Tuesday, May 29, 2012

More Thoughts on "Social Darwinism"

"Providential" or not, Roger Olson has pointed to another op-ed piece dealing with "Social Darwinism" in Sunday's Minneapolis StarTribune entitled "Is it raining libertarians, or what?", by Stephen B. Young, global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.  Young, like Olson, shares many of the same concerns I articulated in a post last week.  His contribution is to provide historical context for the rise, fall, and resuscitation of this political/socio-economic viewpoint and its counterintuitive popularity among "evangelical" Christians, especially among Reformed types whose theological beliefs should, in my view, lead them elsewhere.

Young rightly points out that the "Darwinism" is a misnomer, in that the philosophy was originally articulated in 1851 by Englishman Herbert Spencer.  As the 19th century wore on, the political divide that now divides America took shape:
Out of their experience after the Civil War, America's Republicans came to believe in a philosophy called Social Darwinism, with its call for individual self-reliance, free markets and limited government. Most Americans who rejected Social Darwinism became Democrats.
One further, religious element was somewhat peculiarly thrown into the mix:
Social Darwinism never won much acclaim in England. But in the United States, after the Civil War, Spencer's thought merged with American Calvinism, adding religious zeal and the doctrine of predestination to a secular program of limited government and maximum market freedom.

From the post-Civil War American Calvinist perspective, winners were seen as the chosen of God and losers were those whom God had forsaken for their sin and weak character. Since a just God was believed to control destiny, one could win or lose only depending to the degree one had received God's grace and favors. Victory in the struggle to survive, it was argued, came from following God's instructions.
Young certainly misunderstands the dynamics of Calvinist theology, but he is certainly correct to see the particularly American connection of Calvinist religion (at least in its Scottish, if not Dutch, form) and Spencerian social thought.  I would argue that the roots of this connection lie in two factors: first, a peculiar understanding of America's "Christian" character and divine mission/destiny (clear in the English-derived Puritans, but also evident in a somewhat different form in the Scots-Irish Presbyterians who supported the War of Independence); and second, in an anachronistic reading of Calvin's theology of work and commerce, unwittingly fused with the human vice of pride and the Reformer's characteristic teaching on election and predestination.  On this understanding, economic "success" was validation of the ethic of "hard work" and the sign of God's "blessing" on his elect people, as opposed to the masses of Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland and southern Europe, not to mention the native Americans and African-Americans who languished at the bottom of the social order.  Young writes of this impulse thus:
From the post-Civil War American Calvinist perspective, winners were seen as the chosen of God and losers were those whom God had forsaken for their sin and weak character. Since a just God was believed to control destiny, one could win or lose only depending to the degree one had received God's grace and favors.

It should surprise no one that I reject such a form of "Calvinism" as a bastard development of the Reformer's ideas.  The essence of Calvinistic thought is based upon the Augustinianism that fueled the Protestant Reformation, and which is nowhere more succinctly stated than in the famous question asked by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:7:
For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?
The Calvinism I adhere to is one that acknowledges my own, as well as everybody else's, unworthiness, and hence attributes all blessing to the grace of the sovereign God.  All human pride is therefore ruled out in every sphere of life, economic as well as salvific.  Moreover, any Calvinist should know — at least if he or she has read Qoheleth, Amos, or the Gospels — that one cannot simply equate material "success" with God's "blessing," let alone the activity of his distributive justice.  And that means I, as a new covenant Christian, must take seriously what my Lord said in his famous Sermon on the Mount: "But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (Matthew 6:3).  Yes, I know that he is talking about almsgiving, what we would today call private "charity."  Well, of course.  But note that Jesus doesn't limit his listeners' largess to the "deserving" poor.  Even more importantly, history has demonstrated beyond serious doubt that such charity, while it plays an indispensable secondary role, is not sufficient to meet the inequities inherent in 21st century life (which will not magically disappear through platitudes about "equal opportunity").  Simply put, too many people fall through the cracks, and that should not be acceptable to any who claim the name of Christ. 

Before anyone misunderstands me, I am not simply rubber-stamping the "liberal" or Democratic agenda (though I clearly prefer it to the far right agenda that characterizes the present GOP).  As I see it, the "liberals" have made the same fundamental error as their political antipodes, i.e., the capitulation to an economic view of human existence.  Calvin Coolidge famously said, "The business of America is business."  It may be, but as a citizen of the kingdom of God, I reject such an elevation of the economic to the privileged position it now occupies, especially now that it has been wed to the extreme form of individualism Americans have taken to a new level.  It is here that citizenship in the kingdom of God can and should motivate Christians to shed their America-first identity and, for a change, truly act as salt and light in the midst of a fallen world.

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