Australia is one of the most secular of developed nations. At the last census, 22% of people marked “No religion” as their affiliation, and the attendance at religious services weekly dropped to 16%, from a high in 1950 of 44%.
So why is it that a sizeable minority (around 30%) of Australians oppose gay marriage, blame the poor for their own plight, and treat drug usage as a moral issue? These are only ever justified on religious grounds – that homosexuality is not normal, that the poor get what they deserve from a vengeful god, or that drug addiction is a moral failure.
At the same time, Australians, like the Irish and Americans, are reading daily about the moral failings of religious institutions – the Catholic, Anglican and Salvation Army abuse of children, for example. What is going on here?
Social expectations are rarely justified explicitly. It is simply a given that the normal state is to raise children in a stable heterosexual relationship, for instance. The few who do attack non-hetero, heteroflexible, and plural relationships as the foundations for families are special pleaders for extreme religious views, to be sure, but why do they have impact on a largely non-religious population? Even those who claim to be Catholics or some other denomination on cultural grounds do not take the moral stance of their affiliate churches seriously on many issues.
I propose this has to do with what I call “secular Calvinism”; the internalisation of Calvinist, and to a lesser extent Catholic, morality as secular virtues independently of the affiliations or self-identification of the people that hold these cultural expectations. In short, Calvinist moralism became a secular value.
One classic instance of this was in the refusal of self-confessed atheist, unmarried former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who declared that she would not support marriage equality because:
“For our culture, for our heritage, the Marriage Act and marriage being between a man and a woman has a special status,” she said at the time.
She has since changed her mind, but what inspired her to adopt this view? Partly it has to do with the strong Catholic base of her party, but since most of them are cultural Catholics in any event, the question remains.
Calvinism is a strictly moral theology that holds that people are punished for their sins and that is preoccupied with guilt, sin and violence, either by God or by the ruling authorities. Calvin’s Geneva was as authoritarian as any modern totalitarian state, and the Kirk in Scotland much the same. Shaming those who did not conform to the moral consensus was a Puritan convention in early America (vide, The Scarlet Letter).
Calvinism has been identified as the moral foundation of industrial society ever since sociologists R. H. Tawney and Max Weber identified it as the foundation of capitalist mores. Calvin himself was the founder of the repeal of Christian laws against usury (lending money at interest) that held true for the previous 15 centuries (and is the proximate cause of Jews, being non-Christians, engaging in money lending). Calvinism itself developed along with capitalism, so that the virtues of capitalism – the patriarchal family, the free market, and individual responsibility – have become Calvinist virtues as well. In effect, neoconservatism and Calvinism are the same thing.
In Australia, with its strong class divide between the Anglican and Presbyterian English, and the Catholic Irish, Calvinism virtues became the ruling virtues of secular (i.e., non-religious) society. Even those lower class individuals who entered political life had to conform to these virtues. Family values, straight marriage, personal achievement, and so forth became the sine qua non for public life.
Young people in middle class environments assumed, until quite recently, they would end up having kids in a marriage. They were, in effect, secular Calvinists.
I will discuss these three issues – marriage, poverty, and drugs, from this perspective in subsequent posts…