Let me begin by warmly thanking Amy Black, Matthew Kaemingk, and Paul Weithman for their generous and challenging comments on my essay, “Fidelity in Politics.” I have found it both enjoyable and instructive to reflect on what they say. In my response to their comments, I will begin with comments on some intellectual issues that they raise, and then move on to their challenging comments on practical issues.
Situating neo-Calvinism Historically
Weithman prefaces his comparison of modern Catholic social teaching with the neo-Calvinist tradition by locating the former historically. It begins with the encyclical Rerum novarum, issued in 1898 by Pope Leo XIII. But Leo’s thought, though novel in a number of ways, had antecedents; it is an episode in a tradition of socio-political thought. Weithman offers a brief identification of that tradition, singling out for mention the Spanish neo-scholastics, Vitoria and Suarez, Aquinas, Augustine, the church fathers in general, and Hebrew and Christian scripture.
Just as Rerum novarum did not spring from nowhere but represented an episode in a two-millennia long tradition, so too Kuyper’s socio-political thought represents an episode in a tradition that likewise goes back to Hebrew and Christian scripture and the church fathers, especially Augustine. It’s when we get to the Reformation and the counter-Reformation that what had been a unified tradition of (Western) Christian socio-political thought split into the tradition of socio-political thought by members of the Catholic church and a number of traditions of socio-political thought, including the Reformed, by members of Protestant churches.
Lest a false impression be given, however, it must be noted that the Reformed tradition of socio-political thought, though distinct from the Catholic, did not develop independently of the Catholic tradition. The Spanish neo-scholastics proved to be important not only in the shaping of the Catholic tradition but also in the shaping of the Reformed tradition. John Witte, distinguished professor in the law school of Emory University, is my go-to on matters of legal history. Following is what he wrote to me in private correspondence:
The first generation of magisterial reformers knew a bit about but did rather little to engage the Spanish neo-scholastics. . . . By the second half of the sixteenth century and certainly by the early seventeenth, Calvinists in particular began to engage and partly absorb Spanish lore. . . . Althusius in Emden was exemplary in this, and he read and cited a number of Salamancan jurists, philosophers, and theologians, Vitoria especially. But by this point a lot of the Protestant scholastics, as Richard Muller calls the later generations of sixteenth century Protestants. . . drew selectively and eclectically from the Salamancan sages, and also used them to reread and cite Aquinas and other medieval scholastics. And seventeen century Protestant jurists who were creating their big synthetic summae on law and jurisprudence swept in Spanish sources regularly. . . .1
Johannes Althusius (1563–1638), whom Witte cites as “exemplary” in his engagement with the Spanish neo-scholastics, has strong claim to being regarded as the greatest political thinker in the Reformed tradition. His influence on Kuyper was deep; there are pages in Kuyper’s publications that read as if he had a volume of Althusius open on his desk as he was writing.
James Bratt, author of the definitive biography of Abraham Kuyper, wrote the following to me in private correspondence in response to some questions I asked him about Catholic influences on Kuyper: “Kuyper’s original, and lasting, inspiration was Bishop von Ketteler of Mainz, a key father of Catholic social teaching. He read von Ketteler’s 1864 publication, The Labor Question and the Christian Religion, and wrote his own Introduction to a 1867 Dutch translation of von Ketteler’s work.”2 The quite extraordinary similarity of thought between Leo’s Rerum novarum of 1898 and the speech Kuyper gave to the first Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam the same year, titled “The Social Question and the Christian Religion,” has often been noted. The similarity, it turns out, was not coincidental.
In my essay I wrote, there is “a remarkable and gratifying convergence between the neo-Calvinist and Catholic traditions.” The convergence is indeed gratifying; but given the historical connections pointed out by Witte and Bratt, hardly remarkable. Not only do the two traditions share the (Western) Christian tradition up to the Reformation and counter-Reformation; the Reformed tradition has repeatedly engaged the Catholic tradition. Whether there has also been engagement in the reverse direction, I do not know.3
Let me conclude this section of my response with a comment on terminology (I think it is no more than a matter of terminology). Weithman notes that contemporary Catholic social teaching is a “subset or strand” of what he calls Catholic political thought. And he says that he uses the latter term “to refer to what is said or implied about political questions in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.” Later he notes that he also uses it to refer to “the writings of the Greek and Latin fathers that touch on social and political questions, prominently including certain works of Augustine’s.” If I interpret these comments correctly, Weithman counts St. Paul and Augustine as Catholic thinkers.
This use of the term “Catholic” seems to me not apt. When I see the word “Catholic” spelled with a capital letter, I think, in some contexts, of Catholic in distinction from Eastern Orthodox and, in other contexts, Catholic in distinction from Protestant. But when St. Paul and Augustine wrote, there were no Catholic thinkers in distinction from either Orthodox or Protestant thinkers. Augustine was a Christian thinker, not a Catholic thinker; St. Paul was, well, a Jewish writer, not a Catholic writer. I, as a Protestant, count St. Paul and Augustine as my forebears in the long tradition of Christian thought.
The pre-Reformation theologian Aquinas (1225–1274) is a more complicated case. For some rather fortuitous reasons that I won’t go into here, it seems more natural to call Aquinas a “Catholic” thinker than to call St. Paul and Augustine “Catholic” thinkers, this in spite of the fact that he lived almost three centuries before the earliest reformers (John Calvin: 1509–1564). When I was a student at Calvin University, I took a course in Aquinas’ Summa theologiae. We studied each “Question” in great detail; when the semester ended, we had reached Question 21. The attitude communicated to us by our professor was that Aquinas was one of our forebears in the tradition of Christian thought. Ever since, I have not thought of Aquinas as a Catholic thinker that we Protestants happen to find rewarding to study. Aquinas is a (Western) Christian thinker.
Two questions about Kuyper
Weithman asks two questions about Kuyper that I will answer as best I can. In my essay I indicated that Kuyper’s 1898 Christian Social Congress speech was addressed to the problem of the rural poverty then pervasive in the Netherlands. Weithman writes that Pope Leo, in Rerum novarum, issued in the same year, was similarly “moved by the poverty of the working classes in industrial Europe.” Weithman then notes that Leo was very much worried about the appeal of socialism, and asks whether Kuyper was similarly “worried that socialism would capture the hearts and minds of the rural poor.”
I put this question to Bratt. His answer was that Kuyper flitted back and forth in his attitude toward socialism—or, at least, in his expressed attitude toward socialism. In some of his speeches “he went after [socialists] with a vengeance.” In his Social Congress speech, he treated them as allies in his critique of capitalism but also “urged radical reforms both as just in themselves and as a prudential antidote to socialist appeals.”4
The second question Weithman asks about Kuyper is the following. In my essay I quoted a passage from Kuyper’s Social Congress speech which included this line: Christ “invariably took sides against those who were powerful and living in luxury, and for the suffering and oppressed . . . (first italics original, second italics added).” Weithman asks about the words, “powerful and living in luxury.” He observes that the economically powerful—the rich—do not always live in luxury. Did Kuyper hold that Christ condemned them as well, and did he, Kuyper, join Christ in that condemnation? Did Kuyper regard wealth as per se evil? Obviously he did not hold the view that Max Weber attributed to Calvinists, namely, that wealth is a sign of God’s favor. So what was his view about wealth?
A nuanced answer would require re-reading Bratt’s Kuyper biography. Let me just note that Kuyper saw himself, and was seen by his followers, as speaking up for the little people in the Netherlands—in Dutch, the kleine luiden. The movement Kuyper founded and led was an early populist movement. The wealthy among the Dutch were, and are, well-known for not flaunting their wealth. It appears to me that Kuyper’s view was that whether or not the wealthy flaunt their wealth, whether or not they “live in luxury,” Christ “never takes his place with the wealthier, but always stands with the poorer.”
A word that occurs often in Kuyper’s social critique is “domination.”5 It was domination of the kleine luiden that raised his ire; he saw that domination as taking many different forms; ecclesiastical, political, economic, academic. He intuitively associated wealth with domination. It most certainly was not a sign of God’s favor.6 Weithman asks whether Kuyper, in his Social Congress speech was “calling for a revolutionary shift in Calvinism.” If historical Calvinism did in fact fit Max Weber’s characterization, then Kuyper was indeed calling for “a revolutionary shift.”
The Common Good
Weithman writes, “The concept of the common good is central to Catholic political thought, but absent from Wolterstorff’s survey of neo-Calvinism.” He then gives a brief articulation of the concept of the common good as it functions in Catholic political thought and concludes,
I would be interested to know whether neo-Calvinism has a similar idea of the common good which Wolterstorff does not mention, whether it incorporates the same perfectionist and communitarian value using different concepts, or whether the importance of the common good in Catholic political thought indicates a fundamental theoretical difference from neo-Calvinism—perhaps a difference with practical implications.
In my essay I did in fact employ the concept of the common good; but what I said was brief and unemphatic, easily overlooked. I wrote:
It was not [Kuyper’s] view that justice should be the only goal [of Christian political activity]. Citizens and government officials may also seek various aspects of the common good not required by justice—provided that that aspect of the common good is not achieved at the cost of wreaking injustice on some citizens. Indeed, sometimes it is not only permissible but necessary to seek certain aspects of the common good.
In my essay, I did not develop this point.
When I think of the common good, I think of it through the lens of the biblical concept of shalom. On quite a few occasions I have written about shalom, first, in the section “Justice in Shalom” in my Until Justice and Peace Embrace, most recently in the chapter “Beyond Justice: Shalom,” in the exchange of letters with Kurt Ver Beek titled Call for Justice. (In the collection Reformed Public Theology, edited by Matthew Kaemingk, Eric Jacobsen has a chapter titled “Streets of Shalom: Reformed Reflections on Urban Design”).7
So it is not the case that the idea of the common good plays no role in the thought of neo-Calvinists. It would appear, though, that the role it plays in the neo-Calvinist tradition is less prominent than the role it plays in contemporary Catholic thought. Weithman wonders whether that “indicates a fundamental theoretical difference” between these two traditions.
I think not. There is nothing Weithman says in his brief articulation of how the common good is understood in contemporary Catholic thought that I disagree with. I regard “the importance of flourishing civic relations” as no less fundamental in Christian political activity than he does. So why have we, in the neo-Calvinist tradition, said less on the topic?
But maybe there is more than meets the eye. Maybe the idea is there in neo-Calvinism without the term. Consider Kuyper’s idea of sphere sovereignty: is that not a particular “take” on the common good? Different from Weithman’s, certainly; but if it is not a “take” on the common good, what is it? Politics, says Weithman, “should aim at making conditions of temporal flourishing available.” Kuyper argued at length that a condition of temporal flourishing is that activity in one social sphere not dominate activity in another.
From Theory to Practice
My essay originated as the Paul Henry Lecture for 2022, sponsored by the Henry Institute of Calvin University. Paul Henry was a good friend of mine. At the time of his untimely death I heard from many quarters that, short though his tenure as a United States Representative was, he had become influential among his colleagues and was widely admired. In honor of his career change from political theory to political practice, I decided to focus my lecture on the neo-Calvinist understanding of Christian political activity rather than on its political theory.
After praising what I said in the essay, Kaemingk goes on to call attention to what he regards as an important lack, a lack that he thinks is a lack not just in my presentation of the neo-Calvinist tradition but in the tradition itself as it developed after Kuyper.
The lack is the failure to say anything about the “attempt to transition from abstract political theory to concrete political action.” In the neo-Calvinist tradition generally after Kuyper there is, Kaemingk writes, a “lack of sustained attention to the lived reality of political praxis”—a lack of “attentiveness to the embodied practice of politics in the lives of everyday Christians.”
Having in one’s mind a neo-Calvinist understanding of Christian political activity is one thing; putting that understanding into practice is another. What Kaemingk is asking for, and what he finds lacking in the neo-Calvinist tradition generally and in my presentation specifically, is sustained reflection on what comes in-between these two—reflection on obstacles to successful political activity, reflection on what enables success, etc. He argues that whereas Kuyper did engage in these in-between reflections, the tradition following him has by-and-large not done so.
After mentioning four in-between topics that call for “sustained attention,” he argues that, in developing these in-between reflections, we should solicit and incorporate the embodied wisdom of committed and reflective activists and not confine ourselves to the ponderings of academics. He wonders what would have emerged had Paul Henry and I written a book together, after Paul had been engaged for some time in practical politics: “how might [my] essay have been altered or improved?”
The four in-between topics that Kaemingk mentions as calling for sustained attention are the following: (1) Sustained reflection on the fact that Christians are less often “transforming American politics” than “being transformed by American politics.” (2) Sustained reflection on the fact 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.” Political activity requires emotional engagement. (3) Sustained reflection on the important role of Christian spirituality in Christian political activity. (4) Sustained reflection on how to develop the “effective practice of power building or power projecting through the hard slow work of political advocacy, community organizing, and institution building.”
Kaemingk is correct in noting that I said nothing in my essay on any of these topics. It’s a nice question whether I could have sustained the attention of my audience had I gone on for, say, twenty more minutes. But I could have addressed these topics in the essay based on the lecture. That I did not do so is indeed a lack; the topics Kaemingk mentions are important. However, the fact that I said nothing about them in either my lecture or my essay should not be taken as an indication of the fact that the post-Kuyper tradition has said nothing about them. No doubt they have not been adequately addressed; but they have not been ignored.
Before I substantiate this claim, let me bring Amy Black’s contribution into the discussion. She writes: “Political scientists have identified three forces currently at play in the United States that fuel divisive politics: affective polarization, negative partisanship, and calcification. These trends make it difficult to engage in the civil, fair, and empathetic politics Wolterstorff envisions.” What Black identifies as three features of present-day American politics that make it difficult to engage as a Christian in politics is another important in-between topic that calls for sustained reflection.
After identifying these divisive features of present-day American politics and noting that they constitute a profound hindrance to Christian political activity, Black adds: “Sadly, many Christians are caught in this web of destructive politics, and their behavior looks too much like their secular peers.” Black has, in effect, fleshed out Kaemingk’s first point, that Christians less often transform American politics than they are transformed by American politics. They are transformed by its affective polarization, its negative partisanship, and its calcification.
Now to the matter that I postponed. The situation is not quite as dire as Kaemingk’s discussion might lead on to think it is. As for Christians being transformed by American politics: Kaemingk himself notes that James K. A. Smith has written extensively on this topic under the rubric of what Smith calls cultural liturgies; his ideas on the matter have been discussed in many quarters.
As for political activity requiring the engagement of the emotions and not just the mind: I have myself written on an important aspect of the topic, arguing that few people become engaged in working for social justice without feeling empathy with the victims and/or anger at the perpetrators. See chapter 23 of my Journey toward Justice and chapter 13 of the book I did with Ver Beek, Call for Justice.
As for Christian political activity requiring Christian spirituality: Kaemingk notes that I have written extensively on the connection between liturgy and justice. See chapter VII of Until Justice and Peace Embrace, a number of essays collected in Hearing the Call, a number of other essays collected in United in Love: Essays on Justice, Art, and Liturgy, and chapter 13 of Acting Liturgically.8 The South African theologian and activist, Allan Boesak, has also written on the topic; and when the struggle against apartheid was going on he put his convictions into practice by organizing and leading a number of worship services for those engaged in the struggle, including one that became highly controversial: a service devoted to praying for the downfall of the apartheid government.
As for the exercise of power: I have been educated and inspired by Jeffrey Stout’s book, Blessed are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America.9 With a generous helping of lessons and examples from Stout, I explored the topic extensively in part 4 of Journey toward Justice.10 Reading John Rawls’ Political Literalism, one would think that political activity is rather like a genteel college or university faculty meeting in which professors offer reasons to their colleagues for some policy that they favor, colleagues listening attentively, some offering reasons for alternative policy proposals, and so forth. Stout’s book makes clear how far this is from the actuality of politics, how central is the exercise of power.11
I would have relished writing a book with Paul Henry, in which the insights of a deeply Christian reflective activist were exchanged and blended with those of an academic. Paul’s untimely death forestalled that. What I have done is write, together with Kurt Ver Beek, the book mentioned above, Call for Justice. The subtitle of the book is From Practice to Theory and Back. Together with Carlos Hernandez, Ver Beek heads up an extraordinarily creative and influential social justice movement in Honduras: Association for a More Just Society (ASJ). The book, Call for Justice, is an exchange of letters between Ver Beek and myself, Ver Beek describing how ASJ operates and why it operates as it does, I reflecting theologically and philosophically on the work of ASJ.
Let me close with a comment on the final section of Amy Black’s contribution. In this final section, she issues four imperatives to her fellow Christians: (1) Practice a politics guided by virtue and love for neighbor. (2) Seek opportunities to interact with and learn from those who hold different views. (3) Make space in churches for charitable discussion of contentious issues. (4) Reward thoughtful criticism, respectful political engagement, and compromise.
All of these are indeed things Christians should be doing. But given the point that she and Kaemingk both make, that Christians have been transformed by American politics, including its divisiveness, how hopeful can we be that Christians will in fact act in these ways? It would be wonderful if there were space in churches for “charitable discussion of contentious political issues.” But from multiple sources I hear that, in many churches, there is no such space and little or no hope of creating it.
Nonetheless, I remain cautiously hopeful that here and there, in various ways, Christians can make an impact. ASJ is making an impact in Honduras. Citizens for Public Justice is making an impact in Washington, D.C. Three days before writing this paragraph, Hillary Scholten, an exemplary Christian politician, was elected to the United States House of Representatives from my home city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. David La Grand, another exemplary Christian politician, is completing several terms in the Michigan House of Representatives; sadly, last Tuesday he narrowly lost in his bid for a seat in the Michigan Senate.
In her “victory” speech, Scholten said, among other things, “We’re a community that values service over self. . . . We’re a community that cares for its poor, its vulnerable, and welcomes the stranger, a community where differences are not feared but valued. We love our country and we will not tolerate anti- democratic, anti-American extremism here.” This is Christian politics at its best!
There is nothing anywhere in the world approaching the size and influence of the grass-roots Christian political movement that Kuyper led in the Netherlands at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. But Christian political activity on the part of individuals, organizations, and office-holders is not dead. I am reminded of a remark by a Dutch Capuchin monk at the end of our rather dispirited conversation about the state of Christianity in the Netherlands: “If you look at the grass from a distance, it may look all brown. But if you get down on your knees and look up close, almost always you will find some blades of green.”
Cite this article
- Personal correspondence with John Witte, quoted by permission.
- Personal correspondence with James Bratt, quoted by permission.
- In my essay I wrote, “in the twentieth century neo-Calvinist tradition, there has emerged an understanding of Christian political activity that rivals, in depth and scope, that of contemporary Catholicism.” I continue to judge this to be true. But I should have added that neo-Calvinism does not rival contemporary Catholic social teaching in number of adherents and influence.
- Personal correspondence with James Bratt, quoted by permission.
- It was Jeffrey Stout who pointed this out to me; I had not noticed it. See his essay, “Christianity and Class Struggle,” in The Kuyper Center Review, Vol. 4, ed. John Bowlin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 40–53.
- Whether, as Kuyper aged and gained influence, he softened in his attitude toward wealth, is, as they say, a “nice” question.
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Justice in Shalom,” in Until Justice and Peace Embrace: The Kuyper Lectures for 1981 Delivered at the Free University of Amsterdam (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983); Kurt Ver Beek and Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Beyond Justice: Shalom,” in Call for Justice: From Practice to Theory and Back (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019); Eric Jacobsen, “Streets of Shalom: Reformed Reflection on Urban Design,” in Reformed Public Theology: A Global Vision for Life in the World, ed. Matthew Kaemingk (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2021).
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church, and World, ed. Mark R. Gornik and Gregory Thompson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011); Nicholas Wolterstorff, United in Love: Essays on Justice, Art, and Liturgy, ed. Joshua Cockayne and Jonathan C. Rutledge (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021); Nicholas Wolterstorff, Acting Liturgically: Philosophical Reflections on Religious Practice (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018).
- Jeffrey Stout, Blessed are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, Journey toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2013).
- John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993).