Calvinism and America’s Crappy Transit

Some years back, I wrote a book titled “God and Country: America in Red and Blue.” I was intrigued (still am) by the various ways in which contemporary policy preferences are rooted in religious ways of looking at the world. I wasn’t focusing on the more obvious connections–we all see the relationship between religious beliefs and opinions about abortion or gay rights or capital punishment, for example. I was interested in the under-appreciated ways that religious perspectives had shaped cultural attitudes and fostered certain approaches to public policy.

As I did my research, I was especially struck by the ways in which early Calvinist theology has shaped American attitudes toward the poor. Ours is a culture with a deeply entrenched, if bastardized, version of Calvinism; a belief that God smiles upon the “elect,” and the poor are poor because they are morally defective. (Accusations that poor folks lack “middle class values” are a modern and none-too-veiled version of that theologically-rooted conviction.)

A recent article at Vox connected that insight to America’s pathetic public transportation.

American buses, subways, and light rail lines consistently have lower ridership levels, fewer service hours, and longer waits between trains than those in virtually every comparably wealthy European and Asian country. At the same time, a much greater percentage of US public transit costs are subsidized by public tax dollars….

Many people try to explain this paradox by pointing to US history and geography: Most of our cities and suburbs were built out after the 1950s, when the car became the dominant mode of transportation. Consequently, we have sprawling, auto-centric metropolises that just can’t be easily served by public transportation.

But there’s a problem with this explanation: Canada. This is also a sprawling country, largely built for the automobile. Canadian cities’ public transit systems, however, look very different.

“Canada just has more public transit,” says transit consultant Jarrett Walker. “Compare, say, Portland to Vancouver, or Salt Lake to Edmonton, or Des Moines to Winnipeg. Culturally and economically, they’re very similar cities, but in each case the Canadian city has two to five times as much transit service per capita, so there’s correspondingly more ridership per capita.”

What, then, accounts for the discrepancy?

Although history and geography are partly to blame, there’s a deeper reason why American public transportation is so terrible. European, Asian, and Canadian cities treat it as a vital public utility. Most American policymakers — and voters — see transit as a social welfare program.

It’s true. American politicians don’t see transit as a quality of life or economic development issue (both of which it certainly is) or even as a vital transportation function; they think of it as another government aid program to help poor people.

And the poor are “undeserving.” After all, according to Calvin, if they were deserving, God would have made sure they had cars.


  1. Size and make of personal vehicles has long been a status symbol in this country as well as the dominant mode of transportation; the advent of vans and SUVs added to this standard. As the U.S. moves closer and closer to a caste system due to gerrymandering, shrinking of the middle class, continuing low income levels and the religious based laws pervading many states and effecting entire groups of people, public transportation is becoming more necessary for many but is shrinking.

    Public transportation in all forms could and would ease pollution problems but is unpopular as there is less money to be made by this more reasonable mode of travel. The mass use of highways, roads and streets by personal vehicles adds to the crumbling infrastructure which continues to erode due to lack of interest in creating jobs to bring them up to standard.This problem is found at federal, state and local levels; the shutdown of I 65 locally is a prime example of allowing one area of a major interstate in one state to deteriorate to the point that it is effecting transport of goods from other states through Indiana. This not only slows delivery of goods but raises the cost and time frame of transporting them and the cost will be passed on to consumers. Viable public transportation could have lessened damage to these routes and been less costly and time consuming to repair while providing a service to residents from all levels of income. But; we must all wait until after the 2016 presidential election to consider rectifying this long-standing problem controlled by Congress and the 1% at federal and state levels.

  2. My parents grew up in Chicago (PRE-WWII) where the Street Cars / Bus & “L” were a part of life. They actually met while working on the Lake Street L Line. (Green line now). I grew up in WI and when dad took us for a ride on an L train, it was like going to the carnival. Fun but hard to imagine doing that instead of a car. Tried the bus ONCE while living in San Fran 40 years ago. Never got the hang of getting anywhere on it. So much is what one grew up with.

  3. I would add to JoAnn’s comments that our culture is among the first ever to have been largely created by advertising rather than populous reality. It’s not what’s good for the average us but what’s good for the exceptionally wealthy us in search of more power.

    To me it doesn’t seem that democracy and mass media advertising are compatible. We must choose.

  4. You nailed it once again. In the ’90s I coined the statement “Public transit is a public utility, not a social service.” in an effort to change some attitudes. It was not received by enough folks.

  5. Don’t forget, after WW2 The Big Three automakers put local transit out of business. Even until the early ’50s bus service from Irvington to near the Circle was frequent and cheap. Then autos ruled. So sad. U could read the Staron the way to work and the News on the way home!

  6. I believe it’s because the US is owned by the oil companies. We can’t have any stinking public transport because the oil companies might lose money on their sale of gas to Americans.

    Perfect example is how the price of gas skyrocked from 2.29 a gallon to 2.99 this past week. And the excuse was because a refinery had some broken parts or something.

  7. I find this exceptionally true here in central Florida where we have large minority populations in the Mega $ service industry with the poorest transportation systems I have ever seen in America, with no public interest in mass transit and no commitments to on street bike lanes that are safe and useful as a way to get safely to and from service work jobs, it’s needed baddley by the very people that the entire Florida economy is built on but remains unseen by residence or government alike.

  8. (Wayne Moss) …

    If you go back a littler further, The G.M. manufactured Buses put
    the Street Cars out of Business. Then the Big 3 auto makers, in
    conjunction with the UAW. Raised Blue collar workers hourly rate,
    so that all employees had means to purchase an automobile. Then
    around the early to mid 60’s they promoted the 2 Car Family theory.

    All Public Transport suffered as a result.

  9. A question is why the difference between here and Europe? They have auto manufacturers and advertising too. I’m wondering if it isn’t oil subsidies. We have kept the price of gasoline artificially low, they not. Thus the government here eliminated the market for mass transit by making autos more affordable. Perhaps not a bad strategy as long as it could be maintained but them days are gone forever. Now Europe is much better prepared than we are for the inevitable future of less energy to waste.

  10. Never thought I’d hear this… A 30 something couple – he’s an attorney, she’s a nurse – just bought our old house (which is in a very nice neighborhood (65th St between Allisonville and Keystone.) One of the reasons they bought it is because it is half a mile from a bus stop! That totally made my day!!! Now if only we had MANY neighborhoods like this because of excellent public transit…

  11. Essentially as you say most Americans and Politicians especially here in Indianapolis view Public Transit as a Social Welfare Program. The idea of Public Libraries and Public Parks as a Social Welfare Program has taken hold. This is in stark contrast to all the Corporate Welfare which our pathetic local press and elected officials continue to label as an Investment.

  12. Calvin, Jehan Cauvin: 10 July 1509 – 27 May 1564) was an influential French theologian , was a contemporary of those Roman Catholic and Christians, some being theologians, who founded schools, seminaries, missions…that we all study here in “Stats Unis” history, geography, law…etc. Why not living theologians, especially at the North-South-Border eastern seminaries where theologians practice what they preach! As a pagan Presbyterian sometimes, I recommend French journalism if it’s isms for current catechisms of DWAMT with catchy Americanism cues.

  13. Lee see if I get this straight. The politicians who take a dim view of welfare take a dim view of public transit, but if we had more public transit, we’d have less welfare because more folks could get to jobs. Correct?

  14. I have done some traveling in London and the south of London, plus a little in Vienna. Wherever you want to go in a fairly short wait in time, you can get there. Here our public transit system could turn to the European model. However, the plutocracy in our culture is unlikely to vote for it or pay for it. There is, I believe, some classism in this matter. It’s like those who often insist on having private schools for their children. Remember when we tried to integrate schools in the U.S.? It went well and is well in a lot of places. I don’t think those from gated communities responded well. I worked for a church in Atlanta when I was a college student. It had a big building program going on at the time as it was preparing for racial integration. I suppose Calvinism won out there.

  15. I lived in Minneapolis for 31 years. For 13 of them in a western suburb. I worked downtown. I was able to ride a neighborhood shuttle to the Park & Ride where we boarded Express buses into downtown. Then I lived in the city for 17 years and was able to pick up the bus to downtown just 4 blocks from my home. What a pleasure to spend time with my neighbors, reading, etc. and not have to hassle with the stress of traffic and impatient drivers. Later as the light rail was developed I could take it to the airport, Mall of America or downtown. What a joy!

    Minneapolis is a vibrant city with an excellent “quality of life” and livability factor. Investment in public transit is a big contributor to that ( as well as its’ commitment to parks and public spaces ). I wish Indiana and Indianapolis was as forward thinking.
    Since I moved back 5 years ago I’ve only been downtown 2x. Parking is problematic and I don’t want to drive in. There is no bus service to speak of from Lawrence to downtown. Sad.

  16. Somehow this ended up on the Real Clear Religion afternoon rundown. The editors of that list are usually spot on even when they are choosing religious articles from those who haunt the progressive church. But this article is such a ghastly mashup of ignorance, pomposity and blamecasting I’m not somewhat staggered. I took a look at some of the other more recent offerings and then was amazed that this one would qualify as comparatively sane and cogent. As a famous magazine once said, please nominate someone that espouses such ideas openly as if they are just how all good people think. Unfortunately it looks like the D’s are waking up to the disaster that just that person would be. Fortunately their main alternative is Bernie Sanders.

  17. For those of us who know what Calvinism is, we are dumbfounded by the ignorance of this article. I say this as a non-Calvinist.

  18. Next month, this know-nothing will be blaming John Calvin for the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

  19. Sorry…but your understanding of Calvinism is incorrect. Calvinists believe the elect are not chosen due to their righteousness; in fact, Calvinists believe that each person is equally sinful. Calvinists believe that God elects out of His grace for no reason other than His own desire.

    So, I guess what I am getting at is that your entire article is bologna.

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