Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Book Write-Up: Our Program, by Abraham Kuyper

Abraham Kuyper.  Our Program: A Christian Political Manifesto.  Translated and edited by Harry Van Dyke.  Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) was a Dutch minister, a member of Parliament, and a prime minister.  He also founded the Free University in Amsterdam.  Many Christians have quoted his statement that “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!’”

Our Program: A Christian Political Manifesto is a collection of articles that Kuyper wrote about the anti-revolutionary movement, of which he was a significant part.  Kuyper in this book presents his Christian political philosophy and proposes guidelines on how society can address certain issues.  Harry Van Dyke, the book’s editor and translator, provides an introduction that gives the reader a summary of Kuyper’s political thought and historical context.  Throughout the book, there are footnotes that provide historical background or inform the reader about what Kuyper is addressing.

One can get the impression that Kuyper was walking a fine line, or was trying to balance out different perspectives.  On the one hand, he did not support a secular humanist sort of state, which was why his movement was anti-revolutionary: it rejected the secularist legacy of the French Revolution.  On the other hand, Kuyper supported the separation of church and state and opposed theocracy, for he feared that the church being the government would corrupt the church.  Overall, Kuyper believed that godly principles should govern society, but he seemed rather inconsistent about how one should determine what those godly principles were.  He argued that natural religion—-God’s revelation through nature and conscience, which is available to everyone, including non-Christians—-should be what informs government policy.  At times, however, he appeared to go further than that, arguing that the Netherlands should respect its Christian heritage and that the Bible is the true source of a definition of justice.  One can guess about how Kuyper held together this apparent tension.  He states in one passage that Christians should try to persuade the larger society, so he may have believed that society should at its bare minimum yield to natural religion, but should be willing to go further, if enough people accept that.  Alternatively, Kuyper may have thought that the Bible itself presents natural religion as the proper guide for society.

Kuyper supported freedom of conscience.  He himself did not appear to be a pacifist, but he respects the right of conscientious objectors.  At the same time, he does not take his support for freedom of conscience as far as many Americans might in the twenty-first century.  He supports allowing an atheist to testify in court, but the atheist has to have somebody vouch for his character.  He presents Islam and paganism as religions that society should challenge.  Kuyper would not be the first person to have noble ideals, while making some exceptions to them.

There are many occasions in the book when Kuyper can be quite detailed in his proposals.  He is specific about how society can counter prostitution, for instance, or how it can honor Sunday.  Kuyper also has specific proposals about the structure and decorum of government, both national and local.  There were times when I thought that Kuyper should be more specific about what checks and balances should exist to prevent a leader from abusing his or her power.  Kuyper expresses support for a constitutional monarchy, and yet he is also rather critical of a republic, saying that a republic may lead to party conflict within the Parliament.  Kuyper is not against the existence of Parliament, though.  Kuyper’s preference is for the Netherlands to have a godly monarch like William of Orange, but what if the monarch or Parliament is unjust, or ungodly?  Often, Kuyper was saying that leaders should behave in a certain manner, but what would legally guarantee that they would behave that way?  Kuyper did say that people should resist the government, if the government fails to respect the independence and domain of different institutions (i.e., localities, families, etc.), and he presents a decorum for how to do so.  Also, Kuyper offered specific proposals about how elections can be implemented so as to respect the rights of the minority.  Perhaps Kuyper thought that these proposals would provide proper checks-and-balances.

Kuyper does express sensitivity to the poor and the marginalized.  While he was highly critical of public schools because of their secular nature, he still supported ways to help the poor to receive an education.  Kuyper defends the Netherlands’ colonization, and yet he opposes exploitation of the colonies’ resources; he advocates that the Netherlands serve its colonies.  Critics may understandably see Kuyper’s approach as condescending to the colonies, or they may hold that it falls morally short of the policy of not colonizing at all.  They would have a point, and yet Kuyper does deserve credit for wrestling with the humanitarian implications of policies.

Van Dyke in the introduction states that Kuyper considered himself to be a liberal in the anti-revolutionary movement, one who supported civil liberties, and yet Kuyper was open to learning from the conservatives, who believed in a stronger state.  That could be one factor that accounts for some of the tensions within Kuyper’s thought: Kuyper wants to support freedom, and yet he also agrees with the conservatives in their emphasis on tradition.

There are passages in the book that are beautiful.  For instance, Kuyper defends the sovereignty of realms, talking about how God has played a special part in those realms’ history and development.

Those looking for a thoughtful and edifying discussion of political philosophy from a Christian perspective will find that in the book.  But the book is not entirely that, for there are huge parts of it that are technical discussions about the issues of the day, such as public hygiene.  The technical parts of the book may be interesting to historians or people with a historical interest, from an antiquarian perspective.  Many readers’ eyes may glaze over those parts, though.  There were parts of the book that were rather elliptical: one would have to know the historical background to understand what Kuyper was saying.  In many cases, the footnotes were helpful.  In some cases, there were not footnotes, or the footnotes talked more about names, dates, and events, which did not shed much light on Kuyper’s discussion.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

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