Here in the philosophy department at Calvin College, I occupy an office that once belonged to Rich Mouw. That is a pretty good metaphor for my vocation as well: I have long looked to Rich as a model Christian philosopher—a scholar for the church, a public intellectual as comfortable in a camp meeting as he is in the academy. And though he is a champion of Neocalvinism—the school of thought associated with names like Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Herman Dooyeweerd—he does so as an ambassador to other Christian traditions, just as eager to learn from Pentecostals and Anabaptists and Roman Catholics. He is also the only scholar I know who can get theologians to sing at an academic conference.
In so many ways, Rich Mouw embodies what Comment magazine is all about: “public theology for the common good.” So I relished the opportunity to sit down with him after his retirement as President of Fuller Seminary, just as he takes up a new post as Distinguished Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller while serving as Visiting Distinguished Scholar at Pepperdine University during the 2013-2014 academic year. We discussed the history of evangelical political engagement, the need for a more robust ethics in the Reformed tradition, the work of the Spirit in China, and much more. I hope you’ll enjoy listening in.
James K.A. Smith: Rich, thanks so much for taking the time for this conversation. You are, in many ways, a patron saint of Comment Magazine and one of my heroes. It’s such an honour to have a few minutes to talk with you. Thanks a lot.
Richard Mouw: And I love Comment Magazine, so I’m honoured.
JS: I was thinking back when you were writing, back in the ’70s, about Christianity and politics and culture. At that time, would you have ever imagined something like the Religious Right was possible?
RM: No. I was raised in an evangelical world where we sang, “This world is not my home. I’m just a passin’ through.” Through my childhood, what we mainly heard was rhetoric like, “We don’t have rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic,” because we felt we were on a sinking ship.
JS: Sure. Because the rapture can happen any moment, so . . .
RM: That’s right. Yeah. There was obviously a kind of cultural pessimism and insensitivity to systemic issues. Yeah, they would say, maybe “coloured people” deserve to be treated better, but the best way to do it is to win people one by one. Now, we never applied that to evolution or things like that, like “Oh, they’re teaching evolution in the schools so we should go out and win each evolutionist one by one!” So there were certain things that they were sensitive to on a systemic level, but things like militarism and super-patriotism and racism and concern for the poor—those were not issues that anybody took very seriously.
So many of us, starting in 1974, gathered for the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern, which was a big deal. It was a wonderful occasion because some of us were the young Turks, like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider and some of the early biblical feminists like Nancy Hardesty and Letha Scanzoni. We were all there together, but also Carl Henry and Frank Gaebelein, whose father edited the Scofield Bible, and Vernon Grounds and Paul Rhees from World Vision.
We issued a statement and it was basically, “Get involved.” We’ve got to get involved. That was pretty much all that we felt like we had to say: that the Bible cares about social concerns. I wrote a book right around that time called Political Evangelism.
JS: You love that book.
RM: But it was all basically reasons why we ought to be involved.
JS: Was there an assumption that there was a favoured party for evangelical political involvement?
RM: Not really. I think that, in retrospect, some of us were, as the Schwartz book has pointed out recently, an early manifestation of a left-leaning evangelicalism—in those days, to be concerned about the poor, to be concerned about the war in Vietnam and things of that sort-but the presumption really was kind of an Eisenhower Republicanism and a little bit of a Nixon Republicanism, which was a kind of quietistic Republicanism: traditional values, stability in society, don’t shake up things too much. We weren’t really, in the ’60s, yet thinking a lot about racism in the evangelical world. But many of us had been through a university system and these were big issues for us. It was nice to have people like Carl Henry and others at least say, “It’s okay. This agenda is okay.”
Then, you get to ’79 and ’80 with Anita Bryant and a lot of it was stimulated by a desire to oppose the sexual revolution and the emerging visibility of homosexuality in the culture and the like. Suddenly, people who had been all of these years talking about themselves as a cognitive minority on the edges of culture waiting for Jesus to return, in 1980 declared themselves to be the Moral Majority. What the moral majority decided to do was to become activists, but it wasn’t the kind of activism that we had hoped for.
JS: Yes, but in a way, that was also getting involved in a way that also answered your ’74 call.
RM: Yes. Right. In many ways, in ’74, we hadn’t envisioned the possibility that some people might get involved in ways that we did not want them to get involved.
JS: Would you have already realized that there was a bit of a Frankenstein on the loose at that point? Do you see a causal connection between what you were pushing for in the early ’70s and the growth of that [later] movement?
RM: Yeah. I think so. I think we raised questions for Carl Henry and Frank Gaebelein, to say racism is a really bad thing and we’d better be concerned about legislation for justice. Today, you go to any Campus Crusade meeting, any InterVarsity meeting, you go to Moody Bible Institute and there is concern about racism. On some of the basic issues, I think, especially the struggle against racism, I think we have seen significant progress. And I think there’s a causal connection.
JS: Would you say that over the last generation, you’ve seen a growing kind of “Kuyperian” sensibility in evangelicalism or broadly?
RM: Yeah. I would put it a little differently. Let me go back to that 1974 meeting. In many ways, that’s the last time that particular group was able to say anything together. The reason why was that we were wanting to get involved, but there were very few resources within American evangelicalism that could provide a theological grounding for that.
JS: Indigenous resources, you mean.
RM: So one of the things that happened right around that time was that John Howard Yoder wrote this book, The Politics of Jesus. Somebody like Mark Hatfield, Republican senator from Oregon, took that book on a two-week retreat in the mountains of Oregon and read it and came back a convert to an Anabaptist perspective as a United States senator.
The one way in which he manifested that every year was that whenever the Senate voted on the military budget, he would stand up and he would make the same speech every year for about five years in a row. The speech was this, “The Bible says, ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.’ I vote against this whole budget.”
JS: [Laughter] And he was a Republican senator!
RM: He was a Republican, an antiwar Republican. What that raised was many people attracted to a Jesus who liked politics, an alternative kind of politics. We begin to see the emergence of an Anabaptist stance that was very attractive to evangelicals who had always been told they should be like Jesus. Now, all of a sudden, they wanted to be like the Jesus that John Howard Yoder was describing and that is non-violence and simple living and all the rest.
JS: Whereas Kuyperians and Neo-Calvinists were saying, “Be like Adam” . . .
RM: [Laughter] Yeah. That’s right. Then others look to Bonhoeffer and others look to the Franciscan tradition. Others follow the Berrigans and look to the Jesuits and even some of the Vatican magisterial documents on the social order and things of that sort.
Then there were those of us who said, “There’s yet another way, ” and that’s the way of Abraham Kuyper—that there’s not a square inch of the entire creation left which Jesus Christ does not cry out and said, “This is mine. It belongs to me.”
Then, we began a very exciting, not just dialogue, but a pluralogue of Lutheran, Franciscan, Anabaptist, Reformed. We even had some of the Scottish Covenanter tradition.
JS: So there was a wide coalition in a way?
RM: Yeah. It was out of that, really, that we began to retrieve traditions. For those of us in the Kuyperian movement, it meant that we felt an obligation, really, to do it again. It wasn’t enough to just say the kinds of things that some of us in Grand Rapids had been saying all along about a cultural mandate and about the kingdom, the kingship of Christ and the like. We had to ask, what is this sovereignty thing? Then Nick Wolterstorff and Jim Wallis got into a debate that was carried in the pages of The Post-American (which then became the Sojourners) and The Reformed Journal: “What does Grand Rapids have to say to Washington, DC?”
It was a fascinating discussion because Jim Wallis was Anabaptist. And the Jim Wallis who, today, calls meetings in the White House [laughter], was saying, “You Reformed people are cooperating with the system and Jesus calls us to be over or against this whole system proclaiming a way that is not possible in the minds of the establishment in Washington, DC.” But those were good debates with good arguments.
JS: If you fast forward, I always thought that Chuck Colson’s How Now Shall We Live was sort of an example of “Kuyper for evangelicals” becoming very mainstream. Obviously it also had a very different flavour than maybe even some of your earlier work or things like that.
RM: I can tell you a Colson story that I don’t think has ever been told publicly. Shortly after he was converted and began to be seen as an emerging leader in the evangelical world, Chuck came to Grand Rapids and gave a talk sponsored by the Amway people.
I didn’t go and I don’t think any of my friends went, but it was written up in the Grand Rapids Press and it was all civil religion. It was just God and country. It was really bad. A lot of us just looked at that and said, “There goes Chuck Colson, another one who is just pushing things in the direction of civil religion.”
About a month later, I got a call from Mike Cromartie who heads up the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s evangelical-type programs in Washington now, who was working for Chuck. He said, “Chuck Colson wants to meet with you and Paul Henry (who was teaching at Calvin at that time) and Steve Monsma.” He named the people. Also Marlin VanElderenand and Nick Wolterstorff. “You name a place and Chuck’s going to come to town. I’ll come with him. He just wants to meet behind closed doors, just talk to you confidentially.”
So we arranged this meeting at Steve Monsma’s house. And Chuck came in with Mike. We sat down and he said, “Fellows, I don’t know if you know about the speech that I gave about a month and a half ago in Grand Rapids. It was terrible. I really had no idea what I was talking about.” He said, “Some people showed me this thing that you guys write for called the Reformed Journal.” He said, “I’ve been reading that.” He said, “I really need to learn more about . . . Help me understand this Calvinistic perspective. That’s what I need.” That was conversation and . . .
JS: Fascinating. So that book [How Now Shall We Live?] was the fruit of what was a long process of being in dialogue with the Reformed tradition. I never realized that.
Click here to read the conclusion of our interview with Richard Mouw.