Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 20, 2020

Me and the Calvinists

Filed under: religion — louisproyect @ 8:08 pm
John Calvin

The other day I was both startled and pleased to see a scorching attack on “The Cult of Christian Trumpism” by Michael Horton, a Calvinist theologian. It began:

On Saturday, December 12, a bizarre rally was held on the Washington Mall. Shofars were blown. A flyover from Marine One was cheered by shouts of praise to the Messiah (evidently distinguished from Jesus). My Pillow founder Mike Lindell shared prophetic visions of Donald Trump.

I was pleased to see any hard-core Christian trashing the rightwing evangelicals who form Trump’s main political base but why was I startled? It turns out that this was not my first exposure to Horton. Decades ago, I used to listen to a radio show on WMCA, NY’s all-Christian station, called the White Horse Inn that featured Horton and his fellow Calvinists discussing the finer points of original sin, predestination, and how to live a Christian life.

The show got its title from a 16th century pub in Cambridge, England where Lutherans met to discuss how they could advance the goals of the Reformation. Horton and his cohorts paid homage to the pub because they see themselves a spearheading a New Reformation, the title of a magazine that promotes their views, most of which are at odds with the Prosperity Gospel and all the other decadent Protestant institutions that they see as being badly in need of purgation. If the original Reformation was aimed at the excesses of the Catholic Church, Horton sees a New Reformation as one targeting Joel Osteen, et al.

Like Marxists, these Calvinists are deeply committed to making their teachings accessible to a wider audience. Like me trying, for example, to make V. 1 of Capital meaningful to a 21st century audience, they try to rescue someone like Jonathan Edwards from obscurity. Edwards, an 18th century Calvinist, wrote a sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” that is both a theological classic as well as work literary scholars have studied for its power:

There is no Fortress that is any Defence from the Power of God. Tho’ Hand join in Hand, and vast Multitudes of God’s Enemies combine and associate themselves, they are easily broken in Pieces: They are as great Heaps of light Chaff before the Whirlwind; or large Quantities of dry Stubble before devouring Flames. We find it easy to tread on and crush a Worm that we see crawling on the Earth; so ‘tis easy for us to cut or singe a slender Thread that any Thing hangs by; thus easy is it for God when he pleases to cast his Enemies down to Hell.

To their credit, the White Horse crew hold Edwards to the same standards as any other human being despite his great renown among Calvinists:

The ugly truth is that Jonathan Edwards was a slave owner. I hate typing those words, since much of my professional and academic life has been spent studying this man’s best thoughts and writings. I am also slightly concerned that some readers of this article might run to the nearest Edwards-related plaque or historical marker and deface it with spray paint or tear it down entirely. In my view, neither idolizing Edwards nor eliminating his legacy from the annals of history is appropriate. But we can start with this fact in bold print: Edwards owned slaves. Several. We know this because he actually wrote down some of the purchase records, including credits and debits in his famous Blank Bible, as well as his “Last Will and Testament,” where he recorded financial matters from time to time in lieu of a digital Excel Spreadsheet. We also know at least three of the Edwards family slaves’ names, Venus (a fourteen year old girl), Leah (converted during the revivals) and Titus (an African boy).

There’s quite a bit of irony in this since David S. Reynolds’s biography of John Brown mentions how this sermon was read repeatedly by Brown throughout his life and gave him the resolve he needed to make war on slavery, as if any were needed.

So why would a Marxist like me be a regular listener to White Horse Inn? I’ll let you into a little secret. I was not only a religion major at Bard College but someone fixated on Christian theology. My senior thesis was on St. Augustine’s “City of God”, although looking back in retrospect, I was far more interested in his Confessions.

In the early 60s, existentialism was a big thing. People read Nietzsche and Kierkegaard to get up to speed. From there, it was Camus, especially “The Stranger”, and Sartre, even though his radicalism lessened him in our eyes. From Kierkegaard, it was a short hop to the German Christian existentialists like Paul Tillich and Karl Jaspers.

Although I long ago put all this behind me, courtesy of LBJ’s war, there are times I reminded of my studies, especially with John Brown’s Calvinism and this surprising turn of events from Michael Horton.

Probably, the association remains strongest with ex-Calvinist Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” that in its odd way featured a John Brown type figure in Travis Bickle who felt justified in killing a pimp. More directly related to Schrader’s theological studies at Calvin College is “First Reformed”, a 2017 film I nominated for best that year. Like John Brown and Travis Bickle, Ethan Hawke’s priest was ready to blow up a bunch of fat cats at a fundraiser for a Prosperity Gospel type church.

From my CounterPunch review :

Made forty-two years after “Taxi Driver”, “First Reformed” depicts the inner turmoil of men upset with the state of the world, at least the world that confronts them respectively. For Travis Bickle, New York was a Sodom and Gomorrah that impelled him to rain down destruction on its sinners since it was clear that no supernatural being could do much about 13-year old girls working as prostitutes. For Father Toller, it a different kind of degradation that must be confronted. At one point, we see him looking balefully at a lake polluted by the toxic waste flowing from Balq Industries, the largest donor to Abundant Life. The incestuous ties between corporate mammon and the prosperity gospel are staring Toller in the face.

Now seventy-one, Paul Schrader has made a film that is not only the pinnacle of a long career but one that reflects his deepest worries about the future of the planet–the same ones of his characters. In an interview with Variety, Schrader explained why he chose to make a film about the environmental crisis:

We have this contemporary crisis of ecology, which takes all the historic, philosophic questions of meaning and puts them in boldface. Man has always wondered whether life has any meaning and what comes after death. Now that we can sort of see the end of the role in the physical world the questions have an added urgency.

A follow-up question is about Hurricanes Irma and Harvey. His reply:

I wouldn’t isolate these events. They’re part of the new normal. It’s not just hurricanes. The icebergs are falling into the seas. California’s on fire. It’s an accelerating process.

I would think that homo sapiens as we know them will not outlive this century. When they create a great museum of the animal world, hopefully the filmmakers will get a room.



  1. Among other things, Jonathan Edwards was probably the first philosopher of note to be born and raised on American soil. As a Calvinist, Edwards was concerned with defending Calvin’s ideas concerning free will and predestination. John Calvin had dealt with the old Augustinian problem of reconciling divine omniscience and human freedom by denying contracausal free will. Jonathan Edwards, took Calvin’s ideas and linked them with the determinism that was implicit within British philosophy (i.e. Hobbes and Locke). In other words, he linked the theological problem of reconciling free will with predestination, with the more secular philosophical problem of reconciling free will with causal determinism, which had gained the attention of reflective minds due to the successes of Newton’s science. Edwards, like Calvin before him, denied libertarian free will but he did defend a kind of compatiblism, on which human freedom is seen as being compatible with both predestination / determinism, if freedom is understood as acting without coercion. See his book, Freedom of the Will.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — December 20, 2020 @ 9:50 pm

  2. The Calvinist TULIP doctrine–Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverence of the Saints–really puts the screws to the believer in ways that Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Methodism do not–indeed, in ways that many Baptists and the Pentecostals do not. Methodists, Free Will Baptists, Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, General Baptists, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Church of the Nazarene, The Wesleyan Church, The Salvation Army, Conservative Mennonites, Old Order Mennonites, Amish and Charismatics, including the Pentecostals, do not assert this doctrine, generally asserting instead that redemption is available to “who[m]soever believeth in Him’–aka the heresy of Arminius. Lutherans have their own ambiguous take on predestination. So extreme is the Calvinist view that the “L” for Limited Atonement in the TULIP formula is there to signify that Christ did not die to atone for the sins of all mankind but only for those of the predestined elect.

    Calvin wrote:

    “We assert that by an eternal and immutable counsel, God has once for all determined both whom he would admit to salvation and whom he would condemn to destruction” ( Institutes 3.21.7).”

    And boy, did he ever mean it.

    I wonder sometimes whether people not raised from childhood with this stuff realize how cruel and how personally devastating such a belief can be. Hell and damnation are not naturally occurring concepts, and many people perhaps escape their horror completely. I think many find such beliefs comical–as indeed they are, if you can escape them–or at least appropriate only to what some regard as the naturally contemptible intellects of English-speaking Americans of European descent.

    During the sixteenth century, when Calvinism and other forms of Protestant Christianity emerged and began waging actual war for political dominance in Europe and the British Isles, the vernacular belief of Christians generally was that just about everybody was going to hell anyway–believing that God had as it were rigged the election categorically rather than leaving all sorts of escape clauses for the elites–was certainly plainer and fairer than that. Anyone could read The Word in a vernacular bible and assess her own chances without paying some scowling priest, who would tell you as little as possible and probably condemn you to hell anyway if you lacked the scratch to endow a religious institution or pay for a letter of pardon.

    Gutenberg’s Bible was in Latin, not intended like the vernacular Bibles that followed it for the common sinner. It was luxury goods for the clergy. The core market for Gutenberg’s little enterprise was probably the printing of letters of pardon (indulgences), already being sold like hot-dogs by the likes of Chaucer’s Pardoner, some forty years before Gutenberg, with his “walet . . . Of pardoun comen from Rome all hoot.” (image of pardon letter from Gutenberg’s press) Chaucer died in 1400, but that market kept expanding despite Chaucer’s satire and the increasing outcry of others, until manual production perhaps simply couldn’t satisfy the demand.

    The spiritual terroristic doctrine of Calvinism left the believer alone with the inscrutable mystery of God’s intent and contemptuous of the manifest corruption of the Church. Grace could kick in at any time, and you would then be no more able to resist it than you were to bring it on. You would irresistibly persevere in doing God’s will and nobody could divert you from it. As far as worldly authority went, you were ultimately responsible only to your own conscience.

    It’s this that led to what Louis has previously discussed as the antinomianism of Calvinists and ultimately to Godwin, Rousseau, Shelley, Emerson, Thoreau–and even Andre Gide. In our own time and place, it is carried forward by the likes of Chris Hedges, an ordained Presbyterian minister. Despite the paralyzing contradictions at its core, it is not as many believe, a religion for dummies, but a profoundly–and in fact, I’d say, excessively–intellectual tradition.

    My putative (doubtful) ancestor Huldrych Zwingli–the founder before Calvin of the Reformed theological tradition in Switzerland, died after the battle of Kassel, which he lost in a bid to make Switzerland a Protestant nation. According to Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli lay dying for some time, his eyes cast up to Heaven, and was discovered by a party of Catholic soldiers, who urged him repeatedly to pray to the Virgin. He perseveringly refused. At length, one Captain Fuckinger of Interwalden, growing impatient with this exchange, cried out that Zwingli was “an obstinate cantankerous heretic” and stabbed him with his sword, whereupon Zwingli finally died.

    I reject Presbyterianism categorically, but I admit that one could do worse in the present crisis than be prepared to die as “an obstinate … heretic.” Perhaps we need more of that incredible spirit of bloody-mindedness.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — December 21, 2020 @ 12:00 am

  3. Correction: Zwingli did not die in the WWII Battle of Kassel, but in the decisive Battle of the war of Kappel. My bad.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — December 21, 2020 @ 12:14 am

  4. “We assert that by an eternal and immutable counsel, God has once for all determined both whom he would admit to salvation and whom he would condemn to destruction.”
    Not just a Calvinist doctrine. Some RCs – the Jansenists – held similar opinions, as do many muslims.

    Marilynne Robinson, the very good novelist, is another Calvinist.

    “We are the few, the faithful few
    And all the rest are damned.
    There’s room enough in hell for you
    We don’t want heaven crammed.”

    “We are the few, the faithful few
    Let all the rest be damned.
    There’s only room for one or two,
    We can’t want heaven jammed.”

    Two of – many – versions of an alleged Calvinist hymn.

    Comment by Rawdon Crawley — December 21, 2020 @ 2:34 am

  5. Frankly, as a lifelong High Anglican (Episcopalian), I find Calvinism of any TULIP variety unfit for human consumption.

    Comment by Kurt T Hill — December 21, 2020 @ 2:25 pm

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