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Our Oct. 28 issue will contain a review of 22 books on Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, which began on Oct. 31, 1517. Many thinkers and writers during the past two centuries have thought Reformationally about cultural problems, so in this column and my next I’d like to introduce or reintroduce WORLD members to two who produced important works accessible to general readers.
The first: Dutch journalist, politician, professor, and pastor Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). To fight the leftist movements of his day Kuyper founded in 1872 a new newspaper (The Standard), in 1879 a new political grouping (the Anti-Revolutionary Party), in 1880 a new college (the Free University of Amsterdam), and in 1892 a new denomination, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.
Theologically, Kuyper followed John Calvin and other Reformers. Politically, he said government must not obstruct proclamation of the gospel, promote a counter-gospel, take away religious freedom, or coerce conscience. Reliance on central government “begets a slow process of dissolution that cannot but end in the demoralization of government and people alike.”
Abraham Kuyper knew that revolutions almost always make life worse.
Kuyper’s alternative was “sphere sovereignty.” That meant leaders in education, business, religion, media, and other areas should have authority within their domains and not depend on government, which is one sphere among others. Kuyper first proposed “Christian-historical”—the equivalent of “evangelical” today—as the name for his theological and political position. Then he decided that was vague, so he switched to “Anti-revolutionary.” Kuyper attacked “the attempt to change totally how a person thinks and how he lives, to change his head and his heart, his home and his country … and so to lead us to a complete emancipation from the sovereign claims of Almighty God.”
“Anti-revolutionary” was not the same as “conservative,” because some things should not be conserved, but Kuyper knew that revolutions almost always make life worse. Anti-rev is also very different from antifa.
In the U.S., both white nationalists and cultural leftists now preach revolution. One side wants to ignore America’s history of gradually including people from different races and religions. The other side wants to ignore Biblical marriage, differences between the two sexes, and the sanctity of life, as we race toward utopian disaster.
Kuyper began his rethinking when he saw Dutch schools and newspapers teaching revisionist history: “Revolutionaries now tell us, ‘Everything used to be Christian, so your religion was responsible for these abuses, and abandoning the Christian religion and switching to our humanist beliefs is the only permanent remedy.’ … The press suggests day in, day out that you can engage in politics apart from Christ and that you should lean on your own understanding.”
That’s also a problem today. Kuyper understood society’s problems were “not the fault of Christian principles having failed but of our failure to live up to those principles.” He predicted that unless publications “dare once more to base themselves on the Word of God … the blood-red luster of 1789” would return, multiplied.
Kuyper was prime minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905, but he could not hold back the waves of 20th-century revolution, higher than any seen before. The blood-red French revolution of 1789 had killed 40,000 directly (and many more via the Napoleonic Wars that revolution spawned). Adolf Hitler murdered 12 million humans directly and millions more through the war he started. Josef Stalin, with purges, government-created famine, and the Gulag, probably killed 40 million, and China’s Mao Zedong probably topped that record.
I believe that with God’s grace we can muddle through our current governmental dysfunctionality; but if we worship idols either on the left or the right, the American experiment will have failed. That’s why I’m game for an Anti-Revolutionary Party. Is anyone else?
—Note: Kuyper’s writings are newly translated and published by the Acton Institute and Lexham Press. I’ve read and can recommend three of the volumes—Pro Rege, Our Program, and Common Grace—published in 2015 and 2016. (Disclosure: I have a very loose affiliation with Acton as a senior fellow.)