By Brian Collins
In the final chapter of his award-winning book, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief, George Marsden offers a constructive suggestion to Christians frustrated with the challenge of living in a pluralistic society.
He suggests we look to Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper.
For much of American history, Marsden notes, Protestantism dominated the nation. Though the United States never had an established church, the shared Protestant beliefs, values, and heritage unified the moral outlook of most Americans. As the Jewish and Roman Catholic population increased, the nation moved from being Protestant in its ethos to being “Judeo-Christian.”
This increased religious diversity brought conflict, however, increasing the appeal of the (supposedly) neutral common ground provided by secularism. The secular solution to religious conflict in the public square was that religion should remain private. Kuyper describes secularism (using the term liberal to identify the secularist):
This does not mean that each and every liberal wants to be irreverent and disrespectful toward God. It only means that in their opinion religion belongs to the realm of the inner life and that the state as a political power must avoid as much as possible all contact with this inner life. (Our Program: A Christian Political Manifesto, 58.)
Secularists believed that secularism kept religious conflicts from disrupting public life.
Secularism and its discontents
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But a secular public square turned out to be less neutral than it promised. Secularists bring their own moral views to the table—while surreptitiously demanding others leave their moral and religious beliefs behind. Harvard’s Michael Sandel notes in his course on justice that such an approach is not the best way to ensure mutual tolerance. If certain moral and religious viewpoints are excluded from public discourse while others are permitted, those excluded become disheartened or angry. Public discourse itself is harmed because certain viewpoints are ruled out of bounds before even being given a hearing. The secularist approach lacks integrity and thus breeds resentment.
This lack of integrity has provoked a number of responses among American Christians, including resentment. Some have been spurred to political action in the hope of “taking America back from the secularists.” They thought if enough like-minded people could be mobilized to vote for men and women sympathetic to their concerns, the country could maintain a Judeo-Christian character. While many Christians still hold to this hope, sometimes modifying it to include broader cultural engagement, many others have become disillusioned by its apparent failures.
The Kuyperian solution
Marsden proposes Kuyper’s political philosophy as an alternative to both secularism on the one hand and chimerical moral majorities on the other. Kuyper managed to reject secularism while still recognizing the reality of pluralism. Kuyper rejected secularism because he recognized that no human endeavor is neutral. Not even science or mathematics are neutral—even if non-Christian scientists and mathematicians reach the same conclusions as their Christian colleagues. Those conclusions fit into differing overarching worldviews. For Kuyper, life cannot be divided into a private religious dimension and a religiously neutral public dimension. Religious commitments ought to suffuse all of life.
This does not mean, however, that Kuyper advocated using the government to impose a Christian approach on a diverse population. As Kuyper explains in Our Program, his belief in sphere sovereignty placed limits on what the government could demand of churches, families, schools, unions, or industries.
According to sphere sovereignty all of life is under the sovereignty of God, and the sovereign God grants sovereignty to various spheres of life. Thus parents, not the state, are responsible to raise and discipline their children; churches are responsible to evangelize and disciple people—but it does not have the responsibility to write laws or enforce them.
Each sphere has its own set of responsibilities and limitations. The government’s role is to ensure justice among these groups. When it comes to religious pluralism, Kuyper held that the church had the responsibility to combat heresy, but the government had no sovereign right to combat false religious views (cf. Kuyper, Our Program, 68-72). In the various spheres of life, Christians could organize their own schools, unions, churches, and political parties, but groups with differing moral or religious viewpoints could do the same.
A resolution to the culture wars?
Marsden thinks that a Kuyperian approach could resolve the American culture wars. Disagreement about public policy would still exist, but Christians, adherents to other religions, and non-believers alike would recognize the right of the others to make their case in public. No viewpoint would be ruled out of bounds simply for being religious. What is more, the government would protect the right of Christians (and everyone else) to develop their own institutions in all of the various spheres of life according to their own principles.
Others are not as convinced that a resolution to the culture wars is desireable. They argue that Kuyper’s willingness to accept religious pluralism is inconsistent with his declaration, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” Kuyper’s political pluralism simply allows Christians to be able to have their own associations in every sphere of life. It falls short of Kuyper’s own call to conquer every sphere for Christ.
Others think Kuyper’s approach is acceptable in a religiously diverse society, but they hesitate to say it should be applied universally. They approve Christianity’s privileged place in past societies. Still others wonder if Kuyper’s approach could work with all religious viewpoints. Some might have religious beliefs that include practices the rest of society finds so immoral and unacceptable that they can in no way be tolerated (polygamy and human sacrifice are often given as examples).
I am less sanguine than Marsden that the Kuyperian approach to pluralism will resolve our culture wars, but I am sympathetic to the view that Kuyper offers an alternative to secularism that has a chance of succeeding in a pluralistic society. In any event, Kuyper’s political philosophy is worthy of receiving a serious, if critical, hearing.
Brian Collins is a Worldview Specialist at BJU Press and blogs at exegesisandtheology.com.