Friday, March 16, 2007

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare - Part Eight: The Child, the Family, the Nation, and the World

This series has traced the role of early Calvinism on a particular aspect of theocratic Christian nationalism that fits neatly into what Michelle Goldberg calls a "totalist political ideology," (p. 8). Christian nationalists do not just want to enforce narrow authoritarian frameworks on their own children and families--they see this hierarchical model as necessary for reforming the community, the nation, and the entire world.

While Christian Right dominionists seem obsessed with gender issues, they have been melded into an ultraconservative political movement that shares with them an interest in two other issue areas: hyper-individualistic libertarian economic policies, and an aggressive unilateral U.S. foreign policy.

John Calvin

The ultraconservative coalition was carefully crafted over many decades. When ultraconservative political strategists saw how many Christian evangelicals voted for "born again" Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter in 1976, they set out to pull these voters back into the Republican Party to reshape it and move it to the political right (Berlet & Lyons: pp. 220-224; see note one).

As Matthew N. Lyons and I explain in Right-Wing Populism in America:

"A key step in this movement-building process took place in 1979, when Robert Billings of the National Christian Action Council invited rising televangelist Jerry Falwell to a meeting with right-wing strategists Paul Weyrich, Howard Phillips, Richard Viguerie, and Ed McAteer. The main idea was to push the issue of abortion as a way to split social conservatives away from the Democratic Party. This meeting came up with the idea of the "Moral Majority," which Falwell turned into an organization. The New Right coalition really jelled at this point with the creation of a frame of reference with which to mobilize a mass base, (Berlet & Lyons: p. 222; citing D'Souza, pp. 105-118; Martin, pp. 200-201; Diamond, Spiritual Warfare, pp. 49-63).

Anxiety over changing gender roles were linked in subtle ways to White tensions over race relations.

"Following Wallace's example, the New Right used coded racial appeals while avoiding explicit ethnic bigotry. Racism was reframed as concern about specific issues such as welfare, immigration, taxes, or education policies. Movement activists such as Viguerie denounced liberal reformism as an elitist attack on regular working people. In some cases, this antielitism drew directly on the producerist tradition" (Berlet & Lyons: p. 222)

For example, ultraconservative activist William Rusher declared that a:

"new economic division pits the producers--businessmen, manufacturers, hard-hats, blue-collar workers, and farmers--against the new and powerful class of non-producers comprised of a liberal verbalist elite (the dominant media, the major foundations and research institutions, the educational establishment, the federal and state bureaucracies) and a semipermanent welfare constituency, all coexisting happily in a state of mutually sustaining symbiosis,"(Rusher: p. 14; see note two)

So gender, race, and collectivism were hot buttons to be pushed along with the classic staple of the Christian Right: fear of communism and the Soviet Union. As Kazin expalins, the New Right coalition was a "multi-issue, multi-constituency offensive" that developed a new set of frames through which to see politics in the United States:

"Conservatives talked like grassroots activists but were able to behave like a counter-elite. Within their coalition were Sunbelt corporations opposed to federal regulation and high taxes; churches mobilized to reverse the spread of "secular humanism"; local groups that protested school busing, sex education, and other forms of bureaucratic meddling in "family issues," and foundations that endowed a new generation of intellectuals and journalists, (Kazin: p. 247).

The central scapegoats used to mobilize mass support included abortion, gay
rights, and prayer in schools. "Family Values" became a code word for a
particular form of Christian conservative social and political practice.

Since the 1980s and the rise of the Christian Right, public policy regarding social welfare (and especially the treatment of criminals) has echoed the patriarchal and punitive child-rearing practices favored by many Protestant fundamentalists. Most readers will recognize the phrase: "Spare the rod and spoil the child." This idea comes from a particular authoritarian version of fundamentalist belief.

According to Greven:

"The authoritarian Christian family is dependent on coercion and pain to obtain obedience to authority within and beyond the family, in the church, the community, and the polity. Modern forms of Christian fundamentalism share the same obsessions with obedience to authority characteristic of earlier modes of evangelical Protestantism, and the same authoritarian streak evident among seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Anglo-American evangelicals is discernible today, for precisely the same reasons: the coercion of children through painful punishments in order to teach obedience to divine and parental authority," (Greven: p. 198).

The belief in the awful and eternal punishment of a literal Hell justifies the punishment, shame, and discipline of children by parents who want their offspring to escape a far worse fate. This includes physical or "corporal" forms of punishment. "Many advocates of corporal punishment are convinced that such punishment and pain are necessary to prevent the ultimate destruction and damnation of their children's souls," (Greven: p. 62).

This is often accompanied by the idea that a firm male hand rightfully dominates the family and the society, (Greven: p. 199).

The system of authoritarian and patriarchal control used in some families is easily transposed into a framework for conservative public policy, especially in the criminal justice system.

Lakoff explains that on a societal level, according to conservative "Strict Father morality, harsh prison terms for criminals and life imprisonment for repeat offender are the only moral options." The arguments by conservatives are "moral arguments, not practical arguments. Statistics about which policies do or do not actually reduce crime rates do not count in a morally-based discourse." These "traditional moral values" conservatives tend not to use explanations based on the concepts of class and social causes, nor do they recommend policy based on those notions," (Lakoff: p. 201).

According to Lakoff:

For liberals the essence of America is nurturance, part of which is helping those who need help. People who are "trapped" by social and economic forces need help to "escape." The metaphorical Nurturant Parent--the government--has a duty to help change the social and economic system that traps people. By this logic, the problem is in the society, not in the people innocently "trapped." If social and economic forces are responsible, then other social and economic forces must be brought to bear to break the "trap."

This whole picture is simply inconsistent with Strict Father morality and the conservative worldview it defines. In that worldview, the class hierarchy is simply a ladder, there to be climbed by anybody with the talent and self-discipline to climb it. Whether or not you climb the ladder of wealth and privilege is only a matter of whether you have the moral strength, character, and inherent talent to do so, (Lakoff: p. 203).

To conservatives, the liberal arguments about class and impoverishment, and institutionalized social forces such as racism and sexism, are irrelevant. They appear to be "excuses for lack of talent, laziness, or some other form of moral weakness," (Lakoff: p. 203).

Much of this worldview traces to the lingering backbeat of Calvinist theology that infuses "common sense" for many conservatives. To this brand of conservatism, it doesn't matter if it is the child, the family, the community, the nation, or the entire world: to avoid chaos and immorality, there needs to be a strong authority figure willing to apply punishment, shame, and discipline--verbally if possible--through physical force and violence if need be.

The Bush administration, with the backing of millions of Christian conservatives, seeks to reform the global village by spanking its perceived miscreants--and they have the military arsenal to back up this neo-Calvinist authoritarian worldview.


Berlet, Chip and Matthew N. Lyons. 2000. Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. New York: Guilford.

Brooks, Clem, and Jeff Manza. (1996). "The Religious Factor in U.S. Presidential Elections, 1960-1992." Paper, annual meeting, American Sociological Association, New York, NY. Revised and included in Jeff Manza and Clem Brooks, Social Cleavages and Political Change: Voter Alignment and U.S. Party Coalitions (pp. 85-127). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Diamond, Sara. (1989). Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right. Boston: South End Press.

Diamond, Sara. (1995). Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States. New York: Guilford Press.

Diamond, Sara. (1998). Not by Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Right. New York: Guilford Press.

D'Souza, Dinesh. (1984). Falwell, Before the Millennium: A Critical Biography. Chicago: Regnery Gateway.

Green, John C., James L. Guth, and Kevin Hill. (1993). "Faith and Election: The Christian Right in Congressional Campaigns 1978-1988." The Journal of Politics, vol. 55, no. 1, February, pp. 80-91.

Greven, Philip. 1991. Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse. New York: Knopf.

Hardisty, Jean V. (1999). Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers. Boston: Beacon.

Himmelstein, Jerome L. (1990). To the Right: The Transformation of American Conservatism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kazin, Michael. (1995). The Populist Persuasion: An American History. New York: Basic Books.

Lakoff, George. [1996] 2002. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Chicago: University of Chicago.

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

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. (1994). Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Phillips, Kevin P. (1975). Mediacracy: American Parties and Politics in the Communications Age. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Rusher, William. (1975). The Making of the New Majority Party. Ottawa, IL: Greenhill Publications.

Note One: On Christian Evangelical Voting Patterns:

These are the cites Matthew N. Lyons and I used to explain how we arrived at our survey of voting patterns:

Sara Diamond, Spiritual Warfare, pp. 55-56; Roads to Dominion, pp. 172-177, 209-210, 231-233; Not by Politics Alone, pp. 67-69; Himmelstein, To the Right, pp. 122-123; Green, Guth, and Hill, "Faith and Election"; William Martin, With God on Our Side, pp. 148-159, 197-220; Brooks and Manza, "Religious Factor."

Viguerie estimated that between 5 million and 7.5 million "born-again Christians voted for Nixon or Wallace in 1968 and for Nixon in 1972, but switched to Carter in 1976," and that he and his allies in the New Right set out to win them back to vote for Reagan in 1980 (Viguerie, New Right, pp. 155-174, quote from p. 156). This figure is probably unrealistically high, but the belief in those numbers helped shape the New Right election strategy.

Diamond credits the addition of 2 million new voters in 1980 to "the combined efforts of Moral Majority, Christian Voice, and New Right electoral vehicles" like Howard Phillips's Conservative Caucus and Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation (Roads to Dominion, p. 233).

Note Two: On Rusher

The quote from Rusher in Making of the New Majority Party, is also quoted in Omi and Winant, Racial Formation, p. 127. Rusher, in his text, urges readers to consult Kevin Phillips' book: Mediacracy.

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
Part Five: Fundamentals, Prophecies, and Conspiracies
Part Six: Godlessness & Secular Humanism
Part Seven: Born Again Political Activism
Part Eight: The Child, The Family, The Nation, & the World

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