May 24, 2006


Prophet of a Third Way: The Shape of Kuyper's Socio-Political Vision (Peter S. Heslam, Spring 2002, Markets & Morality)

A century after Abraham Kuyper’s visit to the United States, the issue that dominated political discourse both in Northern Europe and in the United States was that of the so-called Third Way. This was reflected in a meeting that took place in Washington in the autumn of 1998 between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, the serving governmental heads of the United Kingdom and the United States. [...]

All authority of earthly governments, Kuyper declared, derived from the authority of God alone. Had sin not entered into the human experience, the organic unity of the human race would have been preserved, but as a result of the Fall, God had instituted civil authority as a way of keeping check on the potential for anarchy. The divine origin of political authority was true of all states, Kuyper insisted, whatever the form of government.

This double assertion—that sovereignty resided in God alone, and that this held true whatever the form of government—raises the question if, and to what extent, Kuyper was in favor of democracy on point of principle. It is a question made particularly pertinent through the characterization that one sometimes encounters of Kuyper as a “Christian Democrat.” Kuyper himself is partly responsible for this characterization, not least as a result of his visit to the United States. In a remarkable speech given in Grand Rapids on October 26, 1898 to an enthusiastic audience of around two thousand, Kuyper declared that he was a Christian Democrat and, as such, was in agreement with some of the central standpoints of the Democratic party of the United States.

In keeping with its name, the Grand Rapids Democrat was delighted with such an apparent display of sympathy for the Democratic cause, and carried a report on Kuyper’s address under the bold headline: HE IS A DEMOCRAT. Kuyper hastily responded by writing an article for the newspaper in which he declared his sympathies for the Republican party. In the article he explained that, although he was happy to be known in America as a “Christian Democrat,” this was not a sign of special affinity with the Democratic party of the United States—the party whose figurehead was Thomas Jefferson. On the contrary, he wrote:

We Christian, or, if you please, Calvinistic democrats in the Netherlands, were always considering the principles of the French Revolution, which Jefferson advocated, as the very target of our Calvinistic bullets.

It was Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson’s Republican opponent, Kuyper explained with an obvious show of humor, who had declared that the American evolution was as little akin to the principles of 1789 as a Puritan matron of New England was like the infidel heroine of a French novel. [...]

The revolution in France, Kuyper declared, was quite unlike the three revolutions of the Calvinistic world. The Dutch Revolt, the Glorious Revolution in England, and the American Revolution had all left God’s sovereignty intact. But in the French Revolution, the basis of free will was located in the individual, rather than in God, and from the individual it was passed on to “the people.” Kuyper regarded this idea, expressed in the notion of social contract, “identical to atheism,” and one that inevitably led to the destruction of all moral authority.

It was the kind of individualism embodied in the political vision of Jean Jacques Rousseau that Kuyper had in mind when he issued this criticism. This is evident in Kuyper’s treatment of the social question in his speech to the Social Congress in 1891, in which he denounced the individualism of the French Revolution for undermining the organic interrelatedness of society and destroying the spiritual and moral makeup of human beings and their social relationships. In the end, all that was left was the raw egoism of “the monotonous self-seeking individual, asserting his own self-sufficiency.” [...]

Kuyper’s Third Way between the evils of popular-sovereignty, on the one hand, and State-sovereignty, on the other, was sphere-sovereignty—or, as he called it himself, “sovereignty in the individual social spheres.” For Kuyper, society was made up of a variety of spheres, such as the family, business, science, and art. They derived their authority not from the State, which occupied a sphere of its own, but from God, to whom they were directly accountable. Each of the spheres developed spontaneously and organically, according to the powers God had given them in the first moments of creation. [...]

The contemporary relevance of Kuyper’s ideas goes beyond providing the framework for criticism. Fourth, they also supply the basis for a positive alternative social paradigm that takes the freedom and integrity of the various social spheres as the basic structuring principle of societal life. At a certain level, as noted earlier in the case of Otto von Gierke, Kuyper’s vision cannot be easily distinguished from mainstream pluralist thought and, indeed, from certain aspects of current Third Way thinking, which seeks to limit the role of the State. For Kuyper, the State is not to interfere in the life of the spheres unless conflict arises between them, in which case it is to act as umpire, to restore justice. In the normal course of events it serves in an enabling capacity, facilitating the free and equitable development of each social sphere. Both Max Weber and Leonard Hobhouse came to a similarly pluralist understanding of social spheres (or “associations”), and the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his pamphlet The Third Way, endorses the use of the State “as an enabling force, protecting effective communities and voluntary organizations and encouraging their growth.”

Kuyper’s vision is distinctive, however, and on at least three accounts. First, he regards the norms that govern the life of the spheres as fundamental structural principles rather than as principles that provide the basis merely for individual morality or “tagged-on” ethics. Second, for Kuyper the limited role of the State does not imply that the State adopts a liberal “neutrality.” It means, instead, that it is able to act as a positive vehicle for public justice, safeguarding the freedom and integrity of the spheres and their members. Third, Weber, Durkheim, and other pluralist-minded thinkers tended to pursue a neutral form of social science, combined with religious and ideological agnosticism. Kuyper, by contrast, took the acknowledgement of God as creator of the cosmos as the foundation for all social science. In this way, his social teaching avoids the belief—knowledge dualism that characterizes virtually all the other varieties of pluralist theory. The problem with Kuyper’s alternative—an alternative in which the sovereignty of God is a public doctrine significant for every area of society—is not so much that it has been tried and has been found wanting (to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton’s comment on Christianity), but that it has not been tried, not at least in a consistent and persistent way that takes account of contemporary circumstances. As Max Stackhouse suggests, Kuyper’s work carries implications that are wider than even his most devoted followers have recognized.

It's interesting that the French understand that the Anglo-American model is a dagger aimed at their Enlightenment heart (to mix the metaphor), even if we don't.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 24, 2006 10:53 AM

It's pretty funny that Kuyper had to explain that Christian Democrat didn't mean he was a supporter of the American Democratic party. I guess Dems were never that bright.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 24, 2006 11:37 AM

OJ: one of your most interesting posts, just fantastic stuff

Posted by: Palmcroft at May 24, 2006 12:03 PM

It's a good observation that revolutions in Protestants countries aren't anti-Christian, whereas in Catholic countries they are (note that probably all Protestant-majority countries in Europe are officially Christian, no matter how secular they are in fact). The French revolution was so anti-Christian because the Catholic Church back then was genuinely evil, one of the most corrupt institutions the world has seen (not that it's much better now), while the Protestant churches were and are only slightly wicked. If the French papists had not massacred all the Huguenots, there would never have been a French revolution in the sense we know it.

Posted by: Mrk at May 24, 2006 1:53 PM


No, the Revolution was evil.

Posted by: oj at May 24, 2006 2:07 PM

Yes, the revolution was evil, because the church was evil.

Posted by: Mrk at May 24, 2006 2:20 PM

No, the Revolution was evil precisely because it denied the truth that the Church taught.

Posted by: oj at May 24, 2006 2:25 PM

oj: If you wanted to bring about any social change in 18th century France, you had to be anti-Catholic. The "truth" that the church taught was status quo. In contrast, Christians were the vanguard of social change in Protestant countries.

Posted by: Mrk at May 24, 2006 2:34 PM

No, you didn't. France was changing rapidly. Such Revolutions always come too late and do more damage than good. Indeed, they occur only once organic reform is far along as to make them possible.

Posted by: oj at May 24, 2006 2:40 PM

No, France was not changing. The church and the aristocracy felt no moral obligation to change the system. In fact the Vatican was a staunch opponent of democracy and equality before law until very recently. Without the revolution the anciens regimes would have been in power for a long time in Europe. Perhaps they'd still be, and the development of Europe would have been retarded accordingly in Catholic countries.

Posted by: Mrk at May 24, 2006 2:53 PM

That's too historically ignorant to even bother with--try reading Citizens by Simon Schama for example. However, you do hit the nail on the head by arguing that the ensuing trainwreck has been "development" but that absent the Revolution you have retardation.

Posted by: oj at May 24, 2006 2:59 PM

Schama's revisionist ideas are irrelevant. Absent the revolution, why would France have not remained as backward -- anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian, anti-capitalist -- as most Catholic countries?

Posted by: Mrk at May 24, 2006 3:14 PM

America and Britain are anti-egalitarian--egalitarianism is evil.

Posted by: oj at May 24, 2006 3:25 PM

In what bizarro world is France not anti-capitalist? In what bizarro world are they not anti-democratic? In rhetoric they are egalitarian, I suppose, but it's a dictatorship of modern PC (Euro version) egalitarianism.

Posted by: b at May 24, 2006 3:27 PM

"...raises the question if, and to what extent, Kuyper was in favor of democracy on point of principle."

Being "in favor of democracy on point of principle" would be idiotic if anyone actually felt that way, and certainly is 100% un-American.

Posted by: b at May 24, 2006 3:30 PM

agree w/b, frogistan is anti-capitalist and anti-democratic.

they're just top down ruling class like they've always been.

Posted by: Sandy P at May 24, 2006 3:46 PM

oj: By equality I meant simply the abolishment of class privileges and the like, not any socialist egalitarian scheme.

b: In this world. France has a large private sector and it is a democracy. As to PC, it originates from America and is fortunately still much less prevalent in Europe than America.

Incidentally, affirmative action, which is very popular in America, is banned by French law, because it violates the French concept of galit. So who's the commie here?

Posted by: Mrk at May 24, 2006 3:47 PM

Morko: Sigh. And China has a large private sector too. So what? The notion that France is not anti-capitalist is preposterous.

Affirmative action is not "very popular in America"--you need to get out more. And the "French concept of egalite" means that all ethnic groups share equally in the cradle-to-grave protections that the pathetic strikes (there's that love of capitalism on display, I guess) were all about last month, right? Give me a break.

Posted by: b at May 24, 2006 3:58 PM


Affirmative action may not be popular among (white) Americans, but it is nevertheless widely practised, whereas in France it's illegal.

When I talked about capitalism, democracy, and equality in France, I referred to general modernist ideas that have taken root in France after the gradual abolishment of the ancien regime and its "backward" principles such as feudalism, monarchism, and classism. Of course we can bicker ad infinitum about to what degree capitalism, or democracy, or equality really exist in France (or indeed America), but that's really beside the point. The Revolution of 1789 was a bourgeois one and a modernist one, and to various degrees democracy, egalitarianism, and capitalism have since been the guiding ideas behind French republics.

Posted by: Mrk at May 24, 2006 4:18 PM

Morko: Yes, we are in fundamental agreement, since I wholeheartedly endorse your comment above that "the revolution was evil."

Posted by: b at May 24, 2006 4:29 PM


The French Revolution was not a bourgeois revolution anymore than the Russian revolution was, unless your definition of bourgeois includes folks like Sartre and Derrida. Do you think those were shopkeepers seeking freedom of conscience and economic liberty driving the tumbrils?

Posted by: Peter B at May 24, 2006 4:54 PM

Egalitarianism is anti-democratic and anti-capitalist.

Posted by: oj at May 24, 2006 5:06 PM


No, you had it right--the Revolution is all about egalitarianism.

Posted by: oj at May 24, 2006 5:12 PM

I remember reading that it took France a hundred years for it's GNP to recover from the revolution.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at May 24, 2006 5:55 PM

Frogistan doesn't have classism?

How their candidates get on the ballot sure seems like it.

Forggies are top-down, America is bottom-up Morko.

Posted by: Sandy P at May 24, 2006 10:04 PM

France probably needs a Cultural Revolution.

Posted by: ratbert at May 25, 2006 8:05 AM