Monday, July 12, 2010

An Unexpected Alliance...

John Calvin

Ayn Rand

... but not quite so strange when you think about it.

Calvin and Rand would be appalled by each other. The austere and devout Calvin was among the most radical of Protestant Christians. Rand was an uncompromising atheist. Calvin ruled Geneva as a religious dictator. Calvin was a theocrat, not a political ideologue (though to my mind that's a very fine distinction). Rand continues to profoundly influence American social and economic policy on the state and federal level. She was an ideologue and certainly not a theocrat.

And yet, there are growing ties between American right wing and fundamentalist Christians and the followers of Rand, with many (such as Glenn Beck) now claiming a dual identity as Randians and Christians.
All the Randians I've ever known were atheists and militantly anti-clerical, so this tea-party fusion with right-wing Christianity takes me by surprise.

American Christian fundamentalism, in all fairness, is a grotesque parody of Calvinism, but it is Calvinist nonetheless. Calvinist Christianity is the only form of the religion that rewards material success. Prosperity in this world is a sign of God's favor, the reward of righteousness (I can't think of anything more opposite of St. Francis, or even Martin Luther). American evangelical Christianity, and Mormonism (Glenn Beck's church), have deep roots in Calvinism.

I notice that Fundamentalists and Randians both jealously guard their sacred texts.

They share supremacism. They both divide humankind into the Worthy and the Unworthy, with the Worthy rightfully in charge of everything and owning it all. The Unworthy are fit only for punishment or for service to the Worthy. All solutions to social ills must be punitive. There are no structural injustices, no systemic failures. There is no real misfortune. There are only failures of individual character. Unworthiness is the wage of unrighteousness and flawed character. Only the rod of righteousness will set the slackers and sinners back on the straight and narrow. I think that this is what's behind the War on the Unemployed that's going on in Congress right now with millions of people consigned to Unworthiness through the misfortune of unemployment. It is all of a piece with a very supremacist view of the world.

It would also explain the son of a devout Randian, Rand Paul, speaking in an evangelical church in Kentucky (complete with lucite lectern in the background) to a gathering of mostly fundamentalist home schoolers.

No one chooses the circumstances into which they are born. The "playing field" of life is never level. Those who have already helped themselves to more than enough will always tilt the field in their favor and in favor of their own kind. It is human nature. We are mortal creatures who live three score and ten, and then we die. Misfortune, illness, accident, and vulnerability are facts of mortality. Those who help themselves at the expense of others are criminals. Those who need our help in times of calamity (like mass unemployment) are our neighbors. We help them because they are us, and because we are vulnerable to disaster ourselves. The life of invulnerability and unmitigated triumph is an illusion, as big an illusion as a life of painlessness and ever gratified desire. Other people have just as real and legitimate a claim upon this world as ourselves. We must share one world with other people who have their claim upon it as we have ours. We succeed because others made our success possible. Our success opens up new possibilities, blazes new trails, for our neighbors, as they have for us.


It turns out that the bulk of those millions of lazy shiftless unemployed leeching off society are formerly middle class people, many of whom are now facing destitution.  Anyone who has stayed awake for five minutes in a history class knows that huge numbers of middle class people made poor is a recipe for disaster.


Counterlight said...

I expect Kishnevi will protest.
He's always welcome here, but I stand by my rant.

rick allen said...

"Calvinist Christianity is the only form of the religion that rewards material success. Prosperity in this world is a sign of God's favor, the reward of righteousness"

I don't have chapter and verse to hand, but I have always had some doubts about that common assertion. Oh, undoubtedly, plenty of rich Calvinists have seen the hand of God in their success, but I think that that particular failing pretty much applies across the board.

What I object to in Calvin is the same thing that I object to in Mark Twain: the denial of human freedom (Luther was much of the same mind, as abundantly clear from his "Bondage of the Will").

Calvin did indeed divide up the race between the Elect and the Reprobate, but that was as far as imaginable from a distinction between Worthy and Unworthy. No one was Worthy of salvation, certainly not the Elect. The very point was their Unworthiness, thus showing the majesty and sovereignty of the inscrutable will of God.

A muddled point, perhaps, in a muddle of theologies and ideologies. But it's surely right that there's more Calvinism in the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion than in any Baptist camp meeting, where the whole point is to preach, beg, exhort, and otherwise cajole you to come on up and save yourself with that big decision for Christ.

(Understand, I was raised Presbyterian, but I never heard much that was recognizably Calvinist growing up, and, when I finally got around to reading the Institutes in my twenties, I was fairly confident that that was not the right way to read the gospel. Still, I suppose I have some primordial affection for him, and, if he is to be damned, he should be damned for his own sins, and not for those of his distant progeny.)

MarkBrunson said...

Both Randians and American fundamentalism are primarily movements of an adolescent mindset which feels it's not "getting what it deserves, and it's everybody else's fault!"

JCF said...

They're both Absolutists, willing to see Wretched of the Earth starve and "Decrease the Surplus Population."

Rand's direct ancestor has got to be Nietsche: he's the one who abandoned God, but kept damnation...

Counterlight said...

I would agree that so much American fundamentalism is a caricature of Calvinism, but the irony of so much puritanism is that the "salvation by works" thrown out the door by the reformers sneaked back in through the window. We cannot indeed fault Calvin for his progeny, but he did lay out a path which many followed perhaps to conclusions other than what he preferred.

I always think of Calvin as the polar extreme of Rousseau. I think the idea the humanity is fundamentally evil is as extreme and absurd as the assertion that humanity is fundamentally virtuous.

Counterlight said...

I suppose it's very liberal Episcopalian of me (as well as liberal Methodist), but I think the whole idea of predestination (first proposed by St. Augustine late in his life, and then expanded upon by Calvin) has been nothing but trouble. As far as I'm concerned, salvation is either universal and a free gift or it's not. I've never been able to square the idea that some are predestined for salvation and others for damnation with the idea of either freedom or universality.
The theological arguments I heard in my childhood for segregation of the races (which were not particularly subtle or sophisticated) rested upon an interpretation of predestination, and a very literal reading of the Bible, especially of the story of Ham. The Calvinist argument against such theological racism would be the common heritage of all people in Adam and in Christ. However, that was lost on the people I grew up among.

I think JCF's assertion that some want to keep damnation while getting rid of God might be a little more true of Rand, but has roots in Nietzche's thinking.