Thursday, April 19, 2012

John Calvin and the American Cowboy

Between 1847 and 1860 nearly a million Irish Catholics arrived in the United States; they represented the first huge wave of poor refugees to immigrate. Until these Irish Famine survivors arrived, Catholics were an extreme minority in a Protestant dominated land. 

Culturally and politically America was hostile to Catholicism. This hostility had its roots in the Reformation which began when Luther nailed his complaints about Rome on a church door in Wittenberg in 1517. Before that there was only one Christian Church and it was Roman Catholic (there had been a schism before but the Reformation was a game changer like nothing that had come before).  

Soon more Reformation leaders emerged, creating new denominations and challenging Catholicism as well as each other. One of the most powerful of these was John Calvin and he became the intellectual and theological force behind the pietistic movement that shaped the Puritan movement – the same men who saw themselves as religious reformers and became a powerful force in America.  
Calvinist-Puritan thinking was centered in Biblical literalism (which Catholicism is not) and an ethic of austerity, frugality and hard work that stressed salvation rests in overcoming the flesh and glorifying God. This movement shaped the Anabaptists (Baptists), Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists and indeed all of the early colonies. At the time of the Revolution, all 13 colonies had established one or another of these churches as an arm of law in their territory.  

By the time Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams gathered to form a new union they had seen the choke hold Calvinism exerted on the colonies and also understood the disastrous history created by the marriage of church and monarchy in Europe. Being further influenced by the philosophy of the Enlightenment they embarked on creating a national government free of the reach (so they thought) of any religious power.  

Eventually, the entire nation shed these “state churches” and by the mid-to-late 1800s no state boasted a “state” church. However, the influence of Calvinism had been intricately woven into the cultural fabric and influenced the nation in other ways. 

One of the most profound tenets of Calvinism is “predestination,” a belief that God determines who is saved or damned. This created a deep psychological need for clues about whether one was saved and Calvinists found affirmation of their salvation in the outward signs of material success.  

Max Weber, in “The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism,” wrote about the relationship between the ethics of ascetic Protestantism and the emergence of the spirit of modern capitalism. Weber argues that the modern spirit of capitalism sees profit as an end in itself, and pursuing profit as virtuous so that worldly success is often seen as affirmation of God’s grace and pleasure. 

Couple this with the emergence of a frontier mentality about individual worth and you really begin to understand America’s culture wars. America’s early unlimited spaces and open opportunities suggested that anyone who was willing to work hard could be successful.

“Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” and “applying a little elbow grease” to life became snappy formulas for success. The iconic cowboy and Calvin merged and Americans became deeply infatuated with the idea that strength of character alone made a man successful and his success was then proof that he was in with the Lord. Alternatively, non-conformity, cultural aberration, conflicts with the prevailing mores, or even just bad luck suggested a lack of character and a fall from grace.  

Famine Irish came from an entirely different reality. They knew Grandma Rooney and a million others starved to death not because of personal lack of character or Divine displeasure but simply because some greedy bastard held the reins of power. They also came from a religious tradition richly nuanced by 1500 years of theological thought that had given rise to a vastly different world view than the one embraced by Protestantism. When Luther threw out the papacy and its many sins he also threw out Aquinas, Augustine, Benedict and Jerome and a much more contextualized understanding of scripture -- but the Irish brought even more than their church and its saints to America: Along with their strong backs and pugnacity they came with a historical tradition of resistance and defiance to oppression.  

Irish Catholicism more than any other form of Catholicism was starkly different than Protestant Calvinism and the tragedy of America may well be that both the Irish and the other Catholics who came to America have forgotten these differences. For a time Irish Catholicism modified the least compassionate pietistic influences of Calvinism in our national policies.  

I suggest America would do well to ditch the national motto “In God We Trust” for those wise words of my Irish grandmothers: “There But For The Grace of God Go You.”

First published 4/18/12 in my OpEd column in the Journal Tribune

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