Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. recently stirred up a bit of hubbub over his endorsement of Donald Trump, praising the billionaire presidential candidate as a “servant leader” who “lives a life of helping others, as Jesus taught.”
For many evangelicals, the disconnect behind such a statement is more than a bit palpable. Thus, the critiques and dissents ensued, pointing mostly to the uncomfortable co-opting of Trump’s haphazard political proposals with Christian witness.
Politics driving the gospel rather than the other way around is the third temptation of Christ. He overcame it. Will we?
— Russell Moore (@drmoore) January 18, 2016
Richard Muow picks up on this same point over at First Things, noting that this “third temptation” has lured many Christians throughout church history, and was aptly warned against by Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch statesmen and theologian.
Himself a Calvinist, Kuyper traced many of these errors within his own tradition, though concluding that the proper corrective comes from within Calvinism’s own theological resources.
As Mouw explains:
In tension with the practices and events that Kuyper deplores, he holds up an underlying Calvinist celebration of the liberty of the individual conscience—a theme clearly on display, he observes, in the way “our Calvinistic Theologians and jurists have defended the liberty of conscience against the Inquisition.” Indeed, Kuyper argues, it was the genius of Calvinism to oppose the French Revolution’s corrupt notion of individual liberty as the freedom “for every Christian to agree with the unbelieving majority” in favor of the kind of liberty, as Calvinism eventually came to endorse explicitly, “which enables every man to serve God according to his own conviction and the dictates of his own heart.”
This healthy understanding of liberty was put on display in a special way, says Kuyper, under Calvinism’s influence in the Netherlands. “There,” he observes, “the Jews were hospitably received; there the Lutherans were in honor; there the Mennonites flourished; and even the Arminians and Roman Catholics were permitted the free exercise of their religion at home and in secluded churches.”
Or, as Kuyper himself put it in his 1879 political manifesto, Our Program (now available from Lexham Press in partnership with the Acton Institute):
The mission of our republic was to use its armies and fleets and its commercial influence to protect the free course of the gospel throughout Europe and other continents and to safeguard the free course of the gospel at home in accordance with freedom of conscience for everyone.
The inspiring ideal of our nation at that time was civil liberty, not as a goal in itself but as the vehicle and consequence of that much higher liberty that is owed to men’s conscience.
And so people knew what they lived for; they knew the purpose of their existence. They believed, they prayed, they gave thanks. And blessings were plentiful: the country enjoyed prosperity, happiness, and peace.
William of Orange was the spiritual father from whom this type grew and who preserved it from those excesses of the left and of the right that led similar efforts in Westminster and New England to such totally different outcomes…The motto Hac nitimur, hanc tuemur — leaning on the power of God in his holy Word and deeming liberty a priceless good — was a marvelous and meaningful expression. When struck on coins it was a cautionary reminder for a trading nation that this treasure of Orange was to be deemed of greater value than all the spices from the Orient.
Evangelicals are right to seek a political order that “protects Christianity,” if by this we mean the protection of a robust religious liberty that spans religions and dogmas, reinforcing a broader flourishing of society from the bottom up.
But this won’t come from the Trumpian definition, wherein Christians are another disaffected interest group, primed for poisonous identity politics that seeks power and privilege as both its means and ends. Whatever visions of “greatness” Trump promotes along the way — generic, libertine, or otherwise — Christians must be wary of swallowing the bait.
As Mouw concludes, “The religious freedom we long for has to come as part of a larger movement for justice that generates a more comprehensive vision for a pluralistic society.”
For more on Kuyper’s contribution to Christian social thought, see Our Program and the rest of his Collected Works in Public Theology from Lexham Press.