The following is the final article of a three-part series about Abraham Kuyper and his foreign policy. The first part considered his positions before he became prime minister of the Netherlands in 1901 while he served as leader of the Anti-Revolutionary Party. The second part analyzed his policies after he gained power and the “necessary adjustments” he had to make.

What can we learn from comparing Abraham Kuyper’s anti-Revolutionary platform with his actual work in foreign policy? Each of Kuyper’s three distinctive contributions to foreign policy underwent major revisions during his time as prime minister and, later toward the end of his life, under the pressures of the Great War. There is no question that there were major areas of error and prejudice in Kuyper, but there is also little question that his perspective on international affairs and his cutting insight into the theological cataclysm of the Great War yielded real, explanatory, and predictive fruit. In turn, it is worth considering what we can learn from, and perhaps also alongside, Kuyper in each of these three areas.

The Laws among the Nations

In international law, Kuyper’s emphasis is one that most broadly liberal international theorists can support. International law, for Kuyper, was about recognizing the constraints under which power, even great global power, operate. International law was also about the necessarily plural foundations of any global order, about the need for both Christians and non-Christians alike to recognize the instability and ultimate danger in proposing any singular, hegemonic foundation for something as vast and plural as international law.

While, for Kuyper, he would unapologetically have thought of the laws among nations as a kind of functional stewardship of deeper norms (most significantly the norms of Christ and his Kingdom), it was also clear that for Kuyper such norms could not, and should not, simply be installed by force or by sleight of hand onto societies and cultures from which there was no such confession.

I wonder, then, what Kuyper would have made of an exercise like the religious-political dialogues over the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Here, certainly, there were convicted Christians arguing from those convictions in theologically serious ways about the rights and responsibilities of citizens in the world. But here, also, were co-religionists—Muslims, Hindus, and others—making their own arguments for those rights, based on their traditions and teachings. Could Kuyper ever come to terms with the idea that the non-Christian tradition could bear similar social and political fruit as the Calvinist? International law, in particular, is the most conceptually rich field to ask this question, for it necessarily includes the widest possible pluralism in political affairs.

The conclusion from these cases must surely be that Kuyper would unswervingly confess his need to root international law in Christian principles and confessions, but in the here and now he may well have time, patience, and even some fascination with other-religious traditions articulating their own, indigenous rationales for those same principles. I think that for Kuyper there could be no other way of imagining international law in a plural world: for while Christians may well strive for all nations to know the Gospel, as one of those “necessary adjustments to reality” the Christian foreign policymaker must know that it is both impractical and naïve to wait for the new heavens and the new earth to make policy and partnership with non-Christian neighbors and nations. Further, because of Kuyper’s strong emphasis on religion as civilization’s ground motive and life force, the work of international law, particularly in a post-secular world order, becomes inter-religious dialogue while doing politics. There is, in that sense, no set of laws between plural nations that is purely secular. All laws, per Kuyper’s thought, have one foot in religion. The key, then, is finding common cause, rather than abdicating particularistic visions. Here there is a lesson for both the Christian heirs of Kuyper and the students of religion and foreign policy more generally: both the singular reliance on Christian foundations and the hope for other universalistic (secular) foundations are unstable and ultimately dangerous because they neglect the particularistic grounds of other societies and cultures. Such an exercise would repeat the colonial failures of Europe’s past, rather than recognize the necessarily particular and plural roots of international law and its common causes.

Organicism and Nation

Second, the nation itself takes on a different character for Kuyper. Certainly, Kuyper’s Wilsonian idealism has been corrupted into a kind of segregationist argument, one which while not his intent, is not hard to infer from his racially charged rhetoric. This part of Kuyper must be read in his context, not dismissed but recognized as badly wrong. What we may nonetheless salvage from his organic conception of the nation is at least two-fold.

First, for scholars of religion and foreign policy, national character has religious or spiritual dimensions. These may be plural, but they should not—Kuyper would say cannot—be simply ignored or ruled out of bounds. Religion, then, is not a by-product of a national life, but it is one of those wellsprings from which national life emerges. To even do foreign policy is first, then, to ask religious kinds of questions: What is it my neighbor loves? How have they arranged their social and national life around the objects of their worship? This is not a purely cognitive or philosophical task of investigating histories, policies, and religious texts. It is a more anthropological task than that, for the organic nature of nations must be observed, and maybe lived, not simply intellectually dissected. True worship springs up and is observed in practice. It is not merely preached from pulpits or delivered in national assemblies.

And, for Kuyper’s Christian heirs, we must also take from Kuyper his ready repentance, in his final days, of baptizing any nation’s foreign policy with a religion. For Kuyper, saying that a nation’s identity is divinely ordained as coterminous with Christ’s Kingship risks the kind of egoistic, Christian imperialism that unseats the sovereignty of God and exchanges it for the idol of the nation.

Kuyper saw firsthand the clash of idolatries in the Great War, and we would do well to remember that, despite his enduring passion for Calvinistic Christianity as a sure foundation for national life, the simplistic identification of one nation’s life with the will of God was a great and terrible evil from which the world did not soon recover.

Second, we may take from Kuyper a kind of qualified endorsement of state sovereignty. In twentieth-century society, Kuyper saw challenges that demanded a balancing of powers and institutions. With the growth of technological and economic power in particular, he foresaw the need to grow the institutions of justice alongside them. Governance, in other words, must keep pace with the scale of problems to be governed. States do so not to lapse into the tyranny Kuyper so feared (recalling his implausible dictum, “the state is not an octopus”), but to recognize that public justice would need regimes capable of maintaining the boundaries and callings of rapidly changing technology and commerce. State sovereignty, then, was not about the nation-state’s absolutist authority, but rather about giving it sufficient authority so that it may accomplish its God-ordained task of doing public justice. “Sovereign in its own sphere,” as Kuyper would say, means a different thing than Westphalian “state sovereignty.” The former speaks of balanced, bounded powers, the latter of uncontested, anthropocentric authority. For Kuyper, sovereignty could never be absolute, for where states fail in their stewardship, there may well be a role for higher authorities, international laws and treaties among them, to mitigate such failure.

Freedom of Religion or Belief

Finally, there is no question that perhaps Kuyper’s most driving concern was the free proclamation of the Gospel. For Kuyper, a fundamental feature of foreign policy was making the world safe for the proclamation of the Gospel, so he would be a passionate advocate today of what is called freedom of religion or belief. There is some question about whether Kuyper would embrace that freedom for all religions, or if he would have a special or perhaps exclusive priority for the Christian religion. But I believe it is clear from Kuyper’s policies in Indonesia that, while he placed special priority on freedom for Christian missions, he also recognized that fundamental biblical precept that there can be no coercion in religion, and therefore all religions must have the same freedom he so cherished for Christianity. If religious worldviews shape the character of nations, freedom of religion or belief not only ensures the Great Commission but also ensures the organic character of nations: the freedom to contest and debate what a nation is, its identity, its future, and its loves. Here Kuyper’s Calvinism dovetails with scholars of religion and foreign policy, for no nation that cannot debate its spiritual parentage can be truly said to be free in any meaningful sense of the term. There is no “self-determination” and no “organic” character where the fundamental questions of life and God are denied to a people. The incapacity to do political theology, for Kuyper, would be a denial of the organic character of a nation; it would be an authoritarian formalism, frozen and fragile, destined not to bend and grow, but simply to break.

Kuyper, Christian Realist of the Amsterdam School

These are, I think, good signposts even in our present day, posts on the same path as other Christian Realists in the United States and Great Britain. Could it be, even, the beginnings of an Amsterdam School of Christian Realism, alongside the great traditions of the American School and the English School? These insights come to us, unlikely as it may seem, from a politician whose own foreign policy could hardly be counted as more than a failure. Yet they also come from a giant of religious and political leadership, whose struggles and even whose failures prove so instructive more than a century later. Kuyper unquestionably had his failures and his blind spots, some very serious and extremely damaging. But he also labored to find balanced and faithful positions on international affairs. We would do well to imitate his principles today. We would not want to adopt his policies as they were, but we could do much worse than to have a new man like him work out, with his theological and political seriousness, the intractable problems of our globe today.