Cryptocalvinism, slightly tweaked

As usual, much excellent discussion has appeared on my last ultracalvinism post. Of course, readers should bear in mind that many of these commenters, especially the more flattering ones, are posting from my IP address. Perhaps they are outside in a van, snarfing the wireless.

Nonetheless, various persons have convinced me that the name is not quite right. I think the problem is the “ultra,” which does not say enough and comes too close to a mere pejorative.

So on further reflection, I prefer cryptocalvinism, meaning two things: that, like Calvin and as a direct result of his intellectual heritage, cryptocalvinists are building the Kingdom of God on Earth, a political system that seeks to eradicate every form of unrighteousness; and that they prefer not to acknowledge this characterization of their mission and heritage.

One problem is that there’s already an early Lutheran schism called Crypto-Calvinism. But then again, there’s also something called Calvinism. Both these terms are customarily used to describe theological doctrines, such as predestination, grace, etc.

I find it fascinating to observe the fights people once had over Christian theology. Modern readers, especially nontheists such as myself, but I suspect also Christians, have trouble understanding the emotional investment in these details of the heavenly universe. Perhaps it’s easiest to see them as mere tribal identifiers, the 16th-century version of Manchester United, Hamas or the Crips. This strikes me as disrespectful, though, and presentist. Readers with a better eye for history are invited to comment.

In any case, my interest (and I think that of most readers) is not in theology, but in culture, government and the evolution of ideas. Stalin for me remains part of the history of Marxism, although few points of Marx’s doctrine can be identified in his actions. Ideas and languages have similar patterns of evolution, and it is not a misnomer that Old English and English share a name, though the two are nowhere near mutually intelligible.

For me, Calvinism is a system of government which aims at total righteousness. As Stefan Zweig describes it, in his wonderfully dramatic The Right To Heresy: Castellio Against Calvin,

A master of the art of organization, Calvin had been able to transform a whole city, a whole State, whose numerous burghers had hitherto been freemen, into a rigidly obedient machine; had been able to extirpate independence, and to lay an embargo on freedom of thought in favor of his own exclusive doctrine. The powers of the State were under his supreme control; as wax in his hands were the various authorities, Town Council and Consistory, university and law-courts, finance and morality, the written and the spoken and even the secretly whispered word.

Zweig describes the Consistory, Geneva’s religious police:

The members of this moral Cheka thrust fingers into every pie. They felt the women’s dresses to see whether their skirts were not too long or too short, whether these garments had superfluous frills or dangerous slits. The police carefully inspected the coiffure, to see that it did not tower too high; they counted the rings on the victim’s fingers, and looked to see how many pairs of shoes were in the cupboard. From the bedroom they passed on to the kitchen table, to ascertain whether the prescribed diet was not being exceeded by a soup or a course of meat, or whether sweets and jams were hidden away somewhere.

And the burning of Servetus:

The chains attached to the stake were wound four or five times around it and around the poor wretch’s wasted body. Between this and the chains, the executioner’s assistants then inserted the book and the manuscript which Servetus had sent to Calvin under seal to ask Calvin’s fraternal opinion upon it. Finally, in scorn, there was pressed upon the martyr’s brow a crown of leaves impregnated with sulphur. The preliminaries were over. The executioner kindled the faggots and the murder began.

When the flames rose around him, Servetus uttered so dreadful a cry that many of the onlookers turned their eyes away from the pitiful sight. Soon the smoke interposed a veil in front of the writhing body, but the yells of agony grew louder and louder, until at length came an imploring scream: “Jesus, Son of the everlasting God, have pity on me!” The struggle with death lasted half an hour. Then the flames abated, the smoke dispersed, and attached to the blackened stake there remained, above the glowing embers, a black, sickening, charred mass, which had lost human semblance.

But Zweig (whose World Of Yesterday is simply required reading) is as fair as he can be:

Granted, dynamic variety was sacrificed to monotony, and joy to a mathematical correctness; but, in return, education was raised to a niche among the arts. Schools, universities and welfare institutions were beyond compare; the sciences were sedulously cultivated…

This sounds not unfamiliar at all. As does the first quote above. Unless it be “Punch” Sulzberger, no Protestant pope presides over this new Geneva of the postwar West; and yet the views of our professors, journalists and civil servants are, by historical standards, remarkably synoptic. (Of course, they could all just be right.)

But the other two quotes feel strange to us. No one is burning heretics these days. Or even racists—though, like Castellio, they do have some trouble remaining employed. We have no religious police who fondle women’s dresses—although it is, of course, important to recycle.

And to the extent that we are religious, we almost exclusively follow the theology of Servetus—who has a good claim to be considered the first Unitarian. Most Christian denominations are still technically Trinitarian, but few make a big deal of it.

The details change. The details will always change. In Calvin’s day, big hair offended God. Today, burning fossil fuels is bad for the Environment. Able logicians can argue either point. All kinds of evidence—biblical or scientific—can be deployed.

But as any Castellio can tell you, no Calvin will ever conclude that big hair pleases God, or that burning fossil fuels is good for the Environment. The evidence is sought and, obedient, it appears. Few even doubt it, none argue the converse. Calvinism speaks with one voice.

As this wonderful TIME article (which I’ve quoted before) reveals, 65 years ago the Federal Council of Churches, an organization of mainline Protestant sects with Calvinist roots, endorsed a system of world government strikingly similar to that supported by right-thinking persons, such as Bono, today.

TIME described this program as “super-protestant,” and if modern readers are baffled by this usage, they can consult such works as Richard Gamble’s The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation, which moves the clock back another 30 years, and is full of bloodcurdling Calvinism in a much more militant vein. This same strand reaches back to Beecher’s Bibles, the Puritans, Cromwell and his republic of saints, and ultimately, of course, Calvin himself.

But somewhere in the last 60 years, it vanishes. The modern descendant of “super-protestantism” is obvious. Now and then, like Barack Obama, it will even claim to “take back Christianity.” But such audacity is rare, and for the most part cryptocalvinism is simply “secular.” As far as most people these days know, it was born adult in 1945, like Minerva from the head of Zeus. Or it had always existed all along. Or old versions of it are fabricated in previous generations, in the classic style of Whig history.

I see secularization as an extension of ecumenism, the process that gave us the Federal Council of Churches in the first place. In the 20th century, rationalism—the claim that one’s beliefs are derived from reason and science—will always outcompete justification from revelation. Of course, a genuine freethinker has no reason to believe any such claim. But nor does a genuine Methodist have any reason to make nice with a genuine Presbyterian.

Another benefit of secularization is that cryptocalvinism, unlike “super-protestantism,” can twist the First Amendment and the general humanist tradition of religious tolerance into a weapon to assault its enemies, the unreformed revelationist Christians. Before the 1950s, the nature of the US as a Christian nation was generally accepted. But when the Warren Court revised this tradition, it had the letter of the law (if not its historic meaning) on its side. Effectively, cryptocalvinism rose to power through Christianity, and then used that power to “pull up the ladder”—a classic Machiavellian maneuver.

Of course, all of these changes are adaptive, rather than conscious. There is no plot. The Illuminati are not involved. The miracle of evolution is that its results are indistinguishable from the product of an intelligent designer. Or, in this case, an intelligent conspirator.

One fascinating fact about the secularization mutation is that, like the human lactose-tolerance gene, it has arisen spontaneously more than once. The relationship between Calvinism and Rousseauvianism is remarkably like that between super-protestantism and liberal universalism. Rousseau, of course, hailed from Geneva, and Robespierre used Rousseau’s nominally non-Christian message of universal love to establish a reign that made Calvin look like Coolidge. In fact, through Hegel, Rousseauvian idealistic nationalism was a significant contributor to the progressive Christianity of Woodrow Wilson, which of course begat “super-protestantism.” Like languages, ideas tend to have family trees which are actually dags.

Since I’ve changed the name, let me repeat the four ideals of cryptocalvinism: Equality (the universal brotherhood of man), Peace (the futility of violence), Social Justice (the fair distribution of goods), and Community (the leadership of benevolent public servants).

Cryptocalvinists that believe these ideals are universal, that they can be derived from science and logic, that no reasonable and well-intentioned person can dispute them, and that their practice if applied correctly will lead to an ideal society.

I believe that they are arbitrary, that they are inherited from Protestant Christianity, that they serve primarily as a justification for the rule of the cryptocalvinist establishment, or Polygon, and that they are a major cause of corruption, tyranny, poverty and war.

We’ll look at some of these disagreements in upcoming posts.