Abraham Kuyper vs. John Rawls

Today I came across an interesting article by Gordon Graham on Neo-Calvinism and Contemporary Political philosophy. In this article he contrasts the two extremely different visions of Abraham Kuyper and John Rawls. For instance, consider this claim by Kuyper:

“No political scheme has ever become dominant which was not founded in a specific religious or anti-religious conception.”

Today this claim seems ludicrous, at least to the mainstream liberal-democratic tradition embodied by John Rawls. (By liberal I don’t mean left leaning – I’m describing the dominant western political system). John Rawls, like most contemporary political philosophers attempt to divorce politics, specifically political justice, from any comprehensive view of life, both religious and anti-religious. Note what Rawls himself says:

“A conception of justice is political when it is presented independently of any wider comprehensive religious or philosophical doctrine… This means that in discussing constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice we are not to appeal to comprehensive religious and philosophical doctrines – to what we as individual or members of associations see as the whole truth.”

To simplify things a bit – Rawls thinks justice, especially political justice, is blind. Thus any political system should build itself up or maintain itself independently of any sort of religious/anti-religious philosophical system. This is the exact opposite of what Kuyper claims to be true, that all political schemes are specifically built upon religious or anti-religious foundations.

John Rawls

So given the fact that Kuyper’s opinions would seem ludicrous in any learned discussion of political philosophy (within our Western tradition) what should we do with Kuyper’s political philosophy? That is precisely the question that Gordon Graham tries to address in this paper.

One option is that we could completely discount Kuyper as a conversation partner with contemporary political philosophy because his time has passed and his views are antiquated – as Graham says, we could ignore him because “His world, in short, is not ours.” This seems like a reasonable position, after all the political world of 2014 is quite different that it was in 1914. We live in a world, quite unlike Kuyper’s, after all we live in a pluralistic world. This claim however is unfounded, after all Kuyper’s neo-Calvinist project was undertaken precisely because he lived in an increasingly pluralistic world. So discounting Kuyper just because he wrote a long time ago is not an option.

If anything, we have seen in recent years with the rise of the “religious right” and Islam as a political force that politics certainly cannot be separated from religious commitments. I’m not saying that politics is at its core religious, it certainly might by anti-religious. What I am saying, and I’m just using Kuyper’s words here – “No political scheme has ever become dominant which was not founded in a specific religious or anti-religious conception.”

You can’t remove your religious or political commitments when approaching questions of politics. Unlike what Rawls tries to claim, there is not such thing as a neutral approach to politics. The fact that this is true certainly poses a huge problem for how to do politics in a pluralistic world where everybody brings their commitments to the table – but that is an issue I sure don’t want to address or try to address in a short blog post.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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