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.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

7 Comments

  • RLG says:

    Interesting article, Jason. But Hawley and Christianity both miss the mark, especially the mark of common sense and realism. Humans are not created as Gods that perfection was/is ever a possibility. And therefore God does not expect moral perfection of humans or other animals. “There is none righteous, no not one…” That’s common sense. We are finite creatures with finite abilities, so despite what the Bible may teach, human experience makes clear that moral perfection is not attainable, nor do we expect it of anyone. Nor does God. Just as we don’t expect our children to get straight A’s or 100’s, nor does God have such an expectation of people. In fact, educators increasingly realize such a grading system is ineffectual for measuring the worth of a child or person. So I would guess that Hawley, Kuyper, and Christianity miss the mark of God’s expectations for humans, altogether. Thanks, Jason. Nice try.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    If the article accurately reflects Hawley’s beliefs–and maybe it doesn’t but probably it does–then I think it fair to say that neither Pelagius nor Kuyper would have recognized himself in these characterizations of their thought. Pelagius and Augustine disagreed on original sin and the source of sin’s influence in people’s lives but as I recall. Augustine said we are born bent due to original sin, Pelagius said we are born blank slates. But Pelagius did not much expect too many slate to stay blank or clean or good. Total depravity is the one doctrine most every Christian communion holds in some form even as it is the most easily provable doctrine in the world at any given moment. To use Pelagius as the genesis of free thought leading to liberalism seems downright silly on the face of it. And you nail it on Kuyper and Sphere Sovereignty. Agree with that theological schema or not, Kuyper knew that living as a believer required different toolkits for different areas of life, different approaches, different expectations. Kuyper was all nuance where as Hawley is all fist-pumping Christian theocratic horse hockey. His fig leaf of Kuyper can’t cover over the nakedness of his political ambitions.

  • Jeff Munroe says:

    How ironic to hear Hawley’s ideological rival Joe Biden quoting Pelagius’s ideological rival Augustine on Wednesday.,

    • Marty Wondaal says:

      It is not ironic. I do not think that word means what you think it means (I. Montoya). Every politician (and their speech writers) to the right of Lenin pulls quotes for Augustine to sound stateswomanlike.

      What is hilarious, though, is that Joe Biden butchered his Augustinian quote both syntactically and philosophically. It might even be ironic…

  • David Hoekema says:

    Hawley’s invocation of Pelagius and Kuyper (that’s St. Abraham to many in West Michigan) leaped off the page at me too, the more so since I’m reviewing a recent book that argues, on a far more sophisticated plane, that contemporary liberalism in the mold of John Rawls is Pelagianism redux. I haven’t figured out yet whether that argument makes sense, though there certainly is a strand of overconfident optimism in the liberal tradition (think Hobbes vs Rousseau, for instance — though both are liberal thinkers in many respects). And we who revere Kuyper for his call to engage deeply with all dimensions of learning and culture should also remember how much apartheid owed to another reading of sphere sovereignty.

    On another front: I wish President Biden had managed to work in a reference to “fist-pumping theocratic horse hockey” in his inaugural address. It captures the spirit of the Christian right succinctly.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    The same people who ridicule the phrase “practicing homosexual “ will likewise hold you in contempt for for saying “we who revere Kuyper”.

    Your intellectual bedmates think you’re deplorable, just like me. Sorry.

    I would, however, like to read both the book (and your review of it) that you mentioned.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    We can all agree that since Jesus is Lord, every square inch belongs to him, but disagree on the means God uses to accomplish this. Hawley et al who
    supported DJT believe in the Church Regnant and use right handed power of the state and the sword to get the job done while other Christians believe in the Church Remnant and use the left handed power of the cross to get it done. This is why evangelicals disagree about DJT & other issues. See the following link to Christianity Today’s article “Why Evangelicals Disagree on the President” which explains the distinctions between the two:
    https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/november-web-only/trump-election-politics-church-kingdom.html

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