Abraham Kuyper (18371920) was one of the giants of his era, wearing any number of hats during his long life, as recounted in James Bratt’s definitive biography, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. Starting his career as a parish pastor, he would go on to found a university, a political party and a church denomination. He taught theology, served in the second chamber of the Dutch Parliament and later as prime minister, edited two periodicals, and spearheaded a movement to mobilize the orthodox Reformed Christians of his country to resist the onslaughts of the secularizing ideologies engendered by the French Revolution. And his movement was successful. For a time, that is.
Few would deny that the Netherlands today is a very different place from the country Kuyper served a century ago. As a young man I was shocked during a visit to Amsterdam to see the proliferation of “sex shops” and the brazenness of the city’s red light district. In the four decades since then the Netherlands has come to be known for its permissive attitude towards euthanasia, recreational drugs and, of course, sexual expression. What happened? And why did it happen so quickly, that is, within two generations of Kuyper’s death?
It shouldn’t have been that way. The Reformed Christian communities that Kuyper led boasted some genuine heroes during the German occupation between 1940 and 1945. I have worked with Dutch-Canadians for nearly thirty years, and they have told stories of how the Christian churches and schools defied the demands of the Nazi occupation authorities and contributed to the resistance movement. In fact, the family of one of my closest friends risked their lives to hide a Jewish family during the war, and this story was by no means unusual. Many paid with their lives for their wholehearted commitment to God’s kingdom. Yet all of this faded surprisingly quickly in the post-war period. By the end of the 1960s, the secularizing forces that Kuyper sought to stop in their tracks had completed their work. Today many members of the Christian Reformed Church here in Canada have relatives in the old country who no longer attend church and are little different in their lives and commitments from their unbelieving neighbors.
Explanations for this tragedy are not easily come by. The mystery of unbelief has puzzled theologians and laypeople for centuries. Why do some people believe and not others? Why do so many Christians, after spending their early lives in the Church receiving proper teaching, leave their childhood faith behind? Obviously only God can see into the heart. It is perhaps small comfort to observe that the Netherlands was part of a much larger trend that saw secularization sweep away the remaining vestiges of belief throughout western Europe and the Canadian province of Québec. As late as 1957 Michael Fogarty discerned the presence of a swath of territory of high religious observance extending from the Low Countries to the Venetian coast of Italy. But the following decade saw this European “bible belt” disappear as an unprecedented wave of prosperity would combine with the spiritual exhaustion that had set in after two world wars to produce a nihilistic consumerism largely indifferent, if not altogether hostile, to the traditional faiths. If fewer Dutch people attend church, the same can be said of their French, German, Swiss and Italian counterparts. Similarly, if the French political system finally achieved stability after 1958, it may be due less to a better legislative-executive balance in de Gaulle’s constitution than to a secularizing laïcité finally defeating the traditionalist subculture with which it had been locked in battle for nearly two centuries.
However, something else may have derailed the Kuyperian enterprise: his followers may have underemphasized evangelistic outreach. Here in North America, the Christian Reformed Church has lost members since 1992, and Kuyper’s Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland) ceased to exist a decade ago when it merged with the Netherlands Reformed Church (Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk) to form the generic-sounding Protestant Church (Protestantse Kerk in Nederland). There are lessons here for evangelicals and Catholics aspiring to secure a place in the public square.
During the 1960s and ’70s a number of political scientists, including Arend Lijphart and Hans Daalder, turned their professional attentions to a phenomenon they called consociationalism. In a consociational polity the leaders of mutually hostile subcultures have learned to collaborate for proximate political purposes, even as their respective constituents remain fairly isolated from the others. Power-sharing occurs at the elite level, while at the grassroots each subculture has its own churches (if applicable), labor unions, hospitals, charitable organizations, fraternal associations and so forth. This social segmentation is often referred to by the Dutch word verzuiling, or pillarization. Kuyper’s efforts led to the establishment of a variety of explicitly Christian organizations parallel to their secular counterparts. (The painter Piet Mondrian grew up in this Gereformeerd subculture.)
As Kuyper’s heirs immigrated to North America, they brought over his penchant for establishing and maintaining Christian institutions of all sorts, including a network of Christian day schools, a Christian trade union, more than one political organization, and a network of institutions of higher education. I myself have long been committed to these efforts and have taught at one of these affiliated universities.
Nevertheless, I have found myself wondering whether Kuyper’s perhaps too peaceful coexistence with the forces of secularization in 1917 might not have been sufficient to maintain the subculture he led over the long term. Kuyper certainly wouldn’t have been pleased by his followers’ failure to evangelize, and pillarization needn’t lead to a lack of outward strategy, but historically such power-sharing agreements place a premium on reaching a least-common-denominator form of consensus and toning down differences. In a pillarized society, the distinct subcultures became adept at erecting and maintaining barriers against the other subcultures, yet the consociational arrangements they come up with have tended to be short-lived. Lebanon’s National Pact lasted from 1943 until civil war broke out in 1975. A similar arrangement in newly independent Cyprus lasted only three years. The classic era of Dutch verzuiling endured from 1917 to around 1966, when the divisions among the subcultures began to break down.
A religious community focused only on its own survival in a hostile environment may already have lost the battle, and this is where the efforts of Kuyper’s followers perhaps fell short. If we genuinely believe that the redemptive story contained in the Bible is not just our story but the world’s story, then we have reason, not to keep it to ourselves, but to proclaim that news with urgency and enthusiasm and to live accordingly. A political ceasefire may serve the proximate good of intercommunal peace, but it can never be a substitute for the biblical command to preach the Gospel to the world, whose salvation ultimately depends on it. Different confessional groups may agree to disagree for the present, but the followers of Jesus Christ must manifest a confidence that the truth that sets us free is everyone’s truth, and not just a subjective truth peculiar to our own community. We should, in short, not be content to turn inward defensively but ought always to reach out to the larger world. If we lose confidence in the transforming power of the Gospel, we run the risk of losing ground in a conflict we may forget is still being waged, even under formal conditions of a political ceasefire.
While their European counterparts are fading, the rapidly growing churches of Africa appear to understand this. What, then, would the twenty-first century look like if we were to bring together the Kuyperian cultural agenda, with its emphasis on institution-building for the kingdom, with the evangelical dynamism of Africa’s churches? Inspired by this vision, the Christian community could never afford to rest content with a mere ceasefire but would strive, one hopes, to live out its faith that God’s truth is indeed the world’s truth.