Ultracalvinism and Will Wilkinson

Mencius Moldbug’s favorite primary source is this short article from Time from 1942.

The blogosphere (outside of Moldbug) is not exactly well-known for it’s propensity to discuss articles from the ancient past, like 1942. So, imagine my surprise when I saw several people linking to this very same Time article.

First, a little background on why Moldbug likes this particular primary source. In a series of posts (here, here, here, here, and here) from several years ago, Moldbug explained a phenomenon he called "ultracalvinism" or "cyptocalvinism" (I prefer the latter). In short:

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.

. . .

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.

. . .

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.

Michael Brendan Dougherty links to the Time article and says basically that – though the match isn’t perfect – the beliefs of Will Wilkinson (who blogs for The Economist) were once known as organized protestantism. Clearly, Dougherty is reading Moldbug and not giving him credit, because Moldbug’s first post on ultracalvinism begins as follows:

Over the last 50 years, Time magazine has become as stupid as its audience. The unfortunate fact is that anyone in 2007 who reads Time, or any magazine like it – yes, even the Economist – is simply not right in the head. (Sometimes I receive random free issues of the Economist or find a crumpled copy in a cafe, and if I accidentally read a few pages, or worse one of the leaders, I fly into a shrieking rage and have to curl up in the closet for a few hours. This rag, which I have loved since I was big enough to go on the big rollercoaster, is now devoted utterly and irreversibly to the production and distribution of official mendacity.)

Anyway, Wilkinson responds by answering a question he raises:

Can you believe this was ever the politics of "organised Protestantism" in America? I would note that the Federal Council of Churches is a forebear of the National Council of Churches, which has a history of liberal politics. But favouring liberal immigration reform and taking a stand against gun violence, as the NCC did this year, is a far cry from "Worldwide freedom of immigration" and "International control of all armies & navies"! What happened?

Will’s answer is ridiculous, but too good not to mention. His answer – I shit you not – is "Communism and Billy Graham." WTF is Wilkinson talking about. I have no idea.

Did he go to Wikipedia and ask for two random pages and type them down? Perhaps. It’s too bad Wikipedia didn’t send him here. If it had, he might have pondered how it is that these radical views from the ’40s became mandatory for anyone seeking tenure at a modern university, for example. Similarly, I may be the only permanent government employee that doesn’t share these beliefs. Coincidence? "Yes," says Wilkinson. Surely, the simplest answer is that our universities are still religious, as they have always been. But, the cryptocalvinist cannot admit that his beliefs are religious, as Moldbug said:

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.

Apparently the use of reason can lead to some improbable conclusions. Here’s Wilkinson elaborating on his short answer "Communism and Billy Graham" (from now on "Communism and Billy Graham" is going to be my go to answer. "Foseti, you seem like you’re in a good mood today, what’s going on?" "Communism and Billy Graham," I’ll reply):

Before yesterday it had never occurred to me that America’s distinctive brand of evangelical conservatism—its peculiar marriage of mythic American nationalism with a personal, emotionally intense relationship with Jesus Christ—is not an entirely bottom-up phenomenon, but is to some extent the creation of Eisenhower-era government propaganda and the PR heft of William Randolph Hearst.

So there you have it. Nothing to see here. Please move along. To recap, we have: 1) in 1942 protestantism had a specific set of beliefs and 2) in 2010 those identical beliefs are held by everyone in the polygon (think mainstream media, government and universities). How do we explain this? Moldbug suggests that those in the polygon are the direct ideological (and probably biological) descendants of the protestants of 1942. Wilkinson suggests that protestantism from 1942 is gone and was purged by Billy Graham and Eisenhower and further that it’s a complete coincidence that 1942’s protestants have identical beliefs to today’s holders of power. You be the judge.

I should also note that Daniel Larison has also responded. Larison blames the protestants’ belief system on wartime conformity. Again, I prefer Moldbug’s simpler answer. After all, most of the points on the list would have been heartily endorsed by Progressives (and protestants!) of earlier, non-war eras.

Anyway, have a good night – and if you don’t, blame it on "Communism and Billy Graham."

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5 Responses to Ultracalvinism and Will Wilkinson

  1. AMcguinn says:

    Also on the issue of just how long-standing the liberal establishment and its views are, I am reading about the formation of the Liberal Media Conspiracy. Leading liberal figures from politics, publishing and literature openly and publicly got together on the basis of helping each other and propagating their political message. There was a lot of fuss at the time, but it has since died down.

    The book is this one, and the events I described are from the 1690s.

  2. Fidel Ribbentrop says:

    The Party has since rebranded cryptocalvinism as “” You need to keep the line better!

  3. […] Foseti – “Ultracalvinism and Will Wilkinson” […]

  4. Fidel Ribbentrop says:

    The Party has since rebranded cryptocalvinism as “Universalism.”. You need to keep the line better!

  5. icr says:

    I think Catholics were the most obsessed with Communism in the Fifties. Joe McCarthy-probably because he was a Catholic and a Republican-had little support in the Protestant South. I may be wrong, but I’d bet that Catholic TV personality Bishop Fulton J. Sheen stressed anti-Communism more than Graham. From what little I recall of Graham it seemed like he was always stressing that typically Evangelical personal Salvation thing.

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