Now that conservative Christians are something of a favored group by the executive branch of the US government again after a two-term hiatus, it’s time for many to dust off those old memes regarding the theocratic tendencies of the Christian Right.
To wit, Julie Ingersoll throws some Reconstructionist shade at Betsy DeVos: “Opposition to public education for the religious right is rooted in a worldview in which education is solely the responsibility of families (and explicitly not the civil government), and in which there are no religiously neutral spheres of influence.” There’s a lot wrong with that sentence.
What is more interesting to me, though, is that Ingersoll goes on to invoke the figure of Abraham Kuyper, among others, as influential for DeVos, an influence that has been noticed elsewhere, too. Ingersoll grants that holding to views like those of Kuyper does not necessarily make one a Reconstructionist: “These views were popularized in the work of Rushdoony and the Christian Reconstructionists and became dominant in the religious right, which is not to say that everyone who holds them is a Christian Reconstructionist.”
But this shouldn’t prevent one from being suspicious. Perhaps guilt by association is legitimate in this case after all. So if there is a distinction between Christian conservatism, Kuyperianism, and Reconstruction, we shouldn’t be too careful in distinguishing them, because, after all, “It’s a mistake to think of these distinct movements with hard boundaries that prevent cross fertilization, particularly since Christian education as a replacement for public education is a place where this happens.”
I don’t know. Perhaps one way for the media, much less scholars, to “get religion” better might just be to attend more carefully to distinctions, differences, and even nuance. Fears about theocratic takeover of the American government by Christians often have less to do with principle than with fear-mongering. Or they have to do with thinking that any religious influence in public life is objectionable and is at root theocratic. Sometimes, however, it’s just that religion is a motivation for a political view or policy that conflicts with liberal or progressive agendas; when advocates of the social gospel today, for instance, invoke religion, concerns about theocracy tend to recede into the background.
Such conflation and inconsistency is perhaps the best way to understand the breathless linkage of the legacy of Abraham Kuyper with theocratic aims. Kuyper himself was vehemently against the public establishment of the church, even as he was vehemently for the influence of Christian religion on all areas of life, including education. These two things are not inconsistent, as should be a common place understanding for anyone who studies or thinks seriously about Christianity. This is not to deny that there are some Christian groups and traditions that do have more explicitly theocratic aims. But conflating Christians who explicitly define themselves against such views with those who espouse them is sloppy at best and malevolent at worst.
Again, Kuyper’s example is instructive in this regard. In a preface to McKendree Langley’s study of Kuyper’s political spirituality, H. Evan Runner, a longtime professor of philosophy at Calvin College and himself a fierce defender of reformational philosophy, said this about Kuyper and pluralism:
Those who fear that theocratic repression must be the result of any Christian group’s obtaining governmental power—and that is a widespread fear (in large part due to the medieval legacy) — will most certainly want to familiarize themselves with Kuyper’s views, and with what he persistently strove for and actually accomplished. Once again he appears as a monumental figure in the history of the Christian movement. For Kuyper fought to achieve tolerance and an acceptance of public pluralism in modern society. On this most critical point too Langley’s book is instructive. Kuyper, he shows, was not interested in excluding liberals or socialists from the government, to the extent that they really represented a segment of the Dutch electorate (the principle of proportional representation, as opposed to the American practice of winner take all). As a matter of fact, Kuyper wished to secure and protect their legitimate rights, as opposed to the illegitimate monolithic hegemony the Liberals had long been enjoying. What he sought was equal acceptance for those citizens who wished to participate in government on the basis of their Christian convictions, something the Liberals’ inflexible intolerance had worked to prevent.
A Kuyperian political approach wants Christianity neither to be institutionally privileged nor to be constitutionally excluded from public life. For some, this will be too much. For others, it will be too little. Perhaps for the cause of American pluralism more broadly, however, it may be just right.