American Calvin

Grant Wood's iconic painting, American Gothic
So much of America’s strengths and weaknesses, and what differentiates us from even our closest friends and allies in Western Europe, is our culture’s embrace (or at least our Anglo-Saxon “ruling tribe’s” embrace) of Calvinism, morphed to some degree as the “Protestant” or “Puritan Ethic.” This ideology, developed by John Calvin in the 16th century during the Protestant Reformation, threads its way through the enlightenment and industrial revolution in Europe, and rode the boats of the Puritans to the “new world”, and continues today to be deeply woven into religious and secular thought and institutions in America.

Calvin in his Context

Calvin incarnated on our planet during an intense developmental period for European civilization. The Roman Catholic Church had held power for over a thousand years, and true to the saying, had become a corrupt institution. The 16th century Church hierarchy was funded in part by a direct marketing scheme known as “Indulgences”, where, despite your most grievous sins, you could buy a piece of paper, signed by a Bishop or Cardinal, guaranteeing you (or the loved one of your choice) a place in heaven. These get-out-of-hell-free cards were peddled by clergy through franchises granted by the hierarchy up to the Pope. The standard Indulgence erased past sins, but for a larger sum there was the super-sized Indulgence which erased any future sins as well.

Much of the profit from this venture went right to Rome and financed Papal armies and orgies and other earthly indulgences. This is the corruption and decadence that the humble monk and whistle blower Martin Luther exposed when one of his university colleagues published Luther’s list of 95 suggestions for addressing the bad behavior he had witnessed in Papal Rome. It was one of the first tracts published (along with the Bible) using Guttenberg’s new printing press movable type technology, and like scandal-sheets to follow, Luther’s publication was a best seller, creating what we now call “a buzz” and jump starting a re-evaluation of the Christian religion and its role in society that led to your high school world history teacher scrawling on the chalkboard (or whiteboard these days) the words “Protestant Reformation.”

In the wake of Luther, a less humble, less naive, less humanitarian John Calvin attended university in France and set up shop as a Protestant minister and theologian first in Basel and later in Geneva Switzerland. He preached his signature brand of “reformed” Christianity, acknowledging that all humans (not just the orgiastic Romans) were innately depraved, and totally undeserving of God’s salvation. But God in his loving grace did pick a few people to be beneficiaries of eternal salvation. Calvin’s twist was that none of those lucky people, and in fact no living person (not even Mother Theresa if she had been alive back then) actually deserved to go to heaven, no matter how profound their piety or good works. For no amount of good works could make up for humanities’ utterly irredeemable nature. (Talk about a guy suffering from a bad childhood and lack of self-esteem!)

I initially found it a bit amazing that Calvin’s bleak view of humanity not only caught on, but became one of the key ideological underpinnings of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the exploration and exploitation of the world by European societies. Still today it impacts all major American institutions, including our education system,

Calvin’s Doctrine of Grace

I found an Internet site,, which summarizes Calvin’s “doctrine of grace” in five points using the acronym “TULIP”: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Below I’ve attempted to compile a short explanation of each of Calvin’s five points from material on that site.

Total Depravity – God finds nothing in any person that makes that person deserving of eternal life in heaven, since every person is totally depraved, and sins by conscious choice.

Unconditional Election – Though we are hardened sinners, with a record of transgressions leaving no grounds in justice to spare our lives, God chooses some of us for salvation, taking no account of human merit, but motivated by love for those who will someday conform to the image of Christ. If God chooses not to save us, He is just. If He saves us, He is gracious and merciful.

Limited Atonement – God chooses not to save everyone to show us a full picture of His holiness and power, in all the complexity of His person, so we might know Him and love Him better.

Irresistible Grace – God’s grace works irresistibly upon a stubborn or even the blackest heart and transforms it so that it is willing to believe the gospel, though He never forces a person to accept Christ.

Perseverance of the Saints – A man truly saved will never lose his salvation, though this should not be an excuse for carelessness in the Christian life, since the proof that a man is saved is leading a life befitting a saved man.

Calvinism Facilitates Industrial Revolution and Exploitation of the World

To harness the advances of science, wield large sums of money (capital) to build and staff factories, and explore and commercially exploit the rest of the non-European world (including the “New World” of the Americas) a very different ideology was needed. An ideology that could ameliorate unbridled exploitation, great wealth amidst great poverty, and all the winners and losers in the exercise of state sponsored war and capitalism.

Calvinism, or a somewhat morphed secular bastardization of it, fit that bill. If innate depravity was universal, and no one deserved salvation anyway, then the and genocide of indigenous people and the subjugation of marginalized groups, the extreme poverty of the working class, and the general destruction and mayhem of large scale and technologically powered warfare could be seen as a “natural” outgrowth of that depravity.

The new class of entrepreneurs and capitalists who were growing very rich and powerful on the backs of the poor and exploited were apparently God’s chosen and the lucky (though undeserving) recipients of His limited atonement. The fact that they did not really deserve their good fortune in God’s eyes helped keep them somewhat chastened and humble and focused on working hard and not squandering their wealth on sinful decadence, since the proof that a man was saved was living the life of a saved man. And if they did succumb to a little (or a lot of) sinful decadence, well that was only a natural outgrowth of innate depravity. They could confess their sins to God and commit to doing better, since God’s grace was in the end irresistible.

Calvinism Finds Fertile Ground in America

Calvinism caught fire in America, where a strong ideology that both inspired hard work and restrained profligate behavior was needed to “tame” the wilderness and subjugate the indigenous heathen Indians. Various Protestant sects, growing out of Calvin and Luther’s ideas, became the religion of the majority of European-American colonists. Many of the emerging American elite, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, believed in a non-puritanical Deist or Unitarian theology that saw human nature in much a more positive light, not innately and irredeemably depraved. But much of the common folk of the country embraced flavors of Christianity with very Calvinist roots. But both elite and common folk embraced the secular Calvinistic ethos that “living to work” was next to godliness.

In order to get a critical mass of support to galvanize a successful revolution against England and its bad for local business mercantile policies, the American elites called upon, or brazenly manipulated, the puritan religious fervor. Thomas Paine and other elite agitators successfully painting the British King George (erroneously) as a “Papist” (Catholic), an anathema to the good protestant colonists and a perfect straw man to oppose, and inspire their revolution. America was painted as “God’s kingdom” and the “Shining city on the hill” that was worth fighting for in God’s name.

From my point of view, this was a profound moment in American history, when the world view of Calvinism – innate depravity, winners and losers, exploitation of nature, and the “live to work” ethos – gained ascendancy over a very different worldview of Deism/Unitarianism, featuring a more humanistic view, co-existence with nature and a more “work to live” approach to life. But would America have developed as quickly as it did into the most powerful nation in the world by the second half of the 20th Century without being driven by this ideology? Would a more humanistic ideology have hampered the conquering of the west and the harnessing of our countries great natural resources? These are questions I ponder but don’t have the answers to.

Parting Company with Calvin

What I do feel strongly is that it is time to retire a lot of our conventional wisdom rooted in Calvinism, including…

1. The US is God’s chosen nation, truly preeminent in the world and deserving of special status and consideration, including consuming way more than its fair share of the world’s resources. (I am happy to see President Obama starting to address the issue of American “Exceptionalism”.)

2. Spending long hours at work and getting not enough sleep (beyond the needs of economic survival) is somehow more virtuous than leading a more balanced, healthier life.

3. Young people are innately immoral and lazy, so they need to be strictly controlled to behave well and externally motivated to learn.

4. People that do not believe in God are not fit to hold high office.

10 replies on “American Calvin”

  1. Hi

    You might want to visit the website of some of the relatively up-to-date Presbyterian churches and check them out. I suggest Nassau Presbyterian in Princeton.
    I flunked religion a long time ago, but I remember them as not quite so dreadful as you think. My wife’s parents were members (years ago).

  2. Dudley… thanks for the thoughts. I will check it out to see how the Calvinist ideology has evolved in its religious implementation over the centuries. So how would you characterize that evolution in a couple of paragraphs?

    In my piece I was trying to focus more on how Calvinism has played out in the secular underpinnings of the US. How it has shaped conventional wisdom and where I am concerned that wisdom may no longer be helpful.

  3. Sorry, I am the last person on this planet to summarize the evolution of reformation Calvinism into liberal Christianity – I have zero credit hours in theology or church history. I do know that the Presbyterians I encountered at Nassua Presbyterian were not anything at all like the typical UU image of Christians.

    best wishes

  4. Dudley… Thanks for your comment. I would enjoy continuing this discussion either here or via email at, preferably here.

    There may be some UUs that have a stereotypical view of Christians or Catholics, but I think in general the view is more nuanced. I am a humanist UU myself and not a Christian, but the minister of my UU congregation in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles definitely considers himself a Christian, and was originally a Presbyterian minister before we asked him to be ours.

    The point of piece was to look at the secular impact of Calvinism on our American culture and my thoughts on certain parts of that legacy I think we would do well to retire. I am also interested in the thinking of our founding fathers in terms of a mix of Calvinist, Deist and Unitarian thought.

    As far as Christian theology, I see it as very much an example of “Many Paths” with dozens of “flavors” of Christian thought out there from Eastern Orthodox, to Pentecostal, to Evangelical, to Liberal.

  5. I simply had to say thanks all over again. I do not know the things I would have achieved in the absence of the entire recommendations discussed by you regarding that area. Completely was a depressing matter for me personally, but finding out the very well-written form you dealt with it took me to cry for happiness. Now i am grateful for your information as well as hope that you really know what a great job you happen to be getting into teaching the mediocre ones via your blog post. Probably you haven’t come across any of us.

  6. Arianne… Forgive me but I’m not sure what you are referring to in the piece. Can you say more about what you mean by “the mediocre ones”?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *