The last weeks of the Trump administration were hard on the reputation of Abraham Kuyper.
Senator Josh Hawley, who promoted the “stolen election” fraud behind the Capitol insurrection on January 6, and in the bargain gave the gathering mob his now infamous raised-fist salute, has from time to time invoked the Kuyperian “every square inch” mantra on behalf of his political agenda. New York Times columnist Katherine Stewart, a long-time observer of right-wing Christian nationalism, was quick to draw the connection, though from a highly critical point of view. Hawley wants to make good, she said, on Kuyper’s claim “that Christianity has sole legitimate authority over all aspects of human life,” a formula for a neo-medieval theocracy.
The white-racist core of the Capitol insurrection, meanwhile, brought out critiques of the racial hierarchy in Kuyper’s anthropology. These included predictable clichés about Kuyper as architect of South African apartheid, but a new and more telling observation came from my Calvin University colleague, Joe Kuilema, who noted that Kuyper had read about and commented on the white overthrow of a biracial government in Wilmington, NC, that occurred during his 1898 trip to America. Without excusing their violence, Kuyper attributed the coup to whites countering purported Black dreams of racial “conquest.”
Finally, in a speech at a pillar of right-wing higher education, Hillsdale College, then-Secretary of Education and Calvin College alumna Betsy DeVos invoked Kuyper’s theory of sphere sovereignty to excoriate the “government schools” she had been in charge of for four years. American education should “go Dutch” in imitation of Kuyper’s initiatives, she said. That meant putting “family first” to pursue free choice of schools in an open market, in the process fending off labor unions, socialism, communism, and fascism. (Cue The Simpsons’ commie-nazis.)
Admittedly, Abraham Kuyper can be a difficult man to love, and people allergic to the forthright entry of religion into public life find in him much to fear. The resuscitation of the Reformed Journal, however, also gives us an opportunity to view him in fuller proportion and from a more progressive point of view. For Kuyper was a figure of inspiration, even a hero, to the men (and men they all were) who launched the RJ seventy years ago. He gave them warrant for their enterprise and positive direction for some of their positions. Even when they disagreed with him, Kuyper could be seen behind their critical method. That’s one test of an important thinker—whether their method can be turned in critique of those of their views which, upon deeper inspection or later evidence, turn out to be mistaken. More broadly, we can ponder why Kuyper has been received so variously in North America, and some deeper problems that might attend his legacy.
Josh Hawley and Christian Conquest
Hawley’s first mistake, passed along by Stewart, is fundamental. Kuyper did not assert that “Christianity has sole legitimate authority over all aspects of human life.” That belonged to Jesus Christ, and he had delegated it to all sorts of human officers and agencies—decidedly not just to the Christians among them. Kuyper’s famous declaration about “every square inch” was not a proposal for Christians to take over everything but for them, contra their pietistic predilections, to enter into every facet of modern life and mount a witness for the redemption that Christ promised there.
Mistake #2 comes in Hawley’s declaration that, in taking “the Lordship of Christ into the public realm,” Christians were “to seek the obedience of the nations. Of our nation!” This is an elementary violation of sphere sovereignty. The only institution that can require people’s “obedience” to Christ is the church, Kuyper said. The state might have tried to impose that in the Christian Middle Ages but—thanks be to God, he exclaimed—such abuse, which corrupted the faith as much as it violated justice, was out of bounds in modern politics. Now Christians were to make their case by appeal to public standards of evidence, reason, equity, and the common good, and were to do so within the rules of civility and constitutional procedure. In sum, Kuyper would have been appalled by the Capitol insurrection that Hawley saluted, also because it bore all the hallmarks of the “Revolution,” Kuyper’s bête noire. The utopian dream of purging history and suspect populations by violence can arise in, as well as against, the name of God and order.
Finally, Hawley’s full-throated support for his party’s main post-insurrection initiative—to restrict voting by racial minorities and the economically challenged—stands opposed to Kuyper’s persistent campaign to the contrary. At the start of his career in the 1870s the Netherlands had one of the most restrictive franchises in Europe, an Alexander Hamiltonian dream of rule by the rich, the well-born, and the able. Against that, and against much elite opinion in his own Calvinist circles, Kuyper promoted democratization. His career began with a pamphlet advocating that in congregational elections, and it rode successive waves in civil politics to approach universal manhood suffrage. (Women, for him, were another story.) His religious coalition rode that tide to become competitive in the late 1880s, to put him at the head of government in 1901, and to take a place in most Dutch cabinets over the twentieth century. Democracy was not just a pragmatic but a theological move for Kuyper, a lesson from the Calvinist tenet of divine election which denies all human pretensions, privilege, and hierarchy. Disenfranchising people for want of education or income was at once bad religion and bad for social solidarity.
Betsy DeVos and Valuing the Family
The Capitol insurrection and campaigns for voter suppression cap a series of gestures on the part of white evangelical leaders that has done incalculable damage to the cause of an intentional Christian witness in politics. Betsy DeVos’s mistakes, by contrast, proceeded less from error than from half-truths and constitute a great missed opportunity. Yes, as she claimed in her Hillsdale speech, Kuyper did say that the family was the seed of all social formation. Yes, further, the choice of the framework of belief and ethics in which their children would be educated belongs to the parents (though not, DeVos neglected to say, the mandate for education, teacher training, schoolhouse safety, etc.—all rightfully in the province of the state). Yes, a vibrant and more just society will obtain when a wide range of such educational options is available.
Alas, the other half of Kuyper’s position is missing here, and that involves economics. In his earliest address on the subject Kuyper faulted Dutch educational arrangements for being economically as well as religiously unjust: it was poor parents who couldn’t afford the private religious schooling that their conscience might require. Likewise, in his writings on the suffering of the Dutch labor force during the country’s great depression of the 1880s, he dramatized the profound damage that poverty and insecurity wreaked on family life and children’s prospects. One of the “religious” interpolations that his secular colleagues in parliament fumed about was his throwing the epistle of James [5:1, 2, 4] in their face: “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten…. Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth … [and] are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.” Fraud and extortion happen to be the most grievous of the DeVos regime’s accomplishments, in removing standards of accountability from for-profit universities and in insisting that people exploited by their false promises pay back the last farthing of their student loans.
For that matter, DeVos turned a blind eye to one of the most grievous burdens that has emerged in the American economy since the recession of 2008: the second largest source of debt in the country is now due to student loans, particularly afflicting those who did not graduate or for whom the degree obtained did not produce the income needed to re-pay. This spells a dimming of life-prospects for millions, impacting fertility, home ownership, retirement savings, and other bourgeois desiderata precious to DeVos—and to Kuyper. Back of this specter looms the perennial inequity in the financing arrangements of American elementary and secondary education by which the rich get more and the poor get less, magnifying the gaping racial disparities in educational funding and outcomes.
A person with Kuyper’s political chops would have seized this opportunity to make an earthquake of a deal, as indeed his party finally did to resolve the question of school funding in the Netherlands. They traded universal adult franchise in national elections for full per capita funding for religious schools—of all persuasions. The Hawley dream of “restoring” a pure Christian nation would blanch at this, since it would mean tax dollars going on an equitable basis to Muslim as well as to Christian schools, and to Wiccan academies to boot. But that is precisely the principled pluralist solution involved in “going Dutch.” The bargain that DeVos could have struck would have involved tax support for any school that was accountable to national standards of quality, safety, teacher compensation, etc.—provisions she has opposed—in return for student loan forgiveness and for per capita school funding calibrated to current household income. Enroll a poor kid and get a bonus; hit a certain percentile of needy-student enrollment and get an extra bonus.
If Republicans wanted to throw a hand grenade onto the playground of the Democrats, this would be it—a coalition scuttler and great re-arranger. Kuyper precipitated just such a result in coalescing confessional Calvinists with their age-old Roman Catholic enemy, the greatest single accomplishment of his political career, but it took considerable religio-political imagination to do so. DeVos’s speech and career show hers to be restricted to libertarian mantras of free choice everywhere but in the bedroom. A sworn enemy of government, she with so many others on the Trump cabinet, including the head man himself, had neither interest in nor competency at governing. Kuyper had both. Thus his move toward equal funding of religious education came along with a broader range of reforms: improvements in technical and vocational education, night schools for working adults, the Netherlands’s first technical university, broader offerings in commercial, agricultural, and industrial training. He warranted these from democratic and Christian values as blessings belonging to the whole nation, not just his own followers.
Kuyper and Race
On to race, perhaps Kuyper’s sorest spot. Space does not allow a full airing of Kuyper’s offenses here; that is well done by Joe Kuilema, whose article I recommend to your careful reading. The most important point: Kuyper pictured humanity as arrayed on a hierarchy of distinct races, with whites on the top and Blacks, along with the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia, on the bottom—not just in wealth and power but in quality and potential. He applied this view to the American scene on his visit in 1898, to the South African War that unfolded soon thereafter, and in the infamous lines Kuilema quotes from Common Grace and the Lectures on Calvinism, both written at exactly this time. Without excusing any bit of this (and I say this sincerely, not—as is sometimes the case—as a signal to do just that in the very next words), it is worth examining the context of Kuyper’s utterances and their possible consequences in North America.[*]
Kuyper’s racial hierarchy, common enough among white thinkers of the day, came right out of the Hegel he had learned at university, and the above-referenced occasions on which he deployed it came at the peak of white imperialism in the late nineteenth century. Kuyper’s stance on South Africa arose from fears that any Dutch part of that scramble was once again being eclipsed by the British. When he rose above such situations, in his more abstract theological musings, Kuyper could sound a very different note. Thus he said that the image of God was most perfectly reflected in the entire human race (singular, not “races”) and that every tribe and people and tongue and nation contributed vitally to that picture, sub-Saharan Africans too. Perhaps he is now pondering somewhere, in a spirit of repentance and respect for the cunning of God, that in the last hundred years Christianity has spread nowhere as much as in the Africa that he and Hegel dismissed. And, with respect to African Americans, that the first international institution to award Martin Luther King, Jr., an honorary doctorate was his own Free University of Amsterdam.
As to the American context, it is worth pondering the impact that Kuyper’s racism had on the Dutch immigrant communities here. I grew up in the Christian Reformed sector of Grand Rapids, a structurally racist community that was usually covered-over and polite in its public utterances on matters of race. Racist epithets were not tolerated in my home, school, or church, though God only knows what was said at other dinner tables and coffee times. Still, the teachings of white superiority and “the Negro threat” were all around, not least from Time magazine and the “Christian” radio stations that were regulars at our house. Abraham Kuyper’s voice was not part of this medley. In other words, Dutch Americans did not need—nor, in my research on their communities, did they much hear—his specific input on this subject. They learned about race “right off the boat” in New York City in witnessing race-segregated worship, including communion, at Dutch Reformed churches. They could have readily traveled from the Dutch kolonies in West Michigan or Chicago to Battle Creek to hear Sojourner Truth talk about her first thirty years under enslavement to Dutch Reformed owners in the Hudson Valley—but also about the Dutch Reformed couple who purchased her contract and set her free.
In my experience Kuyper’s influence entered the matter in a much more positive vein as the civil rights movement neared its peak in the mid-1960s. The Reformed Journal gave ample, very supportive coverage to the matter in marked contrast to the nearly uniformly hostile views vented in the CRC’s other outlets, The Banner and Torch and Trumpet, where “law and order” was the only serving on the menu and King was cast as a dangerous radical. Some Calvin College faculty got their employer in trouble for leading open-housing marches in Grand Rapids. That overt gesture was in line with the quiet support the college’s sociology students had rendered a generation before in doing the research for the Urban League’s first study of the city. All these efforts were led by professors and clergy who took direct inspiration from Kuyper’s insistence that Christians get involved in public life to promote the cause of righteousness to the glory of God. This, opposed to conservative critics who said that religion had no place in politics and that the church should be strictly devoted to “spiritual” matters. That was precisely the sentiment the Rev. Jerry Falwell voiced on the morning the great Selma-to-Montgomery March began in 1965, and it is the bleat that any number of evangelicals emit today in proscribing discussions of race-related matters from church halls. In the Kuyperian tradition any declaration that “social justice” is foreign, even inimical, to the “real gospel” is simply unfathomable.
All that said, it is easy to see why crusaders like Josh Hawley like Kuyper. Maybe “easy to hear” puts it better, for the attraction is a matter of tone as much as concept. Kuyper saw Christianity in his time and place as embroiled in a culture war in which there were, at bottom, just two parties. Such a situation demanded militancy, and militant his language was. (Though never his recommended actions; Kuyper was one with King on non-violent methods.) Still, language like this, from the conclusion of his Lectures on Calvinism, was hardly rare in Kuyper: the “fundamental world-problem…in this hour of sharpest conflict” pits Christianity against a “Paganism collecting its forces and gaining day by day.” Christians were therefore called to a “radical determination,” not “half-measures…. Principle must again bear witness against principle, world-view against world-view, spirit against spirit.” To be fair, there were culture wars in Kuyper’s time: most notoriously, that of the new German Empire against the Roman Catholic Church, echoed more moderately in American public education; also, determined secularization in France, Meiji modernization over against tradition in Japan, and other ventures in nation-building. Further, militancy was the language of the day, not just in politicians like Friedrich Engels, Eugene Debs, Theodore Roosevelt, et al., but in mild-mannered ladies of the church like Holiness pioneer Phoebe Palmer who was always urging her audience to take “the battle into the camp of the enemy,” to wit, Satan. One Holiness partner was the “Salvation Army,” not some Kumbaya chorus.
To his credit, Kuyper offered principled pluralism, not conquest, as his formula for public life amid the contest of world-views. Whether he intended it or not, this led to the famous pillarization of Dutch society in which the various ideological groups clustered together with their own media, schools, political parties, entertainment and recreational clubs. The resemblance to tribalism in the age of the internet is all too unsettling. The Dutch felt enough common cause or heritage to keep their competition civil if lively, and Kuyper was careful to designate his political rivals as “opponents, and not enemies.” Ultimately, the pillars felt claustrophobic, and from the 1960s on they have largely eroded, if not disappeared, in the Netherlands. Yet that outcome has its own downside in the emergence of xenophobic parties to fill the identity vacuum which religion or ideology used to occupy. The Christianist (N.B., not Christian) identity among the Capitol insurrectionists recombines these threads into a noose of their own, but the problem of tribalism is one that Kuyperianism is better at predicting than solving.
Likewise, his “world-view against world-view” formulation. The all-encompassing, tightly logical blocs of thought that Kuyper pictured under the term have been justly criticized, but just when the concept seemed fated to disappear it has made a remarkable comeback—not only in evangelical circles, where it is wielded like a talisman against any notion arising from a non-Christian source, but in the commentariat more generally, also on the Left. Thus we hear about the Trumpian worldview, or that of the religious Nones, of the meritocracy, indigenous peoples, and climate-crusaders. In this discourse Kuyper’s name is cited among the evangelicals, not by NPR, but his influence is not absent from the progressive side. Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute, who has written on the challenges facing Islamic politics in a liberal context, finds in Kuyper an aid to thinking about the role of religion in the modern world more generally and says so in the Atlantic, one of the most venerable members of the journalistic establishment.
People schooled in the tradition can appear on this side of the street too. Jamie Smith, who learned it at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, has aptly translated worldview out of its intellectualist straitjacket back into Kuyper’s own original notion of primordial heart-commitment. “We are what we love,” says Smith’s most famous book title, and out of those loves we live and move and have our being. Meanwhile, Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, a surprise hit of 2020 and—according to eminent Yale scholar of American religion, Jon Butler—the most significant work on American evangelical history in the last forty years, exposes (to use its subtitle) How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Du Mez was thoroughly trained in Kuyperian analysis at Dordt University, where Donald Trump uttered his infamous, but apparently accurate, boast that he could shoot someone in the middle of Manhattan and not lose any voters. Her study details just how, and how greatly, militarism and the cult of masculinity have overtaken whatever genuinely Christian sentiments might have once existed on the religious Right.
Label those plagues “root principles” and you see a latter-day Kuyperian mode of analysis at work. His tool-kit can be deployed to correct his worst mistakes and against the perverse constructions that are decorated with his name. We want much more than Kuyper in our theological and cultural analysis. But in the Reformed tradition, he’s too valuable to surrender.
[*] His legacy in South Africa is more potent and complicated; for a basic summary, see my Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat,289-96, 426-47.