Four Rules for Faith and Politics: According to Abraham Kuyper

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I studied political science at a Christian college. Predictably, my classes were filled with passionate debates over the relationship between Christianity and politics.

Is Jesus a Republican or a Democrat? What should Christians think about welfare, abortion, gay marriage, etc? Can Christians fight in war? My liberal and conservative peers spent hours zealously debating these questions. And while we all badly wanted to put our faith first and our politics second, more often than not, the opposite appeared to be true.

I quickly realized that we came to these debates with ready-made political positions and that we wanted the Bible to back us up. We were trying to cram God into our political boxes. Christianity did not come first—it came second. Jesus was not the Lord of our politics—we were. In the end, Christianity was little more than the “spiritual frosting” that we were spreading (rather thinly) over our own political opinions.

This practice became tiring.

Near the end of my college years I came upon the work of Abraham Kuyper. And, while I didn’t always agree with every word, I downed Kuyper like a cup of cool water in a dry desert. Reading Kuyper I could step finally outside the tired right-left binary and look at American politics from a different perspective. In Kuyper I had found a third way out of the noisy and rather boring echo chamber of right versus left.

I can’t hope to fully summarize Kuyper’s political perspective here, but below I have briefly explored four critical “rules” in Kuyper’s thinking about faith and politics that are particularly poignant for our political environment today. I do my best to demonstrate what Kuyper’s critique of both Republicans and Democrats might be if he were alive today.

 

Rule #1 Recognize That All Politics Are Faith-Based

Abraham Kuyper’s first rule for thinking about politics was that there is no such thing as “secular” politics. Every political platform, party, and politician s faith-based. Every political platform rests upon on system of beliefs and convictions about the good life. Whether your politics are defined as Muslim or Christian, Marxist or Capitalist, Conservative or Liberal, Kuyper insisted that all political opinions are founded upon faith-based assumptions that cannot be proven.

The implication of Rule #1 is this: no politician can claim to have absolute access to “the truth.” No worldview, religion, or political philosophy can claim a special authority over another. Politics, therefore, is a debate. It is a contest between a variety of faiths on equal footing.

This is a humbling message for both Republicans and Democrats today, who seem to yell at one another with a God-like authority they have no claim to. Both sides forget the faith-based nature of their politics.

Republicans sometimes speak as if they have direct access to God and God’s opinions—they even dare to speak on God’s behalf sometimes! Democrats, on the other hand, can sometimes claim to be purely enlightened and rational, capable of being uniquely fair and open-minded. From their high-minded secular position they look down on “religious” voters as uneducated, irrational, and biased. Democrats forget that they too speak from a faith-based perspective.

 

Rule #2 Don’t Be Cynical or Romantic About Politics

Today’s politics suffer from two opposite maladies—political cynicism and political romanticism. Cynics argue that government is completely broken, corrupt, and oppressive. Romantics, on the other hand, argue that government is a tool for good—even political salvation. Embodying these dichotomies, Ronald Reagan famously declared, “Government is not the solution, it’s the problem!” While Barak Obama famously announced, “We can change Washington!” and “We are the people we’ve been waiting for!”

In opposition to both political cynics and romantics, Kuyper argues that both sin and grace are always at work in our political life. This did not make Kuyper some sort of middle-of-the-road moderate taking the good with the bad. No, Kuyper was both pessimistic and optimistic about political life.

Kuyper was pessimistic as he argued that sin had infected every aspect of political life. Every politician, platform, and party was influenced by sin. Placing ultimate hope and confidence in a political system was folly. Because of this, Kuyper argued that the government should be carefully limited in its authority, power, and size. He argued that it should never be allowed to become an “octopus” spreading its tentacles into every aspect of our lives. The government is not our salvation it is an unfortunate mechanism built to maintain justice and life in a violent and broken world.

That said, Kuyper did not allow his political pessimism to turn into all out cynicism. Sin, he argued, is not the only thing active in politics—grace is there too. Christians must also recognize that government is a beautiful and undeserved gift from God given to his people to restrain their evil and violence. More than that government is a gracious gift given to promote humanity’s justice and flourishing. Christians, therefore, are not permitted to complain and be cynical about political life. They must be grateful.

If both sin and grace are active in politics, we as Christians are not allowed to give ourselves over to complete cynicism or romanticism. They must approach it with both realistic suspicion and hopeful gratitude.

 

Rule #3 Choose Your Authority Wisely

Who is in charge here? This might be the first and most important political question there is. Kuyper argues that a country’s beliefs about political authority and sovereignty matter a great deal. Getting the question of authority wrong can have dire consequences.

Historically speaking, countries have bestowed divine-like political authority to all sorts of people, systems, and things. Some have given ultimate authority to kings and dictators, others to the interests of money or power. Some have given power to the workers and others to CEOs, some listen to Mohammad others to the Pope. Still other countries have given it final authority to the strongest race or to the largest and most powerful group of voters. One thing is certain, wherever a country bestows ultimate authority, that choice will have far reaching consequences.

What exactly are the consequences of our choices about authority? Abraham Kuyper provides a number of practical examples, here are two. First, Kuyper looked at the concept of “authority” in 19th century Germany and France. In post-revolutionary France ultimate authority was bestowed upon the “will of the French majority” while in Germany ultimate authority was given to the “will of the German state.”

The political consequences of these decisions were clear. In modern Germany it was very difficult for citizens to question, challenge, or limit the holy power of the German state. This ultimately came true when the Nazi state arose, no one could stop it. Newspapers, schools, churches, and whole communities were bulldozed by the German state’s unquestioned authority.

Likewise in modern France it was very difficult to question, challenge, or limit the holy power of “the French majority.” Smaller communities and leaders who stood against the French revolutionary majority were eliminated by the guillotine. In both France and Germany there was no higher authority to appeal to, nowhere else to go.

Secondly, Kuyper also compared Catholic and Calvinist understandings of authority. Catholics, he argued, tended to place greater confidence in centralized authority while Calvinists tended to be more skeptical of centralized authority. Because of this, power tended to be centralized in historically Catholic countries (Italy, Spain, and France) while in historically Calvinist countries, power tended to be decentralized (England, United States, Switzerland, and the Netherlands).

So, who is really in charge? Whether you give ultimate authority to the will of the majority or the will of the state, whether you have a high Catholic trust of authority or a Calvinist skepticism, the implications of Rule #3 are clear; the question of authority matters.

Kuyper insists that God alone deserves the title of ultimate authority. No leader, party, philosophy, race, or group of voters can claim God’s throne. Once again, this cuts against both Republicans and Democrats in different ways. It is often subtle, but both parties bestow unwarranted and unquestioned authority in our political discourse.

Democrats often speak as if progressive values and policies are “on the right side of history.” If you do not get on board you are, by implication, on the wrong side of history. “History” here is the ultimate and unquestioned authority. Republicans, on the other hand, often give unquestioned authority to things like the free market, the military, corporations, and their conception of conservative Christian culture. Both parties are guilty of putting created things on the Creator’s throne.

Once again, who is really in charge?

 

Rule #4 Life is Bigger than Politics and Money 

Kuyper argued that God created human beings to flourish and make culture in a wide variety of ways. God made human life to be rich, complex, and beautiful. Humans are called to work and rest, to make art and make babies, to worship and play, to build communities and cities of beauty and justice, and to explore the world through innovation in science and technology. In all, human beings are called to flourish and engage the world in a wide variety of complex ways. Thus, the world of politics is only one aspect of human life.

Whenever social problems arise in America today, our binary political system normally proposes one of two solutions. Democrats commonly suggest a new government program, law, or tax while Republicans commonly suggest a free market solution. However complex the social issue, both sides suggest a simple solution (either the government or the market will fix it).

Kuyper argues for a more complex understanding of human life and flourishing. In order to flourish, human beings need more than simply a strong state or marketplace. Humans need families, schools, newspapers, art galleries, neighborhoods, laboratories, hospitals, and more. Kuyper argues that this wide variety of “life spheres” are absolutely critical to our flourishing. Without these communities in our lives, something important is lost.

To put it bluntly, Democrats want to promote human flourishing by increasing the power and reach of government. Republicans want to promote human flourishing by increasing the power and reach of the marketplace. Democrats place their hope in government while Republicans place their hope in business.

Kuyper argues that while both government and business are both good and important parts of life, they are not the whole of life. More than that, both government and business become dangerous when they are given too much power.

Both government and business are spheres of life that must be limited so that the rest of life can be allowed to flourish. Families, churches, art galleries, laboratories, universities, and neighborhoods are beautiful and important parts of human life. Both big business and big government can endanger and ultimately crush these smaller spheres of life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matthew is the Director of the Cascade Fellows and the Fuller Institute for Theology and Northwest Culture in Seattle, WA. His main research areas include theology, culture, work, and economics. He studied Political Science at Whitworth University. He earned an MDiv at Princeton Theological Seminary along with doctoral degrees in Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary and Systematic Theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. Matthew currently serves as the Director of Fuller Institute for Theology and Northwest Culture in Seattle. He teaches courses at Fuller Seminary Northwest in theology, ethics, and culture. In 2011 Matthew was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct research in the Netherlands on the contemporary conflict between Islam and secularism in Europe. While he has published articles and chapters in a number academic journals and books, he has also published in a number of popular level journals on faith and culture including Comment Magazine, Fieldnotes Magazine, and the Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue Journal. Matthew lives in Lynnwood, Washington with his wife Heather, their three sons Calvin, Kees, and Cademan, and a dog named Henry.

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