The racist American doctrine of predestination

Rachel Wagner
Aug 21 · 5 min read

It’s so obvious, once you say it, that the Christian presumption of predestination is all over the American penal system. Once you’ve committed a crime, the reasoning goes, you have revealed yourself for what you “are” and you are tarnished for life. This presumption drips with an ugly perversion of Calvinism. It’s the reason why people can’t get jobs after they have been incarcerated, why they can’t get any social support, why they end up homeless and rejected, why people judge them the moment they meet them — forever. “Reform” isn’t possible from this Calvinist perspective because some people are just “bad” to the bone from birth.

This corruption of Calvinism appears when the cleverest among us (read: most arrogant) decide that they can tell who is who. This is one of the most damaging things about this expression of Calvinism: It presumes not that people do good or bad things, but that people are good or bad, and that we don’t need to know anything else about them. Before we are even born, God has already decided who will be saved or damned.

Of course, not all Calvinists take this dark, self-serving approach. Some are humble enough to leave the deciding up to God, and they honor the dignity of all humans as potential recipients of God’s grace. They recall the Calvinist notion that all people sin, and so all people are deserving of God’s judgment, and of God’s grace. They say that we can’t know for sure if we are among the elect or not, and it’s even possible that everyone could be saved! We should do good as a way of reassuring ourselves of our status, but more importantly as a way of honoring God’s love. This form of Calvinism can be exceedingly humble and kind.

The racist American doctrine of predestination, though, helps to explain why so many powerful white men aren’t held accountable for heinous crimes — for example, if a man were to rape a woman and then lie about it to all of America during a confirmation hearing. The corollary of original sin is, by implication, original blessedness: some people are born in God’s good light, and any wrong they do is a mere opportunity for learning on the way to God’s heavenly kingdom.

When presumptively “good” people screw up (especially white men) — no matter how horrendously — it’s an oopsie and the man can just tell God (not the victim) he is sorry. Jesus will tell him it’s OK, and that’s that. When “good” people err in the racist American Calvinist system, the foundational assumption is that they are already forgiven because they were born already chosen. Indeed, their wealth and their whiteness are indications of their blessedness. Any “mistake” is then dwarfed automatically by the overwhelming presumptive glory of God’s elect. This is why young white men from “good” families with “good” futures are excused for appalling crimes. “Good” isn’t just a placeholder here or a mealy-mouthed expression of potential. It’s theological.

But if a non-privileged person makes a mistake (say, a black man), the American racist doctrine of original sin would say the mistake is proof of what the man was all along — not “chosen,” not “blessed,” but one of those damned by God before he was born. It’s not hard to see the rank racism bubbling to the surface here like shit from a leaky sewer. The “good” (often white) people who judge the black man for his mistake can pat themselves on the back for outing a spiritual enemy and keep him away from their children, their neighborhoods, their pretty streets. That man doesn’t deserve food stamps; he committed a crime. That man doesn’t deserve a job after serving his time — he’s “bad.”

But sometimes it’s even worse than this. Racism is so deeply ingrained with Calvinism in America that some (usually white) people believe they can — or should! — presume a black person is “evil” before anything even goes awry! This is when things like false accusations, false identifications, and preemptive attacks against innocent people like Eric Garner can occur. It’s how boys like Trayvon Martin get shot for walking on the street. It’s also, by the way, how would-be immigrants so easily get labeled as hoodlums, or criminals, or people laden with disease, simply because they show up at the Texas border asking for help. If God loved the mobile poor, says the racist American doctrine of predestination, they wouldn’t need help from other human beings because God would take care of them. After all, look at all the rich powerful white men in America and all the hamburgers they get to eat and all the golf they get to play. Clearly this is a sign of God’s love. Be like them. But you can’t, because you were damned before birth. It sucks to be you.

You can’t understand America if you don’t understand the insidious intersection of racism and predestination at work here. Both the doctrine of predestination and the “doctrine” of American racism give privileged (mostly white) people the self-authenticated right to determine the worth of others on mere sight, and to assess them unkindly from their own privileged point of view — then, sometimes, to act violently based on that presumption.

The “stand your ground” approach to guns should be terrifying when read through the lens of racist American predestination, since it allows someone who presumes himself a “good guy” to stand with a gun in his hand with a sense of theological duty in his small, ungenerous heart. Someone in this mindset is already reading the situation theologically, before anyone else even shows up in his vicinity. He already sees himself as some kind of “good guy” agent of God who — given the chance — will exercise his chosenness against the “bad guy” with his gun. Many American gun owners are not fueled by such odious presumptions of racist Christian theology, and are rightly horrified by this kind of reasoning. But for the glorified “good guy with a gun,” to shoot is to be righteous.

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