What About Christian Politics?
The political activity of many Christians does not go beyond voting 'conservative,' as if conservativism is synonymous with Christianity. Perhaps it is time for a reformation of this thinking.
Although American society has for centuries been developed on the basis of a Judeo-Christian heritage, one might very well ask the question to what extent any real bond exists on this continent between the Christian faith and actual politics. Having the sessions of the Canadian House of Commons opened with a prayer and American presidents installed with a suitable passage of Scripture, is little more than nominal homage to “the powers that be” if the daily political procedure is not permeated throughout with truly Christian principles and motivation. There are enough symbolic gestures in politics, as it is. Either reckon concretely and completely with God and His revelation, also politically, or don't even mention His Name.
We might even ask the question whether politics should at all be governed by one's religious beliefs. Should we not maintain a complete separation between Church and State? Shortly before the Canadian federal election of 1979, candidates from five political parties met to discuss policy with the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA) in Burlington, Ontario. Those candidates who professed to believe in Jesus Christ were clearly at a loss when asked how they would implement their Christian principles in actual politics. The puzzled candidates responded along this line: religion is a highly personal matter, a Sunday-affair; politics is a daily grind, separate from religion. At most one can try not to compromise one's convictions overmuch. It never dawned on any of the candidates present that faith shapes politics, and then not on a few isolated issues (such as abortion or capital punishment) but essentially and practically in every area of life. Even keeping Church and State separate, (in the sense that the Church should not govern the State and vice-versa) one can engage in refreshingly constructive Christian politics!
The vast majority of people, however, is far from appreciating this possibility. Many Christians, too, sadly have no understanding of this calling. The political activity of many Christians does not go beyond voting “conservative,” as if conservatism is synonymous with Christianity. Perhaps it is time for a reformation of this thinking. Therefore, in this article, we wish to confront ourselves with the question, “What about Christian politics?”
What is politics?
We might first try to answer another, related question, “What is politics?” To some the word “politics” suggests shady business and dishonest dealings for self-enrichment. The current inability of politicians to solve national and international problems has caused many people to despair of politics and to distrust politicians. Still, every nation must have a policy whereby it is governed and every concerned party must have its politics, a theory and practice to manage public affairs to the benefit of all.
In politics, then, we are concerned with the theory and practice of government. Which underlying principles shall be followed in governing the land? Which goals (short- and long-term) do we set for our nation? How do we purpose to achieve such goals? These questions, and more, we face in politics.
Notice the close connection between “theory” and “practice.” At the basis of all political action is a specific political theory, philosophy or belief. In political programs also, we seek to realize our ideas and ideals. There is no real political party that does not base its practice on some philosophy, be it atheistic or God-fearing. And, in politics there must be a healthy, corrective interaction between theory and practice. One may not try to realize one's own ideas at every cost, so that (as in the communist philosophy) the end sanctifies the means. Neither may we fumble about haphazardly without a basic political philosophy. Perhaps here lies the cause of much political bumbling today: politicians either cling tenaciously to an unworkable political doctrine or have discarded all doctrine whatsoever, simply floundering on a day-to-day basis. Often we are flung between political leaders with an overdose of vision and those with a total lack of vision. The result is, at best, uninspired or sloppy politics.
Because the emphasis in North American politics is largely pragmatical and politicians do not really appear to differ much as to their political philosophy, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish clearly between the various political parties. The explosive issues are not so much of an ethical, but more of an economical nature. Federal elections can be won, as in Canada in 1980, for the mere price of pennies, 18 cents per gallon to be exact, pennies which inevitably amount to much more after the election. All this does not make North American politics more lucid or lovely.
Politics – the art of governing – has in the past decades evidently been unable to cope adequately, if at all. As society becomes more selfish, citizens become more cantankerous and politicians more perplexed. The discontent of the citizen is matched only by the frustration of the politician. Raw reality is ripping apart one political theory after the other.
The question on the minds of many must be: how do we go from here? Do we face the emergence of total anarchy? Or are we in for totalitarian government?
Not surprisingly, there is a growing reaction to such pallid politics, notably from the “Christian” camp. In our time we see many Christians uniting in movements to influence politics and especially politicians more positively. The emergence of the Moral Majority Movement in the US is an illustrative example. Concerned citizens want and demand a more responsible government which duly reckons with the Christian heritage of the nation. Of course, we can appreciate this fully. But sadly, this predominantly fundamentalist movement lacks the necessary political depth to bring about any true and lasting change.
One cannot suffice with being anti-smut, anti-abortion and anti-abolitionist. A few worthwhile slogans do not yet make a solid, Christian-political program with which to address the nation.
In order to witness at large politically, one must have a program in depth Scripturally. We are concerned with such an in depth, reformed political program.
Various ideologies; a common denominator
It may be helpful, before we attempt to show what the basics of Christian politics are, first to look at some of the predominant political ideologies which have been promoted and practised. In this way we can see especially how a basic starting point is decisive for all that follows.
Whatever political philosophy there may be in our time, be it Communism, Fascism, Socialism or Liberalism, the basic spirit is that of the French Revolution, “liberty, equality, fraternity,” while the basic belief is the autonomy of man. People then need no longer to be governed by the Word of God but are able, through scientific and technological advance, to solve all problems on their own and in their own manner. Man has become a law unto himself, thinking to hold his destiny firmly in his own hands.
This rationalistic and humanistic philosophy unceasingly stresses man's own positive abilities to create and ensure a better world. At the basis of this lies the conviction that man is naturally good. All people are equal, with equal rights to happiness, and these rights are best realized in a “democratic” society.
How different the mainstream political ideologies of today may appear to be, they do share the above philosophy. We restrict ourselves in this article to traditional liberalism and modern socialism. Both have the same starting point ('the basic goodness of man') and the same goal ('realizing the rights of man'), except they differ radically on the manner in which the objective must be achieved. Traditional Liberalism emphasizes the rights and abilities of the society.
Not surprisingly, there is a growing rights and abilities of the individual; modern Socialism takes its starting-point in the pre-eminence of society. A difference, thus of individualism versus collectivism. Liberals will champion individual freedom and free enterprise; socialists will battle for equal rights and social concerns. If the previous century was, perhaps, dominated more by the spirit of Liberalism, the present age shows a breakthrough of Socialism, to the extent that even socialists go by the name of liberals!
Methods change, but the basic line is still there: autonomous man creating a better world for himself according to his own insight. There may be “freedom of religion,” but in no way may principles of faith influence day-to-day politics. Since man is sovereign, so also the state is law and an end unto itself. The spirit of the Revolution prevails.
In this light it becomes all the more clear what we mean by “Christian politics.”
Overagainst the idea of the “sovereignty of the people,” a Christian politician will maintain the “sovereignty of God.” This means that man is not a law and an end unto himself, but that God's sovereign right to life and rule over life is recognized fully in every aspect of life.
A Christian politician will seek to be guided, both in legislation and law-enforcement, by the revealed Word of God.
A Christian politician does not share in the humanistic optimism that man is basically good or in the humanistic materialism that man's basic cause is to satisfy his needs.
Christian politics is motivated by the belief that also public and social life is to be developed to the glory of God and that the civil government has been appointed by God “because of the depravity of mankind … to the end that the dissoluteness of men might be restrained and all things carried on among them with good order and decency” (Belgic Confession, Article 36).
In Christian politics we believe that “Righteousness (=obedience to God's Law) exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34) and that indeed, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD” (Psalm 33:12).
This truly different starting-point does not mean again confusing Church and State, as if the one is to govern the other. The previously quoted Belgic Confession argues against three misconceptions concerning “Church and State,” namely, that the State would be subject to the Church (Roman Catholicism), that the Church would be subject to the State (Lutheranism) or that Christians have nothing to do whatsoever with the State (Anabaptists). In my book, Everything in Christ, I have written earlier, “The principal position of our Confession is that while the civil government is secular (i.e. designed for the affairs of this world), it cannot be neutral towards the Church, since the government also finds its origin in God and must rule in accordance with His Will” (page 141). The civil government is appointed by God, is responsible to Him first and foremost, and must in each and every policy reckon with His sovereign Will. This is the essence of Christian politics, which is glorifying to God and always beneficial to the people in the very deepest sense.
Christian politics may therefore aptly be described as being “anti-revolutionary,” the word “revolution” here taken first in the historic sense of the French Revolution. Contra the autonomy of man and the sovereignty of the people. It can also be taken in a broader and deeper sense: contra the revolution which took place in paradise (Genesis 3), where man sought himself to determine good and evil, the revolution out of which all subsequent revolutions emerged.
Against this revolution God has revealed and anointed Jesus Christ, Who after His suffering and death, has been exalted and given a Name above every name; seated at God's right hand as the Head of His Church, to break all revolution and to restore all things unto God (Psalm 2, Psalm 110, Philippians 2, Colossians 1, Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 19).
Anti-revolutionary politics is indeed Christian politics!
Christians believe that the Bible and the Reformed Creeds are clear and shed decisive light also on the many political and worldly matters with which we are concerned today. They believe that God is now exercising dominion through Jesus Christ to whom “all power has been given in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28). There is a solid basis – the Word of Christ – a great reality, the Kingship of Christ, and a grand purpose, the Glory of Christ which give deep meaning to Christian political action.
The Reformed political movement in The Netherlands
The North American continent has until now not witnessed such positive Christian political activity, and many will, perhaps, feel that such action is doomed from the start. It is good to note, however, that such Christian politics – based on the Word of God and the Reformed confessions – has been practised successfully for centuries elsewhere, e.g. in The Netherlands.
The Reformed political movement there produced not only statesmen of great fame, it was also instrumental in bringing about a healthy nation, morally strong and economically sound.
If one were to trace the origins of the Dutch Christian political movement in detail, one should go back to the early years after the Reformation, to the time of the Eighty Years' War, when The Netherlands gained independence from Spain, under William of Orange (1533-1584).
This war should not be qualified as a “revolution,” for it was William's only intention to secure freedom of religion for the battered and persecuted Churches in the Lowlands. The Belgic Confession (1561) e.g. was designed by Guido de Bres to make clear to the Spanish king that the (Dutch) Protestants did not seek revolution but only room for reformation, for the true service of the Lord. As such the Belgic Confession was at its conception “not an ecclesiastical but a Political document” (P. Jongeling, Terwille van het Koninkrijk, Groningen 1956, p. 13). This war was a matter of the “lower magistrates” defending the people against the tyranny of the “higher magistrates” who had gone beyond the limitations of their God-given authority.
It is significant that William of Orange had written on his banner: “Pro lege, rege et grege,” for the law, the king and the people! He genuinely hoped that the king of Spain, whom he recognized, would see the error of his ways.
The Reformed people struggled for a Free Church, but God in His grace gave them also a Free State, where He could be served according to His Word, under a royal family which professed to rule only by the grace of God.
In the course of the next centuries, however, the spirit of the revolution did overcome the young Dutch nation. The liberal doctrine of “the sovereignty of the people” again began to prevail. P. Jongeling has written, “How could it happen that liberalism, and later socialism, managed to get a strangle-hold on the (Dutch) people? It was a result of the deformation of the Church, because of relinquishing the true and complete doctrine of salvation. It happened, because the Confession which was once the birth-certificate of the nation was rejected!” (Terwille van het Koninkrijk, p. 46). There is a clear connection between unbelief and revolution.
This brings us to the man who might be called “the father” of the reformed political movement in The Netherlands, Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801-1876). An eminent historian and royal archivist, Groen entered parliament to become the lonely but undaunted opponent of the liberals, headed by Johan Thorbecke. Groen's spiritual roots lay in the evangelical revival, in the return to the creeds of the Reformation and in the struggle against modern theology. It was Groen van Prinsterer who gave a brilliant and scholarly analysis of the principles of the French Revolution, superbly connecting “unbelief and revolution” (the title also of his famous book, published in 1847*) and proclaiming the Gospel of Christ as the only antidote against the revolution of man.
Admittedly, Groen was “a loner” in the Dutch parliament and often referred to as “a general without an army,” but this did not render him ineffective in the least. Through his conscientious effort, the seed was sown for further Christian-political awakening in the 1880's under Abraham Kuyper. Noteworthy is especially Groen's struggle for the right of Christian Education and his defense of the rights of the secessionists who were persecuted because they separated themselves in 1834 from the apostate Dutch Reformed Church.
There is a direct line from Groen to such men as Van Raalte and Scholte who sought freedom of religion in America! Groen knew that he was in many ways isolated from his political contemporaries, but he wrote, “… in our isolation, or if you rather wish a better (Dutch) word, in our independence, in our firmness of principle (onze beginselvastheid) lies our strength.” The principles of the Reformed faith would continue to guide him, even if it meant being an independent and lonely member of parliament.
The Dutch Reformed political movement came to prominence under the able leadership of Dr. Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), theologian, journalist and statesman. Kuyper's English biography has been written by Frank Vanden Berg (Paideia Press, St. Catherines, 1978), so we can be brief here. Abraham Kuyper experienced the highlight of his political career after the Dutch federal elections of 1901 when he became Prime Minister in a coalition cabinet composed of the Antirevolutionary and the Roman Catholic Parties.
But Kuyper's first major contribution was the organization of the sorely-divided anti-revolutionary politicians and voters. He succeeded where Groen van Prinsterer had failed: the adoption by the Anti-revolutionary party of a comprehensive political program (“Ons Program”) in 1878. If Groen van Prinsterer may be called the “spiritual father,” Kuyper must be recognized as the “tactful organizer” of the reformed political movement in The Netherlands. For under Kuyper the reformed party became an influential, national political power to be reckoned with for decades to come.
Who, politically speaking, was Abraham Kuyper? He called himself more than once “a Calvinist” or a “neo-Calvinist” and even “a Christian-democrat.” Yet these names, as such, do not truly give access to his political views.
Perhaps the most accessible English account of his political convictions can be found in his “Stone Lectures,” delivered in 1898 at Princeton Theological Seminary in the U.S., particularly the third lecture on Calvinism and Politics (see: Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1931, p. 78 ff.).
Like Groen van Prinsterer, Kuyper's main principle was the absolute sovereignty of God and the sovereignty of God's ordinances for the people and the state. Kuyper favoured a constitutional monarchy, for in such an organization, he felt, the responsibilities and rights of both the government and citizenry were best maintained and preserved. The citizens are to obey the government, for the Lord's sake; the government, from its side, must honor prayer, keep the Lord's Day, grant freedom of religion and demand the oath, thus recognizing the sovereignty of God.
We should note here that Kuyper so favoured social legislation that he was sometimes branded as a “crypto-socialist,” a socialist in disguise, but his fear of government over-regulation and his belief in “sphere-sovereignty” adequately disavow this assumption. In retrospect, the program of 1878 was not really a brilliant conception, in terms of clarity and depth, but it was a first and basic attempt towards formulating a definite Christian political platform, a prominent document in the history of Christian politics, which merits attention and study by Christian politicians throughout the world today.
Sadly, some of Kuyper's own conceptions and policies (especially theologically) bore within themselves the seed of deformation. But this does not undo the fact that the Anti-revolutionary Party experienced many good years after Kuyper, and participating in various Dutch government coalitions, fostered many solid Christian statesmen, among them the later Prime Minister, H. Colijn. If we must mention the sad demise of the Dutch Anti-revolutionary Party, it cannot be without recognizing the many positive achievements with which this party was blessed throughout the years.
In the years after the Second World War, the Dutch Anti-revolutionary Party was unable to stem the tidal wave of socialism. And when the various (other) Christian parties united to form a Christian Democratic Party in 1975 (the C.D.A., Christen-Democratisch Appèl), their political vision did not differ much from the socialist point of view. The spirit of the revolution had returned within the ranks of a party that was known as “antirevolutionary.”
Why did the Anti-revolutionary Party in the early 1900's lose its truly Christian character? The reason lies (as sketched earlier by P. Jongeling with respect to the 1800's) again in the deformation of the Church. The controversy in the Anti-revolutionary Party (which was sharply profiled already in 1920 when Prof. Dr. S. Greijdanus declined membership because of “Scriptural objections against party leadership”) about political principles is not at all unrelated to the doctrinal issues within the Church.
The theological system of Abraham Kuyper was elevated to binding Church doctrine, and those who could not abide by such decisions, were expelled from the Reformed Churches by synodical hierarchy, thus forced to form the Liberated Reformed Churches.
Members of these Churches in 1948 proceeded at the Congress of Amersfoort to set up a new and separate Christian political organization, the Gereformeerd Politiek Verbond (GPV). Their main objection against the old Anti-revolutionary Party was that it was based largely on “certain theological constructions” (e.g. concerning general revelation, common grace and sphere-sovereignty) which digressed from the Word of God and the Reformed creeds. Noteworthy is the “Report 1961” (Rapport Politieke Richtlijnen) of this party, in which the program of 1878 is amended and deepened in accordance with further Scriptural insight.
From 1963 to 1977 this reformed party, which claimed to be the faithful continuation of the Anti-revolutionary line of especially Groen van Prinsterer, was represented in the Dutch parliament by Pieter Jongeling, a nationally acclaimed historian, journalist and politician. This party at present still has a member in the Dutch House of Commons as well as various members in provincial legislatures and town councils throughout The Netherlands. Although the Dutch reformed political movement has been decimated since the days of Kuyper, it is still very much alive.
Church and politics
From the above, briefly sketched history of the Reformed political movement in The Netherlands, we can learn at least one thing: when the Church deforms, Christian politics also loses its distinct Christian flavor and salt. Conversely, times of Ecclesiastical Reformation have brought about a renewed and deepened understanding of the political calling of Christians in this world. Is it not through the faithful ministry of the Church that we are equipped for every good work, also every political work? Church and State may have their own separate responsibilities and areas, but the Church is instrumental in gearing its members to sound political activity in accordance with God's Word.
P. Jongeling wrote,
Whoever cuts the lifeline between Church and politics, whoever does no longer see the tremendous significance of the faithful preaching of the Word, of the pure administering of the sacraments, and the Scriptural exercising of Church discipline, also for the political life, is no longer able to give an antirevolutionary witness in this sector of the one battlefield where the Lord has given us a task as His servants. Terwille van het Koninkrijk, p. 82
What about Christian politics? It all boils down to the question: what about the Christian Church? Does this Church maintain to the age-old antithesis between the Truth and the lie, between “the Seed of the woman” and the “seed of the serpent,” between Christ and Satan? Or does this Church permit and encourage humanistic principles to be combined with Scriptural teaching? Christian politics is first a matter of the reformation of the Church!
That may be the first lesson for us on the American continent, where denominationalism prevails. In the return of the churches to the unity of true faith, in full submission to the Word of God, lies the beginning of combined Christian political activity. The “State of the Union” can never be severed from the state of the Church. The matter is serious: also today, as in the days of Groen van Prinsterer, the only antidote against the revolution of man (be it liberal or socialist) is the Gospel of Christ.
* Portions of Groen's book have been translated into English and published by The Groen van Prinsterer Fund, Amsterdam, 1973.