18 Mar 2021 Throw Back Thursday: Kingdom Citizens in Secular Canada (Part Two)
Today’s Throw Back Thursday article is the second installment of the four-part series entitled “Kingdom Citizens in Secular Canada,” originally presented at a 2005 Burlington Reformed Study Centre event. The series was reproduced in the January 6, 2006, issue of the Clarion magazine, and reprinted on ARPA’s blog on July 3, 2009.
The author of the second part of this series is Dr. F. G. Oosterhoff. Dr. Oosterhoff was a historian, active in secondary and post-secondary education, who specialized in European history, church history, and the history of ideas. Dr. Oosterhoff had already retired when she authored this article in 2005, and she recently passed into glory.
Christian Politics, What Does it Involve?
By Dr. F.G. Oosterhoff
Tonight and next week we speak about our calling as Christians in a secular society. Among the topics to be discussed are the causes of today’s secularizing trend, the strategy we should follow in trying to stem that trend, and the best means of organizing politically. With respect to the last issue, we would seem to have two options. One is to join a Christian political party, such as the Christian Heritage Party; the other is to do what many Christians south of the border are doing. It is to organize as a Christian alliance and so attempt to influence one of the mainline parties. In the United States that is the Republican Party. In Canada it would most likely be the Conservatives.
Dutch Reformed politics
My presentation is meant as an introduction to these discussions. It will not deal with Christian politics in Canada as such, at least not directly. I will focus instead on The Netherlands and on the way Reformed believers in that country have tried to fulfill their political calling.
The reason why this topic was chosen is not that the Dutch model can serve as a blueprint for us here in Canada. This should be stressed at the start, for to ignore it can easily lead us astray. After all, as Reformed people of mainly Dutch descent, we have been influenced by the Dutch tradition, and one of the reasons why we have been hesitant to get involved in politics may well be this Dutch heritage. That is, we may still harbour the conviction that the only acceptable political organization is with committed Christians, preferably Reformed ones.
The fact of the matter is, however, that the Dutch model does not really fit the Canadian context. Canada lacks a tradition of confessional parties; Christians here have generally voted for a mainline party. Canada also has no proportional representation. The man or woman who gets the highest number of votes in a riding is elected; the votes that are cast for competing candidates are lost. As long as Christians form a minority in each of Canada’s 308 ridings, their votes are wasted when cast for a separate party. This is unlike the Dutch system, where votes are counted nationally so that even smaller parties have a chance of getting representatives in Parliament.
The Canadian situation, then, discourages the type of political involvement that is possible in The Netherlands. This does not mean, however, that the history of that involvement should be ignored. We can learn from it with respect to strategy and organization, and also with respect to the nature of Christian politics. That is, it can help us find an answer to the question as to what truly Christian politics involves. For a century and more, Reformed thinkers in Holland have attempted to formulate biblical principles on these issues, and their work should not be forgotten. In paying attention to it we should note not only the positive insights and achievements, however, but also the failures. After all, as an American philosopher has reminded us, those who ignore the mistakes of the past run the risk of repeating them.
Dutch “pillarization” – the first phase
The history of Reformed politics in Holland can be divided into two phases. The first one began in the late 1800s and lasted into the second half of the twentieth century. The second began after World War II and continues today, although there is evidence of decline. My main concern is with this second phase, but to explain its origins and character, something must be said about the first one as well.
At the beginning of the first phase, the dominant power in The Netherlands was the liberals. They controlled the government, the universities, the schools, and much of the rest of society. Their rule did not remain unopposed, however. There were three groups that challenged the liberal monopoly. They were the orthodox Protestants or Reformed, the Roman Catholics, and the social-democrats. Each of these had its own political party. The party of the Reformed was the Anti-Revolutionary one of Groen van Prinsterer and Abraham Kuyper.
A big issue for both Reformed and Roman Catholics was the school system, which had become increasingly secularized. Reformed and Roman Catholics were allowed to establish their own schools, but they had to pay for these themselves and at the same time help support the public system. The two groups got together in an attempt to remove this injustice, and their cooperation paid off. In 1917 a law was passed that guaranteed full financial subsidy for separate schools. To ensure socialist support, the two religious parties agreed to the socialist demand that all adult male citizens receive the right to vote.
Pillarization… refers to the organization of society into separate groups or pillars that are distinguished by their worldviews.
What we have in these developments is the start of a typically Dutch phenomenon, namely that of “pillarization” (Dutch: verzuiling). This term refers to the organization of society into separate groups or pillars that are distinguished by their worldviews. Each of the four pillars had its own media, its own socio-economic organizations, its own radio-broadcasting, and often even its own choral and sports groups. In addition, the religious pillars had their separate schools, colleges, and universities. All pillars were equal in the sight of the government and could, if certain conditions were met, count on financial support – not only for the schools but soon for other associations and activities as well.
During the first half of the century, the system of pillars had a good deal of support from the Reformed and Roman Catholic constituencies. The religious parties often formed the government. After World War II, however, enthusiasm for pillarization declined. The theology of Karl Barth played a role here. People also remembered that in their resistance against Hitler liberals, socialists, and communists had worked with Reformed and Roman Catholics. Why, they asked, could this cooperation not continue in peace time? Increasingly people deserted their own pillar to vote for a “national party” – often a socialist one. The Roman Catholic and Reformed parties withstood the trend for a while, but by the 1970s it was clear that the old system of pillars had had its day. Secularization engulfed the country, bringing with it an erasure of religious and worldview boundaries.
The second phase
There were exceptions to this trend, however. Some Reformed people continued to believe in the need of separate action in politics and other areas. Prominent among them were members of the liberated Reformed churches. In 1948, well before the demise of the Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP), these people broke with that party and established their own, the GPV (Gereformeerd Politiek Verbond or Reformed Political Alliance).
There was more than one reason for the break. It took place four years after the church liberation (or Vrijmaking) of 1944, and in the early years much stress was placed on the so-called ethical conflict between the liberated and the “synodicals.” Organizers of the new party argued that until the injustice done to their group was admitted and the schism healed, no political cooperation was possible. They also raised objections to the fact that the ARP was non-confessional and interdenominational. A confessional foundation (that is, a foundation on the Three Forms of Unity) had been avoided on principle, as unnecessary for politics. The basis of the ARP was simply the confession of God’s sovereignty and the authority of the Bible. In practice, this meant that Christians could become party members regardless of church affiliation, including (for example) Baptists. The founders of the GPV, on the other hand, believed that a truly Christian political party should be based on the Reformed confessions. They further rejected any kind of interdenominationalism and held that their party should consist of members of the liberated churches only. And so the GPV denied membership to people of other churches, no matter how orthodox and how sympathetic to its political program.
This was a radical departure from tradition and threatened to restrict the new party’s outreach quite drastically. Not nearly everybody, therefore, agreed with the approach. K. Schilder was among those who warned against it, arguing that by establishing their own separate party the liberated churches would marginalize themselves and be unable to influence politics. Schilder eventually broke with the ARP (in 1949), but he never joined the GPV.
That party’s existence during the first years was precarious. Many church members continued to reject a political break. After the schism of the 1960s, however, when some 30,000 members left the liberated churches, attitudes changed. For a while, the churches would present a more united front, in politics as in other matters, and the new party began to flourish. In 1963 it had been able to send its first representative to Parliament, and eventually even a second seat was won. By the 1970s and ‘80s, when the old ARP disappeared from the scene, its successor was well established.
Also well established by this time was the new phase of pillarization in The Netherlands. Although it was on a much smaller scale than before, there were close resemblances. As during the first phase, divisions were drawn in practically all areas of life. In addition to their separate political party, members of the liberated churches had their own newspaper, their own socio-economic organizations, their own elementary and secondary schools, colleges, institutions of care, and so on. A striking difference with the first phase was that the lines of separation were drawn not only with respect to the world but also with respect to other Christians. Reformed believers built dividing walls against the world and against each other.
Departure from the vrijgemaakte tradition of pillarization took place not only in politics but in other areas as well.
This continued for some years, but in the end opposition to a radically exclusivist approach revived and gained in strength. In the l970s non-liberated Reformed people who had supported the GPV but were refused membership established their own party, the RPF (Reformatorische Politieke Federatie). This factor, combined with other developments to which I will give attention later, convinced GPV leaders that interdenominational cooperation was necessary if the Reformed voice was to be heard at all. In the 1980s the two Reformed parties began to support each other’s candidates and in 2000 they finally united, under the name Christenunie. This type of departure from the vrijgemaakte tradition of pillarization took place not only in politics but in other areas as well. The Reformed daily newspaper, for example, also loosened its ties to the liberated community and allowed as editors members from elsewhere. Attempts for union with other Reformed churches were also intensified.
The departure from liberated-Reformed isolationism has been met with relief by a good number of church people, but there are also many opponents. In fact, the new approach has played a role in yet another schism, the so-called “new liberation,” which so far has attracted some 1250 members. But these secessionists are not alone in their protest. The divisions run through the churches.
The arguments that are marshalled on either side are of interest, and I will give an overview of the deliberations. We begin with those who oppose amalgamation. I already touched upon their arguments, so that I can be brief. Firstly, these people reject Abraham Kuyper’s theories of a visible and invisible church and of the pluriformity of the church. Referring to Articles 27 through 29 of the Belgic Confession, they conclude that there can be only one true church in any location. Other churches are by definition false, and any sort of cooperation with them is out of the question. Even the willingness by their members to subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity is insufficient, since their refusal to join the true church shows that in practice they fail to honour the confessions.
Another argument, connected with the first, is that life is one, that church membership comes before all else, and that it therefore must determine one’s activities in all areas of life, including politics. If this means that one’s outreach remains limited, so be it. Christians must obey the command and leave the outcome to God.
The other side
The other group, the one that favours amalgamation, accuses its opponents of theological one-sidedness. While admitting that one can raise objections to Kuyper’s theory of the church, these people disagree with the idea that we cannot speak at all of the invisible church, or that there can be only one true church in any location. J. Douma, professor emeritus of the theological university in Kampen, has shown that this idea is of recent origin and was taught neither by John Calvin nor by the author of the Belgic Confession, Guido de Brès. Douma and others also question the idea that the ecclesiastical divisions among Christians must lead to separation in all areas. They point out that that conclusion also was not drawn in the past. It was only after the Vrijmaking that interdenominationalism per se was seen as a heresy. Before 1944 Reformed theologians, including men like K. Schilder and B. Holwerda, saw no problem whatsoever in cooperating with other Christians in a variety of areas, including politics and the schools. As we have seen, even after 1944 Schilder believed that political cooperation with other Christians should be possible.
Neither did these theologians insist that all such cooperation must be based on the Reformed confessions. There was widespread agreement with the view of Herman Bavinck, who had said that the extent to which the confessions have to play a role depends on the field of engagement. Bavinck distinguished four areas, namely evangelism, the work of charity, education, and politics. With respect to evangelism, he said, cooperation between people who did not adhere to the same confessions and were not members of the same church was virtually impossible. The objections were not as strong, however, in the case of education and work of charity, and even less so in politics. Douma is among those who agree with this view. He asks opponents to explain why confessional statements about the church, for example, or about infant baptism, should have any bearing on politics. Douma admits that participation would be impossible if a political party should ask us to deny our confessions. But if this is not the case, he asks, why should we refuse to work with others for the good of the nation?
I may add here that the legitimacy of working with others was at least tacitly admitted within the liberated churches. When necessary to get a government subsidy, they did and do cooperate with other Reformed groups, for example in establishing institutions of care. In other areas, such as the fight against abortion, there is cooperation even with Roman Catholics.
The advocates of amalgamation also justify their position with practical arguments. They point, for example, to the decline in the number of GPV supporters in recent years. A new generation has arisen that does not see the issues of 1944 as politically relevant and that demands cooperation with other committed Christians. It does so at a time when the urgency for such cooperation becomes more and more evident. An early warning sign was the introduction, in 1981, of the concept law for equal treatment; a law that could make it possible, it was feared, that Reformed schools would be forced to hire homosexual teachers. Issues like same-sex marriage and the legalization of abortion and euthanasia became additional reasons to seek political cooperation with fellow-believers. So did European integration and the desire to have a Christian voice in the European Parliament.
Drawbacks of pillaring
Those favouring amalgamation have offered reasons of a different nature as well. Their reasons concern not only cooperation with fellow-believers but the legitimacy of Christian organizations as such. The question is being asked, for example, if the practice of pillarization has not been counter-productive. Douma mentions an article by evangelical author Oliver R. Barclay, who sharply criticizes the Dutch tradition of pillarization. Barclay argues that the system of separate Christian organizations has contributed to the rapid pace of secularization in The Netherlands. It is among the reasons, he believes, why the level of public morality in that country is lower than in other parts of Europe where Christians have continued to work in mixed organizations.
Although Douma rejects the idea that we should get rid of our Christian organizations, he admits that an important point has nevertheless been made. Christians are a salt and a light in the world. They are not to hoard the salt for themselves and shine the light only within their own circle and their own organizations. These organizations are important as means of preparing believers for their task in the world. They become a stumbling block and a liability, however, if they serve as fortresses that Christians erect for their own protection and benefit.
The reason why Reformed people engage in politics is their confession that all of life belongs to Christ… yet the history of Reformed politics in The Netherlands shows that pillarization can in practice lead to isolationism.
Gerrit J. Schutte, leader of the GPV in its final years, agrees that the danger of which Barclay and Douma speak is a real one. Pillarization in the Reformed tradition, he points out, had as the goal the re-christianizing of the nation, and used as means the establishment of separate organizations. The means succeeded very well but the goal was not reached. The result of pillarization has all too often been to protect one’s own Christian group rather than to offer help to a world in need. Indeed, the fortress mentality has been so strong that one no longer knew even one’s fellow-believers in other churches.
There is considerable irony here. The reason why Reformed people engage in politics is their confession that all of life belongs to Christ. A separatist, Anabaptist kind of isolationism from society is therefore out of the question; yet the history of Reformed politics in The Netherlands shows that pillarization can in practice lead to such isolationism.
In my brief (and admittedly very incomplete) description of Reformed politics in the Netherlands, I have drawn quite a bit of attention to the mistakes that can be made when as Christians we become politically involved. I did not do so to discourage Christian political outreach, which I am convinced is necessary. We are members of society, share in its guilt, and must work for its peace and welfare. Concretely this means that we are to remind rulers and subjects of God’s sovereignty over all of life, and of the requirement to honour his laws. Organized political action can be an important means to fulfil this task.
But in making use of that means, we must be aware of potential dangers. My study of Dutch pillarization in particular and of Christian political activity in general suggests to me that we should guard especially against the following drawbacks or pitfalls:
1. Believing that our political cooperation must necessarily be restricted to members of our own churches or confessional circles. I think we should keep in mind Dr. Bavinck’s arguments on this point, as well as Reformed practice in The Netherlands before 1944.1
2. Withdrawing into our own organizations and neglecting the needs of society. I am referring here to Oliver Barclay’s charge that by circling the wagons Dutch Christians have failed in their responsibility toward society and so contributed to its rapid moral decline. Although Canada does not lend itself to the type of pillarization that existed in The Netherlands, the danger of forgetting that we are a salt and a light for the world confronts us as well. To the extent that they ignore this danger, Christians are indeed not only among the victims of secularization but also among its causes.
3. Misunderstanding the nature of our political task. The political duty of Christians is not to safeguard their own particular group, nor is it to declare warfare on the rest of society and act as one of many special interest groups, fostering an “us versus them” mentality.2 To repeat what I said before, our political task is to promote the peace and well-being of society. We fulfill it by reminding rulers and subjects that a turning away from the biblical moral code is to court disaster. Social well-being depends on obedience to God’s laws, which are laws of life and therefore the best possible ones for all people. This must be the primary political message.
4. Failing to realize that that message must be delivered wisely, intelligently, and with an expert understanding of the issues involved. If we want to have a voice in the courts of the nation we had better know what we are doing, or else our efforts will have only a negative effect and become a source of embarrassment and ridicule. On this point, I may add, we can learn something positive from the current Dutch Reformed tradition. In spite of their small size, the GPV, and now the Christenunie, is highly regarded in The Netherlands by both friend and foe for their hard work, their expertise, and also for their compassionate approach. This began with the first representative, P. Jongeling, and continues today.
5. Looking at organization as the be-all and end-all of the Christian political life. Of course, organization is important. The truth that God’s laws are laws of life must be proclaimed as widely as possible, and political organization is a means of doing that. But if the truth must be proclaimed, it must also be demonstrated. This means that it must be modeled in the daily life of Christians. Deeds speak louder than words. In the words of an evangelical author, “The Kingdom of God is best spread, not when we force its ethics on others, but when we demonstrate through tender care for our own and our neighbor what the gospel looks like.”3 And that neighbour, incidentally, may be a militant homosexual or an abortionist. The time may come that a life of modeling the truth of the gospel is the only means left to us to fulfill our political task. Such a situation would not be unprecedented. It existed in the early church and it still exists today, namely in countries where there is no freedom of speech, association, and religion.
In Canada, however, we still have these freedoms, and political engagement in the customary sense of the term remains possible. We should make use of that opportunity, all the while helping each other to find the criteria for truly Christian politics. I hope that this conference will contribute towards that end.
1 Groen van Prinsterer’s well-known slogan “In our isolation lies our strength” has been used in support of the idea that church and political party should coincide, but wrongly so. For Groen (who stayed with the state church, rather than joining the Reformed), isolation meant steadfastness in adherence to biblical principles. He specifically rejected the idea that it referred to seclusion and ‘political cloistering.’ See on this point J. Kamphuis, Evangelisch isolement (Vuurbaak, 1976), pp. 9f, 44.
2 Evangelical author John MacArthur warns against the danger, which he notices especially among American Christians, of seeing secular society as the enemy and of following the strategy of unbelievers, resorting to aggressive lobbying, intimidation, and confrontation. Society, he writes, is our mission field, not our enemy, and the Christian’s task with respect to society therefore consists not in warfare but in faithful prayer, godly living, and diligent evangelism. John MacArthur, Why Government Can’t Save You: An Alternative to Political Activism (World, 2000). On the same topic see also American evangelical author Michael S. Horton, Beyond Culture Wars (Moody Press, 1994). Horton affirms the Christian’s political calling, but warns against a political approach by Christians that may adversely affect the advancement of God’s Kingdom.
3 Darrel Bock in Christianity Today, September 2005, p. 87.
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