Abraham Kuyper, Part II

Yesterday, I began running quotes from James Bratt’s Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. We got through his early years as a pastor and his first years in politics, his visit to Brighton where he encountered the Holiness movement and U.S.-style evangelicalism. Today, we will start with his early efforts as an organizer, a task in which he excelled.

From the chapter entitled “Organizer,” we find this passage that deftly shows Bratt’s skill as a biographer. He has just noted that the year 1879 was a significant year in the rise of the Progressive Liberals and Socialists, as well as the Calvinists. Bratt then writes:

The three movements obviously had sharply different goals and rationales, but they reflected a common condition. The quarter-century of economic expansion that began at mid-century had bred optimistic expectations but also eroded many customary social relations, creating a more aggressive, self-seeking public ambience. The economic downturn in the mid-1870s thus mixed together material woes, disappointed hopes, and aggravated uncertainty. The old order had died without a new one being fully born. The rising Calvinists, Progressive Liberals, and Socialists each offered a new model for that purpose and promoted it by sustained campaigns of persuasion, identity-building, and morale-boosting. In chronology and effectiveness, Kuyper’s movement led the way.

One of the hardest parts about writing biography is the need to disentangle the man from the moment just enough that you can discern what is genuinely his, or her, contribution and, conversely, how the ambient culture affected the decisions the protagonist is called upon to make. Bratt not only does this but he relates Kuyper’s activities to that of the socio-political climate, and how they blazed the trail for those who would become his political opponents, even while they shared the need to respond to the same set of socio-economic conditions and, often enough, employed similar tactics. And, he did it all in a concise, well written, single paragraph.

To give you an idea of just how active Kuyper was, and in such a wide variety of fields, Bratt explains:

With the foundations set, the institutions themselves opened in quick succession. In January 1879 a nation Union for the School with the Bible was formalized at a meeting in Utrecht. In April the first delegate assembly of the Antirevolutionary Party met in the same building and quickly ratified the proposed platform, central committee, and formal party structure. In August the Free University was announced with its requisite faculty and endowment. Kuyper would be professor of theology at the university, chairman of the central committee of the party, and perennial propagandist for the Christian schools in his newspapers…..His greatest contribution, however, was melding these ventures into a cause, building a movement that would take them from their exceedingly modest beginnings to long-term prosperity and shape the future of the country in the process.

Any one of these activities would have marked a significant contribution and Kuyper did them all. When I think of how hidebound our intellectual life is today, how stuck the terms of debate, how sterile and minor the policy proposals for change, and then think of how this one man changed his country and his times, well, none of us should be content.

Kuyper’s speech opening the Free University, “Sphere Sovereignty,” was his most famous speech and, at a time when the role of groups is hotly contested in our own country, from the rights of unions to the relationship of churches to the secular realm, there is much to commend itself in Kuyper’s approach. Bratt explains the core concept, and its place in the development of ideas, thusly:

Any human claim to unitary sovereignty was blasphemous on the face of it and bound to wreak woe in practice. And in fact, recited Kuyper the bard, such was the grim thread of world history, from the tyranny of the Caesars to the oppression of the Hapsburgs, Bourbons, and Stuarts, to the contemporary scene where revolutionary claims of popular sovereignty on one side matched Hegelian elevations of “the State as ‘the immanent God’” on the other. The historic antidote to these assaults had been constitutional restrictions on the exercise of power, as in the separation and balance of powers theorized by Montesquieu and ensconced in the United States Constitution. But now Kuyper bypassed constitutional measures entirely. Rather, he postulated discrete, autonomous spheres of human life as if to replicate the separation and balance of powers on the ontological level. Not on paper or in formal offices, then, but in the divinely structured creation and in the evolution of organic societies lay the most promising grounds of resistance to the unitary beast.

To be clear, Kuyper was not channeling his inner medieval Catholic, as some claim the American founders were channeling their inner medieval Catholic. He was, instead, devising something new, working within the parameters set only by his own creativity and the basic, core tenets of Calvinism. Who, in our time, dares to be so ambitious? (N.B. That question is not rhetorical - there are people who are doing precisely this kind of work in the world of Catholic Church theology, but you have to look for them.)

On deciding upon the name for the political party Kuyper formed, and the debate that decision occasioned, Bratt writes:

The more venerable elements in the party wanted to label it Christian Historical instead – the term Groen preferred and a testimony to the influence of Burke, Haller, and Stahl in shaping his convictions. Kuyper’s Antirevolutionary label bespoke a consistent ideology partaking of the very abstraction that Burke had faulted in the Revolution itself. Ons Program [the party platform] insisted that the two names were not in conflict: the “principles” that he now wrought into programmatic framework, Kuyper assured his readers, were rooted in the witness of the Gospel as it had flowered providentially over the course of Dutch history. Yet a tension between a Groenian tradition, supple and conservative, and a Kuyperian traditionalism, by turns dogmatic, opportunistic, and radical, was built into the party’s very foundation.

I would note in passing that neither Groen nor Kuyper poll tested their different names. I would note, too, that this paragraph again shows Bratt to be both a fine analyst and a gifted writer – that last sentence is just beautifully crafted and informative.

In analyzing Kuyper’s political philosophy, Bratt writes:

Nowhere did he so minimize the effects of sin as in his assumptions about the macro level of social development. Sometimes – for instance, in his speech against “Uniformity” – he could spy a fearful momentum that was greater than any particular part, and on many occasions he noted individual persons, policies, agencies, or communities perverting their social potential. But in formal theory Kuyper more often celebrated than worried about the direction of the whole. Here he shared in his era’s cult of “progress.”

I read those lines and I think to myself: If only that cult had died with that era!

Tomorrow, I shall conclude my selections commentary on Bratt’s biography of Kuyper.




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