Encounters with Kuyper
Allow me to situate my reflections by first briefly recounting my exposure to Kuyper—one personal, one scholarly—both of which will contextualize the comments in this essay.
As an undergraduate at Calvin College in the late 1980s, I was introduced to “antithesis” Kuyperianism (as opposed to “positive, common grace” Kuyperianism) that still had its segment of followers at Calvin. During this time in my life, I was drawn to conversations that exposed the errors of dualism, that reiterated the speciousness of secular modernism, and that expressed the strength of the Reformed worldview compared to, for example, pietistic evangelical worldviews, secular humanism, neo-Marxism, and so on and so forth. My friends and I were a brash, polemical, and sometimes arrogant group of students, and I got into some trouble because of it. Needless to say, I proudly called myself a Kuyperian.
Now my scholarly exposure to Kuyper: I am a comparative political scientist who has spent close to twenty years studying religion and politics in southern Africa. I got my start in that area examining the South African Dutch Reformed Church’s role in legitimizing apartheid. In that context, it’s almost impossible to be triumphalistic regarding Kuyperianism. For as Jim Bratt points out in his biography—and as I make reference to in my book, State, Civil Society and Apartheid in South Africa—a prominent faction in the DRC used Kuyper’s notions of sphere sovereignty, ontological pluralism, and multiform diversity to legitimize the theology of apartheid. My study of Kuyper’s influence in South Africa definitely tempered my enthusiastic embrace of Kuyperian thought.
So in the course of my career, I’ve gone through the highs and the lows of interacting with Kuyper. I don’t think I’m the only scholar who has experienced this, but I can thank Jim Bratt for bringing me back to a more balanced perspective on Kuyper. His biography aids that process and more. The accolades by prominent scholars that you’ll find at the back of the book are all much deserved. The book is erudite, thorough, and best of all, it offers a fair assessment of Kuyper’s life and legacy. This is no hagiography. It’s Kuyper, in Bratt’s words, “warts and all!”
What I’d like to do is situate Kuyper’s political and social legacy. Kuyper’s contributions to the Reformed tradition are many and varied—there’s the educational arena, church polity, theology, economics—but I’m going to leave most of those aside and comment on Kuyper from within the two arenas in which I wear an academic hat, namely, the fields of political science and international development.
More specifically, I’m addressing the question “are Abraham Kuyper’s contributions in the political arena still relevant today?” Although they may continue to excite Reformed political theorists, are they able to resonate with non-Calvinists, women, young people, and non-Europeans? What about Kuyper’s contributions to a newer field, namely, international development? Can Kuyper add to our understanding of globalization, poverty, and ethnic relations?
My short answer to these questions is “yes.” I believe that Kuyper’s prodigious body of work still contains valuable lessons and ideas that are relevant in the 21st century for many groups of people, and not just Kuyperians. There are, of course, Kuyperian ideas and beliefs whose time has come and gone and that need to be let go. I’ll provide specific examples along the way, on both sides, but it seems to me political theorists (and others) will continue to wrestle with the significance of Kuyper’s writing because he provides an excellent example of an orthodox yet contemporary Reformed approach to life that we can build on (or discard) today.
Kuyper and Politics
Let me begin with Kuyper’s political contributions. In Mark Noll’s words, we know that “Kuyper believed that the creation in its fullest extent was a gift of God beyond imagining and that Christ’s redemption extended to the uttermost reaches of that creation.” This, then, included the political realm. Bratt’s biography whets our appetite regarding Kuyper’s philosophical, theological, and practical contributions to politics. On the philosophical and theological side, we get introduced to, for example, Kuyper’s enunciation of sphere sovereignty, his view of the state and its role in politics, and his promotion of a political culture that sought to encourage everyone, especially Christians, to engage in politics.
Some might argue that Kuyper’s philosophical and theological contributions to our understanding of politics are esoteric or outdated. Some of them are questionable (for example, his borrowing liberally from organicist philosophy to undergird sphere sovereignty), but much of his work extends a Reformed understanding of politics that, to my mind, contributes positively to discussions about the role of politics in society.
Retrieving Calvin’s emphasis, Kuyper stands in the tradition of placing attention on creation and God’s sovereignty. A Reformed understanding of politics—as opposed to Anabaptist, Lutheran or secular perspectives—has traditionally recognized God’s sovereignty in the political realm and suggests that our political activities ought to mirror and glorify God as they rectify God’s creational purposes (in that arena). Kuyper’s brilliant political organizing and national public positions put teeth on these ideas. He often encouraged the average Dutch citizen to be engaged in politics year round, not just on election day. He even argued politics could be viewed as an “elevated pursuit.” We don’t hear that sentiment anymore.
Serious, sustained conversations about the importance of cultural, and especially political, engagement are still needed today. Evangelicalism has come a long way in the last twenty years, moving beyond the single-issue, instrumentalist view of political involvement that was prevalent a few years ago. And maybe the “square inch” quote has lost its “revolutionary appeal.” Still, it’s an uphill battle for Christians to see that political institutions might be touched by God’s grace or that political life is part of our humanity that God is redeeming through Christ.
A few years ago, I was teaching an upper-level international development course at Calvin. The vast majority of students in this particular class had a distaste for politics, particularly macro-level institutions such as the US government, the European Union, the World Bank, or the International Monetary Fund. In their eyes, the latter were hegemonic, inherently unjust, and economically imperialist. Maybe, maybe political activity could be pursued at the local, grassroots level, but certainly anything beyond that was a waste of time.
On the one hand, the conundrum my class was facing was a good one. My students weren’t writing off all political engagement, just macro-level political activity. And they were pointing to a serious flaw within modern institutions, namely that the free market hegemony found within contemporary political institutions often benefits the economically privileged. It’s precisely here, in the thick of conversations like this, that Kuyper, and others in his tradition, can revitalize a Reformed understanding about the role that politics, in all its complexity, at all its levels, can play in our society. If it’s true that the power of unregulated markets often dictates the actions of powerful political actors, a blurring of two spheres if you will, what is a wise response on the part of Christians—to dismiss macro political institutions as unredeemable, or to look for opportunities of reform or at least opportunities to diminish the power of markets? Can’t the power of unbridled capitalism and/or hegemonic interests find its way into local, political arenas as well—and if so, what does a discerning Christian response look like in such situations? These are just a few of the questions that can be explored given Kuyper’s political theorizing.
I’d like to highlight two other contributions that Kuyper makes to our understanding of politics that have had more of a practical impact, although given who Kuyper was, they also had deep theological and philosophical foundations.
The first is Kuyper’s understanding of church-state relations and the role that religion plays in public life. This is probably the best merging of Kuyper’s structural and confessional pluralism, and like Bratt, I would argue that there’s still a lot of relevant take-aways for our modern world regarding “confessionally-based public policy.”
One of my favourite sections of Bratt’s biography is where Kuyper gives a “political education” to Dutch parliamentarians after becoming Prime Minister of the Netherlands in 1901. Clearly the secular-oriented parliamentarians were scared of Kuyper’s religiously-defined coalition running a modern state, led by a polemical, demanding Calvinist no less. So during one of the parliament’s question hours, Kuyper succinctly described again how his coalition’s policies wouldn’t harm the country, only strengthen it. Separation of church and state? Of course, Kuyper would uphold this; he was a structural pluralist. Would the latter mean the elimination of religion from politics? Of course not. Eliminating religion from public life would entail discrimination against religious worldviews. Why, the train of thinking went, should socialism or liberalism be allowed in the public sphere and not Calvinism or Catholicism? Nor, Kuyper argued, would allowing religiously-based worldviews to gain traction in the public sphere lead to a privileging of religious worldviews or a theocracy. The coalition’s commitment to constitutional democracy, and the exceptionally diverse commitments within each religious tradition regarding views of civil policy, would prevent that from ever happening. The Netherlands, Kuyper argued, would be in a better place in the end if it allowed all worldviews, not just the secular ones, to flourish in public life.
Kuyper’s ideas about religious pluralism were, in many ways, ahead of their time. We continue to wrestle with the appropriate response regarding religion in public life today. Resistance to the idea of religious pluralism comes from the same two sides that existed during Kuyper’s time: secularists, for lack of a better word, who are very suspicious of religion (witness Quebec’s recent call to ban government workers from wearing “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols) and traditionalists who would privilege a certain kind of religious belief in public life (witness a US Congressional delegation’s recent visit to Egypt which praised the military’s takeover because it removed the threat of “the bloodthirsty Muslim brothers”). There’s still a lot of work to be done regarding the need to respect religious pluralism in the public sphere! Kuyper was there first.
Kuyper’s ideas about appropriate church-state relations and the need to respect different confessional communities apply most easily to Western style constitutional democracies among fairly homogenous societies. They can apply to non-Western contexts as well, but things get murky quickly. What if the country has a hybrid regime that places strict limits on religious association (think Egypt today or under Mubarak)? Does religious pluralism promote the recognition of all confessional communities, even Boko Haram in Nigeria? Should confessional community be broadened to refer to more than religious pluralism, for example, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender? What if the confessional commitments of different religions or confessional communities violate the state’s constitution or the beliefs of other religious/confessional communities?
The final political contribution I’d like to mention is Kuyper’s work in building the foundations of Christian democracy. Christian democracy, far from being an oxymoron, offers a legitimate third way politically for many, and Kuyper can be regarded as one of its founding fathers.
The Anti-Revolutionary Party, which eventually merged with other parties to form the Christian Democratic Appeal Party, was founded on Christian principles, rather than materialist ones. It promoted policies that were both left (e.g. promotion of social welfare) and right (rejection of socialism). It operated autonomously from ecclesiastical organizations and was willing to form coalitions with like-minded parties, more often Catholic and other Protestant parties. This simultaneous commitment to principle and compromise is a difficult terrain to walk, but I think Kuyper, as a politician, not necessarily as a person, walked it admirably, and our political leadership around the world could learn from this.
In sum, Abraham Kuyper still offers plenty of insight regarding the political arena particularly for people who identify as Reformed, evangelical Christians. Some of Kuyper’s political ideas strike me as sketchy—for example, his over-reliance on the antithesis or the pluralistic epistemology of sphere sovereignty—but it appears as though Reformed thinkers and even Kuyperian scholars are less willing to take these ideas at face value anymore. And that’s probably a good thing. I look forward to more critiques of these Kuyperian ideas from scholars within the Reformed tradition.
Kuyper and the Global South
Finally, I’d like to address Kuyper’s work from the perspective of the other academic hat I wear, namely, international development in the Global South. Kuyper lived in a socio-economic environment that mirrors the environment of many peoples in the Global South today: there were unsettling changes related to industrialization and modernization, trends of economic stagnation followed by an economic rebound and then stagnation again, explosions in population numbers, and the growing weight of economic liberalization.
Many of Kuyper’s perspectives on globalization and labour still resonate in the Global South today. Kuyper was not a fan of unbridled capitalism. He argued it threatened both the material and spiritual well-being of humanity. It replaced “Christian compassion” with individual selfishness and the need for material possessions. Kuyper also denounced the commodification of labour, the idolization of the free market, and covetous consumerism. Although Kuyper found little to celebrate in laissez-faire capitalism, he was equally critical of socialist alternatives. In the latter, the state reigned supreme over other societal spheres, the strong were still allowed to overpower the weak, and, of course, like the liberals, socialists failed to acknowledge that economic foundations lay under God’s sovereignty.
Kuyper was also an advocate of labour and supported policies like strengthened labour codes, collective organization, and strengthened voting rights for workers. On these and similar issues, Kuyper’s work can be read alongside other religious leaders and developmental theorists, past and present, like Pope Leo XIII or Jagdish Bhagwati, who comment on globalization as well as its impact on the working class.
On two social issues, Kuyper falls short, or rather, he’s off the map. Those areas? Race and gender. Bratt’s biography does an excellent job contextualizing Kuyper as a “man of his times” on these issues. His views on race were based on contemporary European race theory, not Scripture. For as much potential as there may be in Kuyper’s work to expound upon the “tenderness of consciousness” regarding issues of race and structural injustice, Kuyper is sadly known for his affiliation with apartheid based on a) the negative racial undertones in his work, and b) his stress on creational ontology, both of which were ripe for the picking by Afrikaner nationalists in their legitimizing of apartheid both biblically and theologically. This too is Kuyper’s legacy.
I did not know before reading Bratt’s biography that Groen Van Prinsterer, Kuyper’s esteemed mentor, was a leader in the Dutch anti-slavery movement. How I wish Kuyper were known more for his progressive leadership on matters of structural violence related to race, rather than being “a man of his times.”
And the same could be said regarding his views on gender and feminism. On the one hand, there’s a hint of complexity regarding his views on gender. In his assessment of Islam during his Mediterranean trip in 1905-06, he lamented the lack of educational opportunities among Muslim communities and was critical of educational discrimination and policies like polygamy that hurt women. On the other hand, during the debates about extending voting rights to women in the Netherlands in 1913, he argued that a women’s role was maternal and thus needed to be confined to the private realm. And, during this period of time, he offered many spurious attacks on feminism, very few of them based on an accurate Scriptural accounting. This deserves much more reflection.
In conclusion, Kuyper’s contributions to understanding the complexity of gender and racial dynamics in a world of structural injustice are sorely lacking. His views on political engagement, his appreciation for religious pluralism, and his commentary on globalization, though, I would argue, are still prescient. Isn’t this where we want to be, dismissing Kuyper’s ideas where necessary, but building on his ideas that still resonate today?