C.S. Lewis once remarked that he was a converted pagan living among apostate Puritans. Our culture is, if anything, even more redolent of curdled apostate Calvinism than it was in Lewis’s day, and that fact can be seen everywhere. On a whimsical note, it is discovered in an NPR broadcast I heard a few years back on “Green Vacations” in which, after proposing various ways in which the post-modern environmentalist could vacation while Saving Mother Earth, the reporter grimly intoned the pious question, “But can we ever really justify taking a vacation as long as environmental damage is occurring anywhere in the world?” H.L. Mencken’s diagnosis of Calvinism as the haunting fear that someone somewhere was having a good time sprang immediately to mind.
On a more serious note, one also detects the whiff of curdled Calvinism in our wide-spread faith in the doctrine of Strength Through Evil that is part and parcel of the Culture of Fear.
Strength through Evil? Put that bluntly, we don’t like to think we believe in such things. But looking, not at our protestations but at our art, the notion that Bad is Powerful is everywhere. The myth created by that great son of Scottish Calvinist culture, Robert Louis Stevenson, is as potent today as ever: Jekyll is a weeny. Hyde is strong. Captain Kirk “needs” his evil side in order to avoid the same fate of terminal weeniness. From The Cowboys (where a wimpy stuttering kid finds inner strength through profanity and boys become men by the brutal killing of a bad guy) to Million Dollar Baby (where the hero finds inner strength through murder) to Titanic (where a girl trapped in a colorless life finds inner strength through fornication) our culture loves and deeply believes the story of finding Strength Through Evil.
That’s no accident, because it’s part and parcel of a Calvinist and post-Calvinist anthropology. That’s why one constant refrain in anti-Catholic apologetics is that the Immaculate Conception just can’t be true because, if it were, it would mean that Mary is not “fully human”. Why? Because you need sin and evil in order to be fully human, we are told. That, in the end, is what is implied by the wholly unbiblical and philosophically preposterous phrase “sinful nature”. What Calvinism and its curdled postmodern descendants all tend to affirm is that sin is not what corrupts human nature, but what constitutes it. That’s because we have failed, as a culture, to make the distinction between what is normal and what is natural. Sin is normal. It is never natural. Indeed, it is what destroys nature.
That sort of comic book Calvinism plays a huge role in the way in which we respond to the great crises and alarums of our time. For roughly six years, it has governed the thinking of the Bush Administration when it comes to the way in which we approach the problem of national security. For as Vice President Dick Cheney so aptly expressed Administration policy, it has meant a willingness to go to what Cheney calls the “dark side” in order to try to keep ourselves safe and a corresponding contempt for the rejection of “enhanced interrogation” techniques as kumbaya weakness. In practical application, this has translated to the repeated commission of war crimes such as torture, murder, prisoner abuse, rendition of innocent men to torture by regimes we ourselves regard as criminal, threats to torture the families (including children) of detainees, corruption of the Justice department to maintain the legal fiction that these war crimes are something other than war crimes, lies by the press, lies by the State, and lies to ourselves as we strive to pretend that all this is a demonstration of Strength and not a shocking and shameful betrayal of all that America stands for.
The problem with this Faustian arrangement is simply this: Calvinism is wrong. Evil is not constitutive of the human person, evil is not healthy and natural and realistic and, most of all, evil is not strong. Evil saps strength, darkens reason, and corrupts our very ability to grasp reality. Evil does not, in fact, keep us safe, make us happy or help us win the war on Radical Islam. It makes us weaker, confuses us, and leaves us more vulnerable than ever to our enemies. Indeed mortal sin is radically contrary to the good of the human person and always results in disaster when we embrace it.