In the season 3 premiere of Billions, Chuck Rhoades, played by Paul Giamatti, coerces Oliver Dake, played by Christopher Denham, into doing an unethical favor for him. Given the prestige drama's overarching themes of corruption and manipulation, this is not a surprising development. The leverage that Rhoades uses to get what he wants from Dake, however, is rather unusual.
"I happen to know you are a Calvinist," Rhoades says. "You believe we're all fallen beyond any hope for redemption, so answer me this: What's one more demerit?"
Dake tells Rhoades that his take on his religion isn't exactly right and very well may be offensive; nevertheless, that is loosely what he believes as a Calvinist, he says.
It turns out, Rhoades is right to some extent, but there's a bigger issue with how the show frames Calvinism.
Calvinism, named for the Protestant theologian John Calvin, is a centuries-old Christian school of thought. It has a unique and complex set of principles, which, over time, has influenced the Puritans, Presbyterians, and early Baptists. The belief Calvinism is best known for is the one that Rhoades alludes to in that scene: All people are marked by sin when they're born and their moral fate (whether they'll end up in Heaven or Hell) is predetermined and set in stone.
Known together as the belief in double predestination, these doctrines have made Calvinism pretty polarizing (in a 2012 LifeWay survey, about 60% of Southern Baptist pastors expressed some concerns around the impact of Calvinist thought). But, the belief in predestination is usually oversimplified and overemphasized among Calvinism's critics, says William Schweiker, PhD, professor of theological ethics at the University of Chicago.
"Calvinism is oftentimes and, unfortunately, wrongly identified almost exclusively with the notion of predestination," Dr. Schweiker says. Those who still strictly adhere to all of Calvinism's teachings may still hold that belief, but, according to Dr. Schweiker, "most Calvinists since have backed off on that."
So, to go back to the scene in Billions, Rhoades was technically right, but he was mistaken to assume that double predestination is all there is to Calvinism — or, for that matter, that Dake, as a person living in the 21st century, would still believe in it.
Beyond the nitty-gritty details of Calvinism's belief system, something else is off about this scene. Turns out, it's unlikely that Dake would explicitly consider himself a Calvinist. Dr. Schweiker says it's far more common for someone to say that they belong to a denomination of Christianity that has roots in Calvinism. "You would say you’re a Presbyterian or you’re part of the Reformed Church in America," he explains, adding that Calvinism is more a type of Christian thought than a denomination or religious identity.
Okay, that's still a pretty specific bone to pick, but it's an important distinction within religious communities — one that's clearly missing in how the show paints Calvinism. Leave it to Billions, a show set in the tangled world of financial intrigue, to reference a religious movement that's just as complicated.