Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Abbott's Australia beds American Calvinism


Portrait of John CalvinThe Abbott Government's Budget has been widely criticised for its un-Australian character, an underlying unfairness and lack of equity. Less noticed is its Americanism and adoption of American religious values. One might say that the 'black hole of the deficit' is as much a religious shortcoming as a financial gap.

Many commentators are noting that a number of Cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, are Christian, yet the policies lack any Christian emphasis on caring for the poor and disadvantaged. They have a point, but there is more to it.

America has a history of an idiosyncratic interpretation of Christianity, heavily influenced by the doctrine of the Franco-Swiss theologian John Calvin, whose ideas were followed by the Founding Fathers. It leads to the extraordinary conclusion that the poor are not blessed, as described by Christ. Rather, they deserve their plight and may well be abandoned by God.

Meanwhile, the rich who work hard for their wealth are demonstrating that, by making money, they are preparing themselves for heaven.

How did they come to this conclusion? At one level it is a form of self-delusion, a way of justifying a materialist way of life. But it is also informed by a fundamental illogic.

Calvin subscribed to a doctrine of double predestination. In Catholicism and most mainstream Christianity, it is believed that there is a single predestination: that is, God wants everyone to find their way to Him.

Calvin, however, believed that God, being all-powerful and all-knowing, predestined men and women to two destinations: heaven or hell. His will is inscrutable, the story is already written. All that remains is to uncover God's preferment by making money. Greed is not just good, it is spiritual.

To Australian ears, this is barely believable. Hence, perhaps, the incredulity at the Government's priorities. But by actively moving to create an underclass, Abbott is doing something totally at odds with the social doctrine of the Catholic Church to which he belongs. Instead, he is taking the country in a Calvinist, American direction.

By attacking welfare and public education, just to name two things, he is ensuring much greater social stratification. But the wealthy, especially investors, are completely untouched. Which from a Calvinist point of view is protecting the righteous who have been chosen for salvation.

German nihilist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche despised Christianity because of its compassion, which he held in contempt because of his belief in a superman. At one level he was right. Christianity was a social revolution, which gave it its long traditions of care for the poor and an ethic of compassion, as embedded in its institutions.

Nietzsche's distinction between Ubermensch (supermen) and Untermensch (subhuman) bears a striking resemblance to Calvin's distinction between the elect and the damned. Such distinctions lend themselves to the kind of savagery exhibited by the Nazis, who were deeply influenced by Nietzsche. In the American context, the distinction tends to be between captains of industry and the financial system, and everyone else.

It is hard to imagine a more complete rejection of the revolutionary claims of the Sermon on the Mount.

In modern America it would seem that the economic views of ultra-conservative Ayn Rand are making a comeback. In a grotesque vision that virtually combines the views of Calvin and Nietzsche, she argues that compassion and altruism are for the weak. Rather, each person is responsible only for themselves.

Consequently, selfishness becomes a virtue. She proposed that taxes are not paid by citizens to maintain a compassionate and civilised society, but are the weak stealing from the strong.

In ultimate terms, the truth cannot be bypassed. During the horror years under Stalinist rule, Russian Catholic spirituality remained alive in spite of often terrible martyrdom. For Russian Catholics, the poor, the oppressed, the persecuted will always be Christ's beloved. Those who suffer have solidarity with the crucified God.

But as Pope Francis has commented repeatedly, solidarity with the poor is the essential mark of any real disciple of Christ. Happily creating an underclass, as the Abbott Government seems intent on doing, has no justification in Christian social teaching.

It is to that history of Catholic social teaching that the Labor Party can turn to refurbish itself. Catholics, especially Irish Catholics, played a large part in the party's origin. Labor has recently developed something of a phobia about the religious strand of society and politics, to its detriment. If faith and religion are bleached out of our culture — not that we want them to dominate — our society will be less human.

And religion cannot simply be wished away, it just tends to go underground — and distorted religious values can be toxic, as can be seen in America's Calvinism.

Christianity is not a political creed, and seeking to apply it in politics will always be problematic. As the author G. K. Chesterton said, 'The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.' But few have given up on the effort more enthusiastically than Abbott and his government.

Lawrence CrossRight Rev. Archpriest Dr Lawrence Cross is the chaplain to the Russian Catholic Community in Australia and Honorary Fellow in the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy of ACU.

Topic tags: Lawrence Cross, Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Budget 2014



submit a comment

Existing comments

1. Well, Dr Cross, poor people must really hate poor-despising Calvinist-inspired America, and vastly prefer Catholic countries, eh? So let’s look at the historical record. Where did the world’s poor prefer to migrate to in the 19th and early 20th century? What was the vector of migration in the decades around the time that Pope Leo XIII was preaching the evils of unrestrained capitalism, and compassion for the poor, in his encyclical Rerum Novarum? Catholic Italy? Uh, no … actually, penniless migrants FROM Catholic Italy were flocking in their hundreds of thousands TO “Calvinist”, supposedly anti-poor America, one of the most capitalist countries in the world. Economic suicide, surely? On the contrary: by some miracle (or not?) they and their fellow migrants from across the world rapidly improved their lot, to such an extent that within a few short years they were sending money and goods back to succour their languishing relatives in impoverished parts of their home countries, including Catholic Italy, thus setting up further waves of migration. How could this be? And how did “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free &c” make it onto Calvinist, poverty-despising America’s Statue of Liberty in 1903? A misprint? Perhaps glib left-inspired caricatures of American society and political economy don’t capture the whole picture. 2. “By attacking welfare and public education, just to name two things, he [Tony Abbott] is ensuring much greater social stratification.” St. Mary of the Cross opposed public education most strenuously for Catholics. Ergo, St. Mary was for “greater social stratification”? Please.

HH | 26 June 2014  

Many American evangelicals seem to be moving away from this "Prosperity Gospel" position...not only are we low on ethics but slow on theory

rose drake | 27 June 2014  

Dr Cross reveals the partisan cleavage which obtains among Catholics. He concentrates on the issues of left wing concern, shamelessly overstating the anti-Abbott case, but makes no reference at all to the traditionally Catholic supported party, the ALP, with its promotion of abortion and the homosexual agenda. The case for Abbott is that he maintains the safety net, recognises that improvements in education are not in proportion to increased spending, and the desire to bring back a budget surplus. The issue of fairness is there to be argued, but Dr Cross fails to do that, substituting assertion for argument. There is always something rather crude and unseemly about the left's presumption of moral supremacy. Dr Cross prosecutes such a case without the fairness and balance of which he says the Christian members of the government lack. There is a legitimate discussion to be had as to whether the balance is fair. It is a pity that that discussion is not fairly to be had in this column.

Father John Fleming | 27 June 2014  

Spot on! The philosophical foundation of this government - and of most right-wing governments and oppositions around the world currently - is a combination of Rand, Nietzsche, and the worst bits of Calvin.

Bob Faser | 27 June 2014  

Thank you, brilliant explanation.

w ch | 27 June 2014  

Just recently the Acton Institute held its annual conference or 'university.' What is abundantly clear from the position pieces in the lead up and those given at that conference itself is that the Catholic capitalists tinged with Calvinist ideology are confused, bitter and on the run. The level of anger and resentment at Pope Francis is now highly elevated. They refer to him with thinly disguised contempt. For the last forty years or so they have played the game of reading the Social Encyclicals through the lens of free market capitalism. One has only to read the duplicitous spin on and misleading hermeneusis of Centesimus Annus and other Encyclicals to see this. They use the Gospel as validation but their ideology shares no common table with Christ. The real underpinning for their narrative is an aggregated from of Deism which incorporates a bizarre combination of morally vacuous 'works of mercy' laissez-faire capitalism, rugged individualism, the social structures of contempt for the underprivileged, Tea Party politics, single issue moralism, climate change denialism, a strong preference for the Latin Mass and home schooling.

David Timbs | 27 June 2014  

This kind of Christianity is the worst bits of Calvinism, poorly interpreted. Although Calvin held that there were people predestined both to heaven and to hell, he also maintained that we cannot know who they are this side of the eschaton. I am no fan of Calvin, but he didn't teach that we can know who God favours because they are rich.

Judy Redman | 27 June 2014  

I am with Fr John Fleming on this. No-one, including Tony Abbott wants to create an underclass for all sorts of religious, political and practical social reasons. No-one deliberately sets out to do so although, tragically, this is what has been happening over successive governments of both colours. Abbott is not the evil Calvinist Catholic author of it all, just another co-writer. The article offers no vision of how best to correct this drift except to reveal its bias by suggesting the ALP return to its roots and embrace CST.

Martin Loney | 27 June 2014  

A provocative argument but not entirely convincing. There may be Calvinist features and a, perhaps US-inspired, heavy emphasis on individualism in many of the current Budget measures but I doubt it is all as clearly and coherent as Rev. Cross suggests. Moreover, there are many Catholics on the Government side, so there isn't a clear divide. What I find striking is the lack of compassion, empathy and Christian charity in the policies of a government that has more publicly professing Christians than any I can remember in the nearly 40 years I have lived in Australia. In a Cabinet of hard-liners, one who stands out for mean-spiritedness is Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who, I understand, is active in his prosperity gospel church. Surely many more religious leaders and adherents, of all faiths, should be challenging him and his equally hypocritical colleagues?

Name | 27 June 2014  

One further point. Guilt by association is a seriously flawed methodology. It reminds me of the 1950s and early 60s and the "kick the communist can" used by the coalition so effectively against the ALP. Communists advocate this position, the ALP advocates the same or a similar policy, ergo the ALP is infected with communism. The fact that the Communists might actually have a good policy on a particular issue was not considered. I am no fan of Nietschke. I am not a Calvinist. Misstating Calvinism doesn't help. But in any case comparing elements of Nietschke and distorted Calvin with capitalism and free enterprise of the Abbott government variety proves absolutely nothing at all. These are cheap shots and are suggestive of prejudice and bias. If Mr Abbott's budget is unfair, then argue that on its merits.

Father John Fleming | 27 June 2014  

Nothing in Calvin's writings supports this caricature. Calvin's reformation stance was that forgiveness of sins is by trusting in the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, whether rich or poor, smart or not, ordained or not. Worldly success doesn't help in the process of trusting solely in God for redemption.

Steve Etherington | 27 June 2014  

I fully agree with Lawrence Cross. I lived in America in the 1970's, and although they spoke English, their mindset was totally different to the relatively fair society of Australia. It was some decades after that I learned of John Calvin, and his atrocious teachings. Americans want to know if they are going to heaven or not, and have generally got the attitude (which they have largely forgotten) that if they are rich they liable to be in the group going to heaven, and if you are poor, sick or black you are liable to go to hell. Hence no Social security and so on. add to the fact that money is made from thin air ("quantitative easing") and we have a receipe for disaster. The heresy of Jansenism allowed many ideas of Calvin into the church for a while, and was condemned by the Church in the 1600's. However, it still survives in people like Tony Abbott. From http://www.answers.com/topic/jansenism "The theological principles of Cornelis Jansen, which emphasize predestination, deny free will, and maintain that human nature is incapable of good. They were condemned as heretical by the Roman Catholic Church."

Clement Clarke | 27 June 2014  

Christ didn't embrace differential options or preferences in his dying on the cross. There are those who might suggest that the premise of this piece is 'also informed by a fundamental illogic".

john frawley | 27 June 2014  

There are eight Catholics in Abbott's cabinet, no need to invoke the ghost of Calvin to blame them for their misdeeds, good old rich boy Catholic GPS education seems to have provided them well enough with a 'greed is good' mentality. Maybe a few with the 'earthier' Catholic education of the humbler orders might have helped. This is a very odd article more in keeping of a 1950s Catholic Weekly rant than a fair assessment of Calvinism. In my humble opinion it is not up to Eureka Street's usual ecumenical standards.

chris g | 27 June 2014  

Fr Fleming, wise comments. They call to mind para. 43 of Gaudium Et Spes : "Often enough the Christian view of things will itself suggest some specific solution in certain circumstances. Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter. Even against the intentions of their proponents, however, solutions proposed on one side or another may be easily confused by many people with the Gospel message. Hence it is necessary for people to remember that no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations to appropriate the Church's authority for his opinion. They should always try to enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity and caring above all for the common good."

HH | 27 June 2014  

Budget --return to surplus -- return to safe and secure society --- Australian Jesuit Province seek to promote a fairer and more just society. Interest costing $ Billion per month and projecting higher --- is frightening --- Democratically elected – worthy Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his very honourable & equally worthy Deputy Warren Truss seek the politics to promote to bed this desirable end

Placid Pete | 27 June 2014  

Fr Fleming finds it indicative of prejudice and bias that an article about the PM doesn't find time to bash the ALP. He claims that those on 'the left' regard themselves as morally superior to others; two points on this. First, politics is intimately bound up with ethics, so it is not incongruous to argue that a particular set of policies are morally superior to another set of policies. Indeed, to conduct political argument in moral terms seems an excellent thing. Secondly, to accuse others of affecting moral superiority seems strikingly, er, morally superior to me.

James Rogerson | 27 June 2014  

It seems to me that so many who in eureka articles demonise Tony Abbott are living on another planet & just wan't good news from their politicians.Whereas P/M Gillard promised unfunded bonanzas for health,education disability insurance,etc,etc.Abbott has made the grave mistake of saying to us all--let us look at the books & understand what is ahead of us!!Remember 1-we are surrounded by a billion people who have never heard of a social benefit system & 2 how rich will we be if Chinas'economy suffers a collapse.Tony you should have been a good news Prime Miinister--it is much easier !!

Brian | 27 June 2014  

I was a student of Dr. Cross back in the early 1970's. I recall little of his religious tutelage, and he kept his politics to himself. He did however instil in me that value that one should never reward or tolerate a liar. Even if that liar is lying (in their mind) for your own good. 'Never forget boys' he'd say, 'the end doesnt justify the means.' Some lessons stick. I'll be taking Dr. Cross' old lesson back to the ballot box with me.

Mike Crowther | 27 June 2014  

Father Cross seems to be relying on a reading of Calvinism that is influenced by religious sociologist Max Weber - the idea that Calvinism created a Protestant work ethic driven by the need to prove one's election. Weber has been debunked by many and in my view rightfully so. Calvinists do not need to prove they are elect by making money. They know they are Christians the same way any other Christian does - by the Spirit's witness. I have major problems with Abbott myself but I think this anti-American dig is a bit off target.

Glen OBrien | 28 June 2014  

Private Calvinist virtues CAN translate into social vice. In the US, and incipiently in Australia, they do so translate. But that need not be. http://understandingsociety.blogspot.com.au/2014/06/thelen-on-prospects-for-egalitarian.html

Name | 30 June 2014  

Yet the top 5% of personal income tax payers in Australia pay about 25% of the total income tax bill; the top 20% pay 80% of the bill. And social welfare spending is equivalent to 72% of the total income tax bill. The changes announced in the recent federal budget will not make much of a difference. This is hardly indicative of a government sold out to 'American Calvinism'.

Rod St Hill | 30 June 2014  

Pity Nietzsche never spoke of an Untermensch (the idea is purely Nazi). Plus it was Nietzsche's own sister who misrepresented his ideas to the Nazis. Then there's the fact that Nietzsche did not despise Christianity because he believed in the Uebermensch, he despised Christianity because he viewed it (and Buddhism) as decadent, focussing to much on pain and not enough on joy. The Uebermensch is morally superior, incidentally, not financially.

The Truth | 30 June 2014  

Yet another misunderstanding of Nietzsche's philosophy, including the standard attribution towards Nazism. Nietzsche's philosophies never supported the Nazis...it was the Catholic Church that did. Time to get rid of all religion and recognize that true humanity comes from humanity, not an imaginary and damaging 'sky fairy'!

Peter Young | 30 June 2014  

According to studies, the average U.S. household defined as “poor” today by the U.S. government has a car and air conditioning. For entertainment, the household has two colour televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a VCR. If there were children, especially boys, in the home, the family has a game system, such as an Xbox or a PlayStation. In the kitchen, the household has a refrigerator, an oven and stove, and a microwave. Other household conveniences included a clothes washer, clothes dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone, and a coffee maker. In many respects, the poorest Americans today live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago. Gee, spare us from Tony Abbott and those poor-hating American “Calvinists” he allegedly seeks to emulate.

HH | 30 June 2014  

In humble defence of Nietzsche: did he despise Christianity for its compassion (the good Samaritan), or more for its bourgeois simulacrum (the "deserving" poor?) that formed part and parcel of the hypocritical mediocrity rife in all of 19th-century Europe? It is precisely that kind of mindset which is again espoused by Mr Abbott and his latter-day Mitteleurpoaeisch value system. (Von Hayek, patron saint of the free-marketing cultafter all, was an Austrian after all.)

Fred Green | 01 July 2014  

Thank you Father Cross for putting the onus on American politicians' religious shortcomings where it belongs. I wish I could have both Pope Francis and you speak before the Congress here in America so that the nonsense they spout daily might be silenced. Thank you Father. May your Australian politicians wake up and seek proper behavior in their thinking so that they might do a better job for the Australian people as I pray our Congressmen might do also.

Lou | 01 July 2014  

Oh, there's still lots of wealth in Catholic countries! It's just that it stays in the hands of the minute top strata elite - ie Latin American style economies. It's often the fact that the way our economies work themselves out are the opposite to our religious convictions. The old "faith vs good works" paradox - where the Protestants drum faith into their congregations - but in practice have the best work ethic - and Catholics talk about doing good works - but live like it all depends on prayer.

AURELIUS | 01 July 2014  

Thank you Dr Cross for stating what many of us think is obvious. Those who defend Abbott do it either through blind ideology or come from an ultra conservative Catholic 'political' viewpoint. History will show how wrong they were......meanwhile we need voices, like yours, in the public debate.

Andrew Teece | 02 July 2014  

Royal Commission into BANKS. Time to get rid of money ========================================== The Australian Royal Commission into banks shows that they have committed numerous breaches of the law, and are driven by greed. In fact, the law says that shareholders are to be given priority over people, over the environment, over everything. Earth's destruction is assured! Michael Tellinger shares the UBUNTU Movement's motivational and inspiring plan of action to convert our small towns into places of abundance and prosperity for all and to liberate all of humanity from the economic slavery imposed on us by the banking elite. This video includes the inspiring intro and simple the plan of action that can achieve this without any opposition, resistance or violence - by using the tools that enslave us as tools of liberation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXY8Rbx3fwI

Clement Clarke | 30 September 2018  

Similar Articles

Tamils facing new atrocities in Sri Lanka

  • Paul White
  • 04 July 2014

On Monday we learned that two boats of Tamil asylum seekers had been intercepted off Christmas Island. Now there are unconfirmed reports that Australia is handing them over to the Sri Lankan navy without assessing their claims for protection. Amnesty warns Tamils face the risk of sexual violence, torture, murder, imprisonment, and enforced disappearance. Since March this year there have been scores of arrests and several deaths.


The contours of an extended child abuse royal commission

  • Frank Brennan
  • 03 July 2014

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses of Child Sexual Abuse has asked the Abbott Government for a two-year extension until December 2017 to complete its task. The good news is that the victims' groups seem to think they can wait that long, as anything sooner would be rushed.  The bad news is that we will all be waiting another three and a half years for answers about how to restructure institutions ensuring the better protection of children.