Forty years ago this winter, during my undergraduate studies, I discovered the great Dutch statesman and polymath, Abraham Kuyper (18371920), whose thought would have a huge impact on the subsequent course of my life. Although I had been raised a Christian and had understood that Jesus had died on the cross to save me from sin and death, I had never heard in quite the same way that redemption in Christ is cosmic in scope and extends to the entire creation. Although this insight is by no means foreign to the larger Christian tradition, the way Kuyper expressed it struck me at the time as especially inspiring: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” Kuyper famously delivered his Lectures on Calvinism at Princeton Seminary in 1898, and he would go on to serve as Prime Minister of the Netherlands between 1901 and 1905. In his own life, he exemplified the effort to live out the lordship of Christ in every area of endeavor, including politics.
Of course, politics in the real world is a matter of trying peacefully to conciliate diversity, as the late British political scientist, Sir Bernard Crick, aptly expressed it. It requires the tolerance of “different truths,” or, more accurately, different claims to the truth. How then can Christians, whose scriptures so frequently ring with the phrase, “thus says the Lord,” be expected to live with unbelievers who deny God’s sovereignty to begin with? How can we live out an all-encompassing commitment to God’s kingdom in such a diverse society and polity? Would not Kuyper and his followers be compelled to work for the establishment of some sort of theocracy? There are, after all, communities of Christians who would love to amend the U.S. Constitution to acknowledge, not just a generic deity, but the triune God in all his fullness and majesty.
But this was not Kuyper’s approach. During his political career, Kuyper worked, not to turn the Netherlands into a godly commonwealth, but more modestly to secure a place in the public square for his Reformed Christian (Gereformeerd) supporters in the face of the secularizing ideologies spawned by the French Revolution. He did so primarily by means of his Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP), which would come to govern the Netherlands at various times in coalition with the Christian Historical Union (CHU) and the Roman Catholic State Party (RKSP), thus anticipating by almost a century the ecumenical effort known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, spearheaded by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson.
In North America, Colson and his one-time collaborator Nancy Pearcey probably did more than anyone else to raise awareness of Kuyper’s legacy amongst evangelical Christians, and James Bratt’s magisterial biography of Kuyper promises to further disseminate knowledge of this pathbreaking Christian leader. Indeed it comes not a moment too soon. In many respects our North American polities are increasingly taking on the divided character of European countries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, albeit without (yet) a comparable level of political instability. From 1789 until 1958 France endured a succession of transient régimes amid a society torn between partisans and opponents of the Revolution. The 1905 law mandating an official secularism, or laïcité, ratified the victory of the republicans over their opponents, entrenching a worldview in which religious faith is rendered innocuous and safely restricted to the private realm.
In the Netherlands, by contrast, Kuyper and his associates tried something different. Yes, the same tensions besetting the French polity were present in the Netherlands, but they were successfully defused for half a century by, among other reforms, adopting proportional representation (PR) and instituting an equitable schools policy. PR insured that political parties would be represented according to their actual popular support, while the educational reforms guaranteed funding for all schools, even those with overt faith commitments.
Here in North America, a number of organizations have drawn on the Kuyperian legacy, inspired by the desire to be agents of God’s kingdom in public life, including the Center for Public Justice (CPJ), the Christian Labour Association of Canada, and the Canadian think tank Cardus. Their efforts have sometimes been labeled principled pluralism, which, according to CPJ’s website, means
that there should be constitutional recognition and protection of religious life in society. Principled pluralism means that government should give equal treatment to different communities of faith. Government should not have the authority to decide what constitutes true religion. Therefore, government should not try to establish one religion or to enforce secularism in public life. Most religious ways of life seek expression beyond the walls of a church. Most guide their adherents in the way they should live in society and not only in their worship and creedal confessions. Justice, therefore, requires equal treatment of religions in public as well as in private life.
Of course, a tolerance of divergent world views might lead one to conclude that all such perspectives are evenly matched in the public realm, peacefully and cooperatively contributing their respective strengths. This may be the ideal for some, but one cannot count on it working out that way, primarily because of the presence of various political ideologies which, as I’ve described in Political Visions and Illusions, tend to take on an idolatrous character and, like all idols, are unwilling to share power with others. Despite legitimate efforts of believers to reserve a place in the public square, the followers of the secularizing ideologies have historically found ways to thwart such efforts, while, paradoxically, accusing the believers of trying to launch a theocratic takeover.
To begin with, the popular media often refer to adherents of traditional revealed religions as “people of faith,” a term that initially seems respectful but, on closer look, can be seen to carry condescending overtones. People of faith are those benighted souls who persist in ordering their lives around the arbitrary precepts of an unverifiable divine being. Such people can be lived with, the commentators imply, as long as they keep their beliefs safely within the confines of their own communities and leave the public square to those of a more modern and scientific bent. Or, following Rousseau’s proposal, they should tone down their claims that God has revealed himself in specific ways and admit that everyone is feeling their way towards a generic divinity that makes as few demands as possible. Under such a worldview, the religious liberty guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is downgraded to a more manageable freedom of worship, with the secularizing elites implicitly claiming to preside impartially over the rival communities of the faithful.
Yet, as philosopher Roy Clouser has correctly observed, everyone has a belief in a divinity of some sort. We worship either the one true God or we worship something within the creation that we have put in place of God. The God-substitute may be reason, the scientific method, success in career, wealth, academic prestige or popular esteem. In short, everyone is a person of faith, including those who deny God’s reality or claim that, if there is a God, we cannot know him or his will. There is, in short, no religious neutrality.
Today the most prevalent idols contending for control of the public square are the twin gods of human rights and sexual autonomy. Taken together these add up to the highly contestable proposition that individuals should be able to live their lives as they will, free from social mores and external standards that would constrain them. Such standards are increasingly regarded as oppressive and thus in violation of human rights. Therefore any church community that would discipline its members for living contrary to a biblical walk is now thought to be endangering the liberty of such members. Michael Ignatieff expresses this sentiment well: “Human rights is the language through which individuals have created a defense of their autonomy against the oppression of religion, state, family, and group” (emphasis mine). If our political leaders come to accept Ignatieff’s narrowly individualistic view, then the traditional North American understanding of religious liberty cannot easily coexist with human rights conceived in so expansive a sense.
This brings us back to Kuyper’s principled pluralism, which can function only if the participants in the public square make a good-faith effort to refrain from making monopolistic claims to the whole. Will the followers of those twin gods be able and willing to make this effort? Recent developments are not particularly encouraging, as claims to individual autonomy are generally thought to trump the conscientious objections of Christians, Jews, and others who might recoil at, say, funding abortions or issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that the rhetoric of pluralism will itself lead to peaceful coexistence, but we would do well to follow Kuyper’s example and cooperate where we can with our opponents while being prepared to take unpopular stands when and where we must.
David Koyzis is the author of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College in Canada.