Shambhala Sun Home Free Gift with Order Current Issue Subscribe & Save Half Give a Gift Renew Current Text
spacer spacer spacer


spacer spacer


Calvin and Mobs

Barry Boyce wants to know: Is America's dream freedom or a crusade of vindictive reform?

In Geneva, the spiritual home of John Calvin, there is a monument to the Protestant reformation. It is a stark place, stone gray and white with walkways in a grid pattern creating rectangles of scrupulously trimmed forbidden lawns, all overseen by tall statues of great reformers, Mr. Calvin principal among them. No passion allowed, thank you very much.

You may also find Mr. Calvin's church there, dark and dank, colorless, forbidding. The sobriety of these places communicates the chill atmosphere of reformation: the dead serious business of taking what is bad and bringing it into the light. From the time that the reformers rebelled against the excesses of the "one true church" in the sixteenth century, this strain of reform has proved a durable force in the culture and politics of the West, reaching its pinnacle in the United States, the far shore of puritanical culture. Its influence is more than theoretical.

I felt it growing up in a small Pennsylvania town, overseen by the Presbyterians (Greek for "elders") on the hill. They were guided by the Bible and a book of rules that governed how things were run. Thrift, Industry, Success in Business-these were the virtues held high in my home town. Indeed, in most ways, the leaders of our community were kind-spirited and civically minded, just as John Calvin had been for the city of Geneva. They built hospitals, established charities, and provided jobs for lots and lots of people.

In many ways, the elders made a well-oiled and happy little town, but there was a dark side there revealed in the urge to condemn. I'm convinced it all came from good old Johnny C. I keep his picture near my desk just to remember that when you screw up the good things, reformers will descend with armfuls of scarlet letters and medicines that are far worse than the disease.

John Calvin was not a happy camper. He grew up in France at a time when the church sold offices and indulgences to the highest bidder, and since his father was a church official, he saw it first hand, and it made him bitter. You can see it in his eyes-and the eyes of his successors.

Calvin, and particularly those who followed him, carved out a small and ungenerous piece of the Christian legacy and magnified it. They enshrined the notion of a predestined elect and their diametric opposite, the eternally damned. They virtually invented "holier than thou." Salvation must be sought through faith, for human beings are inherently depraved. If you don't make it, you must be found out, shamed, damned, and deleted. When the Unitarian heretic Michael Servetus was caught, Calvin recommended decapitation. (No improvement on the Catholic approach there.)

In the small-town America I grew up in, those who strayed often felt the harsh judgement of the elect. Under the tutelage of these harsh masters, people naturally had a rough time with their urges and passions, but they managed to bury them deep. This was life in the America that many of us grew up in. Behind the picnics and the ballgames lay a mean spirit seeking to lay bare the damned, however they were identified-morally, economically, or even racially.

Calvinists love rules and laws, providing not justice but justification. Codes are not there to enshrine great human ideals or even to make life fair. They are there to identify those who stray and ensure they receive their just desserts. This approach, so toward others, also creates people toward themselves, carrying the burden of private sins and ashamed of their natural juices. Calvinism takes the human tendency to self-doubt and hatred and raises it to the level of religion.

As I grew up, I tried to believe in the high ideals of America—the freedom rhetoric, the democratic light of the world and all that—but the inquisitorial, puritanical spirit put the lie to those high ideals. You could wake up one day and discover that America's dream was not freedom, but a crusade of vindictive reform.

Now that John Calvin has found his high priest in Kenneth Starr, the dirty secret of American freedom is once again on open display. As I watched the American president hunted down, trapped in a lie about that most abhorrent of human depravities, and marched to the Star Chamber, the chill, stark monument to Calvin came vividly to mind. Omigod, is that a wicked smile I see forming on his face?

Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication.

Calvin and Mobs, Barry Boyce, Shambhala Sun, January 1999.

Subscribe | Current Issue | Search Archives | Contact Us | Spotlight | Privacy Policy | Site Map | Employment
© 2008 Shambhala Sun | Email: | Tel: 902.422.8404 | Published by Shambhala Sun Foundation