Few topics have so enamored or incensed American society in recent years than Christian Nationalism. It is often a canard in the hands of anti-Christian elite who misunderstand the Establishment Clause as requiring the separation of religious claims from public life. These are the same ones who decry any perceived Christian justification for moral legislation as totalitarian, theocratic, and even fascist while failing to see how their own secular religiosity trades in totalitarian fervor.
However, within Christian traditions, navigating how to articulate the relationship between our faith and our politics is equally divisive. Catholics debate integralism while Presbyterians and Reformed churches have their sights trained on Moscow, Idaho and the latest offerings from Canon Press. Baptists, too, have not been immune to these debates—unsurprising given the climate of contemporary discourse on public life but deeply ironic given Baptists’ insistence on freedom of conscience and formal separation of church and state through the centuries.
Additionally, in such a climate it is intuitive that many have turned for resources to Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), whose monumental corpus has been slowly becoming available in English over the past decade. Kuyper wrote at length about Christianity and politics and co-founded and led the Netherlands’ first political party, and he developed an innovative and mature social theory. For these reasons, Kuyper’s legacy has been invoked by later generations of Neo-Calvinists, especially in America, to support theocratic Christian reconstructionism and other forms of Protestant dominion theology.
Yet, Kuyper’s theological and biographical complexities render him an uneasy fit for the use he has been put to in service to defending Christian nationalism. Certainly, he did lead a constitutionally defined Christian nation as its first elected prime minister. But counterbalancing this vision is that much of his career as a churchman involved struggle against the Dutch national church, negotiating educational reform over rights for religious schools of various traditions, and influencing synodical revision of one of the Reformed confessions on the relation of the civil magistrate to public religion.
As Baptists navigate the question of the relation of faith to such issues as public morality, the limits of religious freedom, and the place of churches in society, Abraham Kuyper deserves serious engagement. Not only this, but also in Kuyper Baptists might even find surprising common ground and a conversation partner to enrich their own convictions. So, let’s explore what exactly this Dutch Reformed theologian offers Baptists on the thorny issue of Christian nationalism.
What Baptists Believe
However, before looking specifically at Kuyper, it would be helpful to remember what Baptists believe about the church and how it is to relate to the world. First, Baptist theology is conversionist. That is, we believe that the membership of churches should be comprised of those who have truly experienced conversion by repenting of their sin and professing faith in Christ. Such conversion is a work of the Holy Spirit, both in convicting and leading to belief in Christ, and if truly converted, results in spiritual regeneration.
Second, Baptist ecclesiology is confessional-covenantal. The basis for a local church’s affirmation of one of its member’s conversion is the confession they share. That is, a Christian professes to have experienced conversion by public baptism, by which they testify to their union with Christ. Likewise, the local church affirms the Christian’s confession by inviting him or her to covenant together with the church in fellowship, obedience to Christ, and living out the faith that they have confessed together.
This leads to the third observation, namely that operative in all of these elements of what Baptists believe is the centrality of freedom. Baptist public theology proceeds from liberty of conscience. Confession and covenanting cannot be coerced. Christians must be free to testify to a faith that is truly their own, loved and believed with all sincerity. Not only does this rule out all infant baptism on the presumption that infants are not yet capable of willful repentance and faith, but it also provides a foundation for the hallmark of Baptist public theology. All people must be free to accept or reject the call of the Gospel to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved, and therefore, Baptists have historically sought to preserve such freedom in their support of particular legislation and political platforms, social activism, and public testimony.
Why raise these Baptist distinctives for this discussion? Because the present conversation over Christian Nationalism intersects with each one of these qualities of Baptist theology. While difficult to define, in a broad sense contemporary understandings to Christian Nationalism concern the vision of ordering our social order and identity as a nation firmly upon distinctly Christian beliefs. We can see at least two approaches to this. First, some place an emphasis on what it might mean to be a Christian nation, in which rights, laws, social bonds are all made to align with Christian convictions. Second, others place an emphasis on what results from our nation being a nation of Christians, in which the Christian moral imagination imparts our essential national character and identity and is to be preserved or recovered.
In both instances, by the will of either a minority or majority of the people, our nation’s public morality becomes more than something merely compatible with Christian convictions, even if such liberty has its origins in Christianity itself. Laws, institutions, and social bonds are made to express particular beliefs—and even set a particular religious confession as an essential affirmation of participation in public life.
This is where Baptist distinctives have much to say. Entrance into both a church and the faith of a church’s confession must be voluntary because faith must be personal and genuine. Those advocating for various forms of Christian Nationalism are right to recognize the dangers that result when public morality and society’s institutions become cut off from the influence of Christian faith, as we have witnessed in our increasingly anti-Christian society in recent years. However, Baptist theology consistently highlights the necessity of some level of societal plurality in which individuals, churches, and other social institutions are free to order themselves around their own freely chosen confessions of belief and be given the space to live consistently with these.
Still, the necessity of societal freedom for a plurality of religious beliefs does not provide much of a positive vision of what Baptist public theology should say to questions of social order raised by the Christian Nationalism conversation. It’s at this point that Abraham Kuyper might have much to offer Baptists.
Why Might Kuyper Be Helpful
Despite Kuyper’s Reformed theology, which presumes beliefs about baptism and the church are fundamentally at odds with Baptist ecclesiology, there are some surprising overlaps between what Baptists believe and Kuyper’s thought that make him a natural conversation partner. First, Kuyper’s understanding of the nature of what a church is aligns well with Baptist convictions. For Kuyper, individual churches are an institutional expression of the church organic (see “Rooted and Grounded”). That is, a particular church body is a visible expression of the universal church comprised of all true believers, and such an institutional church’s life and practice is ordered by the right practice of the ordinances and the preaching of God’s Word. The church as an institution, for Kuyper, should always be comprised of the church organic, but its place in society as an institution does not have direct societal transformation in view. Rather, it nourishes the church organic in the Word and ordinances in order that Christians might go out into the world to proclaim the Gospel and order life according to God’s revelation.
Second, a key thing to note in this framework is that for Kuyper local churches ought to be comprised of those who have truly experienced the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit (see “Tract on the Reformation of the Churches”). This is quite different from the covenantal ecclesiology of much of the Reformed tradition, in which local churches are seen to be comprised of the covenant community: confessing Christians and their children who are understood as included in the promises of God to the elect even if they have not been confirmed in the faith of their parents. Kuyper actually proposed a novel ecclesiology that faced great debate within his tradition, in which he argued that children of elect parents should be presumed regenerate until they demonstrate otherwise. Baptists may disagree with much of this discussion, but at the very least it is significant that Kuyper’s institute/organism categories of the church’s expression and essence lead him to embrace something very similar to Baptist’s regenerate-only church membership—even if for Kuyper not all who are presumed regenerate have confessed the faith.
This leads naturally to the third reason, which is that for Kuyper one key importance of holding that the church as an institution is only comprised of those who truly belong to Christ is that church leaders derive the basis of their authority from the relation of Christ to his people (see “Lord’s Day 21”). By this, Kuyper affirmed a type of congregationalism in which a local group of believers can constitute a local church and delegate an authority to the leaders which derives from Christ through them to administer Word and sacrament and associate with other churches at the level of classis and synod. Church members themselves are accountable immediately to Christ who rules over the church directly, and this must be kept in perspective in understanding the nature of the authority of the church’s leaders. The historical backdrop to this is that Kuyper both resisted the influence of the national Dutch church in the selection of leaders of local churches, and he was pressed to affirm the legitimacy of churches who had chosen to disfellowship with the national church through schism.
Finally, Kuyper placed a great emphasis on the necessity of freedom of conscience, both at the level of individual churches being free to set their own confession without coercion from the state and the national church, and at the level of individuals needing to be free to live out their convictions as they go about their lives as citizens. While Kuyper consistently sought to relate faith and public life, he also sought to guard the freedom of individuals and churches against uncoerced belief—and doing so added to the assertion by his critics that he had moved beyond classic Reformed theology to create a “neo-Calvinism.”
Certainly, there are places in Kuyper’s writings in which he strives for the creation of an expressly Christian society under a Christian government (see his “State and Church” chapter). However, throughout his life, he consistently balanced this with a call for a “free church in a free state” with liberties protected for various religious convictions to be lived out within a common civil religion that anchored the ideological foundations of such liberty.
What Kuyper Offers
So then where might Baptists begin in considering what Kuyper has to offer a distinctly Baptist public theology, especially in light of the questions raised by Christian Nationalism? First, Kuyper articulates a possible basis for public morality that is robust enough to support both shared convictions of what is good and just, and religious pluralism. Kuyper’s hallmark doctrine of common grace offers a way to articulate the basis for a nation’s identity and legal framework to be rooted in natural law and compatible Christian convictions without coercing distinctly Christian belief out of the populace. For Kuyper, God’s common grace towards all people after the fall enables humanity to live and legislate according to God’s moral precepts even though all possess an inescapable and totalizing sin nature from Adam. Particular grace, which comes through both God’s special revelation in Scripture and Christ’s regenerative work by the Spirit, “adds nothing new” to God’s work of common grace, but rather enhances and develops what is already recognizable as God-given in common grace.
Thus, a nation need not become confessionally Christian and entrench the Bible as the source for all legal and social norms in order to secure a basis for public morality. Rather, because of common grace, Christians can and should pursue a national identity and legal structure inherently open to divine transcendence for the justification of its norms but without enforcing theistic belief in their foundation. This is a social theory Baptists can certainly countenance.
Second, Kuyper offers a framework for relating faith and politics, which defines clear limits on the state while also allowing for the freedom for citizens to live “fully clothed” with one’s religious convictions in the public square. Kuyper’s theory of “sphere sovereignty” in which the state is understood to be one societal sphere among many whose God-given mandate is to ensure liberty and order to the other spheres, such as commerce, education, or the family (see “Sphere Sovereignty”). The state’s role is not to impose ideological uniformity on these other spheres of public life, but rather to ensure that within those spheres citizens and societal institutions are free to organize themselves according to the beliefs of their constituents. Such a vision allows for full separation of church from the state, as well as the freedom of Christians to pursue social good with the fullness of their religious convictions when they create schools, orphanages, and hospitals.
Finally, rooted in Kuyper’s understanding of the church as institution and organism is his particular vision of the institutional church’s limited calling and power in the public square. For Kuyper, the church understood as institution bears no direct social responsibility or influence beyond the preaching of the Word and the right celebration of the sacraments. Because of this, a local church’s public role, beyond discipleship of its members, is purely kerygmatic: preaching the Gospel of Christ and declaring what the Lord has said. It is to have no authority over magistrates, nor submit to limits on this power by the state or other societal spheres. Its unique task is to be the church by doing the things of a local church in recognition of Christ’s direct rule over the church’s people by his Word and indirect rule over society through Christianity’s influence through the church organic.
Baptists now more than ever need resources for engaging the very live conversation of what comes after the classic liberal state. Christian Nationalism offers a compelling call for Christians to reorder the public square in line with their convictions, but often at the cost of overstepping the bounds of liberty essential to confessional faith according to Baptists. Abraham Kuyper offers a complex but potentially fruitful conversation partner whom Baptists would be well-served to engage.
Dennis Greeson (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is dean of the BibleMesh Institute and program coordinator and research associate at Union Theological College, Belfast. He’s a fellow in public theology at the Land Center for Cultural Engagement. Dennis is coauthor of The Way of Christ in Culture: A Vision for All of Life (B&H Academic, 2024). He lives with his wife and three children in Youngsville, North Carolina.