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Calvinism in America, Vatican Voices

February 1, 2008

Whenever I talk about the pernicious influence of Calvinism on American culture and politics, I am often told that I do not know what I talking about. The point, however, is not to discuss the doctrines of Calvinism in a some speculative theological manner, but to examine the impact of the pervasive derivative Calvinism (Cardinal George calls it “cultural Calvinism”) that shapes America in so many ways.

Put simply, the derivative form of Calvinism views the world as divided between the good guys and the bad guys, the saved and the damned, the virtuous and the undeserving. This idea is projected onto the country insofar as America sees itself as especially chosen by God and placed under his mantle of protection. When you listen to American politicians speak, no matter the ideology, you will hear these tones of election. America is simply exceptional, with a unique role in history. And, after all, if you believe in limited atonement– especially coupled with the penal theory of vicarious atonement– it’s a a short step to justifying killing the bad guys, by making war or by the death penalty. Dualism in action. And of course, election is unconditional, meaning that you actually don’t have to add anything yourself. God bestows material wealth on his favored, so there is no call to share, and certainly no notion of the universal destination of good. The poor are poor because they are not virtuous. Out with solidarity, in with individualism.

The response to the terrorist attacks was a typically Calvinistic one. Americans do not like seeing themselves as mere forgiven sinners. Instead, there is an obsessive need to be the good guys, as otherwise the guaranteed salvation might be in jeopardy. And how else you do validate your status as one of the elect if not by scapegoating others? Every time the bad guy is punished, the person on the other side feels affirmed in his goodness.  This is ultimately what lies behind the death penalty. This is what lay behind the irrational impulse to invade Iraq and give an old enemy a bloody nose.

It’s interesting that people in the Vatican share these views. John Allen wrote the following back in 2003:

In the view of some in the Vatican, underlying [America's] dualistic approach to foreign policy, is the legacy of Calvinism. The Calvinist concepts of the total depravity of the damned, the unconditional election of God’s favored, and the manifestation of election through earthly success, all seem to them to play a powerful role in shaping American cultural psychology.

After Cardinal Pio Laghi returned to Rome from his last-minute appeal to Bush just before the Iraq war began, he told John Paul II that he sensed “something Calvinistic” in the president’s iron determination to battle the forces of international terrorism.

Recently I was in the Vatican, and happened to strike up a conversation with an official eager to hear an American perspective on the war. He told me he sees a “clash of civilizations” between the United States and the Holy See, between a worldview that is essentially Calvinistic and one that is shaped by Catholicism.

We have a concept of sin and evil too,” he said, “but we also believe in grace and redemption.”

This is spot on. And, closer to home, Allen notes the contribution of Cardinal George to the debate. George noted that Ameicans are “culturally Calvinist, even those who profess the Catholic faith”, and that  American society “is the civil counterpart of a faith based on private interpretation of Scripture and private experience of God.” 

But I suppose Cardinals George and Laghi don’t understand Calvinism either, do they?

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14 Comments
  1. Donald R. McClarey permalink
    February 1, 2008 12:46 am

    Tony you simply use Calvinism as a pejorative for whatever you do not approve. There is just as much dualism in Catholic theology as there is in that of John Calvin. The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola is filled with such imagery for example. The key difference between Catholicism and Calvin is predestination and John Calvin’s understanding of that doctrine. America, as a country, has stood foursquare against the idea that man is predestined to anything. One of the essential beauties of America is the belief that people can become anything they please with enough hardwork, and that no one is predestined to follow in the same path trod by his parents. As a historical matter, Calvinism was a spent force by the time of the American Revolution, even in New England. Additionally, America has a long history of treating defeated enemies not as damned souls but with clemency. Japan and Germany for example after WW2. You badly misunderstand Calvinism just as you do your own country.

  2. Donald R. McClarey permalink
    February 1, 2008 12:56 am

    A good brief article on Calvinism in New England:

    http://www.osv.org/explore_learn/document_viewer.php?DocID=949

  3. TeutonicTim permalink
    February 1, 2008 3:48 am

    Nice Donald!

    Isn’t America exceptional?

    Are we simply supposed to ignore that we were attacked and face further danger from the people who attacked us?

    And what is your issue with individual freedom and rights when under the mantel of God’s law?

  4. Stuart Buck permalink
    February 1, 2008 2:29 pm

    The Calvinist concepts of the total depravity of the damned, the unconditional election of God’s favored, and the manifestation of election through earthly success, all seem to them to play a powerful role in shaping American cultural psychology.

    That last bit — “manifestation of election through earthly success” — doesn’t seem accurate to me. What’s the evidence that Calvinists think this? Point to statements from actual Calvinists if you can.

    Moreover, if the mere determination to fight a war is Calvinist, then there are a lot of Calvinists throughout history — many predating Calvin (such as the Popes who launched the Crusades). Can you come up with an actual argument as to why Bush’s conduct has anything to do with actual Calvinist theology, rather than the fact — routine throughout history — that politicians sometimes think some goal or other is important enough to go to war?

  5. SMB permalink
    February 1, 2008 6:53 pm

    ‘Calvinism’ is a pretty broad term, and Cardinal George and the Vatican might do well to avoid it as a political/cultural label. There is much in the neo-Calvinism of Abraham Kuyper that MM would probably approve of.

  6. February 1, 2008 8:38 pm

    Much of American culture, especially the ruling culture, has been in reaction to Calvinism for generations. I think one would be better off closely examining the Unitarianism, Universalism, or Methodism that formed in reaction to Calvinism rather than their progenitor.

  7. Jeff S. permalink
    February 1, 2008 8:51 pm

    I fail to see any serious effort made in any of this to describe what theological Calvinism is, how Calvin’s theology historically worked itself out in Christian culture, and how such cultural influence has manifested itself to this point in time. This use of “Calvinism”in the above is about as useful as the pejorative use of “Puritan”, which usually has very little connection to the Puritans.

    If you want to understand how the Reformational doctrines of Calvinism work themselves out in a culture, start with what Calvin himself did in Geneva, trace that through the Dutch Reformed influence in Holland up through Kuyper’s time and then study the Puritans in England and the U.S.

  8. Br. Matthew Augustine, OP permalink
    February 2, 2008 6:18 am

    Gotta agree with Jeff here. BTW, Catholics also belive in unconditional election.

  9. Stuart Buck permalink
    February 4, 2008 2:30 pm

    Every time the bad guy is punished, the person on the other side feels affirmed in his goodness.

    Again, it is quite odd that you portray the universal human impulse to punish criminals as something uniquely due to John Calvin.

  10. Morning's Minion permalink*
    February 4, 2008 3:45 pm

    As I keep saying, we are talking about a derivate Calvinism here. Do you think Bush knows anything of Calvinist theology? I sincerely doubt it. But the mis-mash of Americo-Calvinist influences form the basis of his distorted version of Christianity, a Christianity that sees a special role for America as God’s nation, the individual as king, and the ability to neatly divide the world into the virtuous and the “evildoers”. Listen to Cardinal Laghi– this is the poor guy who had to sit through a meeting when Condi Rice tied to explain just war teaching to him, using Michael Novak as a guide– he knows what’s wrong with American foreign policy up close and personal.

  11. Morning's Minion permalink*
    February 4, 2008 3:47 pm

    What you call the “universal human impulse to punish criminals” is the effect of sin in the world. It is an attempt to divorce justice from mercy, which is exactly what Jesus the Christ said should not be done. This derivative Calvinism sees bypasses grace and redemption to go straight to either salvation or damnation. It’s a dualism that Calvin would probably have frowned upon, but his later American followers have accepted it.

  12. February 4, 2008 4:14 pm

    You say, re: “the pernicious influence of Calvinism,” that “the derivative form of Calvinism views the world as divided between the good guys and the bad guys, the saved and the damned….” Well, YES. That’s what the Bible teaches. That’s what St. Augustine teaches. In fact, he wrote an entire book about this Biblical view, “The City Of God.” Wake up, please. John Lofton, Editor, TheAmericanView.com.
    JLof@aol.com

  13. Stuart Buck permalink
    February 4, 2008 7:35 pm

    a Christianity that sees a special role for America as God’s nation, the individual as king, and the ability to neatly divide the world into the virtuous and the “evildoers”.

    1. Seeing a particular nation as “God’s nation” is wrong, but not Calvinist.

    2. Seeing the “individual as king” — if you mean individualism in general, it’s quite a stretch to blame that on Calvinism.

    3. The ability to “neatly divide” the world — this isn’t Calvinism either; as I showed in a previous comment, Calvinists tend to think that we can’t know for sure who God has chosen for the “elect.” You didn’t even try to refute this point. Why are you still making it?

    If you’re just talking about the propensity to view our own nation as the “good guys” and a few other nations as the “bad guys” — welcome to the human race. There’s a huge literature of social psychology on how people will view their own team as “better” than the other team, even if you divide them up randomly (see the experiments of Henri Tajfel and other similar psychologists). This has absolutely nothing to do with “Calvinism.”

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