To understand why America differs so much from other Western nations in regards to religion, go back to John Calvin, the sixteenth-century French-born lawyer who became the driving intellectual force of the Protestant Revolution. On the eve of the American Revolution, most churchgoers were either Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Quaker, or members of other some denomination inspired by Calvin's teachings. These denominations, sometimes collectively referred to as the Puritans, accounted for more than 90 percent of all church adherents at the time of the American Revolution. Some colonists, it is true, followed that other great Protestant rebel, Martin Luther; but in the colonial period and in the early decades of the new republic, Lutherans and other Christians, including Catholics, were numerically unimportant.
Most Americans today, of course, are no longer Puritan in morals, but Puritan ways of thinking about work, the family, and society still influence America at the beginning of the third millennium. Calvin's theology has not endured--the doctrine of predestination, for example, has long since been abandoned by most Protestant Americans--but his social and cultural views still resonate. In sixteenth-century Europe, Calvin's theology had tremendous appeal to the rising urban merchants and artisans, who resented the corruption of the church with its outmoded customs, such as the prohibition of interest in commercial transactions. But it was Calvin's insistence on the dignity of manual labor, and indeed of manual labor as a spiritual activity, that particularly appealed to merchants and to artisans. It was this nascent middle class that was to make Calvinism the most widespread and influential Protestant creed. In contrast to its popularity among the middle class, Calvinism had little appeal to peasants. The resul t was that middle-class notions of personal conduct and polity would permeate America, where peasant culture never flourished.
It is sometimes said that Calvinism made capitalism possible, but capitalism was flourishing in Europe for hundreds of years before Calvin. Perhaps it is closer to the truth to say that both capitalism and Calvinism evolved in tandem as responses to the growing aspirations and power of the urban merchant and artisan classes. It is probably no accident that Protestantism, as it developed in America, easily accommodated itself to the corporations that came to dominate the United States after the Civil War.
Calvin's adopted city Geneva, was engaged in a struggle for independence from the house of Savoy. From the very beginning, Calvinism evolved in opposition to princely claims, unlike Lutheranism, which thrived through alliances with the princes. In his masterpiece, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin insisted that "It is safer and more tolerable for the government to be in the hands of the many." Calvin, of course, was not a modern democrat. He was not overly concerned with the rights of the non-elect, but his anti-authoritarian view contributed to Puritan political thinking and is one of the roots of the modern notion of limited government.
The Calvinist ethic encouraged hard work, thrift, and accumulation. It frowned on habits that seemed incompatible with these virtues, such as drinking, fancy dress, the wearing of jewelry, dancing, gambling, and marital infidelity. Calvinism was an ideal religion for those who struggled under the harsh conditions of American frontier life, which put a premium on stoic virtue. The austerity demanded of adherents extended to church architecture and decoration. Calvin was opposed to any portrayal of God in human form, for that way led to idolatry. And so, at a time when Catholic and Lutheran churches were adopting the baroque style, Calvinist churches were modest and unadorned. Opposition to visual art did not extend to the secular sphere. …