In the New York Times Opinion piece, The Roots of Josh Hawley’s Rage, Katherine Stewart draws attention to the religious rhetoric of Senator Josh Hawley. He blames the rise of secularism on the well known British monk, Pelagius. In a Christianity Today article, Hawley describes our current cultural situation as the “Age of Pelagius”. He writes, “Pelagius held that the individual possessed a powerful capacity for achievement. In fact, Pelagius believed individuals could achieve their own salvation. It was just a matter of them living up to the perfection of which they were inherently capable. As Pelagius himself put it, ‘Since perfection is possible for man, it is obligatory.’ The key was will and effort. If individuals worked hard enough and deployed their talents wisely enough, they could indeed be perfect.”
Hawley’s use of Pelagius is part of a broader appeal to reinterpret him as a precursor to Western modernism. Somehow, Pelagius’ belief that it’s possible for Christians to live a righteous and moral life eventually leads to godless secularism and the unfettered freedom of modern identity. Which makes me wonder: Would Pelagius recognize himself in Hawley’s description of his beliefs? Pelagius was an ascetic, calling for a rigid way of life that resonates with early monastics like St. Anthony and St. Benedict. (Would anyone claim St. Anthony is a picture of progressive liberalism?) Pelagius, like other early Christians, believed sin is cultural, which means spiritual and moral perfection are found in living an ascetic life in obedience to God. Disagree? Sure— but that doesn’t make him the poster child for modern liberalism.
While Hawley blames Pelagius for the ills of Western culture, he sees in Abraham Kuyper its salvation. Stewart writes,
In a 2017 speech to the American Renewal Project, [Hawley] declared — paraphrasing the Dutch Reformed theologian and onetime prime minister Abraham Kuyper — “There is not one square inch of all creation over which Jesus Christ is not Lord.” Mr. Kuyper is perhaps best known for his claim that Christianity has sole legitimate authority over all aspects of human life…We are called to take that message into every sphere of life that we touch, including the political realm,” Mr. Hawley said. “That is our charge. To take the lordship of Christ, that message, into the public realm, and to seek the obedience of the nations. Of our nation!”
It’s easy for Kuyper’s “square inch” quote to turn into a theological imperialism that justifies cultural participation. However, as flawed as Kuyper may have been, his perspective is much more nuanced and complex than saying Christians should take over politics. What’s missing from Hawley’s Kuyperianism is any sense of “sphere sovereignty” that informs political participation within a pluralistic society. Kuyper did not advocate for theocracy, and to use his theology this way—regardless of how you feel about it—is irresponsible.
What’s my point? Theological beliefs matter—even when they’re the beliefs of our heretics.