Largely underestimated is the significant influence of John Calvin on culture in the United States. In truth, perhaps only John Locke has had more philosophical influence on the American zeitgeist than did Calvin. To understand America and its uniqueness, you need to understand Calvin’s unique ideology and how Calvinism has shaped America.
American conservatism has a distinctive character. Only the U.S. could create the vitriolic parochialism of the NRA, the Moral Majority, the Tea Party, and Trump. You may think that the hostile attitudes of these groups are backward throwbacks. You’d be correct. The reactionary worldview of today’s American right-wing has its roots in the “Puritans” of the 1600s and even before that in Switzerland in the 1500’s. What we see in the vitriol is a manifestation of the ideology of Calvinism.
John Calvin was a political leader in Geneva, Switzerland in the 16th century who invented his own version of Christianity that picked up on a recurring thread in some Christian sects: the cosmic view of Manichaeism. Calvin’s pseudo-Christianity was an extreme dualism of Good versus Evil–God versus Satan–with humans stuck in the middle of this cosmic war. This world belonged to Satan, at least until the “end time.” The world itself and the things in it were evil, including worldly pleasures.
Calvin believed that humans were fundamentally depraved and incapable of being good. Only God is good and only by God’s direct action could a human think or act with moral goodness. Without God’s intervention, humans are left in the clutches of Satan, who would use humans for evil purposes. Calvin believed that humans lacked free will. Humans are servants either of God or Satan. Humans couldn’t even choose who to serve. God preordained who would receive salvation in God (The “Elect”) and who would be damned to hell.
Yet, paradoxically, people lose God’s “election” if they choose the world and sin. The world was infected with sin, because this is Satan’s world, and the devil “howls outside the door.” Salvation can be lost but cannot be gained through human actions. In turn, immorality can spread from human to human, but morality cannot. Despite condemning worldly pleasures, Calvin taught that God gave worldly wealth to The Elect. This translated to the belief that poverty was a just deserts for moral depravity.
Ethics is your response to how you believe the world is. The worldview of Calvinism is that we are at war with Satanic forces. Calvinist ethics responds to that belief with the demand to be ever on guard against the wolf of evil that would devour us if we slip up even once. To be a good person is to be a slave to Calvinist Law. Anything else was to be a slave to Satan and therefore, an evil person.
Humans considered evil are condemned by Calvinism as being without hope of redemption. This logically follows from the belief that God condemns sinners in absolute terms. Hell is a deserved eternal punishment and sentence is carried out without appeal, without hope of repentance or redemption. Calvinist ethics therefore demands that “good people,” “The Elect,” likewise condemn others and shun them as enemies of the good. Calvin’s strict dualism creates an unbridgeable gulf between those who are good and those who are evil. Evil people are fundamentally depraved and irredeemable and thus wholly Other. This dynamic has been dramatized in such fictional works as The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible.
Calvin, naturally, believed he was one of God’s Elect and thus believed he was fit to rule as sovereign of a pseudo-theocratic dictatorship. His dictatorship was a utopia (if you could call it that) of complete obedience to the rule of God’s Law as interpreted by Calvin and administered by his church. He became known as “The Tyrant of Geneva” because of his extreme tactics in maintaining control over every aspect of his subjects’ lives, including executions.
Calvin’s new religion was popular in some circles though these groups lacked the political power to establish Calvinist-style dictatorships. They were often brutally oppressed by rulers throughout Europe who saw these movements as a threat. Many Calvinists came to the new world, hoping to establish their version of government there. The “Puritans” who came on the Mayflower to found New England were strict Calvinists who were seeking religious freedom of a sort. Though most of America’s “Founding Fathers” a century later were Deists and liberal in their Christianity, the Puritan influence on America has been profound. (See: The Puritan Origins of the American Self and The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism.)
The United States is a nation that has always had a fierce strain of Calvinism that is still manifest today. The Calvinist legacy has created what Harold Bloom has called “the primary God of the United States” (Jesus and Yahweh, p. 111). The Calvinist God protects the United States, the ordained world leader, from its enemies foreign and domestic. United States citizens are God’s Elect–at least those Americans who are good Fundamentalists.
The worldview of U.S. Conservatism has its roots in Calvinism. Its dualism is a mirror of Calvinism’s dualism. We decidedly see this in religious Fundamentalism, where Calvinist doctrines have been the core dogma of the “religious right” for centuries. Part of the legacy of Calvinism is an ideology in which those of different in ethnicity or creed, are placed under a classification of evil. Those considered different are vilified and marginalized. Foreigners are the enemy, especially if they are non-white. Non-whites, even though they are Americans, are lesser members of society. That black people are cursed by God has been a long-held conception, especially for the Mormons.
The Calvinist dualistic worldview has spilled over into secular America. A corollary to this conception of evil is that attempts to help the disadvantaged in society is actually not just a waste of time but morally wrong. In essence, it is aiding evil. The poor are poor because they deserve to be poor because of their sinful nature. Calvinism also lies at the root of political ideology of libertarianism, the pretentious (and false) name for the “I got mine you get yours” brand of economic politics. Like Calvinism, Libertarianism believes that wealth and poverty reflect ethical character not social realities.
The ideology and actions of U.S. conservatives express Calvinist dualisms. The “Puritans” have always had an influence on American politics and culture that exceeds their numbers. The secular U.S. now has a civil religion built on the foundation of Calvinism. The conservative notion of American exceptionalism, from the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny to the current “leader of the free world,” is inspired by Calvinism. The Right’s disdain for those who are different is an ethical view responding to the belief that difference itself is a sign of moral failing. The Right’s hostility for government helping the disadvantaged manifests the Calvinist belief that we should not help the undeserving. Reactionism on right-wing radio, television, and the Internet is the 21st century manifestation of the 16th century ideology of Calvinism.