“Aren’t You Supposed to Hate Me?”: Calvinism and the Politics of the Damned
Update: This post is now available as an audio recording at Ancient Faith Radio.
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil. —Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago”
“Aren’t you supposed to hate me?”
That was the question once asked me by a homosexual friend and co-worker, back during my stagehand days (1994-2004), when she learned that I was an Orthodox Christian.
I thought about that moment again today while I watched my North Carolina friends posting online about North Carolina’s Constitutional Amendment One, which in a vote yesterday enshrined into the state’s constitution a legal definition for marriage as between one man and one woman. I lived in the Raleigh, North Carolina, area for eleven years, and from what I could tell, most of my friends there who are active online were very much against the amendment. In fact, I don’t think any of them were in favor of it. Nevertheless, it passed a popular vote with 61% approval.
What really struck me today was that several posters (who normally are not very interested in religious things) declared that anyone who voted in favor of the amendment was not a real Christian. It was kind of surreal to see some of these people making such religious statements when they never seemed to pay any particular attention to Christian doctrine before. Their statements seemed to be based on this syllogism: Voting for the amendment means you hate gay people. Jesus is loving. Therefore, if you voted for the amendment you are no real Christian. (Update: Did you catch that? These are pro-same-sex marriage folks who wanted others to oppose a piece of legislation for religious reasons.)
There were other variations on this claim, though usually without bringing Christ into it. The consensus seems to be that voting for this amendment means that the voter hates gay people (or others who may be affected). It does not seem in any way admissible that a loving person could ever vote for such a thing. One poster even said he simply could not fathom the logic that supporters were using when they voted.
In the course of related discussions, I was actually told by an old friend who (being convinced I would have voted for this particular amendment) essentially said that I believe what I do because my religion tells me I have to and that logic is always opposed to faith. There is of course a long and complex history of the interaction of faith and reason; some communions even go so far as to enshrine reason as a doctrinal pillar, but hardly any religions have ever actually rejected reason as being contradictory to faith.
Likewise, there is another problem with this assumption, namely, that I am actually someone who has chosen his faith and was by no means forced into it. Even had I been raised Orthodox, however, I would have to make a conscious choice to remain in the Church and faithful to its teachings. Come to think of it, I still have to do that. Even aside from simply the basic dynamics of trying to be a faithful Christian, it’s not like the world around me is exactly hip to Orthodoxy. The Church has always been counter-cultural.
Of course, on the other side of these things is the “GOD HATES FAGS” crowd, who actually have fairly little influence on anyone at all, but, if their ideological opposites are to be believed, somehow are identical to everyone who doesn’t all-out support homosexual activity. Still, I’m sure that there are folks who have traditional beliefs about the moral value of homosexual activity who do indeed regard gays as being damnably subhuman.
I also saw one post from an opponent of the amendment telling supporters to “go die in a fire.” Another one claimed supporters used only “weak” arguments from politics and religion and were therefore “fanatics” and “terrorists.” The first poster didn’t surprise me much, since he is given to that kind of language, but the second really did surprise me. (He was also one who said that supporters cannot be real Christians. That surprised me, too, because he’s not ever been, to my knowledge, remotely interested in church or even Christian “spirituality.”)
There seems to be little room here for the idea that someone can disagree, that they can even support unfavored laws, and still love the other. I think there is a little bit of the childish “You hate me, Mom and Dad” attitude here, chafing against anyone who won’t sanction a given behavior, but I believe overall it’s something much deeper, something actually theological, a vision of human nature.
In this view of human nature is also a reading of human history that admits of nothing but the progressivist narrative. “Social progress” always moves in one direction, and of course people who disagree with such “progress” are “on the wrong side of history,” etc. Never mind that history shows all sorts of “progressions” that such folks would find abhorrent. History sometimes moves in some pretty awful directions. And sometimes it even appears to “reverse” course, revealing what seemed to be an inexorable march toward progressive paradise actually to be a temporary anomaly. To one a certain thing is progress, while to another it may be regress, digress or even ingress. And of course everyone but me is wrong.
What’s underneath all of this is an assumption about human nature that almost never comes to the fore. It is essentially assumed that human beings are absolute objects incapable of actual dynamism and change. Reprobates can only be eliminated through force, whether of violence or of law (which always implies a threat of violence). That is, what is assumed is a theological anthropology, and it is the anthropology of Calvinism.
We Americans are hardly ever more Calvinistic and puritanical than when we are at politics. I observe this not about any particular political ideology or party, but about them all.
It is no wonder, of course. America was founded by such people. Calvinist anthropology is deep in our cultural DNA, and it is perhaps most prevalent in those who reject Christianity entirely. Their political opponents are “unloving,” “evil,” “hateful,” etc. There is little attempt actually to convince others of the rightness of their positions, only the assertion that opposing them makes the opponent a terrible person. You must hate me if you do not agree with me.
But “You hate me” is probably the silliest argument there is. It not only presumes a knowledge of someone else’s inner psychological state that is impossible, but it also is a defeatist attitude and presumes that one’s opponents are beyond redemption—and one’s own position is naturally what constitutes redemption.
In a world where everyone knows he’s a sinner and is actively working to repent, one can never have much ground to assume that one’s fellow sinners are “hateful,” etc. But in a world where I am perfect and right, of course anyone who disagrees with me is “hateful.”
When my gay friend asked me whether I was required to hate her, I told her no. She asked me why. I told her it’s because, even though I see homosexual activity (though not identity) as sinful, I believed my own sins were far worse than hers. It’s true. I really do. And I am (by choice) bound by my faith commitments to believe that, to see myself as the “chief of sinners.” I confess that every time I am about to engage in the most central act of my faith—receiving Holy Communion.
I do not in any sense believe that I am better than someone else just because the set of temptations I have and those I succumb to are different from someone else’s. How can I hate someone else for his sins or his temptations? I have so many of my own.
To be honest, I don’t really know how I would have voted on North Carolina’s Amendment One. I haven’t lived there for eight years now, so I’m not really a part of its life any more. I do know that I think the state should get out of licensing marriages entirely, if only because it almost inevitably leads to problems like this.
I do not believe that every sin should be illegal, and homosexual activity is one I do not think needs to be illegal. (And certainly one cannot criminalize feelings, either.) Yes, I do regard these things as symptomatic of a fallen humanity, but I don’t think that anyone’s salvation is furthered by criminalization.
I do, however, have a very serious concern about enshrining things at odds with religious communities’ doctrine as “civil rights,” because of what that does to religious liberty, a civil right long guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. Once something is a civil right, then those who refuse to grant that right and not to hinder it in any way are subject to legal action—there have already been people successfully sued for not going along with gay weddings due to the dictates of their consciences, people who were minding their own business and just didn’t want to be a part of it.
I do hope that my friends can understand that I in no way hate them if I disagree with their politics or even with their personal moral choices. If I hated everyone who disagreed with me or who sinned, I would pretty much not have anything else to do with my time. But I’m a sinner, too, and my sins are far greater than theirs.
Over the years, I’ve had a number of friends, co-workers and parishioners who have identified as gay. To be quite honest, none of them ever seemed to be under the impression that I hated them. I don’t think it’s because I have any great virtue, but simply because I just didn’t hate them. I don’t understand why that possibility seems to elude so many.
For anyone who is not an Orthodox Christian or who does not subscribe in some way to the broad outlines of Christian moral tradition as it has generally been held without much real disagreement for centuries, I cannot of course expect that they will see themselves as sinners or that any particular action is a sin. If they don’t even believe in any transcendent divinity, then there is no reason to believe that there should be a transcendent “right” to which we are all responsible. I get that.
At the same time, however, I think it’s worth closely examining one’s presuppositions about such things as the nature of human persons, whether they can change, whether they have inherent worth, and whether it is actually possible to disagree without being consigned to the oblivion of the “hateful” category.
This kind of politics—the politics of hatefulness—comes out of a real theology. In this theology, there are only the elect and the reprobate—the damned.
Wouldn’t it be better to see others in a far more complex and (dare I ask it?) hopeful light? And let us especially remember the words quoted above from Solzhenitsyn: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.”
Addendum: I liked this comment from Fr. Stephen so much that I’m reproducing it here in the body of the post. Some of the responses to it are quite interesting, as well.
I think the root of the issue you’re identifying goes much deeper than just Calvin’s anthropology. All of Western Christian thought since St. Augustine (obviously including Calvin) has been Platonist thought, to one degree or another. Even Thomas Aquinas (whose grand project was to try to reconcile the newly discovered Aristotelian science [with] the pre-existing Platonist Christianity he had inherited, over against the Latin Averroists like Siger de Brabant who were ready to discard the latter), as revealed in Book I of the Summa and his eschatology.
Why that’s important is this: One of the fundamental principles in Platonist thought is that distinction implies opposition. Unity, or ‘One-ness’ is a good, and therefore to be truly Good, anything must be One. So, for example, there can only be one correct interpretation of any given passage of Holy Scripture. All other interpretations are not just somehow faulty or incomplete, but are actually opposed to the correct interpretation and seek to subvert it. All of those other interpretations aren’t ‘nice tries’ or ‘alternate takes’ or ‘other applications in different contexts’, they’re sinful attempts to undermine the One Truth.
This results in this horrible confusion of epistemology and ethics, in which ignorance of certain facts, or differing beliefs, even if held with no ill will or ulterior motive, are still treated as sin, as evil acts. Therefore, if I hold that ‘x’ behavior is morally wrong, and you hold that it is morally right, our views aren’t just alternatives to each other, they actively oppose each other, and we ‘have to’ at the minimum, hate each other’s views. Neither God, nor you and I, can just [love] sinners, we have to somehow at the same time hate their sin. It can’t be overlooked, passed over in respectful silence, or ignored.