Calvinism in America, Vatican Voices

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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