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Bachman Back to Kuyper?

By January 6, 2012 4 Comments

Now that Michelle Bachman has dropped her campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, perhaps we can put to rest—again—a genealogy used to explain her political faith. Bachman, it is said (for instance, in Ryan Lizza’s profile of her in the August 15, 2011 New Yorker), came to Christian political consciousness after watching Francis Schaffer’s film series, “How Should We Then Live?” Schaffer, in turn, (not Lizza here, but others more interested in such things ) was transformed from being just another theological fundamentalist into a holistic Christian thinker with particular interests in culture and politics after coming into contact with Hans Rookmaker, professor of art at the Free University in Amsterdam. Rookmaker was a student of Herman Dooyeweerd, the philosopher-in-chief at the Free, and Dooyeweerd was a follower of Abraham Kuyper, founder of the Netherlands’ Antirevolutionary Party, expounder of its political program, and eventually prime minister of the country. Bachman shows, therefore, what Kuyper can come to.

Well, yes, I suppose—if we truncate the reading list at every point. Kuyper wrote hundreds of books and pamphlets and thousands of articles on the whole span of religion and contemporary life. Dooyeweerd hunkered down into philosophy, where he did right well. Rookmaker wrote books and lectured about aesthetics and art history. Schaffer, reports his biographer Barry Hankins, read few books at all beside the Bible, favoring magazines instead. And Bachman watched his movies.

In pushing his own political movement, Kuyper was afraid of the very mistakes that the American Christian Right has proven only too willing to fall into over the past generation—and today. First of all, Kuyper ridiculed what would become “theonomy.” “No Calvinist ever,” he insisted in 1887, not having had the pleasure of reading Rousas Rushdoony, “has come up with the nonsensical notion of making the penal law of Israel the law of the land.” Kuyper had said the same already in 1873, before his party was even organized: any proposal which “simply wishes to duplicate the situation of Israel, taking Holy Scripture as a complete code of Christian law for the state, would be,” he said, “the epitome of absurdity.”

Kuyper was also worried about ignorance, whether it was blithe invocations of Scripture as political principle (cf. George W. Bush on Jesus as his favorite political philosopher) or parading amateurism as a qualification for office. What “God in his love made known in his Word, also for our political life,” said Kuyper, does not get down to the level of detail, where for matters legislative the devil, or the divine, indeed dwells. Further, human societies so vary in character and circumstances are so fluctuating that anyone who would practice Christian politics faces stout entry qualifications. Kuyper’s comparative emphasis was revealing here: any Christian aspiring to high office should have “a thorough knowledge of the nations and a fundamental knowledge of God’s Word.”  

Of course, Scriptural knowledge and passion for a deep-diving, comprehensive biblical ethic have been little evident among America’s current purveyors of “Christian” politics. Instead, we see a love of missiles: spermatic missiles in the name of family values, explosive missiles in the name of national defense, budget-busting missiles in attacks on tax revenue. That the third is needed for the costly implications of the first and second is a point of logic that also has escaped notice. I guess if logic rates low, we can understand the links of Bachman to Kuyper. Otherwise, not.


James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Justin says:

    Nicely put. I appreciate the insight. There is a great disrespect and ignorance in trying to equate Kuyper and Bachman. Unfortunately thinking about things is something many do not take time for these days.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thanks for this Jim. I remember how excited I was as a teen-ager reading Kuyper's little book on Christianity and the Class Struggle, and how far it away it is from anything in the politics of Bachman and her ilk.

  • Paul Janssen says:

    The devolution from substance to ephemera brings to mind Updike's "In the Beauty of the Lilies.". Sad.

  • William Harris says:

    Is such a dismissal really that easy?

    It would seem that the social philosophies of Bachman and Kuyper both spring from roughly the same Calvinistic root, and particularly the rejection of the a sort of pietism (in American terms, that of the individualist Fundamentalism of mid-century). In fact, this is a common path, the evangelical or charismatic wants something more, a fuller way of living one's life in the world.

    Whether we call it "reformed" or "kuyperian" that social vision is strongly appealing. People want to have a way to make their faith real in the world, especially in a world that seems to be rejecting the Gospel.

    The failure in Sister Michelle is not in her coming to political consciousness, but rather — dare I say it? — in her heart. There is little apparent awareness of the Gospel critique of her own life. But then again, in fairness, the act of politics often precludes this self-awareness, rewarding as it does those who put on the brave face and forthright focus.

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