How should Christians think about politics?
Today’s post is adapted from Irving Hexham's "Christian Faith and Practice in Christian Politics," found in unit 13 of his new Understanding World Religions online course, available later this month. Sign up to be notified when the course will be available.
Anyone wishing to understand modern Christianity in North America needs to begin by recognizing that since the 1980s evangelical Christians have undergone a remarkable political transformation.
Until about 1970 the majority of evangelicals were convinced that religion and politics did not mix and should not be mixed. Today, however, many believe that Christianity and politics cannot be separated.
What is surprising about this development is that some leaders on both left and right trace their political thought to the work of the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920).
Therefore, it is helpful to take a look at his life and his political thought, in order to understand something of the roots of contemporary evangelical political movements—and to see if it can shed light on our modern political climate.
Kuyper’s View of the State, Society, and the Individual
Abraham Kuyper saw that conversations about Christianity and politics were often reduced to their two elemental forms: the church and the state. On the one hand, you had the church; on the other, you had the state—and you had a struggle between them.
But Kuyper, in looking at the involvement of Christians in politics, was unsatisfied with the prevailing view—the simplistic dichotomy between church and state.
He didn’t believe the church should run the state, or the state should run the church.
Instead, he believed society was the space where both church and state existed, and society was distinct thing God had brought into being, but remained separate from the church itself.
Therefore, a more nuanced view of church and state really needs to start with the questions: “who is God?” and “what is society?” Only then can have a more nuanced discussion about church and state—and how they ought to relate.
What is “society”?
Kuyper’s view of society is rooted in the sovereignty of God. Kuyper starts with the premise that God is sovereign over everything—over human history, over human society.
Society, moreover, is made up of numerous institutions—each one placed under God. Because of this, Kuyper says, no human institution can usurp God. Human institutions are secondary to God. Human institutions must look to God for guidance, but they are always under the judgment of God.
In developing this approach, Kuyper argued that society is an organic construction—it emerges by virtue of natural human existence and relationships.
The state and its attributes—government, politics, and so on—are a mechanistic construction. They arise from society.
In addition to government, there are many institutions within society—the school, business, trade, manufacturing, and more—and these institutions all operate within their own spheres. Each sphere ought to be sovereign and respected and shouldn’t be controlled by others.
For example, Kuyper argues that it’s not the place of business to control the sphere of the university or the church. It’s not the place of the church to control business or the university.
Each sphere has a distinct role in society, and they must cooperate together.
What is essential is that there be a plurality of institutions in a democratic society—not simply a division between church and state, not simply an individualism where every individual rules.
Society must recognize that there are institutions that grow organically within it. These institutions must be respected, because they contribute to human well-being.
Additionally, the very separation of the institutions protects the freedom of the individual. The individual lives not alone, but in society—a societKuypery made up of many institutions that are separate. These institutions each have a separate sphere. They overlap, they interact, but one must respect their differences.
So Kuyper creates a complex view of society, which he calls sphere sovereignty. Each sphere overlaps and relates to others, but they are each distinct.
What is the role of government?
In his Lectures on Calvinism, Kuyper summarizes his political thought in three theses:
1. God only—and never any creature—is possessed of sovereign rights, in the destiny of the nations, because God alone created them, maintains them by His Almighty power, and rules them, by His ordinances. 2. Sin has, in the realm of politics, broken down the direct government of God, and therefore the exercise of authority, for the purpose of government, has subsequently been invested in men, as a mechanical remedy. And 3. In whatever form this authority may reveal itself, man never possesses power over his fellow-man in any other way than by an authority which descends upon him from the majesty of God.
According to Kuyper, the state has three duties to perform:
- It must draw a boundary between the different spheres to avoid social conflict. Thus, there is a boundary between the domestic and the corporate life of the individual. For example, the worker should never be misused by his employer in such a way as to deprive him of a home life or private interest, because such a development would mean that the corporate sphere has illegitimately invaded the domestic sphere.
- It must defend individuals and weak elements within each sphere. In saying this Kuyper appears to envisage a subdivision of each social sphere into further spheres. Within the domestic sphere, for example, there is a separate sphere of education, which must not be confused with the sphere of marriage, or vice versa.
- It must coerce all the separate spheres of society to support the state and uphold its legitimate functions. Thus, each sphere has an obligation to render whatever dues necessary for the maintenance of the overall unity of society as protected by the state.
In short, the state is an artificial construction, and its role is to bring about justice in society.
How should government interact with the church?
While admitting that a divided church presents many problems, Kuyper believes that implicit in Calvin’s teaching about liberty of conscience is the ideal of a free church in a free society.
On the top of his newspaper De Standaard was the motto “a free Church for a free State.”
While acknowledging that unity between churches has an aesthetic appeal, he argues that the government must suspend judgment in this area and allow divisions to exist amongst Christians, because “the government lacks the data of judgment,” and would “[infringe] the sovereignty of the Church.”
He concludes from this that while extreme forms of puritanical church order are to be avoided, allowances must be made for historical and cultural differences between denominations.
What this means for the modern political climate
Kuyper sought a form of Christianity that worked in the world.
The problem today is we hear much about Christian politics and Christian politicians.
As we watch election campaigns and we watch political campaigns, many people say they are Christians—they want Christian politics and they are going to bring Christianity into politics—but most of them have no idea how to construct a theory of Christian politics that actually works in the world.
Christians need to grapple with the political realities of our day at a serious level. We need to take Scripture seriously and see how Scripture can be applied to daily life—and what we can learn from the Christian tradition.
It is vital that Christians begin to develop a modern theory of politics, and Kuyper is a good place to begin.
The above post was adapted from “Christian Faith and Practice in Christian Politics,” found in unit 13 of the Understanding World Religions online course, taught by Irving Hexham.
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