A Kuyperian Reflects on Father Abraham and the ‘Religious Right’

An enthusiastic “thank you” to the editors of Perspectives for Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell’s and Nicholas Wolterstorff ‘s helpful reflections on Kuyperian neo-Calvinism in North America (February 2008). I was awake for the “friendly nudge” and appreciate it; the issues raised need additional public airing, and this reply is intended as a friendly response to further the conversation. Whether I am lodging the vigorous “Nein” that Wolterstorff called for remains to be seen since on several substantive issues I am in full agreement with both writers. However, I do have some dissenting queries. Like Mathonnet-VanderWell, I will paint with a broad brush that is less precise but also softer and gentler. My goal is to extend a dialogue so admirably begun by both men.

Like Nicholas Wolterstorff, I am a committed, card-carrying Kuyperian, a willing foot soldier and sometime second-tier officer in the neo-Calvinist army. I share some of the important reservations raised by both writers and would even add a few more of my own. At the same time, I cannot help noting some remarkable ironies in the critique, especially as it relates to the so-called “Religious Right.” The agreement concerns the tendency among too many Kuyperians toward triumphalism in the programmatic task to “transform” the world and, simultaneously, to downplay the importance of the only truly transforming power in the world, the Church in its proclamation, its sacraments, its worship, its discipling. There is indeed more than a whiff of Constantinianism in the rhetoric of kingdom transformation along with a naive, at times even utopian, expectation of possibilities this side of the consummation. Curbing this tendency is crucial for faithful Christian public witness as is a need to repent from devaluing the church to one of the lesser rooms in the house of creation.

At the same time it is hard not to wonder if there are perhaps some suggestive ironies in Mahonnet-VanderWell’s basic critique, ironies that touch the heart of my dissent. A fter all, his real and deep disaffection is not so much with North American neo-Calvinism as it is with the Religious Right and the appropriation of Abraham Kuyper by contemporary evangelicals. Why?   Suppose one instead considers “progressive, center-left” political activism to be ideologically restricted and counter-productive to shalom?   Because evangelicals failed to exercise their new-found political muscle for “progressive, center-left” political causes and instead rallied behind “nationalism and mammon.” Here we have the real reason for Mahonnet-VanderWell’s “be careful what you ask for” probing of neo-Calvinists such as Wolterstorff and the early editors of The Reformed Journal. They are probably asking, he suggests, “Should we have awakened the sleeping giant?” I believe it is this presupposition and framework that needs careful and calm questioning; it is also the source of the ironies I mentioned earlier.

Mahonnet-VanderWell presents this as self-evident: the progressive, center-left political perspective is the correct one; it is what right-thinking Christians all affirm. The Religious Right is captive to the ideology of “mammon and nationalism.” But suppose one does not share that view and instead considers “progressive, center-left” political activism to be ideologically restricted and counter-productive to shalom? Is it not better to avoid generalizations and dismissals of this sort and engage substantive issues on their own merit?

The question that needs to be pursued with respect to the potential inf luence of neo-Calvinism is whether the progressive, center-left political posture is so self-evidently the one thoughtful Reformed and evangelical Christians ought to pursue. We need to consider this from two sides (paraphrasing Jim Wallis): “What does the Religious Right get right?” and “What does the Christian left get wrong?”

My own view of the Religious Right is that it has done far more good than ill for our civic life in America. Yes, some of its leaders have not handled the heady rush of Oval Office access very well (no less true for progressive, center-left leaders in the Clinton era); some have made very foolish public pronouncements; some ballot initiatives were supported with less than helpful rhetoric; at times American interest is confused with the interests of the kingdom of God; the Religious Right has not surmounted the unfortunate general American malady of geographical ignorance and has all too often been unaware of the rest of the world. All this and more is true. Nonetheless, let’s be fair about key issues.

First, the issue of life. How can we not be grateful for the tireless and consistent defense of the unborn, the terminally ill, and the elderly that has been a hallmark of the Religious Right? Does not the attitude of some of us academic, professional types in our Christian communities rest in a kind of snobbery of “sophisticates” that needs to stop? Are not the defenders of life today similar to the despised abolitionists of the nineteenth century? How can we who confess Christ so easily accommodate ourselves to the culture of death in the name of siding with “progressive” politics? When judges prohibit parents from providing water and nourishment to a severely injured child, I too become fervently “pro-life.”

Second, marriage and family. I suspect that this is one area where my own position might be most at odds with progressive, center-left Christians. I consider the marriage ballot initiatives that have passed in a dozen or so states in recent years to have been a sad but necessary thing. The reason is not because of hostility to gay people but because of judicial activism that attacked the foundation of marriage and family.   My own view of the Religious Right is that it has done far more good than ill for our civic life in America.  One need not agree with Focus on the Family or the Family Research Council on every issue to grant that marriage is about a man and a woman, for the protection and well-being of children. Even the best social-science research today grants as much. As with the Religious Right more broadly, activism on this issue was a response to attacks on what had traditionally been taken for granted. When we criticize the Religious Right for its positions on marriage and family we owe it to the truth to disaggregate the issues. For its principled and persistent resistance to certain forms of judicially based social engineering and returning “power to the people,” we who love democracy ought to express our thanks to the Religious Right. I know I do.

Third, poverty and welfare. Here too I wonder if much of the criticism that the Religious Right receives from the Christian progressive, center-left isn’t simply a matter of ideology. The Religious Right’s resistance to statist solutions (raise taxes, redistribute) is too often described as “greed” and “selfishness.” Is that really fair? Don’t we all know about the soul-destroying character of welfare dependency? Don’t we know about the massive failures of statist solutions to economic disparity (i.e. socialism)? And, on the constructive side, are we sufficiently appreciative of the efforts that are being done on behalf of the poor in local communities by countless volunteer and church groups in America?

Fourth, education. Except for abortion, no other issue so galvanized American evangelicals in the 1970s as their concern about public education, notably the removal of prayer from the schools and sex education that purported to be value-free but in fact promoted sexual activity without insisting on normative (i.e. marriage) relationships as the proper locus for (hetero)sexual activity. One need not be in full accord with every element of pa
rental concern here to acknowledge that the education of our children should not be overtly hostile to parental beliefs. The home-schooling movement has been a remarkable success, and even if we have reservations about home schooling (as I certainly do) we ought to applaud parents who sacrifice for their children’s education out of deep Christian commitment to their children’s souls. The neo-Calvinist in me is also mindful of the role that home-schooling parents play in resisting the tyranny of statist educationists; such quiet and lawful resistance is one of the cornerstones of our liberty. Efforts such as those in California to make home schooling illegal ought to concern us profoundly.

Fifth: racial reconciliation. This may surprise some readers. Yet, when I consider Promise Keepers, for example, I am struck by how truly integrated it was in terms of race. Is it not obvious that unity in the gospel and a high commitment to fidelity in marriage and sexual purity is precisely the way in which the church achieves racial reconciliation that is profoundly important for our society? And also, though the recent Civil Rights Initiatives did not find their genesis in the Religious Right, it seems to me indisputable that its support helped their passage in state after state. It is at least a legitimate question which approach to civil rights is more true to Martin Luther K ing, Jr.’s, vision of a color-blind society.

Now to the more awkward question, “What does the Christian left not get?” Four things it seems to me: America’s role in the world, the state, the economy and the church.

First, America’s role in the world. Since the late 1960s the progressive, center-left seems to have turned on America and adopted a highly critical, at times even hostile, attitude toward the United States. Often couched in the language of “prophecy,” critics such as William Stringfellow and Jim Wallis began using the language of idolatr y and “Babylon” to refer to their own nation. From the Vietnam War on, the criticism of America, both domestically and abroad, has been reflexive and unrelenting. While it is not hard to document this as a general thesis, let me concentrate on the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of 9/11.

Most Americans reacted with horror, unbelief, and anger to the attacks. Like a man whose wife and children have been slaughtered, they emerged from their initial shock with an affirmation of their love for their country, pain in the hurt inflicted, and a strong desire to see justice done and the perpetrators punished. But not all Americans. What I recall from those terrible days was the very vocal efforts of the religious progressive, center-left in our midst to “understand” the attackers and to ask, “Why do they hate us?” In a perverse posture of “blame the victim,” some on the extreme fringe of the left, including clergy, even articulated the belief that America had somehow “deserved” this; after all, America’s track record in the Middle East was so awful, America was racist, militaristic, and consumerist, and so on–the usual litany of leftist critique. Then to add insult to injury, the same people began to worry more about what they saw as idolatrous American patriotism than expressing concern about international jihadism.

I did not understand this then and I do not today. I not only love America and consider it an enormous privilege (having been a citizen of two other countries) to be an America citizen; I believe that our nation is an incredible wonder, a gift of divine providence to humanity. I am fully aware of America’s sins; I am not ignorant of the genocidal treatment of native populations or of the terrible reality and legacy of slavery and racism. At the same time, I also believe that critics of America insufficiently appreciate what an achievement our more than 200-year-old experiment in constitutionally ordered liberty actually is. No nation in human history of comparable size, wealth, and power has been able to welcome to its shores and assimilate so many diverse peoples and religions in peace. No nation in history has used the equivalent of its military might so benignly, rebuilding its sworn enemies (such as Germany and Japan) after militarily defeating them. No nation of this global weight has refused the mantle of political empire as America has. Without denying any of America’s blunders and moral missteps, I do believe that all things considered, the American experiment in ordered liberty has been a significant blessing in the world.

When I had the privilege a decade or so ago of spending a number of years probing Abraham Kuyper’s own attitudes toward the United States of America, I began to realize that this was precisely the place where I no longer shared the views of many of my fellow Kuyperian neo-Calvinists or the progressive, center-left.   I not only love America and consider it an enormous privilege (having been a citizen of two other countries) to be an America citizen; I believe that our nation is an incredible wonder, a gift of divine providence to humanity.   I don’t think they share my enthusiasm for our country’s reality. Most North American neo-Calvinists find in the American founding major elements of non-reformational thought borrowed from the Enlightenment, John Locke, the Deists and other less-than-biblical, less-than-pure thinkers. When faced with the conflict between democratic, free-market capitalism and socialism, or seeing the two sides in the current culture wars, they then adopt a “plague on both your houses” attitude and seek out a “third way.” And here is the irony: this is similar to the posture of progressive, center-left Christians such as Sojourners and its Call to Renewal, which purports to be a “third way” between conservative and liberal, the Religious Right and the Religious Left. Leave aside here the obvious (Call to Renewal is cleverly posing as an alternative to itself ); what neo-Calvinists and progressive, center-left positions have in common is their unreality.

By “unreality” I mean that both are triumphalist and perfectionist in their search for a polity that is not yet and, in Augustinian terms, cannot be achieved this side of the consummation. Whereas I believe that America (warts and all) is rather amazing in terms of the polity and comity she has achieved, the posture I just described is one in which the bar for a good society is set so high as can never be reached, and its proponents will forever be frustrated and, sadly, even angry in their futility. Of such, the words of Voltaire are true: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Second, I don’t think the left gets the state right. Kuyper’s concern in his doctrine of sphere sovereignty was for a diminution of power accumulation in both the church and the state. To that end he advocated devolving power down from the national Dutch government to local levels. His major fear was the tendency in the Europe of the nineteenth century to apotheosize the state and to grant it increasing power, in order ostensibly to do good. His vision, inspired by the American model, especially as described by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, was for voluntary associations of Christians to address the great social needs of the day. The progressive, center-left’s appropriation of Kuyper in the cause of “dealing” with poverty is mistaken if it finds statist solutions as the proper cure. Kuyper did not.

Third, the economy: the left is characteristically and quite unprofitably preoccupied with the sins of free-market economies. Many neo-Calvinists, too, keep looking for “third ways” beyond capitalism and socialism. Once again, here too the perfect (and utopian ideal) is the enemy of the good. Once again, here too ironies abound. The progressive, center-left seems to me to generally be opposed to globalization of a market economy because it is destructive of local economies. Yet, would not the oft repeated desire that the earth’s
poor be delivered from their misery lead one to be glad for outsourcing, for the people in Juaréz, Mexico or Manila or Malaysia or India who have benefitted enormously from globalization?

It intrigues me that the new “emergent” church leaders and thinkers are increasingly drawn to “network theory” that describes and tries to understand spontaneous, self-organizing, multi-dimensional sets of relations, all with numerous sub-sets of interconnected and complex networks. This ecclesiological model is dynamic and ever-changing; it is highly participatory and very radically egalitarian. The emergent movement, however, is also vigorously anti-capitalist–a deep irony since the “network” description of what the new emergent church is, and should be, looks for all the world like the reality of a free market. I don’t think the left understands economics.

Finally, the church. Kuyper clearly distinguished between the official church (instituted and gathered by word and sacraments and ordered by “offices”) and the vocation of God’s people in the world. Though he was no slouch in public Christian witness and action, he was very clear that the official church was not a political player on the stage of human history. For the institutional church to be involving itself in strategic political judgments, evaluating economics and trying to cure poverty–all these things are most un- Kuyperian. When someone from the progressive, center-left levels the accusation of triumphalism at the Religious Right’s appropriation of Kuyper, one feels called to some honest self-reflection. Kuyper would be opposed to the way in which Republican candidates and voluntary associations linked to the Religious Right find access to evangelical pulpits. But he would do the same for progressive, center-left policies finding ecclesiastical support in the church.

In all of this I think it would be most helpful if we avoided all sweeping generalizations and simply dealt with each specific issue as it comes before us. Let’s have a thoughtful discussion about marriage, family, poverty, immigration, crucial life issues, war and peace; and let’s have these discussions without ad hominem attacks and dismissals that fall under the genetic fallacy. Then, it seems to me, we ought to be grateful for whatever constructive assistance was provided to the slumbering evangelical giant by neo-Calvinism. One need not agree with a particular viewpoint in toto to still be grateful for Christians taking their public responsibility seriously.

My thanks again to Perspectives and to Mahonnet-VanderWell and Wolterstorff for their helpful start in an important conversation. My goal in this response is to help the conversation continue to move ahead.

John Bolt is professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.