Sunday, June 24, 2007 52 Comments

The ultracalvinist hypothesis: in perspective

The "ultracalvinist hypothesis" is the proposition that the present-day belief system commonly called "progressive," "multiculturalist," "universalist," "liberal," "politically correct," etc, is actually best considered as a sect of Christianity.

Specifically, ultracalvinism (which I have also described here and here) is the primary surviving descendant of the American mainline Protestant tradition, which has been the dominant belief system of the United States since its founding. It should be no surprise that it continues in this role, or that since the US's victory in the last planetary war it has spread worldwide.

Ultracalvinism is an ecumenical syncretism of the mainline, not traceable to any one sectarian label. But its historical roots are easy to track with the tag Unitarian. The meaning of this word has mutated considerably in the last 200 years, but at any point since the 1830s it is found attached to the most prestigious people and ideas in the US, and since 1945 in the world.

The trouble with "Unitarian" as a label is that (a) it exhibits this evolutionary blurring, and (b) it at least nominally refers to a specific metaphysical belief (anti-Trinitarianism). So I took the liberty of coining "ultracalvinist."

The "calvinist" half of this word refers to the historical chain of descent from John Calvin and his religious dictatorship in Geneva, passing through the English Puritans to the New England Unitarians, abolitionists and Transcendentalists, Progressives and Prohibitionists, super-protestants, hippies and secular theologians, and down to our own dear progressive multiculturalists.

The "ultra" half refers to my perception that, at least compared to other Christian sects, the beliefs of this faith are relatively aggressive and unusual.

In fact, they are so unusual that most people don't see ultracalvinism as Christian at all. For example, on the theological side, ultracalvinism is best known as Unitarian Universalism. (It's an interesting exercise to try to find any conflicts between UUism and "political correctness.") Ultracalvinists are perfectly free to be atheists, or believe in any God or gods - as long as they don't adhere to any revealed tradition, which would make them "fundamentalists." In general, ultracalvinists oppose revelation and consider their beliefs to be pure products of reason. And perhaps they are right in this - but I feel the claim should at least be investigated.

I am not a theist, so I don't care much for theology. Paranormal beliefs are not beliefs about the real world, and cannot directly motivate real-world action. As a result, they are usually of no adaptive significance, tend to mutate frequently, and are a dangerous basis for classification.

And when we look at the real-world beliefs of ultracalvinists, we see that ultracalvinism is anything but content-free. By my count, the ultracalvinist creed has four main points:

First, ultracalvinists believe in the universal brotherhood of man. As an Ideal (an undefined universal) this might be called Equality. ("All men and women are born equal.") If we wanted to attach an "ism" to this, we could call it fraternalism.

Second, ultracalvinists believe in the futility of violence. The corresponding ideal is of course Peace. ("Violence only causes more violence.") This is well-known as pacifism.

Third, ultracalvinists believe in the fair distribution of goods. The ideal is Social Justice, which is a fine name as long as we remember that it has nothing to do with justice in the dictionary sense of the word, that is, the accurate application of the law. ("From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.") To avoid hot-button words, we will ride on a name and call this belief Rawlsianism.

Fourth, ultracalvinists believe in the managed society. The ideal is Community, and a community by definition is led by benevolent experts, or public servants. ("Public servants should be professional and socially responsible.") After their counterparts east of the Himalaya, we can call this belief mandarism.

Now, where do these beliefs come from? What is their origin and etiology? Why do so many of us in 2007 believe in these particular concepts? Were they invented in 1967? Or 1907? Or 1607? Or what?

Richard Dawkins has referred to his beliefs, which certainly include the four points above, as Einsteinian religion. Dawkins' description of this creed is poetic and extremely reminiscent of Emerson's Divinity School Address. Has he never heard of Transcendentalism? Is he unaware that Emerson was a Unitarian minister?

Einstein certainly believed in the four points as well. Did he invent them during his annus mirabilis? Did they arrive in a stroke of light along with Brownian motion, special relativity and the photoelectric effect? Probably not, because the four points also feature very prominently in a little book called Looking Backward, which appeared in 1888 and sold about a bazillion copies. The author of this novel was not a Hindu. His readers were not Zoroastrians. The political movement Bellamy helped spawn did not put its faith in Allah. And nor were any of these folks atheists, which was still quite a dirty word at the time.

In fact, the four points are very common and easily recognizable tenets of Protestant Christianity, specifically in its Calvinist or Puritan strain. You can find them all over the place in the New Testament, and any subject of Oliver Cromwell's saintly republic would have recognized them instantly. Rawlsianism is definitely the last of the four to develop, but even it is very common in the 17th century, when its adherents were known as Diggers - a name that, not surprisingly, was later reused. Ultracalvinism fits quite neatly in the English Dissenter and low church tradition. (Note the blatant POV of the latter page, with loaded words like "reform," a good indication that Wikipedians incline to ultracalvinism.)

So the proposition that "Einsteinian religion" is some kind of 20th-century novelty is at least as much of an offense to Occam's razor as any Flying Spaghetti Monster. It's like saying that the modern inhabitants of France are not in fact the French, because sometime in the Middle Ages the French died out and were replaced by immigrants, who coincidentally happened to also speak Old French.

If the above is an accurate analysis, what we have here is very interesting. Because it is a modern, thriving, and remarkably well-camouflaged, example of crypto-Christianity.

Ultracalvinism's camouflage mechanism is easy to understand. If you are an ultracalvinist, you must dispute the claim that the four points are actually Christian, because you believe in them, and you believe they are justified by reason rather than faith. Therefore they are universal and no one can doubt them, whether Christian, Muslim or Jew.

If you are not an ultracalvinist, you are probably some other kind of Christian, presumably one who still believes in God, the Bible as revelation, non-universal salvation, etc. Therefore you see ultracalvinism just as Catholics once saw Protestants, or Trinitarians saw Unitarians - as not Christians at all. So the result is the same. The ultracalvinist cloak of invisibility is only at risk from freethinking atheists, such as myself - a tiny and mostly irrelevant population.

The question is: why? How did we fall for this? How did we enable an old, well-known strain of Christianity to mutate and take over our minds, just by discarding a few bits of theological doctrine and describing itself as "secular"? (As La Wik puts it: "Despite occasional confusion, secularity is not synonymous with atheism." Indeed.)

In other words, we have to look at the adaptive landscape of ultracalvinism. What are the adaptive advantages of crypto-Christianity? Why did those Unitarians, or even "scientific socialists," who downplayed their Christian roots, outcompete their peers?

Well, I think it's pretty obvious, really. The combination of electoral democracy and "separation of church and state" is an almost perfect recipe for crypto-Christianity.

As I've said before, separation of church and state is a narrow-spectrum antibiotic. What you really need is separation of information and security. If you have a rule that says the state cannot be taken over by a church, a constant danger in any democracy for obvious reasons, the obvious mutation to circumvent this defense is for the church to find some plausible way of denying that it's a church. Dropping theology is a no-brainer. Game over, you lose, and it serves you right for vaccinating against a nonfunctional surface protein.

We can see this very easily with another modern crypto-Christian movement: intelligent design. Supporters of intelligent design claim it is not Christianity at all. Rather, it is good science, derived like all science from pure reason, and the fact that it seems to resemble the Bible is (a) a coincidence and (b) evidence for how true the Bible is, after all. Therefore, like all good science, it should be taught to innocent young people.

I wouldn't want my children to go to a school where they learned intelligent design. At least not if they learned it as simply reason and reality. But I also wouldn't want my children to go to a school where they learned ultracalvinism as reason and reality.

Unfortunately, the latter is a lot harder to avoid.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

UR, I like your website, but I must admit that I am not always certain I understand what you are attempting to tell us. You have developed, like so many philosophers, a very technical vocabulary that is all your own, or rather, that gives your own spin to commonplace words. So I think I have understood this post - but am not quite sure.

And if I have understood it, then there is one point I wanted to make about your effort to trace the line of thought down from ultracalvinism through to the contemporary meaning of liberalism. And that is that you appear (again I'm not sure) to omit the fact that English liberalism (from which American liberalism today draws many of its ideas) traced its descent not so much through the Calvinists, but through other, less doctrinaire, non-conformists, especially the Evangelicals and the Methodists.

These people began, it is true, as liberals in the old sense of the word, but as they grew less religious, and more interested in temporal solutions to this world's problems, their liberalism became more interventionist. The whole of Bloomsbury, practically, descended from liberals of this kind. Virginia Woolf's great-grandfather was an Evangelical abolitionist; her grandfather a muscular Christian liberal whose religion played a lesser part in his life; her father a muscular atheist. All of these men had been much influenced by Bentham and the utilitarians, their views softened somewhat by J.S. Mill. When Woolf and her friends came of age, they and their kind began to embrace a form of liberalism that had much in common with socialism, while high-minded hedonism ruled their personal lives, under the influence of G.E. Moore.


Many of the Unitarian and transcendentalists whom you describe were good friends of Woolf's father, Sir Leslie Stephen, and I think he kept them in touch with the ideas that were developing in Britain.

p.s. Why did you choose the word "Brahmin" over the more conventional "Mandarin" to depict the educated civil servant class? I don't disagree with it, but Mandarin might be less confusing.

June 24, 2007 at 12:54 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

To Anonymous, I'd simply note that English Protestantism was broadly Calvinist in its inspiration. Cranmer's first prayer book of 1549 reflected the influence of Osiander, who straddled the fence between Luther and Rome, but the second book of 1552 was much more thoroughly Calvinistic.

After the interruption of Mary Tudor's reign the differences in the English church lay between those who wished to follow Calvin's Geneva polity, and those who wanted to retain the episcopal polity, not for any reasons related to apostolic succession or reverence for tradition, but because it permitted central control. Their disagreement was really organizational, not theological, although in the fashion of the time everything became theologized. Both sides were Calvinistic except as related to polity. "High churchmanship" did not really develop in the C. of E. until the time of Laud and Charles I. This was swept away by Cromwell's Commonwealth, under which the disagreement over polity came to revolve around whether straight Calvinism, with its congregational polity, should be the law of the land, or Knox's modification of Calvinism, which has a presbyterian polity. In Butler's great satire of the commonwealth, Hudibras is a Presbyterian, while his squire, Ralpho, is an "independent" - what we'd now call a Congregationalist.

English dissenters, including Methodists (who were originally adherents of the Anglican polity - the Wesleys were C. of E. clergymen) were mainly Calvinistic in their theology. The one exception to this was the Baptists, who are Zwinglians, and whose practice of adult baptism arises from their non-Calvinistic belief in free will.

Mencius - while "intelligent design" is in practice a Christian project , it really antedates Christianity. Its paternity is Platonic. Its original is the architect-god of the Republic and the Timæus. But the most concise statement of "intelligent design" is, in my opinion, found in the late Platonism of the Corpus Hermeticum, libellus v.

After rhapsodic descriptions of the heavenly bodies, the earth, man, and nature, the argument concludes with this peroration -

"See how many skills have been applied to the same, single material, how many labors within the compass of single work, all of them exquisite things, all finely measured, yet all different. Who made them all? What sort of mother or what sort of father if not the invisible god, who crafted them all by his own will? No one claims that a statue or a picture has been produced unless there is a sculptor or painter. Has this craftwork been produced without a craftsman, then? Oh, how full of blindness, how full of irreverence, how full of ignorance? Tat, my child, never deprive the craftworks of their craftsman..." (Copenhaver's translation).

The designer of "intelligent design" proves ultimately not to be the God of Genesis, but the Freemasons' Great Architect of the Universe.

June 24, 2007 at 2:52 PM  
Blogger Alias Clio said...

Thanks for the clarification, Michael. I was aware, more or less, of the descent of Methodism, and also that Wesley himself, accidental founder of "Methodism" always regarded himself as a member of the Church of England.

Still, although Methodism as it developed did have certain elements in common with Calvinism, I believe it was, in its manner of expression, much earthier, its theology more nearly Arminian. Thus its appeal to working class English people as well as to the rising middle class of manufacturers. I do not think that pure Calvinism could have had such a wide popular appeal.

As for the more educated middle classes, the Brahmin or Mandarin classes, they stuck with the Church of England, but often embraced evangelicalism. My comment was more nearly concerned with them.

But I can see that my phrasing of my points was misleading. I didn't think through my comment carefully enough.

June 24, 2007 at 3:46 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

Once again, I have to note that Anglicanism/Episcopalianism (which I would personally consider "mainline") seems much closer to PI than the "dissenting" or "ultra-calvinist" branches of Protestantism.

Mencius has noted before that his schema does not apply well to the third world (or even the world outside of the United States, which some people tell me does actually exist). I think this helps reveal a flaw in his thinking. He has found a connection, as Murray Rothbard and the author of that piece in TIME along with several others had, between PI and mainline Protestantism, especially in the Northeast. I also agree that Marx can be hard to understand except in light of Prussia and Lutheranism-through-Hegel (I would describe German Lutheranism as being, like Episcopalianism, mainline but not dissenting). Marx himself didn't have much impact in his own time. The people through whom he did have large impact later were those like Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. None of them had Protestant backgrounds. Many have pointed out the connection between Chinese communism and Confucianism, and I have no doubt they are right. Much better to look at Confucius to explain Red China than John Calvin. I expect that in just about any culture something like communism is possible and can be traced back to what Boettke, Coyne and Leeson call "mētis" from that culture's past. The "moderate Muslims", which Mencius accurately describes as basically sharing Brahmin beliefs (though on the other hand just about all first-worlders may also do so to a similar or greater degree, see here and here and, from you yourself, here) could certainly have emerged in the absence of Protestantism or Christianity, and I'm sure people more familiar with the Muslim world could list figures from the past that could have been regarded in an alternate-present as Luther, Hume and Voltaire are today. If the niche exists, something like "ultra-calvinism" will likely fill it, even in an alternate reality in which Calvin or Jesus' mother committed infanticide. The historical developments in the United States should be noted, but they should not be obsessed over as nearly synonymous with and the source of present-day ideals.

June 24, 2007 at 6:17 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

clio -

Thanks for your comments!

I find all this coinage an unavoidable difficulty, because it is a way of at least exchanging new mental ruts for old. I am not aware of a better one. It is never pleasant to be accused of philosophy, but I suppose there is a profile to fit.

I try to either invent Google-free words, or to recast ones that have no apparent remaining meaning in modern English (such as "idealistic.") There are many rhetorically unethical styles of redefinition, and if I commit any of these offenses I should certainly be called out on them.

I will second Michael's response on Calvinist roots, as he is clearly far more learned on the subject than myself. The history of Anglo-American theistic and idealistic thought is a tremendous skein of yarn that is hard to summon into a single word.

To me "Calvinist" means "low church," the side of modern Christianity that reconstructs the obvious Scriptural traces of the primitive revolutionary cult and/or mutual benefit society. Hippies are horrified by the Puritans and the thought would surely be reciprocated. Cotton Mather on Haight Street!

But there is a common thread, not just historically but also in ways of seeing the world, which I feel far too few Americans today understand. Most people probably think the folks who gave us Prohibition were the intellectual ancestors of Jerry Falwell, not Hillary Clinton.

I'm sure Wesley would be horrified by today's Methodism as well. The feature of all the mainline Protestant sects today that has really erased their difference is the doctrine of universal salvation, which they basically all hold in practice. Hellfire sermons are not a mainline trait. All the controversies of salvation through faith, predestination, or works fold up and merge in the warm bath of universalist love.

"Mandarin" to me is a little too caught up with government service. By "Brahmin" I mean the entire caste whose social status depends on intellectual or creative work. Unfortunately, most of these people today are involved with the State in some capacity, but it need not be so.

Your snapshot of "liberalism" in England is an excellent way to explain why I dislike this word so much. "Liberal" is both a cultural descriptor, meaning roughly "Brahmin," and a description of economic and political policies supported by this caste in the 19th century (classical or Manchester liberalism).

In the first sense its modern meaning is unchanged, in the second it has entirely reversed. Thus a particularly treacherous term.

In my opinion, 19th-century Nonconformists tended to support Free Trade and small government simply because they were (a) merchants, and (b) divorced from political power. Neither was true for their expensively educated intellectual grandchildren of the Bloomsbury set, and the many seductions of Boromir beckoned.

But the Bloomsburies, Fabians, etc, continued of course their feud with the old Optimate aristocracy, which they won in such devastating style.

June 24, 2007 at 10:21 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


Episcopalianism is definitely mainline, but its differences with today's other mainline sects are negligible - there are precious few drive-bys or other tussles between Episcopal and Congregationalist gangs. In the past, of course, it was different.

Every Christian of 200 years ago, and most of 100 years ago, would be horrified by what today's mainline Protestants believe - if nothing else by the deletion of hell.

I absolutely agree with your point about the adaptive niche. Progressive-idealism or ultracalvinism is so well adapted to 20th-century society and its institutions - it would be hard to see anything much different occupying the same slot.

But a thylacine is not a wolf, and I am going to insist on Maoism as pretty much straight-up Marxist-Leninism with minimal Confucian influences. (Bear in mind that Confucianism was very, very unhip in the generation of Sun Yat-sen.) Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot didn't come from Protestant families, but that doesn't mean they couldn't be converted to a creed derived (through Hegel, as you note) from Protestantism.

The reason I focus so much on the US is not that I'm particularly patriotic, but simply that about sixty years ago it conquered the world, and seems to have a rather disproportionate political and intellectual influence on it.

My father was a US foreign service officer, and my experience is that elite culture in the rest of the world tends to be a depressingly obvious copy of America. Certainly there are no surviving intellectual cultures of primarily indigenous content (for a very well-told tale of one of the last, see William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal). Even Salafi Islam, for all of its reactionary fervor, is primarily an Ossianesque reconstruction with obvious debts to Wilsonian nationalism.

Indigenous folkways do survive in lower classes, but they have little influence on government, for obvious reasons. This is why the Third World is so homogeneous in its ruling castes - the elites of Nigeria are not so different from those of Bangladesh, etc, etc. The main difference is the identity of the last Western colonizer.

June 24, 2007 at 10:42 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

michael -

I'm surprised Freemasonry hasn't come up before in this discussion!

Of course I referred to the present-day ID movement, not to the classic idea of the watchmaker or craftsman - which was designed to celebrate rather than disown God. How times have changed.

June 24, 2007 at 10:44 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

In support of Mencius's tracing of the "ultracalvinists" to a strain within English nonconformist or dissenting Prostestantism, one might with profit look at the career of Joseph Priestley. He is mainly known for his contributions to natural science, but was, all his life, a nonconformist (what we would now call Congregational) minister, and a political radical. His theology began as Calvinist, later veered into what he called "necessarianism," and eventually became Socinian, but he never ceased to be politically radical. Radicalism and phlogiston were the only steady articles of his credo. Unlike the Mathers or the Wesleys, I suspect Priestley would have found the modern age to his taste.

I don't know why I didn't remember it before, but my late friend Mel Bradford, who in his day had some reputation/notoriety as a paleoconservative writer (it takes some doing to achieve the honor of being blackguarded by George Will), described the people that have here been called "ultracalvinists" as "secular puritans," and traced their ancestry to New England. He was a southerner, and would have agreed with the description you quoted of the Civil War as the conquest of America by Massachusetts.

June 25, 2007 at 9:26 AM  
Blogger chris miller said...

This is all very frightening -- since Mom made us go to the First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati (right across the street from the Sears and Roebuck) -- and the adults there seemed -- at least to my adolescent eyes -- like the clones of Casper Milqetoast - i.e. the junior executives of Proctor and Gamble.
Was this really home for the ideology that was leading the world? Was I really ever that close to the center of world power ?

June 25, 2007 at 9:50 AM  
Anonymous George Weinberg said...

One problem I have with this "crypto Christianity" theory is, I don't see the motivation for it. Up until quite recently calling yourself a Christian was probably more likely to benefit your credibility than harm it; in Europe they still have parties called "Christian Democrats", even though they're largely made up of people who wouldn't call themselves Christians.

It can't be to "get around" the First Amendment, because the chronology is all wrong. Originally it only applied to the national government, and only forbade the recognition of a specific institution as the official church. States could and did have official churches, I think until 1830 or so. I'm not sure when the SC decided that this prohibition should apply to the states also, but I'm pretty sure it was in the 20th century. I do know when the SC first ruled that the First Amendment forbade the government from regarding the Bible as a source of truth in general: it was the Scopes case.

And I don't really see how acknowledging that their precursors were religious would seriously undermine their claims that their ideas are based on reason rather than faith. Logically, an idea should stand or fall on its merits. Who originally thought it up or why is irrelevant.

June 25, 2007 at 10:01 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

George, Massachusetts and Connecticut had state churches of the Congregational denomination into the 1830s. The Massachusetts industrialist Edmund Soper Hunt, who wrote his memoir "Weymouth Ways and Days" just after the beginning of the 20th century, remarked that when he was a boy, the churches were always well attended on Sunday mornings, because they were tax-supported and people wanted to be sure they were getting their money's worth.

A problem with this was that under the Congregational polity, a church could literally take a vote on the nature of God every Sunday, and no discipline on matters of faith and morals could be applied by any higher authority.

The main theological controversy in Massachusetts at this period was between Trinitarians and Unitarians. Unitarians had become ascendant in the churches, and often put Trinitarian ministers out of their benefices. One such was the Revd. Abiel Holmes (1763 - 1837), an orthodox Calvinist, the father of the "autocrat of the breakfast table" and grandfather of the associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Trinitarians, on the other hand, controlled the state legislature, and, failing any other means of curtailing Unitarianism in the churches, disestablished them in order to cut off their funds. Disestablishment happened in Connecticut at about the same time and for the same reasons.

The First Amendment could not have been held applicable to the states before the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which is now held to extend the prohibitions that the Bill of Rights imposes upon Congress to the states. This interpretation was not at first promiscuously attached to the Fourteenth Amendment in the way it is today. For example, in Re Kemmler (1889), 136 U.S. 436, William Kemmler's counsel argued that infliction of the death penalty by electrocution was "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited under the Eighth Amendment, but the court declined to intervene and Kemmler became the first man to die in the electric chair, in 1890.

My impression is that religious-liberty litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court was not significant before the 20th century, and did not take its current sharp turn towards interpreting the Establishment Clause as mandating a public policy of French-style "laïcité" until Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), 403 U.S. 602.

June 25, 2007 at 11:06 AM  
Anonymous Michael V said...

Mencius: I generally agree with your proposed intellectual lineage for what you are calling the four central tenets of what you call "ultracalvinism", and share your serious skepticism of the wisdom of said tenets.

That said, I still don't see what you are (appearently) so upset about. The current system seems set to work for at least another decade, probably more like three. Who can take the singularity seriously, as you seem to, yet still worry about things this far in the future?

Surely neither governments nor markets (capital or corporate) nor any section of "the polygon" except for Harvard itself makes plans extending that far forward (maybe the remaining "Optimates" at Skull and Bones do a bit). Normally though, OV regimes can't see past the next war. BDVs are much more market-friendly.

June 25, 2007 at 2:28 PM  
Anonymous Michael V said...

Mencius: I generally agree with your proposed intellectual lineage for what you are calling the four central tenets of what you call "ultracalvinism", and share your serious skepticism of the wisdom of said tenets.

That said, I still don't see what you are (appearently) so upset about. The current system seems set to work for at least another decade, probably more like three. Who can take the singularity seriously, as you seem to, yet still worry about things this far in the future?

Surely neither governments nor markets (capital or corporate) nor any section of "the polygon" except for Harvard itself makes plans extending that far forward (maybe the remaining "Optimates" at Skull and Bones do a bit). Normally though, OV regimes can't see past the next war. BDVs are much more market-friendly.

June 25, 2007 at 2:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like your website, too, despite the frequently autistic quality to it all, but I think you're veering wildly off-base. The claim that only free-thinking atheists such as yourself can discern that the current American regime is veering into theocracy, and that the material of this theocracy not surprisingly comes from low-church Protestantism is entirely too self-congratulatory. Others before you, Christians included, have noted as much. The early 20th century progressives were quite explicit about it. Some, though not all, still claimed the mantle of Christianity.

I would never deny the ideological continuity between the pseudo-Christianity of the Social Gospel and the Progressives, but think there are very good reasons for not calling it Christian. Very importantly, it isn't recognized as Christian either by its adherents or the vast majority of its opponents. Unlike crypto-Jews under the Spanish crown, for instance, these people you refer to as crypto-Christians aren't surreptitiously praying the rosary or receiving the sacraments. Their ideas clearly originated, at least in part, with Calvin, the Puritans, on through the Unitarians, but they are not the same. They have evolved into something else. Or perhaps they are victims of false consciousness, but I don't usually find that hypothesis particularly helpful.

Well, I think it's pretty obvious, really. The combination of electoral democracy and "separation of church and state" is an almost perfect recipe for crypto-Christianity.
But the modern definition of strict separation post-dates the change in the character of elite ideology. That doctrine is a product of the protestant declension, not a cause.

June 25, 2007 at 6:16 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

michael - I've only read one of Bradford's books (his mini-biography of the Founders) but I owe myself more. I'm tickled to be two degrees of separation away.

chris - Unless you're 130 years old, I'm afraid the institutional center of ultracalvinism shifted to the universities quite a few years before your time! Now if you'd gotten your sermons from Henry Ward Beecher at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn...

June 25, 2007 at 11:00 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


These are good questions.

Essentially, I'd say crypto-Christianity had two advantages.

One, secularists could present their worldview as universal (a kind of uber-ecumenicalism), and thus more pregnant with power. Note the victory of Marxian ("scientific") socialism over Tolstoyan (explicitly Christian) socialism, largely for this reason.

Two, they could deploy the First Amendment against their non-crypto adversaries, as they did starting in the '50s. A kind of "pulling up the ladder," quite adaptive.

You're absolutely right about the Christian roots - they are only very circumstantial evidence. Presumably Jesus thought the sky was blue, etc.

But crypto-Christianity helps explain how these crazy ideas (at least I think they're crazy, and I will certainly argue the point) became so widely adopted.

June 25, 2007 at 11:07 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

michael v:

Your perspective is excellent. Our current system of government is not so bad at all by historical standards. It is not the regime of Stalin, or even of Calvin.

The problem is that it (a) contains and (b) depends on a large number of pious fictions, and I'm not sure these fictions will stand up to the Internet. If I don't debunk them, many others will (and are), and I feel my approach is at least relatively constructive.

Hopefully the singularity will arrive as soon as you expect, but I'd rather not count on it...

June 25, 2007 at 11:11 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


Your criticisms are very fair. (Even the "autistic" bit.)

Basically, the answer is that I'm trying to reach a different audience. I was brought up a "Brahmin" and am still very much one, culturally and theologically. I had to get past a lot of prejudices in order to read the paleoconservatives.

Obviously these prejudices are very adaptive for the system that we both oppose. Brahmins are the American ruling class, whether we like it or not, and I see no prospect of this changing.

The accusation of crypto-Christianity, to (I presume) a Christian such as yourself, seems like a compliment, and an unwarranted one at that. I certainly can respect both of these perspectives.

But to people with my background, it is an attack, and it is an attack from an unexpected direction which they have no received emotional prejudices against.

The proposition that (for example) environmentalism is in the same category as intelligent design is not one that liberals have an automatic answer for. Sure, I could tell them to go and read Clyde Wilson or Kuehnelt-Leddihn. But, trust me, they have very strong anti-traditionalist antibodies, and if you link them to Chronicles they will, at best, go into anaphylactic shock.

You raise the same question as George; please see my answer above.

June 25, 2007 at 11:23 PM  
Anonymous michael v said...

I, on the other hand, would rather we had more time, at least 40 years, preferably 50, but I don't think that serious analysis can support that preference as a substantial possibility.

Regardless of the singularity, my main point is that it seems to me that you are simply worrying about problems too far in the future for meaningful human action in the present to be possible.

Many many pious fictions have stood the test of time pretty well so far. The internet changes things, but only for a fraction of a percent who care enough about ideas to overcome social pressure. Such a group can eventually pull down official lies, but not in a generation or two. Two few people care much about truth. When comfortable they follow the authorities, when uncomfortable they pick a scapegoat.

What sort of problems does the weakening of these memes suggest to you, and in what sort of timeframe?

By the way, our regime isn't just better than Stalin and Calvin, it's better, in most respects that people care about, than any systems humans have tried except probably for the earlier American republics (in the North) that you allude to and it's intellectual ancestors the British and Dutch. To what can it be reasonably compared? Tang China? Florence? Athens? Singapore? Seriously. OK, Bismark did something impressive too, but I don't actually understand how his regime worked as well as it did.

By the way, I think that it is more accurate to see the current regime as a fusion of Bismark's system with Christianity than as a natural evolutionary development of Christianity. Also, I used to agree that the current regime dates to FDR, but more knowledge of history, economics, and politics caused me to antedate the regime change to Wilson or to the Income Tax. FDR is just when it pulled out the stops in terms of authoritarianism.

June 25, 2007 at 11:56 PM  
Blogger chris miller said...

And as an corollary, I'd propose that the reductive iconoclasm of Modern Art and Architecture is the
religious art of the "ultracalvinist"

(and you'd better believe that a Mies Van Der Rohe building feels religious - I just visited the I.I.T. campus last month, and wanted to kneel in prayer to the god-in-the-machine)

Or -- at least it took that spare, gleaming form until 1950, when it decisively moved from the transcendence of Puritan silverware
(Brancusi) to the self-humiliating hairshirt of Abstract Expressionism
and everything that followed.

Self abuse has to be the most powerful - ubiquitous - and certainly most accessible
form of religious expression on the planet -- whether it's whipping yourself with barbed wire like the penitent Shiites -- or filling your most honored personal and public spaces with the gross, deformed, repellent, absurd, and banal.

June 26, 2007 at 8:07 AM  
Anonymous cuchulkhan said...

Mencius, you rock.

June 26, 2007 at 11:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm the "anonymous" who called you "autistic." I appreciate your graceful response, unmerited in light of my acerbity, and apologize for missing your response to George that covered his similar point regarding the chronology of Church-State separation.

Insofar as the appellation Christian is perceived as a slur by many exponents of the regnant ideology, you may have more success undermining their (complacent) worldviews by means of that "frame" than with more traditional means of argumentation. To that, I raise my glass and toast confusion to the Roundheads, the Yankees, and their execrable progeny.

Yet, I while I see the heritage as in part Christian, with strong Jewish influence especially since WWI, I don't think (obviously not as a Christian) that that is the problem with "ultracalvinism." The problem with it is that it is unreasonable in its own terms, dependent for its program on smuggling in a great deal of moral baggage from Judaism and Christianity and then, via a great deal of hand waving, calling it "reason." It's Jefferson's Bible, with all the miracles and claims of divinity taken out, leaving a story, if I may take the liberty, that doesn't make a bit of sense.

Well, I think it's pretty obvious, really. The combination of electoral democracy and "separation of church and state" is an almost perfect recipe for crypto-Christianity.
I think official tolerance is a recipe for ecumenism, congregationalism, and lowest-common-denominator religion, but I don't think it is part of an elite conspiracy to smuggle in religion. Quite the opposite: Freedom of religion was intended to keep religion from interfering first with the affairs of princes, and later to keep it from interfering with the affairs of merchants by constructing a sphere called "the secular" where God was no longer held to reign and people could follow the instructions of Machiavelli. The difficulty is that the act of government, despite the claims of liberalism to dispense with them, requires value judgements, and metaphysics sneak back in, unacknowledged, of course, when justifications and explanations for them are sought.


June 26, 2007 at 3:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you considered "post-calvinist" rather that "ultracalvinist"? The latter still sounds wrong to me. I thought your original term, a redefinition of "unitarian" was pretty ingenious.

intellectual pariah

June 26, 2007 at 5:27 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

michael v,

The problem with pious fictions is that they tend to be opposed, not just by impious nonfictions, but by equal and opposite pious fictions.

Right-wing talk radio is an example of this. But a small example. TV is still administered enough that there is no really irresponsible right-wing television.

My worry is that, while most Vaisyas have a vague sense that they're being screwed, this is only because of the vast quantity of fentanyl being pumped into their veins by the Polygon. If they ever realize how hard and deep they're getting it, in any organized way, I don't want to be in the vicinity.

In my opinion, just about all European governments of the 19th century were far more efficient and effective than those of today.

Also, I think your time horizon has further back to go. Try Lincoln, or even Jackson. The reality, in my opinion, is that the Constitutional system worked pretty much as designed while Washington was president, but has been mostly deteriorating since. Jefferson's predictions of its fate (corruption and centralization) were quite prescient.

June 26, 2007 at 9:50 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

chris -

I agree - there is a certain disturbing familiarity to all this minimalism. Whitewashing church frescoes, anyone? Mr. Leopard does not change his spots...

June 26, 2007 at 9:52 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Cyrus (anon),

I agree - I definitely do not think the problem is Christianity per se, as many strains of Christianity are socially harmless or even (gasp) productive. It was not so long ago that I noticed, quite an odd realization for an atheist, that an enormous percentage of the 20th-century writers I liked best were Catholics.

We cannot ignore the "communist" or "hippie" elements of the New Testament, but we can reason around them by treating them figuratively, much as some Muslims treat the word "jihad." From a purely historical perspective, I find the Oprah interpretation of "jihad" comical, but I encourage any Muslims that may be reading to adopt it at once.

In any case, what corrupted Christianity in the 20th century was, I think, simple: power. The people who designed religious tolerance were thinking the right thoughts, they just made an engineering mistake. Power sneaked back in, calling itself "reason."

The secret of government is that government is incredibly boring. Government has three proper tasks: (a) enforcing the law, (b) collecting taxes, and (c) defending itself.

There is no (d), and if there was it certainly wouldn't include caring what people thought. Once a state embarks on a career of managing the psychology of its subjects, the abyss is never far away.

June 26, 2007 at 10:04 PM  
Anonymous michael vassar said...


OK, your concerns are the same as those I grew up hearing from my father. The logic is generally valid, but the polygon is strong and it's enemies are slow to muster. One stabilizing feature of the system is that Brahmins have a HUGE advantage over Optimates at creating art attractive to Vaisyas, and they use commercial art to shape Vaisya morality. Their major weakness in this regard, as Sailer points out, is an irrational aversion to the explicitly Christian, hence the commercial success of "The Passion of the Christ". Dalits can produce appealing commercial art, (this, by the way, suggests that they are mis-named in your designation) but America's Vaisyas have far too much sense to follow them (pity the world's unwashed though, you should see Kazakhstan in this regard)

I gave you Britain and Holland as superior 19th century governmnets. Certainly not France with it's constant revolutions. Read De Tocqueville on this. He's not a fan of Democracy, but his France had waves of the stuff and he was very aware of it's problems, with regard to which his France was far ahead of the America of his day. He called Brahmanic rule "The Dictatorship of the schoolmistress". His France also had a life expectancy a good decade less than that of America at the same time.

I think that you can probably judge governments fairly well by GDP growth rates controlled for population size, historical population size and per-capita GDP with penalties for war, plague, and famine. By either the GDP growth measure or the adjusted version most 19th century European governments were much worse than what we have today.

P.S. Other than a mutual love for politeness and decorum, which I appreciate, what have you in common with Laurence Auster?

June 27, 2007 at 12:35 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

michael v.,

Compared to contemporary Britain and America, France in the 19th century certainly had its problems. But compared to any country in the world today, it was incredibly dynamic, libertarian and intellectually diverse.

Of course, this is just a gut judgment. GDP "growth" is an inherently worthless number - it cannot be computed without a large number of subjective judgments. Even in the 21st century it is packed with enough fudge to open a chocolate factory. If there are any such numbers for the 19th we are well into Emperor-of-China's-nose territory.

If you like Tocqueville, you'll love Kuehnelt-Leddihn.

None of my "caste" names were meant to be exactly analogous, especially not the "Dalits," who occupy a role that's very unusual, if not unique, in the history of the West. I probably should have picked an more obscure name.

My interest is piqued by your suggestion that gangsta rap is permeating Kazakhstan. Is this a matter of personal experience, by any chance?

Re Auster: it might be simpler to explain what I don't have in common with him. Auster is a traditionalist Christian who believes deeply in the restoration of a quasi-mystical Americanist past. I am an atheist and antiromantic whose engineering approach to social structures is adapted from my CS training.

Other than this, I agree with everything he says.

Okay, this is an exaggeration. I grew up listening to NPR and reading the New York Times, and getting to the point where I could even read a blog like VFR without blowing a gasket was a very long and slow process of deprogramming. I have found Auster's reasonableness and decorum a great aid in this process.

But it's more than this. Consider: if you were the intelligent designer behind the Polygon, granting of course that no such designer exists or ever has, but trying to consciously replicate the adaptive shape of history, and you had a dangerous idea or two that you wanted to hide, a thought you wanted no one with any intelligence or influence to ever, ever think - where would you put it?

Would you hide it on the radical Left? Would you give it to Noam Chomsky or Michael Moore?

When I look at the likes of Larry Auster, what I see is a sort of vaccination against reality. It is a mix of genuinely brilliant and dangerous ideas - the unprincipled exception, for example - mixed with powerful adjuvants that stimulate the immune system of anyone with a clue (for example, complaining about homosexuality). The adaptive value of this combination is unmistakable.

And in particular - I will cover this on the blog at some point - you will certainly have observed the rich larding of piety that surrounds the Brahmin-Dalit and Brahmin-Helot alliances.

Of course this piety is sincere - it always is. But under it, I think, is something very ruthless and sordid, which emerges only under the light of adaptive interpretation.

Auster does not of course use the same methodology. He thinks of "liberals" as generally deluded and occasionally evil. While I was brought up a liberal, so I believe was he (he is the cousin of the literary novelist Paul Auster, who I personally find quite unreadable). So his observations are not entirely untranslatable, and I often find them cogent.

Try reading his mini-book, The Path To National Suicide, and see what you think. I guarantee you won't agree with it all, but it might surprise you.

but he also is interested in the problem and I find his observations useful.

June 27, 2007 at 11:49 PM  
Blogger Victor said...

If 'dalits' is a problem, why not just call them the name already well-established for this purpose -- lumpenproletariat?..

June 28, 2007 at 1:24 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

"But compared to any country in the world today, it was incredibly dynamic, libertarian and intellectually diverse."

We agree about intellectual diversity, but definitely not about libertarianism. I also don't see regular revolution as dynamic in a desirable sense.

"My interest is piqued by your suggestion that gangsta rap is permeating Kazakhstan. Is this a matter of personal experience, by any chance?"

Yes. Pretty sure it's not just Kz though.

"GDP "growth" is an inherently worthless number - it cannot be computed without a large number of subjective judgments. "

GDP growth is highly subjective, and I often complain about this, but it is far from worthless, or it wouldn't correlate so well with literacy, and the particularly objective life expectancy, which was fully 10 years shorter in France than in the US in 1850.

You mean quasi-mythical?

Err... other than that?
Other than the need for replacing all of it's predictions with those of the Standard Model I find Aristotelian physics to be very useful.

By the way, regarding the inefficacy of actual elected officials in the face of the polygon, what do you think would happen, if, for instance, a president tried to pack the Supreme Court in this day and age? If a Supreme Court ruled in favor of separation of information and state as a generalization of separation of religion and state, ruling public school and much else to be unconstitutional?

June 28, 2007 at 6:24 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

I don't consider GDP to be the be-all-end-all, but I think it's better than nothing or Bhutan's "Gross National Happiness" (which may well be worse than nothing). What do you think of the Fraser Institute's Economic Freedom of the World rankings? Walter Block apparently played a significant role in creating them, so that might give them some cred with you. I especially like Block's schooling of Paul Craig Roberts on the rankings, as PCR is a grating idiot who really needed it. What do you think of alternatives to GDP like George Reisman's Gross Domestic Revenue or Rothbard's Private Product Remaining?

What does Auster actually do for a living? His blog updates pretty frequently but has no ads and he's apparently been at this for a while.

June 28, 2007 at 9:42 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


I have no idea what Auster does for a living. I wonder myself. I don't think he's a computer guy...

Paul Craig Roberts really is a major-league doofus. One may complain about Caplan and the like, but they are just not in the same league.

My problem with all of these numbers is that I don't see what they are useful for. I object to anything subjective being passed off as a number. I get the impression that Block is a really good guy, and surely there is some use for an economic freedom ranking, arbitrary as it is. When it comes to measuring the output of an entire country, anything numerical strikes me as hubristic.

June 28, 2007 at 11:57 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

michael v -

A very insightful question. Actually I think such a judicial coup is one of the most likely endgames for our present system of government, although I don't see it any time soon, and I suspect it would more likely come out of the blue from a kind of conservative Gramscianism on an unpacked Court. (Remember that the Senate as well would have to be involved, and that is a tough call.)

As for France, where are the Lumieres of today? The Bleriots? Victorian-era France was certainly far behind the US, Britain and Germany in all facets of economics and politics, but it was still experiencing significant economic growth and innovation. It also had a level of ideological diversity that dwarfs anything in the West today. Auster is small beer next to the anti-Dreyfusards!

I don't know offhand what tax rates in the Third Republic looked like, but I'd be surprised if they were anywhere near those of the Fifth. And it was certainly on the gold standard.

Classical liberals in the 19th century regularly used France as the example of what they didn't want to be. But if they had a time machine that let them see 2007, they'd forget everything bad they ever said about Napoleon III.

June 29, 2007 at 12:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! I followed the gnxp link here, and I have to say, brilliant work!

The combination of electoral democracy and "separation of church and state" is an almost perfect recipe for crypto-Christianity.

It explains a lot, and it's obvious now that you've pointed it out, but this never occurred to me. I will definitely be checking this blog now and again, and devouring the archives.

June 29, 2007 at 6:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: GDP. Even if GDP contains subjective measurement (through hedonic indexing, etc.), as long as that subjectivity is standardized and consistent over time, GDP remains a very useful measure. If GDP starts trending downwards, for instance, it is likely that things are about to get worse in a very noticeable way.

Cross-country comparison is somewhat more tricky, but tools like PPP does appear to give a pretty decent picture of how wealthy a given nation is. (I certainly know of no better system) If you step off the plane in a country with a per capita GDP of 5000 USD, you will notice pretty quick that it is a fairly poor country in relation to, say, Switzerland.

June 29, 2007 at 12:57 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

anon (GDP),

This standardized and temporally constant subjectivity is a very curious construct. I hope it's not found in the company of jumbo shrimp or military intelligence.

Of course GDP can confirm the evidence of one's senses. But one could just as easily rely on the senses. This twentieth-century mania for numbers has for some reason passed me by.

I actually think numerical comparisons between two countries at the same time may be more sound, because presumably they can at least exchange goods with each other, a relationship which does not pertain between 2007 and 2006. But even then, the quantity of subjective fudge in purchasing-power comparisons (Big Mac indexes and the like) is considerable.

There are real numbers in economics. An interest rate, for example, is an actual number. But when you mix numbers with fudge, you get fudge, and I find the aroma of qualitative judgments posing as quantities extremely distasteful.

June 29, 2007 at 10:23 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

victor -

"Lumpenproletariat" is an excellent word and it means absolutely the right thing, but it is (a) very long and (b) just by its second half, has many emotional ideological associations. As I imagine "Dalit" does in India, but, well, I'm not in India...

June 29, 2007 at 11:38 PM  
Blogger Robin Edgar said...

I really think that you should do further research into current Unitarian*Universalism aka U*Uism as your perceptions are somewhat distorted.

July 8, 2007 at 3:43 PM  
Blogger American Monarchist said...

I'm slowly working my way through your archives because you feed my brain.

Between you and watching The Tudors, I'm on the verge of changing my mind and deciding that Protestantism wasn't such a great idea after all.

I'm not entirely with you on seeing Progressivism as a crypto-Christian sect, though. You've convinced me that a lot of its impulses and sentiments are the mutant descendants of Christian sects which we would have been better off without. But the ethics of Progressivism are pretty much the diametric opposite of those of Christianity, including Protestant Christianity. Look at the Ten Commandments, point by point, and tell me if there's one whose breakage is not integral to Progressivism.

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March 13, 2009 at 7:56 AM  

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