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Calvinism, Capitalism, Conversion, & Incarceration


Why are increased sentences and the severe punishment of those convicted of crimes so popular and prevalent in U.S. culture? Since the late 1970s our society has accepted increasingly rigid and vengeful ways of punishing those convicted of crimes. Behind this trend is the momentum of 250 years of a strain of religious philosophies brought to our shores by Pilgrims, Puritans, and other colonial settlers influenced by a Protestant theology called Calvinism. Today, many ideas, concepts, and frames of reference in modern American society are legacies of the history of Protestantism as it divided and morphed through Calvinism, revivalist evangelicalism, and fundamentalism. Even people who see themselves as secular and not religious often unconsciously adopt many of these historic cultural legacies while thinking of their ideas as simply common sense.

What is "common sense" for one group, however, is foolish belief for another. According to author George Lakoff, a linguist who studies the linkage between rhetoric and ideas, there is a tremendous gulf between what conservatives and liberals think of as common sense, especially when it comes to issues of moral values. In his recent book Moral Politics, which has gained attention in both media and public debates, Lakoff argues that conservatives base their moral views of social policy on a "Strict Father" model, while liberals base their views on a "Nurturant Parent" model.11

Other scholars have looked at these issues and found similar patterns. According to Axel R. Schaefer, there are three main ideological tendencies in U.S. social reform:

  • Liberal/Progressive: based on changing systems and institutions to change individual behavior on a collective basis over time.
  • Calvinist/Free Market: based on changing individual social behavior through punishment.
  • Evangelical/Revivalist: based on born again conversion to change individual behavior, but still linked to some Calvinist ideas of punishment.12

Coalition Politics

Republicans have forged a broad coalition of two of the three tendencies that involves moderately conservative Protestants who nonetheless hold some traditional Calvinist ideas; Free Market advocates ranging from multinational executives to economic conservatives to libertarian ideologues; and conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists with a core mission of converting people to their particular brand of Christianity. This is a coalition with many fracture points and disagreements.

As the Bush Administration has shifted government social welfare toward "Faith-based" programs, it has diverted government funding into privatized religious organizations (which raises serious separation of Church and State issues), but the amount of funding applied to "Faithbased" projects is small compared to the large budget cuts in previously government-funded government-run social welfare programs. Libertarians approve of the overall budget cuts, but would prefer cutting out the government funding of "Faith Based" projects.

Not all evangelicals and fundamentalists are political conservatives, although most are. The Christian Right is that group of politically conservative Christians-primarily evangelicals and fundamentalists-who have been mobilized into a social movement around social issues and traditional moral values; and who have sought political power through elections and legislation. The Christian Right became a political force in the Republican Party in the 1980s as part of a strategy of right-wing political strategists to enlist evangelical and fundamentalist leaders, especially television evangelists, in building a voter base.

The Christian Right has used populist rhetoric to build a mass base for elitist conservative politics.13 This process leads many people to vote against their economic self-interest, as Thomas Frank observes in his book What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.14 Today, the Christian Right is the single largest organized voting block in the Republican Party. These are predominantly White evangelical voters. Most Black Christian evangelicals overwhelmingly vote Democratic. The voting power of White Christian evangelicals has meant they are now political players on the national scene. For example President George W. Bush's first term selection as Attorney General of the United States of John Ashcroft, a hero to the Christian Right and himself a member of the ultra-conservative evangelical denomination Assemblies of God, was a political reward to White evangelical voters.

Some of the goals of many White evangelical conservatives are shared by another group of people who call themselves the Neoconservatives. These are former liberals and leftists who rejected the social, cultural, and political liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Neoconservative social and cultural politics echo many Calvinist themes such as the need to defend traditional morality and the patriarchal family; the special role for America in world affairs, and the righteousness of economic capitalism.

As the New Right gained power, Republicans-and Democrats-began to support repressive and punitive criminal justice policies that were shaped by one of the historic legacies of Calvinism: the idea that people arrested for breaking laws require punishment, shame, and discipline.

While most mainline Protestant denominations and evangelical churches have jettisoned some of the core tenets of Calvinism, ideas about punishment and retribution brought to our shores by early Calvinist settlers are so rooted in the American cultural experience and social traditions that many people ranging from religious to secular view them as simply "common sense." What Lakoff calls the "Strict Father" model gains its power among conservatives because it dovetails with their ideas of what is a common sense approach to morality, public policy, and crime. To understand where this "common sense" comes from, and why it is tied to the Strict Father model, requires that we trace the influence of Protestant Calvinism.

The Roots of Calvinism

Martin Luther founded Protestantism in a schism with the Catholic Church in 1517, but it was John Calvin who literally put it on the map in the city of Geneva, which is now in Switzerland. In the mid 1500s, Calvin forged a theocracy-a society where only the leaders of a specific religion can be the leaders of the secular government.

Calvinists believed that Adam and Eve disobeyed God and tasted the apple from the tree of knowledge at the urging of an evil demon. As a result of this "original sin," the betrayal of God's command, all humans are born in sin. God must punish us for our sins; we must be ashamed of our wrongdoing; and we require the harsh yet loving discipline of our heavenly father to correct our failures.

Calvinists also believe that "God's divine providence [has] selected, elected, and predestined certain people to restore humanity and reconcile it with its Creator."15 These "Elect" were originally thought to be the only people going to Heaven. To the Calvinists, material success and wealth was a sign that you were one of the Elect, and thus were favored by God. Who better to shepherd a society populated by God's wayward children? The poor, the weak, the infirm? God was punishing them for their sins. This theology was spreading at a time when the rise of industrial capitalism tore the fabric of European society, shifting the nature of work and the patterns of family life of large numbers of people. There were large numbers of angry, alienated people who the new elites needed to keep in line to avoid labor unrest and to protect production and profits.

Max Weber, an early sociologist who saw culture as a powerful force that shaped both individuals and society, argued that Calvinism grew in a symbiotic relationship with the rise of industrial capitalism.16 As Sara Diamond explains:

Calvinism arose in Europe centuries ago in part as a reaction to Roman Catholicism's heavy emphasis on priestly authority and on salvation through acts of penance. One of the classic works of sociology, Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, links the rise of Calvinism to the needs of budding capitalists to judge their own economic success as a sign of their preordained salvation. The rising popularity of Calvinism coincided with the consolidation of the capitalist economic system. Calvinists justified their accumulation of wealth, even at the expense of others, on the grounds that they were somehow destined to prosper. It is no surprise that such notions still find resonance within the Christian Right which champions capitalism and all its attendant inequalities.17

Awakening To Evangelicalism

From the 1730s through the 1770s there was a Protestant revival movement in the colonies dubbed the First Great Awakening. As the revival swept the colonies, many reported a highly emotional experience of conversion after hearing sermons at large public meetings. The new evangelists tended to be zealous, judgmental, and authoritarian. Not everyone was happy with the results of the First Great Awakening, and some rejected the trend and remained on the traditional orthodox Calvinist path. Others rejected both and developed what became Unitarianism as a response. By the early 1800s there were three tendencies in American Protestantism:

1) Orthodoxy in the form of northern Calvinist Congregationalists and southern Anglicans;

2) Revivalist rationalism and evangelism that drew not only from the Congregationalists and Anglicans (later called Episcopalians), but also swept through the smaller Protestant denominations such as the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians;

3) Unitarianism, still relatively small but influential in the northeast.18

Social Reformers: Quakers and Unitarians

Many ideas on social reform that are now supported by mainline Protestant denominations were initially promoted by religious dissidents such as the Quakers and later the Unitarians.

Quakers had been concerned with prison conditions since the late 1600s in both England and in colonial Pennsylvania, and they introduced the idea of prison as a means for reform rather than punishment.19 They also promoted the "conception of the criminal as at least partially a victim of conditions created by society" which implied that society had some obligation to reforming the criminal.20 In the early 1800s Quaker activist Elizabeth Gurney Fry launched a major prison reform movement in England, and these ideas were carried to the United States.

The Unitarians rejected the Calvinist idea that man was born in sin and argued that sometimes people did bad things because they were trapped in poverty or lacked the education required to move up in society. The Unitarians took the idea of transforming society and changing personal behavior popularized by the First Great Awakening and shifted it into a plan for weaving a social safety net under the auspices of the secular government.

The attention to social conditions by the Unitarians and Quakers overlapped with the Second Great Awakening, which ran from the 1790s to the 1840s. Sin was seen as tied to selfishness. Good Christians should strive to behave in a way that benefited the public good. America was seen as a Christian Nation that would fulfill Biblical prophecy. By the late 1800s, most major Protestant denominations (called "Mainline" denominations) had found some accommodation with the discoveries of science and secular civic arrangements such as separation of Church and State favored by Enlightenment values.21 There was also "a growing interest by churches in social service, often called the Social Gospel, [which] undercut evangelicalism's traditional emphasis on personal salvation."22

Fundamentals and Prophecies

All of this created a backlash movement. A group of conservative ministers condemned this shift and urged Protestants to return to what they saw as the fundamentals of orthodox Protestant belief. From 1910 to 1915 these reactionary theologians published articles on what they saw as the fundamentals of Christianity. Thus they became known as the fundamentalists. Among their beliefs was the idea that the Bible was never in error and was to be read literally, not as metaphor. While rejecting Calvinist ideas of predestination and the Elect, fundamentalists sought to restore many orthodox Calvinist tenets-and they embraced the idea that man was born in sin and thus needed punishment, shame, and discipline to correct sinful tendencies.

Although fundamentalists and evangelicals tended to withdraw from the political fray, devoting most of their energy to saving souls, they challenged modern ideas using such modern tools as radio and later television to communicate their message. Both groups were largely suspicious of the social reforms implemented during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. Government welfare programs could be pictured as similar to the collectivism of Godless and perhaps Satanic Soviet communism.

The result of all this turmoil in evangelical and fundamentalist communities was the development of a tendency called "dominionism" based on the concept that Christians need to take dominion over the earth. Dominionism is an umbrella term that covers politically-active Christians from a variety of theological and institutional traditions.

While this was happening, in May of 1979 a group of conservative political activists met with conservative religious leaders to plan a way to mobilize evangelicals into becoming conservative voters for Republican candidates. Attendees included Jerry Falwell, Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich, Howard Phillips, Ed McAteer, and Robert Billings. This is where Jerry Falwell was tasked with creating the Moral Majority organization, which became a key component of the New Right. The Moral majority focused on opposing abortion and pornography. After evangelicals helped elect Ronald Reagan president, he appointed C. Everett Koop to the position of surgeon general of the United States as a payback.

The New Right not only recruited evangelicals and fundamentalists into their coalition, but also sought to strengthen the bridge between traditional moral values Calvinists and the neoliberal laissezfaire "Free Market" advocates in the Republican Party; which included both anti-tax economic conservatives and anti-government libertarians. This was a coalition initially forged by conservatives in the 1950s.23

Many conservative Christians did not necessarily oppose a role for government, or object to government funding, as long as it focused on individual behavior. Thus faith-based initiatives are seen as a proper place for government funding because they shift tax dollars away from social change toward individual change.

The Child, the Family, the Nation, and God

Since the 1980s and the rise of the Christian Right, public policy regarding the treatment of criminals has echoed the patriarchal and punitive child-rearing practices favored by many Protestant fundamentalists. Most readers will recognize the phrase: "Spare the rod and spoil the child." This idea comes from a particular authoritarian version of fundamentalist belief.

According to Philip Greven:

The authoritarian Christian family is dependent on coercion and pain to obtain obedience to authority within and beyond the family, in the church, the community, and the polity. Modern forms of Christian fundamentalism share the same obsessions with obedience to authority characteristic of earlier modes of evangelical Protestantism, and the same authoritarian streak evident among seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Anglo-American evangelicals is discernible today, for precisely the same reasons: the coercion of children through painful punishments in order to teach obedience to divine and parental authority.24

The belief in the awful and eternal punishment of a literal Hell justifies the punishment, shame, and discipline of children by parents who want their offspring to escape a far worse fate. This includes physical or "corporal" forms of punishment. "Many advocates of corporal punishment are convinced that such punishment and pain are necessary to prevent the ultimate destruction and damnation of their children's souls."25 This is often accompanied by the idea that a firm male hand rightfully dominates the family and the society. 26 The system of authoritarian and patriarchal control used in some families is easily transposed into a framework for conservative public policy, especially in the criminal justice system.

Lakoff explains that on a societal level, according to conservative "Strict Father morality, harsh prison terms for criminals and life imprisonment for repeat offenders are the only moral options." The arguments by conservatives are "moral arguments, not practical arguments. Statistics about which policies do or do not actually reduce crime rates do not count in a morally-based discourse." These "traditional moral values" conservatives tend not to use explanations based on the concepts of class and social causes, nor do they recommend policy based on those notions."27 According to Lakoff:

For liberals the essence of America is nurturance, part of which is helping those who need help. People who are "trapped" by social and economic forces need help to "escape." The metaphorical Nurturant Parent-the government-has a duty to help change the social and economic system that traps people. By this logic, the problem is in the society, not in the people innocently "trapped." If social and economic forces are responsible, then other social and economic forces must be brought to bear to break the "trap."

This whole picture is simply inconsistent with Strict Father morality and the conservative worldview it defines. In that worldview, the class hierarchy is simply a ladder, there to be climbed by anybody with the talent and self-discipline to climb it. Whether or not you climb the ladder of wealth and privilege is only a matter of whether you have the moral strength, character, and inherent talent to do so.28

To conservatives, the liberal arguments about class and impoverishment, and institutionalized social forces such as racism and sexism, are irrelevant. They appear to be "excuses for lack of talent, laziness, or some other form of moral weakness."29 Much of this worldview traces to the lingering backbeat of Calvinist theology that infuses "common sense" for many conservatives.


The conservative Calvinist/Free Market coalition works the front end of the criminal justice system, ensuring harsh sentencing and incarceration. The evangelical/revivalist groups agree with that aspect of Calvinism, but they also work the back end of the system, salvaging the souls of the incarcerated so that whether or not they leave prison, they will be born again as properly behaved citizens heading to Heaven. There are only a relative handful of evangelicals (conservative and progressive) who challenge the system of increasingly harsh sentencing.

Chip Berlet is Senior Analyst at Political Research Associates.


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