Professor Wolterstorff has offered an impressive introduction to Neo-Calvinist political theory. In his essay, Wolterstorff outlines—with impressive clarity and precision—each and every one of the major hallmarks that have guided the tradition’s approach to political life.
Providing this overview would have been more than enough, but Wolterstorff sets a higher bar. Herein he seeks to move from political theory to political action, from abstract ideas about the state to the actual practice of statecraft. In his introduction Wolterstorff recalls the memory of the Neo-Calvinist congressman Paul Henry who “moved from being a political theorist to being a political office holder.” Wolterstorff respected Henry’s move from theory to practice and in “honor of that transition,” he writes, “I will focus on Christian political activity rather than on Christian political thought about the political order.” Wolterstorff here adds that, “When I speak of political activity, I have in mind both the activity of ordinary citizens and that of office holders.” In this Wolterstorff hopes to offer us an account of the Neo-Calvinist political tradition that is relevant not simply for academic reflection in the library but for political practice in the streets. It’s at this point that I have some concern.
I’ve been asked to offer a critical response to this lecture and, given that I myself am a lifelong Neo-Calvinist who has been learning from Wolterstorff for decades now, I suppose there are two clear dangers that lay before us. First, I could simply repeat, praise, and extol the impressive work of a senior scholar from whom I have learned a great deal. Or, second, I could engage Wolterstorff in a boorish and insider debate of Neo-Calvinist minutiae that would interest no one. Neither option takes us down a generative path.
Instead, noting my substantive agreement with the essay, I explore five areas of concern that become salient whenever Neo-Calvinists—like Wolterstorff and myself—attempt to transition from abstract political theory to concrete political action.
We can witness this concern in his essay as Wolterstorff claims to be writing to and for those who are actually practicing politics. And yet, nowhere in the essay does Wolterstorff explore the lived reality and questions of “ordinary citizens,” nowhere does he attend closely to the daily struggles of actual “office holders.” Instead, Wolterstorff offers them a succinct but rather abstract intellectual framework for thinking about their political task. I worry that this lack of sustained attention to the lived reality of political praxis has become a problem for political scholars within Neo-Calvinism.
My five concerns all relate to my core desire for increased Neo-Calvinist attentiveness to the embodied practice of politics in the lives of everyday Christians. This attentiveness, I argue, was a concern for Abraham Kuyper in the 19th century and it should be again in the 21st. Within the five brief reflections that follow I attempt to more directly center the lived reality and experience of Christian citizens and office holders. In doing so my hope is not to correct professor Wolterstorfff but to supplement his stated goal.
First, within the Neo-Calvinist tradition (and this essay in particular), Chris- tian citizens and office holders are encouraged to see themselves as active agents of political action, transformation, and public justice in the world. Empowered by God with human reason, rights, and abilities, Christian citizens are encouraged to marshal their political power to “make a difference,” serve their neighbor, and actively transform their political communities for the flourishing of all.
While I have no quibble with this as an aspirational vision, it’s clearly an incomplete account of the lived reality of Christian citizens and office holders in American public life today. Indeed, sustained attention to their reality on the ground reveals that American Christians are not transforming American politics; more often, they’re being transformed by American politics. Diverse Christian voices throughout American public life are being co-opted, captured, drowned out, and transformed by America’s diffuse but potent political culture. America’s political media, rhetoric, ideologies, habits, structures, and institutions have injected themselves directly into the heart of the Christian church and they are transforming it from the inside out.
On this point, the Neo-Calvinist tradition in particular (and American Christianity in general) stands in need of sustained academic reflection on the ways in which Christian citizens and office holders are not simply active agents of political transformation, but the passive objects of political transformation.
Christians—being human—are porous. Political experience and history teach us that human beings are politically malleable—subject to training, discipline, and direction. James K. A. Smith, another Neo-Calvinist philosopher, offers important insights on this issue within his cultural liturgies project.1 Here he examines the ways in which Christians are often transformed by the world’s diverse cultural rituals, practices, and narratives.
While Smith offers generative insight into cultural formation on a broad scale, increased scholarly attention is needed on political formation. America’s diverse political habits, practices, rhetoric, systems, networks, and traditions each project a massive amount of formative power into our daily lives. Occasionally this is hard power but, more often than not, it’s soft. These modern principalities and powers are slippery, subtle, and stubborn. Their diverse formative methods will not easily surrender to Christian campaigns for political transformation. My point is this: Neo-Calvinist political theology needs to think “beyond the state” in its understandings of power in modern public life.
Interestingly, this is not a new arena for Neo-Calvinism to consider. In the 19th century Abraham Kuyper himself was a student of the diverse ways in which modern cultural and political power exerts its formative influence over the church. In one lecture Kuyper compares the power of medieval kings to the power of modernity and the modern nation state. Both project power and punishment, he argues, but they do so in very different ways. The king’s discipline was violent, yes, but it was simple, limited, and external. Modernity and the modern state’s discipline, while relatively peaceful, is complex, expansive, and internal—it seeks to change you from the inside out. Yes, the Middle Ages were violent, Kuyper notes, but “let us not forget that the sector of our life over which the [medieval] state spread its net back then had hardly one tenth the reach of our present government.”2 The disciplinary power of the king could be brutal, true, but it was limited. The disciplinary power of modernity may be gentler, but it is far more ambitious and extensive.
Kuyper argued that part of modernity’s formative power was found in the spreading of the state’s tentacles into every aspect of modern life. Slowly but purposefully modern political cultural could shape, form, and draw the Christian church into the modern liberal whole. In this modernity’s mission and power was much more ambitious and intimate than medieval Christendom’s sword had ever been. Modern power, Kuyper argued, was like a pervasive leaven that “ferments” throughout the “arteries” of political life.3
Kuyper’s “arterial” understanding of modern power foreshadows, in many ways, Michel Foucault’s thesis in his infamous Discipline and Punish.4 Therein the Frenchman argues that the disciplinary power of modernity is “capillary.” Ac- cording to Foucault, modernity’s ability to discipline, assimilate, and ultimately mold a human being into an obedient “modern citizen” could be located within a diffuse and “capillary” network of schools, prisons, hospitals, political media, and institutions. Foucault and Kuyper both argued that this is how modernity and modern political power works. Patiently and diffusely modernity presses for everything and everyone to “become one, indivisibly one . . . and every difference . . . planned away and hollowed out until on the surface of the whole earth there would be just one people . . . [and] all of human life would be the same because it would collectively bear the uniform features of death.”5 Grim indeed. Kuyper and Foucault’s pessimism on modern disciplinary practices is a bit hyperbolic. But grim as it is, the point stands.
Yes, Wolterstorff and the Neo-Calvinists are correct, Christian citizens can (and should) exert their influence and power in political life for the common good. That said, citizens and office holders must understand that influence is a two-way street. The world, through a wide variety of avenues and arteries will exert “capillary” power over its citizens and office holders.
Returning now to the day to day lives of everyday Christians, Kuyper’s attentiveness to arterial power helps us to better reckon with the complex influences of social media and talk radio, music and movies, education and art, racism and microaggressions, political correctness and virtue signaling. Christian citizens—being human—are porous. When engaging in political life they must understand the adage, when you wrestle with a pig, you will get muddy. And the pig, well, the pig will enjoy it.
Abraham Kuyper believed that the complex and formative nature of modern power was worthy of careful academic reflection; 21st century contemporary Neo-Calvinists should return to it.
Second, like many Neo-Calvinists before him, Wolterstorff offers his audience an intellectual framework that citizens can then apply to practical political action. And yet, while I completely agree with the intellectual framework, I worry that the actual political behavior of everyday citizens is determined less by what is going on in their brains and more by what is going on in their guts.
As citizens, our gut-level political experiences of fear and anger, pleasure and pain, recrimination and victimhood can quickly overwhelm our theological concepts of “imago Dei,” “common grace,” “sphere sovereignty,” and “convicted civility.” Political life in America is not defined by a technocratic debate over marginal tax rates on C-SPAN. More often than not, it’s forged through existential shouting matches at bars and dinner tables, via cable news and social media. Related to this consider a citizen’s raw trauma of experiencing racial or sexual discrimination. This experience has a way of settling deeply into their political bones and imaginations in a way that no philosophy lecture ever could. Similarly, the lived reality of spending decades growing up in a mono-religious, mono-cultural, and gated community can make it difficult to imagine how a multicultural city and a multi-religious state could even work. As citizens, our complex stories, experiences, and lived reality shape our political emotions and imaginations in deep and profound ways. So shaped, intellectual concepts like “common grace” and “imago Dei” all too often ricochet off our minds and hearts.
Wolterstorff’s philosophy of “principled pluralism” stimulates my brain, but can it grab my heart? Can it turn my guts? Pluralist philosophers have argued for decades that the state must “respect diverse political opinions and religious communities.” Try putting that on a bumper sticker. It hardly makes for a catchy meme or a riveting political chant. Michael Walzer argues that modern political citizens and office holders demand a stirring vision of some total victory or some future dominance. Political speeches need a clear demarcation of friends and enemies. The pluralist’s nuanced argument for a “diverse civil society,” a “community of communities” hardly fit the bill. As Walzer explains, something crucial “is lost when we give up the single-mindedness” of political purity and national uniformity. Looking back on the history of modern revolutionary movements, Walzer remarks, there was a
heroism in those projects—a concentration of energy, a clear sense of direction, an unblinking recognition of friends and enemies……. The defense of civil society doesn’t seem quite comparable….. its greatest virtue lies in its inclusiveness and inclusiveness does not make for heroism. ‘Join the associations of your choice’ is not a slogan to rally political militants.6
Govert Buijs echoes these sentiments when he asks whether a pluralistic society can actually “be desirable?” For many citizens and office holders alike, deep pluralism feels “morally defective, a muddy complex of compromises . . . weak and effeminate . . . inefficient, time-consuming, and bothersome.”7 To be clear, Walzer and Buijs are not calling for fascism or populism because it would make for more thrilling political speeches. Rather, they are honestly reckoning with the fact that the lived political reality of everyday citizens and office holders involves real emotions and raw desire, it requires heroism and—in a word—guts. The question for Neo-Calvinists is this: how might the ideas of the tradition move from an everyday citizen’s head to their heart?
While Neo-Calvinists today spend little time wrestling with the role of guts and emotion within political life, the same cannot be said for their founder Abraham Kuyper. His political speeches were fiery and romantic, emotional and imaginative. Night after night Kuyper thundered with passion and evocative language about the urgency of political action rousing his followers to the cause. Sure, Kuyper loved a great theory and an interesting intellectual argument, but he understood that everyday citizens needed stories and illustrations, heroes and martyrs, imagination and passion. While Christian intellectuals today often ignore (or actively warn against) the influence of emotion in Christian political life, Kuyper understood that a citizen’s heart and guts were always alive and active in the public sphere. Best for Neo-Calvinist scholars—like myself—to accept, reflect, and engage.
This leads to my third point: while Kuyper’s intellectual heirs have spilled considerable ink exploring his political theology, they are relatively quiet on his political spirituality. Throughout his forty-year political career, Abraham Kuyper wrote thousands of morning devotionals for Christian citizens and party leaders all over the Netherlands. Kuyper was not simply a political activist or an academic scholar, he was—in a very important sense—a spiritual mystic.8 These three aspects of his life—activist, scholar, and mystic—each informed political imagination and witness.
And yet, while their founder considered a nation’s spiritual life to be central to its political health, neither Wolterstorff nor Neo-Calvinists in general include the activities of prayer, worship, or spiritual discipline in their initial descriptions of a Neo-Calvinist approach to politics. Piety and prayer will occasionally be mentioned in Neo-Calvinist works on politics, but only after the truly important political ideas, theories, and frameworks are outlined in full.
What is interesting to note here is that Wolterstorff himself has written extensively on the connections between liturgy and justice, worship and public life.9 This is not a Neo-Calvinist innovation. Both Kuyper and Calvin before him understood worship to be a publicly significant act of citizenship. When it comes to Neo-Calvinist political theology, worship can no longer be an addendum, it must be integral.
My fourth concern was hinted at earlier: many ordinary citizens today re- port feeling politically disempowered, disenfranchised, and helpless in American political life. The massive cultural power of political, economic, and academic elites overwhelms them. How much difference can one vote make within the massive power fields that engage and expand throughout American public life? What possible difference could one citizen make? While Neo-Calvinism encourages Christians to “make a difference” it does not provide them with any direction on the effective practice of power building or power projecting through the hard and slow work of political advocacy, community organizing, and institution building.
This Neo-Calvinist blind spot is terribly ironic given its 19th century origins. After all, the tradition first developed as a grassroots movement of precisely this practical work of political advocacy, community organizing, and institution building. These early bands of farmers, merchants, and pastors were impressive in their ability to both build and project political power. Neo-Calvinists established newspapers, organized rallies, built schools, wrote editorials, established unions, and developed the first modern political party in Dutch history. Kuyper’s kin were organizers first, second, and third. Only later would they become academics. The infamous Neo-Calvinist university and philosophy department would not come for decades.
Thus, while 19th century Neo-Calvinism developed as a grassroots movement with a tremendous capacity for building and projecting power, in the 21st century the tradition is now known for its intellectual reflection on the nature of philosophy, theology, science, politics, and the arts.
In light of this, Neo-Calvinists might rightly ask how our—now lost—tradition of community organizing and institution building might be recovered and reimagined?
The practical urgency of this matter can be found on the ground today in Washington, DC. By and large, Christian citizens and office holders are participating in political organizations that are conceived or oriented around the power of the world—not the power of the gospel. Their political methods of power building and projection largely mimic the political methods and rhetoric of the world around them. If Neo-Calvinists were truly attentive to the lived reality of Christian citizens and office holders in American political life today, they would see the urgent need for a new age of theological reflection on power building and projection in ways that are consistent with the gospel.
This brings us to my fifth and final concern: Neo-Calvinist academics would greatly benefit from an increased attentiveness to and respect for everyday citizens and office holders. The political laity hold within their lives and stories a great treasure of theological wisdom, experience, and insight into political faithfulness.
I mention this because I’ve become increasingly concerned with a creeping academic elitism within Neo-Calvinist circles when it comes to the laity. Within this unwelcome Neo-Calvinist hierarchy academics direct and clarify the political theology from an ivory tower while everyday activists, citizens, and office holders are directed to merely implement theories in real life. Furthermore, when ordinary Calvinists do not vote or think as they are instructed, Neo-Calvinist academics lament that God has given them obstinate pupils. The assumption is clear, Neo-Calvinist political theology is a work forged in the academy and handed down to the street, from the scholar to the office holder. Theory first, practice second.
Once again, this approach appears backward from the 19th century development of Neo-Calvinism. Early Neo-Calvinists did not develop a theory of the state in the university and then apply that theory in everyday political practice. Kuyper’s political theology was in no way systematic. It was a complex amalgamation of concepts and images, stories and speeches that did not all fit together. Neo-Calvinists like Kuyper did political theology “on the run.” It was in and through the process of politicking that glimmers of political wisdom and creativity began to emerge.
Vincent Bacote argues that Kuyper and his followers understood that political faithfulness and wisdom came in and through a life of political action. God’s calling for citizens is “discovered not merely through biblical exegesis or spiritual reflection but in the process of governance.” Bacote writes that, according to Kuyper, there are divine laws “built into creation by God that can be discovered through experience.” Quoting Kuyper directly, “We regard as incontrovertible the assertion that the laws governing life reveal themselves spontaneously in life. . . . We learn to know the laws of thought by thinking. By doing business we discover the art of commerce. Industry blazes its own path. The same is true for political life.”10
Christian academics must therefore humbly admit that citizens who are actually engaged in citizenship and statecraft are working within God’s creation and its ordinances. As these everyday Christians engage in the practice of politics, they too have access to the wisdom and work of God in the world. Citizens, therefore, are not simply the recipients of political theology, they are actively doing political theology as they engage in the everyday political processes of dispute, dialogue, advocacy, and organizing.
In light of this, how might a renewed academic respect and even deference to the theological wisdom of everyday Christian citizens and office holders inform our political theology? Put another way, if Wolterstorff had written his account of Neo-Calvinist politics in partnership with his friend the good congressman Paul Henry, how might his essay have been altered or improved?
To push the question further, how might a careful and attentive ethnographic study of real Christian activists, office holders, lobbyists, media members, and think tank leaders in Washington, DC inform a Neo-Calvinist political theology in Grand Rapids? If we take the “priesthood of all believers” seriously, perhaps more attentiveness to the political wisdom of the laity is something to consider.
Cite this article
- James A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).
- Abraham Kuyper, “Calvinism: Source and Stronghold,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1998), 282.
- Kuyper, “Uniformity: The Curse of Modern Life,” 35.
- Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, NY: Random House, 1995).
- Kuyper, “Uniformity: The Curse of Modern Life,” 33.
- Michael Walzer, “The Idea of Civil Society: A Path to Social Reconstruction,” in Community Works: The Revival of Civil Society, ed. E. J. Dionne (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1998), 141–143.
- Govert Buijs, “The Promise of Civil Society,” in Civil Society: East and West, ed. Peter Blokhuis (Sioux Center, IA: Dordt College Press, 2006), 30–31.
- Clay Cooke and Steven Garber, “Kuyper the Mystic,” Comment, June 1, 2010, https://comment.org/kuyper-the-mystic/.
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church, and World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2010).
- Vincent E. Bacote, The Spirit of Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 58.