Bootlicking Calvinism is the unfunny kind of Calvin + Hobbes

Bootlicking Calvinism is the unfunny kind of Calvin + Hobbes April 8, 2024

Calvinism teaches a dim view of human nature. We humans, Calvin believed, are fallen, fallible, sin-prone creatures incapable of justice without the aid of divine grace. We could roughly summarize the Calvinist view of human nature as “APAB” — all people are bastards.

That is, of course, a variation of a more common popular slogan, “ACAB,” meaning all cops are bastards.

The funny Calvin & Hobbes is good. Bill Watterson’s comic strip is hilarious and beautiful, profitable for doctrine and for instruction in righteousness.

You might expect, then, that good Calvinists would agree with that latter sentiment. They might not appreciate the punks and anarchists who spray paint “ACAB” on subway walls but, logically, it is a statement that they must regard as true. If all people are sinful bastards, and police are a subset within “all people,” then all police, as people, must also be sinful bastards. If all people cannot be trusted to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God, then it would be foolish to claim that police officers are somehow, inexplicably, an exception to this universal rule.

And yet this is exactly what many purported Calvinists believe and advocate. “There is none righteous, no not one,” they intone, “except for cops.”

They don’t say “cops,” exactly. What they usually say, instead, is “magistrates.” That was the catch-all term used centuries ago for those hierarchical authorities deemed exempt from everything that Calvinism otherwise insisted was true for every other group of humans. If you hear the word “magistrates” nowadays, and you’re not in traffic court, then you’re probably encountering some form of bootlicking Calvinism, the contradictory idea that APAB, but not ACAB.

This contradiction arises from thinking that if human nature is the problem, then hierarchy must be the solution. It’s not quite the absolute hierarchy of Thomas Hobbes’ absolute sovereign “Leviathan,” but it creates and venerates lots of little sovereigns reigning in lots of little hierarchies. The divine right of kings is limited only by a host of other, lesser divine rights — the divine right of pastors, of husbands, of fathers, of CEOs, of “magistrates” and “lesser magistrates.”

And the divine right of cops.

These divinely ordained hierarchies are accountable only to God, not to those “beneath” them, over whom God has appointed them to reign.

The problem here is not with the initial Reformed understanding of human nature, but with the betrayal of that understanding entailed in the enshrinement of all of these hierarchies baselessly asserted to be exempt from everything Reformed theology otherwise insists is true about humans and our capacity for injustice and sin.

Bootlicking Calvinism is the foolishness that produces things like this: “Police Oversight in Florida Is Already Weak. The State Is About to Gut It Further.” That Bolts article is about a bill passed by Florida’s Republican legislature that would bar civilian oversight boards from investigating suspected police misconduct.

On BlueSky, Seth D. Michaels responded to that with a fine bit of Niebuhrian theology:

“If the state issues you a badge and a gun and gives you the authority to make decisions about the use of force, that should mean you have a *higher* level of accountability to others and should expect *more* scrutiny of your actions.”

Reinhold Niebuhr completely agreed with the Calvinist/Augustinian view of human nature. We are, he believed, finite, fallible creatures prone to sin and to selfishness and to self-deception. And because he believed that was true, he was also convinced that none of us can or should be trusted with unaccountable power. The more authority any given human has, the more accountable that person must be, lest they wield that authority unjustly, as we humans inevitably tend to do.

This is similar to what Ben Parker told his nephew, that with great power comes great responsibility.

Another way of putting that is just to say that with great responsibility comes great responsibility.

As Michaels says, a badge and a gun carry both great authority and great responsibility. A fallen, finite, fallible human being is being granted the authority to make life and death decisions about the lives of others. That’s huge. It is not to be taken lightly. Granting such an increase in authority without ensuring an accompanying increase in accountability and scrutiny and responsibility is not just imprudent, but disrespectful toward the authority itself and toward those who wield it. It ignores — and therefore belittles and demeans — the gravity of that office.

That’s true even if it’s done with a high-falutin’ gloss of archaic theologizing about “magistrates” and divinely sanctioned hierarchies that must never be questioned by civilians or by “we the people” or by wives or by Robert Peel.

I am not a Calvinist but, as I’ve said before, it’s not that I disagree with Calvinism’s pessimistic view of human nature, but that I disagree with its pessimistic view of God. Like Reinhold Niebuhr, I think the Calvinist/Augustinian view of human nature is both generally correct and urgently necessary with regard to any human entrusted with any amount of power over the lives and freedoms and dignity of others.

Set aside the ethereal abstractions about whether or not most people are mostly good or mostly good enough. The question here is whether or not most people — or even any people — can or should be trusted to wield unchecked power over others.

The only safe answer is No.

Hierarchies do not exempt some humans from human nature, they intensify that human nature and its consequences. The more hierarchies we create or allow or enforce, the more “sinful” the world will be. Bring down the rulers from their thrones and lift up the humble. And if any human needs to be entrusted with greater authority or greater power, make sure that human is subject to greater scrutiny and greater accountability.

Remember that AMAB — all magistrates are bastards. Because if you don’t vigilantly remember that, they’ll wind up reminding you of that themselves.

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