: Apocalypse and Social Welfare

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

Saturday, May 13, 2006

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare - Part Three: Roots of the Social Welfare Debate

The debates over social welfare and other domestic social policies in America today are shaped by three religious currents within Protestantism.  These theological views are seldom discussed openly, yet they play a powerful role in determining federal and state public policies toward the impoverished, the ill and disabled, and those unable to find work at a living wage.

Liberal and Progressive policies for social reform and public welfare are legacies of ideas pioneered by the Quakers, the Unitarians, and other dissident religious reformers who rejected the notions of the early Calvinists and evangelicals.

From the 1730s through the 1770s there was a Protestant revival movement in the colonies dubbed the First Great Awakening. A line of Protestant preachers including Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley shaped the theology of the First Great Awakening.

Edwards was a fiery preacher who still held to Calvinst orthodoxy: man was born bad, and God had predestined the Elect for Heaven. Alas, poor Edwards, he was a man mostly misunderstood. Those who heard and read his sermons (printing sermons in pamphlet form was a common practice) thought Edwards was saying people could change their fate by becoming more ardent Christians. Sometimes the theological fine points get lost in the oratory.

As the revival swept the colonies, many reported a highly emotional experience of conversion after hearing sermons at large public meetings. Unlike Edwards, Whitefield and other preachers broke with Calvinist orthodoxy and challenged the idea of predestination. They suggested that sinners who embraced Jesus in the conversion experience could find a place in Heaven.

Predestination of the Elect was too elitist and static a brand of Christianity for a new society that claimed to be a classless society and valued individuality and initiative in the quest to conquer the frontier. The ideas of spiritual growth, and equality before God, started a public discussion about the need for the government to provide for public schools. It also planted the seeds for the anti-slavery movement.

At the same time, this view could be adapted to tell alienated workers that by accepting Jesus as their savior, they could learn to live with their earthly stress and subjugated status by looking forward to the future day of salvation.

The new evangelists tended to be zealous, judgmental, and authoritarian. Not everyone was happy with the results of the First Great Awakening, and some rejected the trend and remained on the traditional orthodox Calvinist path. Others rejected both and developed what became Unitarianism as a response.

The three tendencies in colonial Protestantism during the early 1800s were:

1). Orthodoxy in the form of northern Calvinist Congregationalists and southern Anglicans;

2). Revivalist rationalism and evangelism that drew not only from the Congregationalists and Anglicans (later called Episcopalians), but also swept through the smaller Protestant denominations such as the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians;

3.) Unitarianism, still relatively small but influential in the northeast.

(Unitarianism emerged as a theological tendency before the name itself was formalized).

Recall that Axel R. Schaefer identifies these religious traditions with three different ways that the proper policies for social reform and public welfare are viewed today:

  *  Calvinist/Free Market: based on changing individual social behavior through punishment.

  *  Evangelical/Revivalist: based on born again conversion to change individual behavior, but still linked to some Calvinist ideas of punishment.

  *  Liberal/Progressive: based on changing systems and institutions to change individual behavior on a collective basis over time.

Many ideas on social reform that are now supported by mainline Protestant denominations were initially promoted by religious dissidents such as the Quakers and later the Unitarians.

Quakers had been concerned with prison conditions since the late 1600s in both England and in colonial Pennsylvania, and they introduced the idea of prison as a means for reform rather than punishment.  They also promoted the "conception of the criminal as at least partially a victim of conditions created by society" which implied that society had some obligation to reforming the criminal (Jorns, p. 170). In the early 1800s Quaker activist Elizabeth Gurney Fry launched a major prison reform movement in England, and these ideas were carried to the United States.

The Unitarians rejected the Calvinist idea that man was born in sin and argued that sometimes people did bad things because they were trapped in poverty or lacked the education required to move up in society. In the early 1800s the dissident Unitarians split Calvinist Congregationalism and succeeded in taking over many religious institutions in New England such as churches and schools. Harvard (founded as a religious college in 1636 by the Puritans), came under control of the Unitarians in 1805 as the orthodox Calvinist Congregationalists lost religious and political power.

The Unitarians took the idea of transforming society and changing personal behavior popularized by the First Great Awakening and shifted it into a plan for weaving a social safety net under the auspices of the secular government.

This idea of a social safety net was expanded in federal public policy during the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt. While criticisms of New Deal social welfare policies are often packaged in political or economic language, the underlying theological basis for some of these arguments is seldom examined.


Adams, David K. and Cornelis A. van Minnen, eds. 1999. Religious and Secular Reform in America: Ideas, Beliefs, and Social Change. New York: New York University Press.

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).

Hatch, Nathan O. 1989. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press

Jorns, Auguste. 1931. The Quakers as Pioneers in Social Work. Trans. Thomas Kite Brown. New York: MacMillan, pp. 162-171.

Marsden, George M. 1982. Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925. New York: Oxford University Press.

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.

Schaefer, Axel R. 1999. "Evangelicalism, Social Reform and the US Welfare State, 1970-1996," pp. 249-273, in David K. Adams and Cornelius A. van Minnem, eds., Religious and Secular Reform in America: Ideas, Beliefs, and Social Change. New York: New York University Press. (I have used slightly different language to describe the sectors identified by Schaefer).

Wallace, Anthony F. C. 1956 "Revitalization Movements," American Anthropologist, 58, no. 2 (April): 264-281.

Whitney, Janet. 1936. Elizabeth Fry: Quaker Heroine. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co.

Ported from Talk to Action
Post comments on this article at

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare: A Series
Part One: Coalitions
Part Two: Calvinist Settlers
Part Three: Roots of the Social Welfare Debate

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

Chip's Blog