Wednesday, September 30, 2009

O Tempora, O Mores: On the Politico-Religious Uses of the Calvinist Myth in American Culture

I blogged yesterday about an emerging neoconservative meme represented in yesterday’s op-ed piece by David Brooks in the New York Times. As I noted, this meme celebrates the good old-fashioned Calvinist work ethic, with its stress on self restraint and delayed gratification.

It does so by way of commenting on our current cultural and economic crises, and what—in the view of this perspective—has brought us to this crisis. Brooks appears to believe that at some unspecified point in the past (well, before the government intervened in our lives by setting up safety nets that mitigate the consequences of lack of self restraint), we adhered to Calvinist virtues that made us great as a nation, and brought us wealth without causing us to wallow in the self-indulgent luxury of nations with a more pliant moral fiber.

Brooks calls for a new moral revival to return our nation to its Calvinist roots. He urges neoconservatives to transfer the moral fervor of their culture-wars fixations to the economic sphere, and to help bring in this moral revival of our nation.

Having analyzed Brooks’s thoughts about these matters yesterday, I was intrigued later in the day when I picked up a book I had ordered recently through interlibrary loan and discovered it promoting the same religio-political analysis of American culture that Brooks makes, at an entirely different period of American history. The book was written in 1930, when Hoover was president, and when the nation was on the brink of an economic crisis created by several presidencies that gave big business free rein while doing little to assure that the corporate sector served the common good. That crisis would require the visionary leadership of FDR—and strong government intervention—to set the nation back on track politically, culturally, and economically.

Because this book is not in copyright, I’m going to cite it without providing a title or publication information. My primary reason for going that route is that I do not want to cause pain to any living members of the family of the person who wrote the book. I see no reason to do so. What I make of the book might well appear to them to be critical in a way that slams the legacy of their family member—though that is not my intent. My intent is to juxtapose analysis of the mythical hard-working, morally upright Calvinist past of our nation from two different periods of our history, to show how persistent (and how predictable) this theme is in conservative cultural commentary at times of cultural crisis.

The book in question focuses on the colonial history of a family that happens to be one of my own family lines—one of those Ulster Scots families who left Ireland in droves in the first decades of the 18th century to begin new lives in the middle colonies. Like many of these families, the Kerrs moved from Pennsylvania into the Valley of Virginia prior to 1750. The book focuses on their lives and legacy in the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia.

As Ulster Scots, the Kerrs were intense Calvinists. Since they were among the first Scotch-Irish families to make the move from Pennsylvania to Virginia, they played a founding role in setting up an historic Presbyterian church, Tinkling Spring, near their homeplace. The family’s progenitor, James Kerr, is on a 1741 list of settlers in the Shenandoah Valley petitioning for the formation of Tinkling Spring church, and a 1742 list of founding members of the church. My ancestor Samuel Kerr was baptized in 1741 in the church, soon after his birth.

It would be hard to find a more prototypically Calvinist family than the Kerrs—the kind of stiff-backbone, hard-working, morally upright family that Brooks’s mythology about the American past celebrates. Through blood, marriage, and shared religious ties, the Kerrs connect to several noted Ulster Scots families who have left long political legacies in the United States, including the Pickens and Calhouns.

It’s interesting to see what one family member made of that celebrated Calvinist heritage just as the Depression hit in 1930. His interpretation of this heritage sounds remarkably similar to Brooks’s thesis as we struggle through the economic downturn of the first decade of the 21st century.

As he writes about the house James Kerr built in Virginia between 1730 and 1740—a house still standing in 1930—the author looks back at his family’s Calvinist heritage and compares the values he believes the Kerrs held in the past to those he sees dominating the culture in which he lives in 1930. He’s appalled at the discrepancy:

As we pen these words we think of the hardships our parents and ancestors bore in their fights with the Indians and British to protect their families and homes and crops they labored so hard for, cutting down trees into wood and mauling rails for fences, and hewing logs to build houses and barns, raising flax and scotching it and their wives spinning it for clothes. And of the bearing of children of which my grandmother and mother each had a dozen, and what awful pain, anxiety, and care! And now we fuss about hard times while riding around in automobiles and reaping their labors, without shame, and boys and girls having a good time, smoking cigarettes and going to movies—and that is not all, by a long shot. And we are taxed heavy for schools to teach them to play baseball, football, basketball, and ball-room, etc., and a larger tax to build fine macadam roads for lovers of pleasure, more than lovers of God; and for Scripture on the perilous times, read 2nd Timothy, 3rd chapter, and 24th chapter of Matthew; and it reads, “Except those days should be shortened no flesh will be saved.” And this fast, wicked life is ushering in these last days. I think of days when they went to church on horseback and took their wives and children and sweethearts on behind the saddle, and cut their hay and wheat and rye and oats with scythe and cradle, and when I was fifteen or sixteen, I was one of two that cradled seventy acres of wheat my father had on his 300-acre farm. . . . . Part of that land is idle now, and men are idle and won’t work it.

Past good, present bad. Calvinist past good, decadent secular present bad. Self reliance, wonderful; government intervention, not so much. Horses fine; paved roads and automobiles deplorable.

You get the gist. This is a timeworn trope of American thought, this comparison of the mythic past of hard-working (white, patriarchal) Calvinist families with what we have now. It is a trope that uses religious language to decry current developments (the book also lambasts those who drink liquor and vote wet) that the myth-maker sees as morally abhorrent. And it links that moral abhorrence rather predictably to attacks on government “interference” in the lives of sober, hard-working (white, patriarchal, Christian) families.

Much that the book says about moral decay of (white, patriarchal, Christian) American society in the 1930s sounds precisely like what conservative groups in the Christian churches are saying today about gays and the effects of gay-affirming attitudes in our society. There is a clear carryover from the political intent of this myth-making rhetoric about our Calvinist past to the current cultural and religious debate about welcoming and affirming gay human beings. In the past, the moral crusades focused on prohibition and resistance to public funding for schools and roads. Today it centers on resistance to gay folks.

Same rhetoric: different targets. Same players: different enemies at different moments of American cultural development. And the same scripture verses are used by these groups to decry whatever is their current object of moral ire. The section of the book attacking those who drink alcohol cites Timothy, as does the preceding passage, lambasting lovers of pleasure who reject God, lead “silly women” astray, and usher in the last days.

I grew up hearing sermons that applied all these texts to African Americans and the socialists and communists who were said to be collaborating with black folks to bring down Christian civilization in the United States, and precipitate Armageddon. In my growing-up years, I heard stories about how those same texts and that same rhetoric had been applied a generation previously to women who sought employment outside the house, bobbed their hair and used make-up, and dressed in men’s clothes (i.e., slacks).

I recently read a fire-and-brimstone condemnation of railroads written by a late-19th century American evangelical writer. The writer claimed that when railroads were introduced, the culture went to hell in a handbasket and natural disasters began to proliferate as God tried to get our attention. God’s beef about railroads? That they ran on Sunday, breaking the Sabbath.

Given the way this religious rhetoric about our purported golden Calvinist past and our purported current decadence keeps cropping up in both American religion and American political commentary—always with the same political goals, though the objects of the moral wrath vary at different periods—one wonders why anyone continues to try to promote such religio-political analysis. It wasn’t right in the past. It didn’t stop necessary social changes in the past.

Why would anyone imagine it is suddenly right today and that it will succeed today in blocking social changes that have long been overdue in a land committed to democratic ideals and human rights?