Of the many historic figures of the Reformation, John Calvin is probably the one for whom I have the least affection. This is natural since my branch of the Jesus Movement (as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls the Church writ large) is Anglicanism, and Anglicanism bears little resemblance to the type of Protestantism espoused by those of the Calvinist persuasion. I’ve never been drawn to the doctrine of predestination as part of my faith and I don’t think many other people are either.
So I was immediately intrigued by an article in The Hartmann Report entitled Is Davos the New Church of Calvinism? Here’s the link, but be prepared to navigate the website a bit to find Thom Hartmann’s Jan. 19 post, which contains the article. On his website, the article is entitled For the Love of Money.
Our country, early on, was settled by groups of European Protestants, many of them Calvinists. They believed in predestination, which holds that God determines our social status prior to our even being born. So it follows that those who amass great fortunes are predestined, by God, for the exalted status that wealth confers.
This is still being preached today by purveyors of the “prosperity gospel.” I call it the “God-wants-you-to-have-that-new-Lexus” gospel. Adopting this gospel neatly bypasses the troublesome advice that Jesus gave the Rich Young Man in all three of the synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke: Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor. The church for most of two millennia has twisted itself into knots trying not to alienate the wealthy with this inconvenient, but vital, part of Jesus’s teaching.
As a country we have used the spirit of predestination and the prosperity gospel to lift up capitalism to the status of a state religion. No, that’s not hyperbole. And here is where the Davos reference in Hartmann’s article comes in. Every January for the past 50 years, the world has paid homage to the rich and powerful business moguls and political leaders who gather in Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum. Rich and powerful attendees from all over the world pay homage to each other, but nobody else cares about it except some members of the financial press. It should be as obsolete as debutante balls to which it bears a resemblance. Mr. Hartmann describes the conclave as the Davos Morbidly Rich Support Group. This year’s edition featured appearances by the dynamic duo -— Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema — who specialize in protecting the excesses of the fossil fuel giants and hedge funders. Both senators have net worths in the eight-figure category and six-figure monthly incomes, according to data compiled by CA Knowledge, a free finance portal for anyone curious about net worths and incomes of famous people, www.caknowledge.com. An occasional leftist politician shows up at Davos, but they’re mostly a curiosity among the fattest of fat cats, who seem to know that they were meant to rule. Calvin would be pleased: God’s elect direct our world, as they were meant to from birth.
The problem with all this wealth worship is that it goes unchallenged. Those unfortunate people who Jesus called blessed in his Sermon on the Mount — the poor, meek, etc. — are meant to submit. All of us, especially in this country but not exclusively here, accept this as the natural order of things.
But it wasn’t always thus. As recently as the mid 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt figuratively declared war on what he called “economic royalists” — his era’s Davos attendees. Here is what he said back in 1932:
Out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks, and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital — all undreamed of by the Fathers — the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service…. These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power.
And President Roosevelt — a man of great wealth and privilege — made good to some extent on his promise to overthrow economic royalists. What ensued was a golden age of economic growth that greatly strengthened the middle class and coincided with a golden age for union labor. Rich people paid high marginal tax rates but still got richer. Working men and women could retire at 65 and take vacations annually. The economy shared its gains far more broadly than it has since the Reagan Revolution, which enthroned the Calvinist-influenced idea of trickle-down economics at the top of the economic policy canon.
Is this not a time in our history when we need a 21st century New Deal to reorient our economic life to something more closely resembling the 1950s and ’60s? Why is the idea decried as Socialism by so many? Why are the only political leaders advocating real change decried even by their own party as too radical? Is it because we have a Calvinist worldview that causes us to revere, rather than question, the morbidly rich?
I suppose these sentiments place me in the “class warrior” camp that Republicans despise. Go ahead and accuse me of being a traitor to my class — the class of wealth and privilege. My answer: Damn right! Guilty as charged! I simply cannot simultaneously try to follow the teachings of Jesus and jealously guard every morsel of wealth and privilege granted to me by the accident of birth. And when I try to do that, as I catch myself doing from time to time, I am not a Christian, but a hypocrite.
It’s an impossible circle to square, unless perhaps you are a Calvinist. In that case, you could simply attribute your socio-economic well-being to predestination; God willed it before time began, and, presto! — things turned out exactly as He planned. Those pesky old Beatitudes and all that stuff about selling your possessions to help the poor can be safely stowed away in the dusty attic of discarded theologies.
When I think of those corporate jets whizzing off to Davos so that their owners can decide the fate of the world, it makes me think of Louis XIV’s court at Versailles. All the glitter, privilege and ostentation presaged a terrible reckoning for the Sun King’s grandson a few decades later. It took a bloody revolution to rid France of rule by the morbidly rich. And bloody revolutions can have unintended consequences. The ideals of Liberte, Eqalite, and Fraternite did not leap fully formed from the womb of revolution. Napoleon did.
So it is not without some relief that I say that violent revolution seems unlikely in our country. Yet, the plight of our country’s working poor bears a disquieting resemblance to the famous sans culottes of Paris in 1789. They were poor people who, seeing the yawning socio-economic chasm between the rich and themselves, became radicalized. And when the moment was right, the fuse was lit and their pent-up rage burned for the next half-decade. What outlet for frustration do our own struggling workers have? They can vote for one of two parties, both of which are beholden to the oligarchical interests of corporations and the barons who run them. But I doubt that casting ballots for candidates who often seem indistinguishable satisfies them. They can organize and unionize, but again, the power of too-big-to-fail corporations, endowed by the Supreme Court with some of the rights of actual people, make it all but impossible for the working poor to bargain successfully for higher wages and benefits.
So when will they reach the boiling point? When will the gross inequity – the top 1 percent of Americans controlling 32% of the country’s wealth — provoke mass civil disobedience or worse?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. It actually seems as if Americans who are struggling have unlimited patience with the status quo. Gosh, if the obscenity of the Trump tax cuts didn’t incite anyone to riot, what will?
Maybe the Calvinism bequeathed to our country by the early settlers is still alive and well. Maybe people of all sorts believe that the elect are meant to rule and their status, along with their wealth, prove that they are chosen by God to govern and thrive. But I certainly don’t believe that and neither do you!
In the next couple of years, I hope to see a leader emerge who can explain in plain English (and Spanish, hopefully) how unfair our economy has become. This new leader must not sugar-coat the message with nostrums about how we are the greatest country in the world since that is only true if you’re rich, and maybe not even then. She must highlight the glaring inequity of a country that pays its CEOs thousands of times the wages earned by workers on the factory floor. She must highlight the obscenity of a secretary paying 30 percent taxes on her $50,000 earned income while her hedge fund boss pays 22 percent on his multi-million dollar earnings. And she must go beyond talking and propose bold new measures to erase the inequities.
I’ll be surprised if this bold new equalizer is a Democrat. Democrats are too timid and cautious (apologies to Bernie and the Squad). I’m hoping that this new face will represent a third party — The Green Party maybe.
Oh, how I would love to support that party’s nominee!
Author’s note: I know that I have treated Calvinism and the doctrine of predestination unfairly – painted with too broad a brush and too negative a tone. But this isn’t a theological blog I am writing; so, if you are a devout Presbyterian who really thinks I have misrepresented Calvin and his theology, try to get over it. You’re probably right.