The Point of Kuyperian Pluralism

Facing exploitative capitalism and overweening statism, Kuyper's vision of pluralism should still inspire Christians today.
November 1st, 2013

Parity, not privilege. Hardly a barnstorming election campaign slogan, but, in a nutshell, the strategic goal of Abraham Kuyper's vision of "pluralism." Christians should not seek a position of political or legal privilege in the public squares of their religiously and culturally diverse nations, but one of parity. The aim is to enjoy equal rights alongside other "confessional communities" within a constitutional democracy marked by wide freedom of expression, fair representation, and a diversity of voices. Thus, at the height of the Dutch nineteenth-century struggle for equal treatment for Christian schools, Kuyper asserted that "our unremitting goal should be to demand justice for all, justice for every life-expression."

No more than that, but also no less. For the goal wasn't just procedural—to propose fair rules of the democratic game. It was prophetic. James Bratt opens Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, with this judgment: "perhaps Kuyper's greatest significance for our own religiously and culturally fractured world is the way he proposed for religious believers to bring the full weight of their convictions into public life while fully respecting the rights of others in a pluralistic society under a constitutional government." Kuyper's life, as vividly narrated in Bratt's outstanding biography, exemplifies the attempt to bring "the full weight of his convictions" to bear in public life while simultaneously promoting the conditions for others to do the same.

Christians, and not only those in the Reformed tradition, owe a great debt to Kuyper for laying out what was probably the most compelling defence of pluralism in the nineteenth-century, anywhere. Other Christians, then and later, offered parallel defences, of course. What Kuyper uniquely offered, however, was a rare lesson in how to realize three goals simultaneously: the nesting of a commitment to pluralism within a comprehensive social and political theory grounded in biblical Christianity; the launching of a successful political movement to implement that commitment in the teeth of a powerful secularizing Liberal establishment; and the utilizing of the platform thereby created to establish common ground with his opponents and to contribute to the common good of his nation. However harshly we assess Kuyper's failings—and Bratt shows they were many—that was a stunning achievement.

One of Kuyper's key instruments was a Calvinist-inspired political party, organized in 1879. This was the "Anti-Revolutionary Party," the name conveying opposition to the atheistic spirit of the French Revolution rather than resistance to political reform. Kuyper was an early advocate for universal adult (male) suffrage. The party was formed in a breach with the aristocratic conservative movement with which the "anti-revolutionaries" had initially been allied. It was not only the first Christian Democratic party to be established in Europe, but the first mass political party, period. Just as original Calvinism inspired democratizing movements in the seventeenth century, so Dutch neo-Calvinism under Kuyper's leadership did in the nineteenth.

Among the many achievements of this multi-pronged movement, one of its most distinctive was the establishment in Dutch society of genuinely pluralistic arrangements in education, healthcare, labour, broadcasting, and elsewhere. In such systems, a diversity of service providers, representing the main "confessional communities" (religious and secular) in the nation, were integrated into a public system supervised, and eventually funded, by the state. Catholic-inspired Christian Democratic movements promoted parallel systems elsewhere in Europe. Such arrangements afforded not only negative liberties for individual adherents to diverse worldviews (the classical liberal version of religious freedom) but also positive liberties for diverse worldview-based associations. The objective was to work for the sort of public space within constitutional democracies that facilitated rather than frustrated the representation of what Charles Taylor has in our times called "deep diversity."

James Skillen has given the name "principled pluralism" to such a space. His account proves useful in bringing to the fore the contemporary pertinence of Kuyper's pluralist legacy. Skillen identifies two senses, both of which find their origins in Kuyper even though he did not distinguish them clearly. The first, "structural pluralism," embraces the plural institutions and associations of what we today call "civil society": schools, universities, churches, trade unions, NGOs, businesses, arts associations, charitable groups, and so forth. Skillen also includes families and states in this first sense. Structural pluralism takes its cue from one of Kuyper's best-known social principles, "sphere sovereignty." This principle asserts that every distinct type of institution or association—and not just the familiar threefold "orders" of church, household, and government dating back to the Middle Ages—is an "ordinance of God." As such, each social body possesses a distinctive nature and purpose, and a corresponding inherent authority to govern itself free from illicit intrusion by the state or any other body. Bratt observes that this notion did not stand alone in Kuyper's thought but worked in tandem with a series of others, such as an organicist sociology, a voluntarist ecclesiology, and a localist politics.

As all social theorists do with all their innovative insights, Kuyper formulated the principle within a specific context that called it forth. He pitted sphere sovereignty both against the "popular sovereignty" of liberal individualism, which reduced social and political authority to aggregated individual wills, and the "state sovereignty" of conservative authoritarianism and centralist socialism, which made all social authority a concession of the state. His targets were not abstract theories: the former was the creed of the dominant Dutch elites of his day, perfectly correlated to the individualistic capitalism which they represented, and the latter, the doctrine of the centralizing and domineering states in neighbouring France and Germany. As Kuyper addressed this context, the principle of sphere sovereignty did not leap into his mind straight from either Scripture or Calvinism but reflected the "organic" model of society of the German Historical School influential in his day, a shifty theory that could be put to both progressive and reactionary uses. Kuyper's innovation was to render that model serviceable for an egalitarian and pluralistic Christian social theory, one that could deliver powerful critiques of both those doctrines.

Skillen's second sense is "confessional pluralism," referring to the leading spiritual orientation of an institution or association—the basic framework of convictions by which it is guided. Obvious examples today might be a Christian trade union, a Buddhist environmental group, a Jewish school, an Islamic bank, a Catholic family. Less obviously, many institutions or associations considered confessionally "neutral" also reveal a definite, if unstated, commitment to secular liberal convictions: a corporation run as a "nexus of contracts" (as one textbook definition has it), a public hospital where medical practice is governed by faith in science and technology and distribution of resources determined by a purely utilitarian calculus; a university department covertly or overtly privileging naturalistic or rationalistic or deconstructionist paradigms.

The key political implication of confessional pluralism is that the state must treat all these various "faith-based" bodies, and not only "religious" ones like churches or mosques, justly. In concrete terms this means distributing public resources such as funding or certification to each on an equitable basis, not (dis)favouring any one merely on account of its confessional standpoint. Confessional pluralism champions the religious liberty claims of structurally plural institutions and the duty of states to respect those claims. Kuyper was a redoubtable spokesman and campaigner for it.

Principled pluralism in this second sense stands opposed to, well, unprincipled pluralism—either a purely managerial pluralism in which the term "justice" is used (if it is used at all) to apply to whatever happens to issue from a mere process of interest-brokerage; or, worse, a relativistic abandonment of anyone's right to assert public truth-claims. Unprincipled pluralism (either version) effectively throws in the towel on the struggle for justice and leaves its outcomes in the hands of the loudest and the strongest—which today often means the flushest.

But principled pluralism seeks space for diversity precisely in order to allow universal claims regarding justice—the full weight of a community's convictions—to be projected into public debate. It is because of its commitment to the search for universal truth that it resists monopolistic claims on the part of the gatekeepers of the public realm to determine what is to count as public truth. Such pre-emptive claims delegitimize and marginalize the kind of dissenting minority voices from which, as followers of an outlaw Galilean rabbi are bound to affirm, the truth does indeed sometimes emerge.

In the modern West, principled pluralism stands against two rival, monistic alternatives of which Kuyper early on offered searching critical diagnoses. The older one is "Christendom," understood as the legal granting of public primacy, even exclusivity, to Christian faith. Kuyper had to face down traditionalists in his own Calvinist constituency who wanted to clings onto such primacy. He himself frequently spoke of the Netherland as a "Christian nation," but by this he meant the deep historical imprint of Calvinism on its culture and constitution. He gave thanks for that legacy but did not appeal to it to mount a contemporary claim for a confessional state. He sought to remind his followers that orthodox Calvinism, however decisive it had been to the historical formation of the nation's "core," now represented only a tenth of the population. Defending the Christian character of the nation could now only work democratically from the bottom up and no longer rely on inherited constitutional advantage. As Bratt puts it, for Kuyper, "Calvinism was not an erstwhile establishment, but a philosophy of diversity."

The newer monistic alternative is "Secularism," understood as the legal granting of public primacy, even exclusivity, to secularist worldviews. This is the principal challenge western Christians face today, and not only in France where it is official state policy—or in the USA and Canada, where many secularists, including many judges, think it is. As Bratt recounts, it was the attempt by elitist Dutch secularists (some of them liberal Protestants) to force orthodox Calvinist schools out of business that most energized the counter-movement of which Kuyper quickly rose in the 1870s to be the formidable helmsman. Secularism is again on the move in many western democracies, not necessarily conspiratorially or malevolently, but often vexatiously. It is manifesting itself in two major political tendencies, both of which find support from voices on the left, right, and centre of politics. Kuyper's example reminds us that it is necessary for Christians today to take the measure of both.

One tendency is the attempt to resist (or undo) confessional pluralism in education, health, labour relations, and elsewhere, either by straightforward legislative or bureaucratic exclusion of confessional diversity, or by the deployment of anti-discrimination codes in such a way as to restrict the rights of individual believers or faith-based associations to act according to their deepest convictions. Regrettably, the most visible flashpoint of this campaign is the growing clash between the (proper) rights of sexual minorities not to be discriminated against and the (proper) rights of religious individuals or associations not to be compelled to act against their sexual ethics in matters of employment or service-provision. In the UK, for example, this has led to the patently illiberal outcome that Catholic adoption agencies, with a fine track record of reaching out to hardest-to-place children, have been forced either to abandon a longstanding principle of Catholic moral theology or shut down.

This unedifying contest has been thrust upon Christian citizens against their will; they didn't start this particular fight. However, it is a revealing question to ask why equivalent clashes are not evident in other terrains upon which a Christian worldview collides with the dominant secular ones. Why, for instance, are Christian schools in the UK not coming under legal pressure to bring their economics curricula into line with a state-imposed national curriculum reflecting the governing utilitarian neo-classical paradigm? The depressing answer is because they have not yet discerned that a Christian view of economics diverges from that paradigm "at its roots," as Kuyper was wont to say. Or why have Christian hospitals not come into conflict with secular law following resistance to the mechanistic worldview that feeds excessive resort to big pharma-sponsored medication, and campaigns for space and funding for more holistic forms of care? Where Christians are really serious about confessional pluralism, they will bring "the full weight of their convictions" to bear upon public policy across the board.

The second secularist political tendency today is the emergence of what Philip Bobbitt has dubbed the "market state." This is bringing about even more damaging manifestations of individualism and statism than those Kuyper had to contend with. On the one hand there is a rampant marketization of society—the progressive subservience of complex and delicate social and ecological relationships to the ends of commercial exchange and consumerist gratification. On the other there is a steadily encroaching bureaucratic state, cramping the institutions of civil society and hollowing out the structures of democracy. The two operate hand-in-hand.

Bratt's detailed account of Kuyper's sustained campaigning for social and economic reforms to the exploitative industrial capitalism of his day, yet without embracing an overweening state, shows how his vision can be an inspiration for Christians today facing that double threat. But it is essential that Christians also recognize these as deeply secularizing forces requiring as much searching critical analysis and committed opposition as the first one.


Kuyper's struggle for a "principled pluralism" was in practice messier than my précis has suggested. But reading Bratt's candid portrait reminds us that big political ideas like this are always formulated inconsistently, grasped partially, implemented fitfully, and productive of unforeseen consequences—their fate inevitably in the hands of deeply fallible individuals and groups. Yet that struggle has bequeathed to us powerfully compelling insights that merit critical reappropriation today as we face the challenges of a world ever more bewilderingly plural, fractured, and insecure.

Topics: Politics Religion

Dr. Jonathan Chaplin is the first Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, a position he took up in September 2006. He is Member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University, has served as a faculty member of the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), Toronto and as a visiting lecturer at the VU University, Amsterdam. He is a specialist in Christian political thought, and has authored or edited several books and many articles in this field. His latest publications are God and the EU: Faith in the European Project (Routledge, 2016), co-edited with Gary Wilton, and Living Lightly, Living Faithfully: Religious faiths and the future of sustainability (Faraday Institute/KLICE, 2013), co-edited with Colin Ball and Robert White.


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