12 February 2016

The kingdom of God in Brazil

In the 1991 film, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, an evangelical Christian missionary family go to Brazil to preach the gospel. All of their efforts to convert the natives to their faith go awry with tragic results for virtually everyone. The overarching message? Brazil is a huge and impenetrable country impervious to the efforts of well-meaning North Americans to change it.

Over the last quarter of a century, however, it has become evident that the message of this film is rather wide of the mark. A traditionally Roman Catholic country, Brazil’s evangelical population numbered only around five percent as recently as 1970. By contrast, evangelical Christians today account for some 22 percent of the population. That this proportionate increase has occurred during a period when the population of the country as a whole more than doubled means that in absolute terms the numbers of believers have increased nearly twelve-fold. By any measure this is extraordinary growth and strong evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in Brazil.

In Latin America, Brazil stands out for at least three reasons. First, it is the only Portuguese-speaking country in a continent dominated by the Spanish language. Second, it attained independence from Portugal, not by rebellion, but, like Canada, peacefully under a member of that country’s royal family, Pedro I, who subsequently became the first emperor of Brazil. The monarchy lasted until his long-reigning son, Emperor Pedro II, was toppled in 1889. Third, unlike its neighbours, which formed several countries out of Spain’s empire in the New World, Brazil managed to maintain its territorial integrity at independence.

Today Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, both in land mass and in population, with just over 200 million people. As the church continues to grow, Brazil is joining the ranks of countries in the global south that are quickly becoming centres of world Christianity. The landscape is diverse. Brazil still boasts the largest number of Catholics in the world, numbering some 123 million in 2010. Pentecostals rank second and have experienced the most dramatic growth of any denomination. A Pew survey 10 years ago revealed that nearly half their number were converted former Catholics, moving into the Assemblies of God, Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, Maranatha Churches and the Foursquare Gospel Church.

Reformed Christianity is definitely playing a role within the larger evangelical landscape. The Igreja Presbiteriana do Brasil is the oldest of the Reformed churches, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. Its membership numbers just over one million. A much smaller group, the Reformed Churches in Brazil, is a sister church to the Canadian Reformed Churches, consisting of 21 congregations located mostly in the tropical north of the country.

But ecclesiastical bodies tell only part of the story. Reformed Christianity appears to be a transdenominational phenomenon. Brazilian Baptists are just as active as those in the Reformed churches, showing an affinity, not just for the English and New England Puritans, but also for the great nineteenth-century “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Spurgeon. Evangelical publishing houses continually churn out translations of popular and academic works well known to English-speaking Reformed Christians, including the writings of C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd and Tim Keller. L’Abri Brazil, counterpart to the Schaeffers’ famous ministry in the Swiss Alps, is located in the northern city of Belo Horizonte and led by Rodolfo Souza, and Guilherme and Alessandra de Carvalho, who also established and continue to lead the decade-old Kuyper Association.

Many North American Christians, especially those of a pietist bent, eschew politics. By contrast, Brazilian evangelicalism has a pronounced political emphasis, though its followers’ intuitions are still somewhat undeveloped and need further refining. As a consequence, many leaders are making an effort to translate books explicitly relating Christianity to politics. In 2014 the São Paulo publisher, Vida Nova (New Life), released a translation of my own Political Visions and Illusions, which has been received enthusiastically among Brazilian evangelicals.

Because observers are predicting that evangelical Christians could form a majority of the population by the middle of the century, current political leaders are already taking note. We are painfully aware, of course, that Christian involvement in politics can go wrong, as it has so often in the past. All the more reason to work and pray, along with our Brazilian brothers and sisters, that the Spirit would guide God’s people as they seek to live for his kingdom in every square inch of life.

Deus abençoe o povo do Brasil!

David T. Koyzis is author of Visões e Ilusões Politicas (São Paulo: Vida Nova, 2014). This article appeared in the 8 February issue of Christian Courier as part of the author's regular column, Principalities & Powers.

29 January 2016

What now? Ashford on the future

Bruce Ashford asks:
At the time I am writing this essay, the [2016] presidential primary candidates are taking part in a series of televised debates. Among the Democratic candidates, one is a socialist, another is a liberal progressive, and yet another a political moderate. Among the Republican candidates, there are moderate conservatives, libertarians, nationalists, and perhaps even a fascist. In the midst of this sort of diversity, what should be said about the path forward for American politics?
Read this final instalment to Ashford's seven-part series to find out: A (Religious) Alternative for American Politics.

27 January 2016

Ashford on nationalism

Bruce Ashford continues his series with this contribution: The (Religious) Problem of Nationalism. Here is a sample:
Nationalism tends to seek justice for its own tribe or citizenry, which is reasonable. But it does so while neglecting to value or protect others—either outsiders within the nation or outsiders in neighboring nations. A Christian view of politics, while recognizing that we have a unique responsibility to love and care for our immediate neighbors, will not therefore consider others to be enemies. We may and must love our nation, but it is hardly loving to place divine expectations on something or someone that is not divine.
We look forward to reading more in Ashford's series.

22 January 2016

The (Religious) Problem with Conservatism and Progressivism

As the presidential election campaign heats up in the United States, we would do well to read the following post by Bruce Ashford: The (Religious) Problem with Conservatism and Progressivism. In the midst of an increasingly polarized political landscape, Ashford offers some sorely needed wisdom and trenchant analysis. An excerpt:

Politics in the United States has, for some time, assumed a binary structure. On one side stand the Republicans, who represent conservatism. On the other side stand the Democrats, who represent progressivism. But what most Americans fail to see is that conservatism and progressivism are similar in one significant respect. Both ideologies are “moving targets” that lack transcendent norms, which leads to a nearly endless variety of social ills. It may, at times, be appropriate to be conservative, and at others progressive. But when these designations become normative, they become idolatrous.

Excellent! Ashford is co-author with Chris Pappalardo of One Nation Under God and is Professor of Theology and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

19 January 2016

Kuyper in the Windy City: Chicago lives up to its name

The best known work in English of Abraham Kuyper is, of course, the Stone Lectures delivered at Princeton Seminary in 1898. These took place during his lengthy American sojourn over the latter half of that year in which he also visited the city of Chicago. From the Auditorium Hotel he wrote to his family in the Netherlands a letter dated 11 November 1898:
The weather has been awful. Chicago is situated on the shores of Lake Michigan, a body of water as big as a sea, where yesterday, just outside the city, three steamships were shipwrecked.
Curiosity prompted me to search for accounts of these shipwrecks, and I have found a few possibilities. One candidate is the Lena M. Neilson, which sank on 10 November of that year, but on the other side of the lake north of New Buffalo, Michigan. It was carrying lumber and was headed for Benton Harbor, when it was lost in a storm.

One source tells us that 1898 was a bad year for shipping in the Great Lakes:
Heavy Marine Losses. - An unusually large number of losses occurred on the lakes during the season of 1898. The loss to the underwriters is estimated at $2,600,000, and the season is said to have been the most disastrous in the history of the lakes. The number of boats which passed out of existence was 58, with an aggregate tonnage of 29,194 tons. Total and partial losses amounted to 569, and the causes assigned were as follows: Ashore, 123; aground in protected channels, 126; fire, 40; collisions, 90; ice, 16; storm-beaten, 96; foundered, 8; miscellaneous causes, 116.

Severe Storms. - There were three severe storms late in the season. The first began October 25 and continued 36 hours. The second occurred November 9, and the third November 18.
One may assume that the second storm is the one Kuyper experienced during his time in America's fabled Windy City. Here is an account of the losses:
Loss of the Thol and Other Vessels. -- during a fierce gale November 10, the schooner S. Thol, laden with Christmas trees for Chicago went down off Glencoe with all on board, a crew of five men. During the same storm the schooner Iron Cliff sank off Chicago harbor. Her crew of seven men were with great difficulty rescued by the Chicago life-saving crew. The schooner Sophia J. Luff was waterlogged off Gross Point, and the schooner Lena M. Neilson went ashore at Lakeside, Mich. The schooner Fossett was stranded at Sand Beach, Lake Huron, and the schooner Minnehaha was broken up at Sheboygan.
It is safe to assume that the Thol and the Iron Cliff are two of the vessels to which Kuyper refers. The third could be one of the other four cited here, but no obvious candidate presents itself. However, two weeks earlier the L. R. Doty was lost in Lake Michigan in that first storm, though not near Chicago. Here is an account from the source referenced above:
Loss of the Doty. - The most disastrous event of the season, in loss of life, was the foundering of the steamer L.R. Doty, on Lake Michigan, with her entire crew of 17. The Doty left Chicago, Monday, October 24, with the Olive Jeanette in tow, both loaded with corn, for Midland, Georgian Bay. They encountered a furious gale the following day. The towline parted, and the manner of her loss remains unknown. Indications were that she drifted a considerable distance before she went down in midlake. Her wreckage was picked up 25 miles off Kenosha. The Jeanette was sighted on the 27th and towed to Chicago, in a crippled condition. The Doty was a stanch wooden propeller, built at West Bay City, in 1893. She was in command of Capt. Christopher Smith. The crew of the Jeanette could throw no light on the fate of the Doty. The vessels were struck by the northeast gale on Monday, when below Milwaukee. Tuesday afternoon the steamer parted from her consort.

Forecaster Cox, of the Chicago weather bureau, says the storm was not at all remarkable for the violence or the continuance of the wind, and yet it was remarkable for the damage it did on sea and land. He accounts for this by the fact that the storm center moved so rapidly across the lake, so that there was not only the gyratory force of the cyclone but a rectilinear motion to the northeast. It was this combination of forces, he says, which lashed Lake Michigan into fury and produced such devastating effects on the lake and on the shore. Chicago, he says, had a wind, August 16, that blew seventy-two miles an hour. Tuesday, October 25, the greatest velocity was forty-eight miles, and that only from 7:50 to 8:15 P. M.
The L. R. Doty
It is possible that Kuyper heard of this earlier loss during his visit, as it would still have been fresh in people's minds. In any event, the Windy City lived up to its name during Kuyper's famous visit in 1898.

'Ethics for Caesar'? The Good of Political Office

Some Christians argue that we should not be in the business of “doing ethics for Caesar”-- that is, formulating principles that would guide our political leaders in their efforts to do justice within the context of political community. For such believers, the church is an “alternative polis,” a signpost to the coming kingdom of God against the rulers of this age, which is passing away. After all, does not the apostle Paul assert that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12)? Our world is full of tyrants who esteem themselves too highly, assuming godlike claims on their people’s loyalties. Doesn’t this prove that the church is perpetually in a position of opposition to the political authorities? Or, if not in opposition, should we perhaps live as though they didn’t matter over the long run?

There is a measure of truth in this. Certainly we are called to the life in Christ, which sometimes requires us to stand against the spirit of the age. In those countries where Christians are being persecuted for their faith, they daily confront hostile neighbors and governments actively serving the idols of our time, whether in the form of radical Islam or of a totalizing secular ideology. In such contexts, we can understand why many believers despair of receiving justice from their governments and turn their hopes instead to an eschatological future when government will supposedly cease to exist.

Many who possess political office are prone to misuse it, thereby perpetrating injustice on the people over whom they are set. Some think that this inevitably accompanies any exercise of authority over others, and they can apparently cite scripture to this effect: “Jesus called [his disciples] together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’” (Matthew 20:25-28, NIV, emphasis mine).

This passage recounts the episode in which the mother of James and John requests that Jesus give her sons vice-regal positions in his coming kingdom. Jesus responds that, not only are such positions not his to give, but those who follow him must be servants above all. The more literal translations of the Bible, including the Revised Standard Version, the English Standard Version and New American Standard Bible, seem to agree that Jesus is contrasting servanthood to the exercise of authority, which the disciples are called to reject. If so, that would seem incontrovertible evidence that Christians are to put aside political life, which lies, at most, within the realm of God’s providential care and is not an active calling for those who are in Christ.

But there is another reading of this passage, found in the New Revised Standard Version and such paraphrased versions as the New Living Translation and The Message and based on a more accurate translation of the Greek. The NRSV renders verse 25 thus: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them” (emphasis mine). In other words, Jesus is not calling his disciples to avoid assuming authority, which, I would argue, is impossible in any case. Rather, he is contrasting the abuse of authority, i.e., tyranny or authoritarianism, with servanthood, which is fully compatible with authority rightly understood and properly exercised.

The Unique Tasks of Political Authority

The Center for Public Justice’s Guidelines for Government and Citizenship are clear in emphasizing the good of political office: “Those who disdain government and the political process dishonor God and their own humanity. It is legitimate – even a duty – to criticize unjust and bad government policies and public officials, but this should be done by calling government to fulfill its proper task and high purpose.”

What is this purpose? First, government must maintain “a healthy public commons” enabling the achievement of such ancillary goods as freedom and prosperity for every individual and community within its jurisdiction. Public safety on the highways is not a benefit that can be divided among individual citizens but is enjoyed only as a whole – as a genuinely common good. Similarly, protecting and maintaining a clean environment takes concerted action among a number of authoritative agents, with government best positioned to take the lead in coordinating such efforts. More than two millennia ago, Aristotle already understood that “that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it,” implying that care for the commons calls for a specialized institution charged with this responsibility.

Second, and just as important, human beings engage in a huge variety of endeavors, from eating, drinking, and reproducing, to writing poetry, singing, and building cities. In our society, such activities have come to be dispersed into a variety of communal contexts, such as marriages, families, church congregations, museums, schools, businesses, and trade unions. Government has the task of justly interrelating the various spheres of human activity, whether individual or communal in character. Along with caring for the commons, this task is unique to political authority and cannot be replicated by the institutional, or gathered, church, whose normative task is quite different.

This differentiation of authoritative offices means that one community simply cannot do the work of all the others. Unable to recognize this, the twentieth-century totalitarian régimes actively subordinated the rich variety of social institutions and activities to the whims of a single party-dominated state. Authoritarian governments, while making no grand effort at wholesale social engineering, definitely monopolize political life for themselves, permanently keeping citizens in a state of political immaturity, something which most of us recognize to be unjust.

Sharing the Office of Caesar

Even those viewing the institutional church as an “alternative polis” cannot quite refrain from criticizing governments when it seems warranted. Condemning a state for launching an unwise or unjust military action presupposes the tacit acceptance of norms for wisdom and justice uniquely applicable to political life. Calling the state to treat all citizens in an equitable fashion assumes the existence of a public equity which governments are called to advance. No, the church as a differentiated institution cannot take the place of government and should not try to do so, something which the language of “alternative polis” does not adequately recognize.

It is time to abandon the notion that we ought not to “do ethics for Caesar.” Especially in a democracy, where citizens share in the task of governance, there is a profound sense in which all of us share the office of “Caesar,” called to seek public justice in a way for which political authority is uniquely equipped. This means that we cannot be content only to criticize, as if we were outsiders to the business of governance. Rather, we must take our citizenship seriously, recognizing that insofar as we are active members of the body politic, we bear an authoritative office whose responsibilities we must discharge as servants of God and of our neighbors.

David Koyzis is the author of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. This piece was published in Capital Commentary on 4 January 2016.

13 January 2016

The right side of history: abortion and 'progress'

In this election year many of us find ourselves disappointed with the deteriorating tone of political debate in the United States. The Donald Trump phenomenon is only the most obvious indicator that all is far from well. Yet even on the “progressive” side we see an effort to belittle those who express opinions deemed to be “on the wrong side of history,” the assumption being that Americans—and perhaps the world—are caught up in larger historical forces moving in a single direction evident to all. However, Daniel K. Williams' new book, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade, complicates this picture by showing the extent to which the movement to limit abortion was once regarded as genuinely progressive. Reviewing the book for The New York Times, Kristin Dombek paints this surprising portrait of a vanished world of two generations ago:

From the perspective of our historical moment, it’s hard to imagine a country where the most prominent voices against abortion were Catholic physicians, and evangelical Protestants were either in favor of lifting restrictions on abortion, or didn’t really care. A country where Democrats and the Black Panthers opposed abortion, and Ronald Reagan, like most conservatives, supported it. Where more men than women supported legalizing abortion, and Hugh Hefner was one of those men, leading one activist to call legalized abortion the “final victory of the Playboy philosophy.” Where opposition to abortion found common cause with opposition to the exploitation of women, to the abandonment of the poor, to big business and to the Vietnam War.

While Dombek acknowledges that contemporary progressives find the language of abortion-as-genocide unpersuasive, she recognizes that, in the context of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, “liberals were understandably suspicious of any policy or law that seemed to promote population control funded by a government they suspected of systemic racism.”

Though Williams' book is unlikely to bring the pro-life cause back into the progressive camp, it should serve as a cautionary note on the use of political labels and as a needed counsel of humility for those with the cultural power to assign them. Fashions come and go. One generation's progress may fall victim to the next generation's very different agenda. If there is a lesson to be taken from this, it is that history is not, after all, a singular progressive movement along some grand Hegelian trajectory.

Yet Christians confess that history is in God's hands. It is not just a meaningless “one damn thing after another” but is a genuine movement from creation and fall to redemption and consummation, as laid out in the biblical narrative. Ideological agendas tend to fail over the long term because they are based on faulty understandings of the workings of God's world. Or, to paraphrase Marx, they carry the seeds of their own destruction, something we witnessed with communism's collapse a quarter of a century ago. If history should appear to be following a particular path at the moment, rather than getting on board, we have every reason to be cautious, discerning the spirits at work and remaining faithful to the God whose redemptive plan is at the very center of history.

Cross listed at First Thoughts.

11 January 2016

David Steinmetz (1936-2015)

As I am not a professional theologian, I cannot say that I follow developments in theology very closely. Nevertheless, I was taken by this moving tribute from Timothy George to the late David Steinmetz, who was a church historian at Duke University Divinity School. An ordained United Methodist minister, Steinmetz was deeply respectful of an older, pre-critical tradition of biblical exegesis. As such, he valued faithfulness over originality, a tough sell in contemporary academia, where innovation is expected even of aspiring candidates to the parish ministry. This excerpt from Steinmetz' baccalaureate address to the Duke graduating class of 1997 illustrates his emphasis rather well:

The good news for the members of the graduating class who plan to enter the ordained ministry is that you don’t have to invent your own Gospel. All of the church hopes you will be imaginative and resourceful. It doesn’t expect you to be original. Actually, it rather discourages originality with respect to core convictions. The Church will authorize you to preach an ancient Gospel you didn’t cook up and that is true whether you believe it or not. You will be commissioned by bishops and elders who have done it before you to preach the whole counsel of God, including the awkward bits we don’t understand very well. What you will not be ordained to do (though some of you will yield to the temptation to do it anyway) is to preach only those parts of the Christian tradition you have found personally meaningful. God doesn’t intend to mold the church in your image, you’ll be relieved to know, but in the image of the crucified and risen Christ.

May Steinmetz rest in peace until the resurrection, and may we all remain faithful in everything we do to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

19 December 2015

Abraham Kuyper's moment

Nearly a century after his death, Abraham Kuyper’s moment may finally have arrived. It was a long time in coming.

I find it odd to recall a time when I myself had not heard of Kuyper. My ignorance of the great statesman and polymath might be surprising because I grew up in an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation with many Dutch and Frisian surnames among its members – CRC expats I would imagine. In fact, I discovered much later that the father of an elderly widow in our church had delivered groceries to Kuyper back in the Netherlands. And still I somehow managed to avoid hearing his name.

Until just short of my twentieth birthday, that is. I was studying at a Christian university in Minnesota and had switched my major from music to political science several months earlier. The Turkish invasion of Cyprus the previous summer had forced my paternal relatives from their homes, and I was suddenly interested in seeing justice done, especially to those unable to defend themselves.

After a brief flirtation with anabaptism and pacifism, a friend alerted me to the writings put out by the old Wedge Publishing Foundation and the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. Among other things I read H. Evan Runner’s Scriptural Religion and Political Task and The Relation of the Bible to Learning. Runner’s dictum that life is religion strongly resonated with me, as did Kuyper’s commitment to the comprehensive lordship of God in Christ over the whole of life. Here was something worth celebrating. Biblical truths that had previously been in the background for me suddenly came alive and made sense in a new way.

But almost none of my Christian friends and family had heard of Kuyper or knew of the vibrant intellectual tradition associated with his legacy. They knew Billy Graham and D. L. Moody and a host of well-known mostly English-speaking missionaries to foreign lands. But the notion of a Christian statesman seeking to honour God in concrete political service was far from view.

The turning point may have come just before the turn of the century, when Nancy Pearcey and Chuck Colson published How Now Shall We Live?, in which they succeeded in raising Kuyper’s profile in the larger evangelical community in North America. Another milestone was reached when James Bratt’s highly readable biography, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, was published two years ago. Then there are Richard Mouw’s Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction, and Jan de Bruijn’s handsomely illustrated Abraham Kuyper: A Pictorial Biography, worthy of gracing the coffee table in any family’s living room.

Of course, many of Kuyper’s writings are still locked away in the Dutch language, inaccessible to the Anglophone world. But the Abraham Kuyper Translation Society is working hard to change this, with the assistance of a number of people, including my friend and emeritus colleague, Dr. Harry Van Dyke. Co-sponsors include the Acton Institute, Christian’s Library Press and Kuyper College of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

As of now three volumes have been released of Kuyper’s Common Grace, published by Christian’s Library Press, with more to come. Ons Program (Our Program), the program of Kuyper’s Anti-Revolutionary Party, was released in 2013 under the title, Guidance for Christian Engagement in Government.

In October of this year Lexham Press announced the publication of several of Kuyper’s most important works in English to be spread over twelve volumes in both print and digital formats. Together these constitute his Collected Works in Public Theology, the first of which is now available.

Kuyper’s moment may at last have come. And just in time for Christmas when so many of us are puzzling over what to give to the Kuyperians among our loved ones. My hope is that, with the increasing availability of Kuyper’s writings in English, more North American Christians will immerse themselves in his world and in his distinctive piety. At a time when an increasingly aggressively secularism is challenging a biblical witness in so many areas, Kuyper once again offers the tools we need to live obediently as redeemed sinners in the public realm – every square inch of it.


David T. Koyzis is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (InterVarsity Press). He teaches politics at Redeemer University College. This originally appeared in the 14 December issue of  Christian Courier.

24 November 2015

Socialism in America? Why people no longer fear it

Virtually every western constitutional democracy has one or more major parties claiming to represent the principles of socialism. Britain has its Labour Party, France has its Parti socialiste, and Germany has its Sozialdemokratische Partei. Even Canada, where I've lived for thirty years, has its own democratic socialist party, the New Democratic Party, which has governed half of Canada's provinces and managed to form the official opposition at the federal level between 2011 and this year. The NDP's first federal leader, Tommy Douglas (better known south of the border as actor Kiefer Sutherland's grandfather), is considered a national hero due to his role in establishing this country's system of universal health care.

But the United States is almost alone in lacking a functioning socialist party. There are many theories behind this absence, the Hartz-Horowitz thesis getting the most play in Canada. According to Louis Hartz and Gad Horowitz, as people moved from Europe to the Americas, they brought with them only fragments of the full political cultures of their respective homelands. Furthermore, when the United Empire Loyalists left the newly independent American states in the 1780s, they robbed Americans of an older Tory tradition, leaving behind a lopsidedly liberal individualist society. Because Canadian Tories were more communitarian than individualist, they were open to another communitarian ideology, viz., socialism, while their American cousins were much less so. The late Seymour Martin Lipset discussed this issue in his book, It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, adducing multiple causes for this American exceptionalism. Among the plausible reasons why socialism failed to make an impact in the U.S. may be the success of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in stealing the thunder of the old Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas.

There were exceptions, of course. Milwaukee, with its German immigrant influence, had three Socialist mayors between 1910 and 1960. More recently, Congressman Ron Dellums, a professed socialist, served in the House of Representatives under the Democratic Party between 1971 and 1998, and as Mayor of Oakland, California, from 2007 to 2011. But these figures were at the margins of American political life.

Now there's Bernie Sanders, former mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and currently Senator from the Green Mountain State since 2007. From my vantage point outside the country, I have been surprised that someone so ready to wear the socialist label has come so far in his quest for the White House. When I was growing up, Americans regarded socialism with a mixture of fear and bemusement. To be a socialist was to be unAmerican at the very best. Moreover, during much of the twentieth century, the socialist label was invoked by two of the most heinous and murderous political forces in history: national socialism, or nazism, and communism. If Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin could both claim to be implementing socialism in some fashion, and if we were rightly repulsed by their brutal treatment of so many millions of people, then any hint of bringing socialism to America could only elicit a sensible aversion to an ideology that had proved so obviously destructive elsewhere.

Why then have Americans lost their fear of socialists such that many are prepared to put one in the Oval Office? The major reason, I believe, is that the generation that lived through the totalitarian experiments of the last century is gradually passing from the scene. For the rising generation born after the Cold War's end, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany alike have joined the Roman and Ottoman empires as distant historical episodes outside their lived memories. Though many experienced observers were sounding the death knell for socialism in the 1990s, few political ideas — even bad ones — stay dead for good. For the older generations, the rhetoric of socialism may seem stale, but for younger people it may still carry a fresh scent, especially when joined to the winsome populism and iconoclasm of a Senator Sanders.

Yet despite Sanders' identification with a communitarian ideology, he does so very much as an individual, and in this he is still typically American. He could be the star of a Frank Capra film, struggling as a lone outsider against entrenched special interests for the good of the nation as a whole. Accordingly, we will not expect to hear a summons for the world's workers to unite and throw off their chains. Neither are we likely to see the establishment of a highly disciplined organization capable of commanding broad support for a socialist agenda. If socialism ever comes to America, it will arrive in severely diluted form as the rather idiosyncratic preoccupation of someone more resembling Jimmy Stewart than Lenin or Trotsky.

David T. Koyzis is author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. Cross posted at First Thoughts.

17 November 2015

Abraham Kuyper and the 'bearer of principle'

What might Abraham Kuyper teach us as Americans prepare to go to the polls next year? I believe that he can help us to vote more intelligently by clarifying the true nature of representation in a democratic political community.

Canadians and Americans alike are blessed to live in representative democracies. Every two to four years we elect people to represent us – to govern on our behalf – in our legislative bodies. But what exactly is representation? Political scientists generally have two answers to this question.

First, a representative may act as a trustee of the public interest. A trustee does not vote on instruction from those she is called to represent. Rather she employs her own good judgement and does what she believes to be in the best interest of the public she serves. In a country divided into electoral districts or ridings, the member of legislature looks out, not just for those in her district, but for the entire political community.

Of course, this may not always be popular with those who elected her. The 18th-century statesman Edmund Burke discovered this while attempting to gain re-election in Bristol, the riding he represented in the British House of Commons. In a meeting with the Bristol electors in 1774, he articulated his position as follows:

His unbiased opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. . . . Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

For all Burke’s undoubted eloquence, he failed to persuade the people who had just put him in office and was defeated the next time around.

Second, a representative may be considered merely an agent or delegate of the voters. During a candidates’ debate at Redeemer University College in late 1988, a member of the audience asked the prospective office-holders how they would vote if an abortion bill came before them and a free vote were allowed in the Commons. Most avoided taking a stance on such a divisive issue by stating that they would poll their constituents and vote accordingly.

This was the approach of the old Reform Party under the leadership of Preston Manning, who favoured free votes in parliament, thereby enabling MPs more easily to channel their constituents’ wishes into public policy. South of the border Ross Perot supported this agent or delegate approach during his third-party presidential campaigns in 1992 and ’96. The use of referenda goes even further and removes the middle man, which is what the agent or delegate amounts to, thus permitting citizens to vote directly on the issues of the day. If we were to follow this approach, our own political systems would approximate the direct democracy of Athens or the New England town meetings.

Kuyper treated representation in Ons Program, published in 1879 as the programme of the newly established Anti-Revolutionary Party in the Netherlands. The delegate conception he titled the “imperative mandate,” in which a member of the States General acts “in keeping with what the voters have ordered and mandated him.” By contrast, the “trusted man” governs “without any tie to the voters” and keeps the electorate in a permanent state of immaturity, much as a lord relates paternalistically to the serfs on a feudal estate.

Kuyper believes that neither of these is adequate for understanding the task of representation. Better, he argues, that a member of parliament be a “bearer of a principle” with a “moral bond” to the electorate. True, the people may lack the political expertise of their leaders, but they do possess a certain political instinct which the leaders are bound to respect. They may not know the ins and outs of specific policy prescriptions, but they have a general understanding of the principles which ought to guide the making of such policies.

During an election candidates for public office are obligated to inform voters of their support for these principles, thereby enabling them to vote intelligently. It is not enough for a party to raise up “trusted men” and ask the people to follow them blindly based on this trust alone. Even trustees are in the grip of a worldview which the people deserve to know in advance.

“Trust us” is insufficient as a campaign promise, particularly if we have no assurance that the party seeking our support understands the principles of limited and just governance in the context of a pluriform society. Yet neither do we want our representatives to abdicate leadership and simply do our bidding. Instead we need our political parties to inform us honestly of their guiding principles, to stop telling us what they think we want to hear, and to govern in accordance with these principles. Anything less than that is unworthy of representation in a democratic polity. Kuyper understood this, and so should we.


David T. Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. Ons Program has been translated into English as Our Program and is available as the first volume of a series of Kuyper's Collected Works in Public Theology. This post is an adaptation of a column in Christian Courier.

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can be contacted at: dkoyzis@redeemer.ca