How a 16th century religious renegade influenced the American election

When you hear Betsy DeVos and other still wet-behind-the-ears Republicans in the U.S. talk about making gains for “the kingdom”, as I have recently (see this article), you need to know that she’s referring to a central obligation of all Christians whose denominations have their origins with John Calvin.

For those who’ve never heard of Calvin, he was a 16th century Frenchman who moved to Geneva at a time when new protestant ideas were challenging the Roman Catholicism that had united “Christendom” for a thousand or so years. While influenced by the German Martin Luther, Calvin had several distinct ideas of his own. Those ideas have been passed down in the many strands of Protestantism that have survived to the present day. Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Reformed denominations all owe their start to Calvin. The originators of these denominations all met with either Calvin himself, or his disciples after his death. The “Puritans” who colonized Massachusetts in the  and 17th century were Calvinists, and thanks to them Calvinism got its first foothold in the North American continent. It is a continuing force in huge swaths of the southern and central U.S.

The primary duty of Calvinists is to create “the kingdom of God” on earth. What exactly does that mean, and can they possibly be plotting to turn the most powerful and most technologically advanced nation on earth in the 21st century into a “kingdom of God”? What it means seems to a critical thinker to be an impossibility. The kingdom of god is a place, whether town, state, or nation, where all citizens follow a set of supposedly God-given rules, rules delineated by Calvin himself, with some reference to Mosaic law, including the ten commandments.

Calvin was kicked out of Geneva the first time he went there. When he returned a few years later, he had struck an agreement with the city’s secular rulers. They would use the full weight of the city’s law and order apparatus to back the new church’s rules of behavior. He needed the backing of the secular powers because no one except a Calvinist would want to follow his extensive list of rules meant to regulate daily, private behavior in ways unheard of before then.

It was under Calvin that premarital sex, adultery and “sodomy” were judged illegal and were punished by the state. Thousands of people were imprisoned – by the state – for those newly-minted crimes as well as for such crimes as failing to attend church services, being too noisy in church, or leaving early. Hundreds of people were executed for failing to conform, and thousands more exiled from the city, from their homes — which were often their means of making a living. When you’ve forced all people to conform to your rules and exiled or executed those who won’t, have you created anything that could be described as a “kingdom of god”? I would say no; I would say that you’ve simply created a totalitarian regime whose citizens have very little freedom.

But Calvin’s experience in Geneva may explain why contemporary American religious Republicans backed such an immoral man as Trump. They don’t need to care about the state of his soul. All they need is a political leader who will put the whole law and order apparatus to work on behalf of Calvinist religious law.

The first step will be to make abortion illegal. Likely they’ll then try to make birth control illegal, as they move to what they really want – to make pre and extra marital sex illegal. They want to mandate heterosexual marriage for all, with homosexuality punishable by the state. Who knows what else will follow, but be sure they will be enforcing their idea of religious law, not purely secular law.

Those on the religious right in America will never ever be democrats. The Calvinism at the heart of their religion is not democratic. Calvin’s primary conviction was that God had chosen a tiny fraction of humanity to be the “elect”, those who would, after a lifetime on earth, spend a blissful eternity in heaven. God chose those people before they were born, before time even. Nothing they can do will reverse His decision. So Calvinists see themselves as the chosen people, and they see everyone else as saps doomed to spend eternity in hell. That means no one but them actually matters. You and I – we don’t matter. We don’t even matter to God, except insofar as He might be looking forward to torturing us endlessly, eternally in the hereafter. So where is the point to compassion? If even God doesn’t have compassion, why should the chosen ones?

Given that only a tiny sliver of humanity matters, you might wonder why they feel they need to create the “kingdom of god” on earth, why not just withdraw from society at large? The answer is they are concerned about the wrath of this God. He is likely to send down punishment on sinning unbelievers, and that punishment might affect his chosen ones. They are concerned about their own material well-being.

Calvinist communities are self-righteous, certain of their salvation. They are, ultimately, closed communities, survivalists of the afterlife. I suppose that they imagine they will be happy in eternity, even as they know that for every one of them, a hundred or a thousand other humans are suffering agonizing torture.

This leads to the question of what kind of God they worship. A Creator who created and still creates billions and billions of human beings for the express purpose of torturing most of them for all eternity? What kind of being is that? I’d call Him (and he’s definitely male) a sadist. There’s really no other term for such a being, is there?

Thomas Jefferson had something to say about Calvinists, even as he ensured their freedom of religion. Speaking to John Adams, he said:

I can never join Calvin … his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in the five points [of Calvinist doctrine] is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world, but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin.*

Wouldn’t we be better off remembering the words of Jesus and numerous other messengers of the Divine: learn to love – your neighbor, yourself, and the great Creator of all. Create a nation whose citizens practice compassion above all else, and you will create a “kingdom of god” on earth. A  kingdom of god is a kingdom of love.


Note: While I grew up within a Calvinist Reformed church (the same one as Betsy DeVos), the facts described in this post, as well as the quote, come from The Oxford Illustrated History of The Reformation, edited by Peter Marshall and published in 2015.






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