Mark J. Larson, Abraham Kuyper, Conservatism, and Church and State (Eugene: Wipf and Stock), 2015, 111 pp + xii.
Abraham Kuyper is becoming more and more a point of conversation for politically-minded Christians. Indeed, as my TCI associate Jordan Ballor has just pointed out, we threaten to morph into the Neo-Calvinist International if recent article trends continue. In light of all of this, there is little doubt that it is important to grapple with Kuyper’s political thought. Indeed, Kuyper’s ideas will only grow in influence, especially in light of recent translations of his major works of public theology.
Mark J. Larson has added another volume to the growing body of Kuyper scholarship with his new book Abraham Kuyper, Conservatism, and Church and State. The title promises a fascinating exploration of Kuyper’s ideas. Larson’s intentions are very admirable, also. He wishes to re-claim Kuyper as a properly conservative thinker, and to apply Kuyper’s ideas to contemporary political problems. The central claims of the book are that ‘Kuyper … looked to the American Constitutional arrangement for his thinking on the relationship between church and state’ (p. xi) and that ‘[the] constituent elements of American conservatism are reflected in his political theory.’ (p. xii) These claims are fair, and seem defensible at the outset. What is troubling in Larson’s introductory remarks is his determination to apply these principles to the problem of ‘judicial tyranny’. This will rear its head later, but it is apparent from the beginning there is a politically-charged tone to the book.
Kuyper as a conservative
On the first claim, Larson does a fine job of correcting the historical and political-theoretical record by showing how Kuyper’s views are consonant with conservatism. Larson writes of how the progressivist neo-Kuyperians of the Reformed Journal, and I suppose Calvin College, distorted Kuyper’s ideas into a leftist agenda. It is admirable to want to correct the record. Kuyper was certainly no Democrat, despite excitable claims to the contrary made by some news media on his 1898 visit to the USA. As Larson correctly points out, Kuyper explicitly identified himself as a hypothetical Republican voter, although with reservations (p. 7).
That Kuyper’s principles do not reflect contemporary Democrat principles is hardly debatable. Can you imagine Old Abe’ voting for Hillary Clinton? And yet the problem with re-claiming a historical figure for your own political team is illustrated by the next question we must ask: Can you imagine Kuyper voting for Donald Trump? Or Jeb Bush? Marco Rubio? Maybe the latter two figures, but the trouble with bridging the ideological divide(s) between the past and present are obvious. Kuyper would be comfortable as a conservative, perhaps, but not necessarily as a Republican.
Larson next considers Kuyper’s ideas about the links between religion and the good society, and on this matter Kuyper is shown to have close affinities with the American-style conservative. Kuyper wholeheartedly affirmed the need for a Christian society, but rejects the notion of a Christian state. He saw no place for an established national church, and he believed firmly in a transcendent natural law. A society ruled by God, says Kuyper, knows it is ruled by a law of nature as well. The final major idea discussed in relation to American conservatism is that of limited government. Larson claims these four key elements of Kuyper’s thought as the same ones found in American conservatism. As far it goes, this is a fair assessment of Kuyper’s political principles.
The fourth and fifth chapters consider Kuyper’s apparent affiliation with the American constitutional arrangement, with particular regard to his ideas about church and state. Kuyper was an un-abashed disestablishmentarian. His Lectures on Calvinism teem with separationist ideas, and his various public addresses and articles all consistently deplore the existence of a national Reformed church in the Netherlands. Indeed, Kuyper led a charge to amend the article of the Belgic Confession that prescribes state activity in church affairs. Larson also provides a summary of Kuyper’s “Tocquevillian” assessment of the United States, its religiosity, and its liberty of conscience. He further provides a solid evidence suggesting that Kuyper’s ideas are profoundly Madisonian on religious liberty. Here, I think Larson is absolutely correct. Kuyper speaks and writes like an American classical liberal when it comes to religious freedom, and this chapter is valuable in documenting this.
Kuyper, and Calvinism, as polemical tools
The following two chapters (‘Tyranny’ and ‘Resistance and Reform’) finds the mood of the book shifting considerably. In an attempt to apply Kuyper’s ideas, Larson proceeds to give an overview of Calvinist ideas on political problems in general. The problems raised include abusive government, constitutional subversion and judicial tyranny. The text is peppered with quotes Calvin, Kuyper, Althusius, Beza, Bullinger, and Rutherford. What becomes apparent is that Larson wants to apply Calvinistic principles to the problems he sees in modern American politics. Larson seems to want to demonstrate how Calvinism in general, and Kuyper in particular, provide principled criticisms and solutions to the current situation in the United States. However, it is difficult to see where Larson’s own political opinions end, and where ‘Calvinism’ begins.
Larson then pursues a line of argument which effectively looks like this: the courts are tyrannical and are acting unconstitutionally, here are some quotes from Reformed theologians about bad judges, therefore we must change the judges and alter the system. This is problematic. As historians, theologians, and political thinkers, we must all be careful not to too neatly harness our ideological heroes in the service of contemporary debates. The Reformers and those who followed like Althusius and Kuyper don’t actually provide any specific solutions to the problems Larson describes. The quotes Larson utilises are not even evidence that America is under a judicial tyranny. The one quote from Kuyper regarding bad judges is not even about judges at all, but about monarchs (p. 72). The final substantive chapter provides a resolution to all of this, but it, in part, persists with the bewildering style of argumentation. Does it follow that prayer and good voting will result in the President appointing originalists to the SCOTUS bench? (p. 74) I’m not sure it does. And yet, in amongst this Larson has some very sensible prescriptions for action. Christians, he says, should focus on their daily work, attend public worship each Lord’s Day, pray for their leaders, and care for the poor and vulnerable. (pp. 84–85) This, Larson suggests, is a most effective means of bringing about social change. I couldn’t agree more.
A book of two halves, and some suggestions
It is somewhat difficult to give a summary assessment of Abraham Kuyper, Conservatism, and Church and State. It is a book of two distinct portions. The first portion (chapters 1 through 5) represents a serious and admirable exposition of Kuyper’s ideas as related to church and state, religious liberty, and political conservatism. Unfortunately, Chapters 6 and 7 detract from the overall quality of the book and seem rather out of place in a work explicating Kuyper’s political views. I say this as someone who is quite sympathetic to the author’s political positions. It’s not so much his position or conclusions that I disagree with. It’s his method of argument. In the end these chapters are far from persuasive. However, it would be a shame for these later chapters to colour the assessment of the earlier ones. To conclude, I want to go back and assess some of the stronger elements of Larson’s contribution.
Larson’s book is admirable for a number of reasons. First, it makes a solid contribution to the task of re-assessing Kuyper’s political thought. Second, it is also a timely contribution at a time when Kuyper’s works are being translated into English at a significant rate. The book will place Kuyper more properly in the history of Christian political thought. The wide-spread popularisation of Kuyper’s ideas, combined with these new translations, require discernment from new readers. Larson’s book is a handy help in this regard. Third, Larson’s attempts to place Kuyper into contemporary terms are helpful insofar as they are accurate. Kuyper was indeed a conservative in the broadest Burkean sense of the word. The core principles which Larson draws out of conservatism he rightly finds in Kuyper.
One critical suggestion I do have at this juncture is that Larson might have also refuted the neo-Kuyperian’s reading of Kuyper with some historical contextualisation. For example, when reading Kuyper it doesn’t take long to realise that he was heavily influenced by Romanticism and expressed himself like a German-style idealist. Hegel is something of an influence here. These two observations, even slightly fleshed out, would serve as a good counterpoint to the un-historical claim that Kuyper is a modern leftist. If Larson had demonstrated that Kuyper’s language about the inevitability of progress and so on, was growing from a root of romantic and idealist rhetoric and ideas, then that would resolve the question of why he even said things along those lines in the first place.
However, the main problem I see with Larson’s project is the lack of “counter-evidence”. The “counter-evidence” is not so much counter to Larson’s claims. I am looking for counter-evidence to contemporary conservatism’s claims. New readers of Kuyper will quickly discern a number of policy positions in Kuyper, like pro-trade unionism and strong critcisms of lassez faire capitalism, which don’t readily fit the contemporary ‘conservative’ framework. Perhaps most alarmingly to the modern liberal-conservative mind, Kuyper was in favour of full household suffrage. That is, every head-of-household has a vote. This illustrates well that modern individualism would have been anathema to Kuyper. But modern individualism is a sacred cow to many on the conservative end of the political spectrum these days, and Kuyper serves as a strong and welcome challenge to this. I suppose that Larson would have needed to write a much longer book in order to provide a full-orbed ‘conservative’ picture of Kuyper. But in doing so, he could have provided, not only a solid defence of Kuyperian conservatism on religious liberty and limited government, but also could have provided a truly, “classical” conservative challenge to the rather tired and compromised conservatism we observe in contemporary western politics.