The 17th century religious reformation in Europe unleashed a world-conquering power: Christian capitalism. On the heels of Martin Luther and anti-Catholic Protestantism, the writings of French cleric John Calvin in the 16th century and his belief in salvation through the grace of God – we are either elect or reprobate – were hugely influential in supporting the ethic of “good works.” Calvinism, later incorporated into Presbyterian and other Protestant Christian sects, merged comfortably with capitalism’s encouragement for the accumulation of wealth: God’s blessings are bestowed upon those who help themselves. Help themselves, indeed; under the banner of doing God’s good work, successive generations helped themselves to slaves, gold, natural resources and the wealth of entire countries. In doing its “good works” England alone has waged war with or occupied 171 other nations.
America, England’s stepchild, inherited Calvin’s Protestant ethic of systematic rational living through methodological control, and the during the 20th century methodically expanded its reach around the globe, where it now mounts over 700 military bases and has spent trillions “keeping the peace.” Keeping the peace has variously meant working with murderous dictators, such as the support of corporatized puppet-regime Banana Republics in South and Central America or propping up the brutal Shah of Iran; America eagerly provides military hardware to suppress citizens and indigenous people or aggressively wage war against disfavored Islamic nations like Afghanistan. Occasionally, we’ve vanquished tyrants like Hitler. Although we don’t carry The Cross before our advancing armies, Calvin’s capitalist Christianity still inspires America, however.
Understanding the history and risks of Theocracy, and despite the efforts of our Founding Fathers to strictly separate religion from the act of governance – the word “God,” let alone Jesus Christ, is never used in the U.S. Constitution, and “under God” was only added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 – the proselytizing agenda of the capitalist Christian Right to dominate America and the rest of the world has been constant.
That agenda was on full display during the recent Senate hearings on the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. If ever there were a candidate embodying the perfection of God’s will, Barrett is it. Her perfect family (including adoptees from Haiti), perfect history (as Law Clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia), perfect manner (dispassionate, reserved, well-spoken) and perfect philosophy (originalist and textualist methodology), all combined to make Barrett virtually unassailable by her detractors. It’s difficult to criticize someone who outwardly models the most virtuous and righteous attributes of religiosity even if her judicial decisions and past writings point to a dangerously rigid and harsh doctrine of moral superiority.
It is precisely this quality of religious moral superiority – which supports a politicized spiritual aristocracy – that’s fueled the idea of American exceptionalism, an attitude that in the past resulted in the near extermination of Native Americans and hundreds of years of racism, and currently propagates permanent underclass poverty and life-threatening environmental damage of global proportion.
In a nutshell, like Calvin, American exceptionalism argues that success (financial and otherwise) is proof of God’s Grace; failure (and poverty) evidence of God’s disfavor. “The proof is in the pudding,” as the British say. Capitalism has been all too happy to embrace the Calvinist notion of God’s Grace, wrapping itself in the flag and cloaking its activities with sanctimonious incantations about The Invisible Hand of the Free Market (God), the evils of Government Regulation (Satan), and the transcendent Power of Consumerism (Salvation).
What in 1904 historian and sociologist Max Weber identified as “the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism” animates America and provides moral cover for politicians of both stripes; when all else fails, praise God. Behind a veil of moral superiority, a right-wing religious aristocracy is visibly ascendant in American politics, wielding a salvationist agenda that’s not changed since the days of Calvin, namely remaking a profane world into the Kingdom of God, and that at any cost by whatever means necessary.
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Catholics thought good works on God’s grace – which decayed into purchasing salvation. Calvinists, as you say, thought good works (e.g. success) is a sign of God’s grace – though you could never be sure. Then God disappears and all we are left with is success – winning, which is no longer a sign of salvation but salvation itself. As my professor described it, the bitch Goddess success.