God, Calvin, and Social Welfare - Part Three: Roots of the Social Welfare Debate
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Apr 24, 2006 at 06:43:35 PM EST
Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates (author info)
The debates over social welfare and other domestic social policies in America today are shaped by three religious currents within Protestantism.  These theological views are seldom discussed openly, yet they play a powerful role in determining federal and state public policies toward the impoverished, the ill and disabled, and those unable to find work at a living wage.

Liberal and Progressive policies for social reform and public welfare are legacies of ideas pioneered by the Quakers, the Unitarians, and other dissident religious reformers who rejected the notions of the early Calvinists and evangelicals.

From the 1730s through the 1770s there was a Protestant revival movement in the colonies dubbed the First Great Awakening. A line of Protestant preachers including Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley shaped the theology of the First Great Awakening.

Edwards was a fiery preacher who still held to Calvinst orthodoxy: man was born bad, and God had predestined the Elect for Heaven. Alas, poor Edwards, he was a man mostly misunderstood. Those who heard and read his sermons (printing sermons in pamphlet form was a common practice) thought Edwards was saying people could change their fate by becoming more ardent Christians. Sometimes the theological fine points get lost in the oratory.

As the revival swept the colonies, many reported a highly emotional experience of conversion after hearing sermons at large public meetings. Unlike Edwards, Whitefield and other preachers broke with Calvinist orthodoxy and challenged the idea of predestination. They suggested that sinners who embraced Jesus in the conversion experience could find a place in Heaven.

Predestination of the Elect was too elitist and static a brand of Christianity for a new society that claimed to be a classless society and valued individuality and initiative in the quest to conquer the frontier. The ideas of spiritual growth, and equality before God, started a public discussion about the need for the government to provide for public schools. It also planted the seeds for the anti-slavery movement.

At the same time, this view could be adapted to tell alienated workers that by accepting Jesus as their savior, they could learn to live with their earthly stress and subjugated status by looking forward to the future day of salvation.

The new evangelists tended to be zealous, judgmental, and authoritarian. Not everyone was happy with the results of the First Great Awakening, and some rejected the trend and remained on the traditional orthodox Calvinist path. Others rejected both and developed what became Unitarianism as a response.

The three tendencies in colonial Protestantism during the early 1800s were:

1). Orthodoxy in the form of northern Calvinist Congregationalists and southern Anglicans;

2). Revivalist rationalism and evangelism that drew not only from the Congregationalists and Anglicans (later called Episcopalians), but also swept through the smaller Protestant denominations such as the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians;

3.) Unitarianism, still relatively small but influential in the northeast.
(Unitarianism emerged as a theological tendency before the name itself was formalized).

Recall that Axel R. Schaefer identifies these religious traditions with three different ways that the proper policies for social reform and public welfare are viewed today:

  *  Calvinist/Free Market: based on changing individual social behavior through punishment.

  *  Evangelical/Revivalist: based on born again conversion to change individual behavior, but still linked to some Calvinist ideas of punishment.

  *  Liberal/Progressive: based on changing systems and institutions to change individual behavior on a collective basis over time.

Many ideas on social reform that are now supported by mainline Protestant denominations were initially promoted by religious dissidents such as the Quakers and later the Unitarians.

Quakers had been concerned with prison conditions since the late 1600s in both England and in colonial Pennsylvania, and they introduced the idea of prison as a means for reform rather than punishment.  They also promoted the "conception of the criminal as at least partially a victim of conditions created by society" which implied that society had some obligation to reforming the criminal (Jorns, p. 170). In the early 1800s Quaker activist Elizabeth Gurney Fry launched a major prison reform movement in England, and these ideas were carried to the United States.

The Unitarians rejected the Calvinist idea that man was born in sin and argued that sometimes people did bad things because they were trapped in poverty or lacked the education required to move up in society. In the early 1800s the dissident Unitarians split Calvinist Congregationalism and succeeded in taking over many religious institutions in New England such as churches and schools. Harvard (founded as a religious college in 1636 by the Puritans), came under control of the Unitarians in 1805 as the orthodox Calvinist Congregationalists lost religious and political power.

The Unitarians took the idea of transforming society and changing personal behavior popularized by the First Great Awakening and shifted it into a plan for weaving a social safety net under the auspices of the secular government.

This idea of a social safety net was expanded in federal public policy during the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt. While criticisms of New Deal social welfare policies are often packaged in political or economic language, the underlying theological basis for some of these arguments is seldom examined.


Adams, David K. and Cornelis A. van Minnen, eds. 1999. Religious and Secular Reform in America: Ideas, Beliefs, and Social Change. New York: New York University Press.

Ammerman, Nancy T. 1991. "North American Protestant Fundamentalism." In Fundamentalisms Observed, The Fundamentalism Project 1, eds., Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991).

Hatch, Nathan O. 1989. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jorns, Auguste. 1931. The Quakers as Pioneers in Social Work. Trans. Thomas Kite Brown. New York: MacMillan, pp. 162-171.

Marsden, George M. 1982. Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marsden, George M. 1991. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans.

Moore, R. Laurence. 1986. Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schaefer, Axel R. 1999. "Evangelicalism, Social Reform and the US Welfare State, 1970-1996," pp. 249-273, in David K. Adams and Cornelius A. van Minnem, eds., Religious and Secular Reform in America: Ideas, Beliefs, and Social Change. New York: New York University Press. (I have used slightly different language to describe the sectors identified by Schaefer).

Wallace, Anthony F. C. 1956 "Revitalization Movements," American Anthropologist, 58, no. 2 (April): 264-281.

Whitney, Janet. 1936. Elizabeth Fry: Quaker Heroine. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co.

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare: A Series
Part One: Coalitions
Part Two: Calvinist Settlers
Part Three: Roots of the Social Welfare Debate
Part Four: Apocalypse and Social Welfare
Part Five: Fundamentals, Prophecies, and Conspiracies
Part Six: Godlessness & Secular Humanism
Part Seven: Born Again Political Activism
Part Eight: The Child, The Family, The Nation, & the World
Based on the Public Eye article "Calvinism, Capitalism, Conversion, and Incarceration"
Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates
The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates
Chip's Blog

In the more pente branches of dominionism--including within the dominion theology taught at World Harvest Church, New Life Church, the Assemblies of God, etc. the reasoning for any social welfare programs is even more blatantly a case of both recruitment and "blame the victim".

In dominion theology (which encompasses not only "spiritual warfare" movements like "Third Wave" pentecostalism, but also the "name it and claim it" movement as well) it is quite explicitly taught that poverty, people being ill, genetic diseases, etc. are the result of "not taking dominion over Satan" (in their worldview, everything outside of the church and anything potentially causing harm to members is literally Satanic, and generational poverty and genetic disease are the result of "generational curses" resulting from an ancestor "having opened a doorway for Satan" by being a pagan, messing with Tarot cards, reading horoscopes, etc.).

If you are sick or poor, you are usually seen as having insufficient faith and are not "naming and claiming" enough; the prescribed remedy in these cases is to go to church more (and get involved in "deliverance services" where people are "exorcised" of things like the "demons of diabetes", "demons of poverty" and so forth), spiritual-warfare groups, and political dominionist movements in the church) and to give more money to the church as a "seed faith offering".

If this is unsuccessful, the blame is then laid on ancestors--often tens of generations back--who have sinned and thus caused the household to fall under a "generational curse" (this being based on scripture-twisting of curses laid on the enemies of Israel).  As pentecostalism didn't even exist until the 1900s, it is unfortunately easy for "spiritual warfare" groups to find practically any behaviour of your ancestors to blame for a "generational curse" (often as simple as having had an ancestor work for a brewery or having had their palm read in a parlour, both of which are seen as "doorways for Satan" in these groups).

Social work in these churches is seen far less as a chance to help people better themselves and much more as a tool for active recruitment.  These groups are some of the largest practitioners of "faith-based coercion"--programs, aimed at literally captive audiences, requiring them to essentially convert to dominionism as a part of their "therapy".  (Often very little is done in these programs other than conversion and coercion.)  

A sad example of this in practice was the debacle involving Hurricane Katrina evacuees who were housed at the Dream Center of Los Angeles, which is a group that operates as a front for the Southern California district of the Assemblies of God and has had a history of heavy promotion by other dominionist groups.  As reported in the "Faith-Based Coercion" article above, there have been multiple reports of maltreatment of evacuees--reports which had little or no meaningful investigation--and there are reliable reports which indicate Dream Center was engaging in frank profiteering from evacuees.

This is not an isolated incident, unfortunately; most know about the scandals involving Pat Robertson's Operation Blessing (which has been linked to traffic in blood diamonds) and there is increasing controversy regarding Frank Graham's Shepherd's Purse (including prosyletising to children and possible interference in international politics through its "aid" programs).  The involvement of Assemblies-based "charities" in funneling aid to the Contras (whilst doing little to help the Miskitu people who were being targeted by both Contras and Sandanistas) during the Nicaraguan conflicts is well documented.

Another interesting factor with dominionists (especially when you get into those pente-flavoured dominionists heavy into the "spiritual warfare" stuff) is how they are encouraged to not donate to any secular or even non-dominionist charities--usually under spurious claims that they support "feminism", "abortion", or "Satanism".  The March of Dimes has been especially viciously dead-agented in regards to this, and many dominionist churches (including the church I am a walkaway from) have even promoted their own "teen pregnancy clinics" (where kids are forced to stay for the term of their pregnancy, are subject to coercive indocrination, and are often forced to sign their parental rights over to the group's own adoption agency who will only adopt to dominionist families) and "soup kitchens" (where people are prosyletised to before being allowed to eat) as "alternatives" to the "Satanic" United Way (who are condemned because of support for the March of Dimes, support of women's clinics in some areas, support of non-dominionist Christian charities that are not exclusive, support of Scouting (Girl Scouts are especially condemned, and even the Boy Scouts are seen as "not Christian enough"), support of resources to allow women and children to escape abusive homes, etc.).

The United Way is often condemned for support of Planned Parenthood; interestingly, my local United Way doesn't sponsor them though the church I walked away from falsely claimed it did.  New York's United Way office does support Planned Parenthood, but it is far from the norm as Chicago, Illinois' local United Way does not, nor does the United Way for Los Angeles.

The real point of them condemning United Way is to prevent donations from going to non-dominionist charities, and to direct them to dominionist "front" charities where coercion is the norm and there is little accountability for funds.

by dogemperor on Tue Apr 25, 2006 at 11:47:40 AM EST

I feel very sorry for these people.  Having been a "Moonie" for six years (1962-1968), I understand what it is like to live in an environment that regards everyone and everything outside its "church framework" as satanic.  Such unbearable pressure to live up to the standards set by the church leaders often results in an intense inner anger cloaked by outward signs of love and humility toward other members.  It's a wonder that the members retain as much "sanity" as they do.  Despite how intensely we may disagree with their theology and practices, the people themselves deserve our prayers and compassion.

by gfross on Wed Apr 26, 2006 at 07:44:33 AM EST
We need to engage in compassionate criticism. That's one of our goals here at Talk to Action.  There are still many Christians taught to see the world as locked in a struggle between Godly people and agents of Satan.

But many more have adopted some of the harsher aspects of early Calvinism and are not even aware of it.  This series will attempt to show how both sectors interact and influence public social policies.

_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Wed Apr 26, 2006 at 08:59:00 AM EST

As a survivor of an early "Third Wave" Assemblies of God church, I can relate all too well.  (Many aspects of the Pensacola aka Toronto aka Destiny aka "Third Wave" movement have eerie parallels to things with the Moonies, and in fact the Moonies may have in part been inspired by American "dominion theology" teachers; both Moon and Paul Yonggi Cho (who essentially started the "Third Wave" nonsense in the Assemblies, and has been linked to its spread (starting in the sixties) to the very church I walked away from, started around the same time in Korea and about ten years after the Assemblies first established missions in South Korea--which is also at the same time that "dominion theology" was really taking root in that denomination.)

I myself honestly wonder how I survived with my sanity intact, and so do a lot of survivors of this particularly nasty form of dominionism; as it is, we do bear scars and battle wounds (I myself, like all too many walkaways from spiritually abusive groups, have been diagnosed with complex PTSD--and PTSD is a stunningly common diagnosis in people who have escaped the more severe "Bible-based" groups).

Over the years, my own attitude has ranged from disgust to rage to an odd sort of pity.  If I think too long on it I tend to be sad for the people still in it, and angry at the people actively promoting it; working to make sure they can't take over the country (by posting educational essays on places like Talk2Action--at least I hope they're educational at any rate--to give some insight as to how these groups work, what is going on in the minds of people, etc.) is part of how I deal now, part of how I keep myself sane.  I'll admit I'm still angry as all get out and probably always will be, but at least I'm not scared anymore because I know that there are people who've got my back in realising that dominionism (as a theology and as a political movement) is broken.

by dogemperor on Wed Apr 26, 2006 at 09:37:12 AM EST

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