Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) was many things in life: journalist, editor, pastor, theologian, the founder of a university, a founder and leader of a political party, and even a prime minister of the Netherlands. A disciple of Groen van Prinsterer, his “anti-Revolutionary” party was marked by its anti-modernism, its political pluralism, its vibrant and theologically grounded disestablishment and yet also its serious Calvinism. Much has been made of his intellectual and political legacy; his writings, which were voluminous, are still being translated into English, Korean, and more. Yet while his writings and legacy remain the subject of study and debate, his time as prime minister was perhaps even more controversial, and has left a still more uncertain legacy. Of his policies as prime minister, few could be more complex and contentious than his foreign policy, to underline the controversy that he himself called “colonial policy” and “overseas possessions.” How did the practical, real-time life of a foreign policymaker meet in this academically and theologically minded pastor turned prime minister? That is the substance of this three-part introduction.[1]

Why would we want to talk about such a short-lived Dutch prime minister’s foreign policy (1901–05), which has been described simply as a “failure,” which “in fact did not become a foreign policy at all”? Two reasons, I think, stand out.

First, Abraham Kuyper has had and continues to enjoy a real renaissance in evangelical political thought in North America. He remains a towering figure for political theorists and theologians who wish to find a different path from either of Alexis de Tocqueville’s twin dystopias: the anomie of a fractured republic, on the one hand, or a thicker (read: Orwellian) civil religion on the other. Yet while much has been made of Kuyper’s Calvinistic contributions to domestic political theory, very little (in English) has been said of his foreign policy. This is a real gap for those who think this political-religious tradition, what we may tentatively call the Amsterdam School, holds real promise for redressing the political and social pathologies of our day.

Second, however, Kuyper is a worthy figure to align within an emerging cast of thinkers on not only religion and foreign policy, but also on the “religious turn” in international relations more generally. What began after the Cold War in a kind of recovery of religion as a significant causal factor in politics, has—after 9/11—created a minor sub-field in the discipline, one which increasingly reaches back before the heyday of positivism to recover alternative models. Kuyper was certainly a kind of Augustinian Realist, an approach Eric Patterson says is consonant with great American realists like Reinhold Niebuhr. But Kuyper was also very much a European, and with his candid talk of international society, law, and culture, he might fit better within the early English School, one of several “post-secular prophets” like Martin Wight, Christopher Dawson, and Herbert Butterfield. Kuyper, then, like these others in the early English School, is one of the historical voices we must recover in our tumultuous times of transition—Kuyper’s time being the crash of modernity, ours being the global resurgence of religion.

To make my case over this small series, I have chosen several focusing events during Kuyper’s political tenure, from before his time as prime minister, during his time in office, and after. In this first article, I discuss his “Overseas Manifesto,” found most plainly in a new translation of Our Program. In it we get a somewhat idealist portrait of anti-Revolutionary foreign policy, but also some rich principles that show resonance with Christian Realists. In the second article, I study the Boer War(s) in South Africa, the so-called pacification of Aceh, and finally, at the end of Kuyper’s life and career, the Great War itself. This singular event pierced Kuyper’s European idealism and drew him to dramatic conclusions about the evil that had permeated his own home continent. Finally, I conclude in my third article seeing what we learn from this comparison of platform and policy, theory and practice.

Kuyper’s Overseas Manifesto: Ons Program

Abraham Kuyper was most certainly a man of his time. Even his ambition, tireless productivity, and frenetic pace matched the industrializing spirit of his age. Thus, we find in Ons Program—written by Kuyper and published on January 1, 1878, by a provisional committee located in Amsterdam—sweeping, passionate, and idealistic responses to the great problems of Kuyper’s Netherlands. It is “anti-Revolutionary” to be sure, after the name of Kuyper’s own party, but that should not lead us to misunderstand him as conservative, slow, or modest. Kuyper captures all of this in a “manifesto” of no short length, at least two chapters of which (Eighteen: National Defense, and Nineteen: Overseas Possessions) give sustained treatment on issues of an international character.

The context into which Our Program was delivered was one of considerable turmoil in Dutch foreign policy. What he calls “liberals” had managed to abolish the state monopoly over the East Indies, resulting in an initial boom, though largely dependent on what became the unrestrained, ungoverned, and largely abusive system of foreign labor. Eventual price drops brought an end to the small-scale capitalism of the 1870s and 1880s, resulting in larger scale state-backed enterprises, an economic model that compounded Dutch liabilities in the Indies. The liberal doctrine of “non-interference” also ran its course in the near-collapse of the rule of law, famously in the harassment of trade ships along crucial trade routes near Aceh. The Boer War flared up persistently, stoking Dutch nationalism, and the Dutch themselves—of which Kuyper was a mirror reflection—resented the British for their ascendency and South African policies, all the while depending on their fleets to keep the law of the seas. The contest among European powers was intensifying and would nearly reach crescendo by the time Kuyper himself took office as prime minister.

Onto this scene came Our Program, with three main emphases for foreign affairs: (1) international law, (2) the sovereignty of nations, and (3) the moral obligation to share the Christian Gospel and its social and political fruit.

International Law was long a feature of Dutch foreign policy, and one that can be generally expected from middle powers as a strategy of containment on the part of greater powers. C.B. Wels calls the “foundations of Dutch foreign policy” aloofness and neutrality, on the one hand, and “respect for and promotion of international law” on the other. It was fundamental for Kuyper too. But, for Kuyper, international law only acquired a “genuine basis” once it was “nourished by Christianity.” This is why the degradation of a “Christian family of nations” so alarmed Kuyper, for the effect, in his mind, was the decline of international law into “unnatural sentimentalism” or a ruinous violation of the rights of nations. The purpose of international law, he argued, “was to guarantee the right of existence—of existence with honor—to all nations, large and small. This guarantee rested on having the nations together submit to a higher law.”

The whole purpose of international law rests on a kind of moral and political organicism, argues George Harinck, the preservation of unique cultural, social, and political pluralism which the “revolutionary spirit” of the age tried to homogenize and so destroy. This is a double-edged sword for Kuyper’s inheritance. On the one hand, Kuyper applauded Woodrow Wilson’s concept of the self-determination of nations on this basis, a principle at the heart of the League of Nations, and one which forecasts empires relinquishing their colonies. On the other hand, it also spoke to the separateness with which Kuyper thought distinct nations should live, an idea that would be perverted decades later into the segregation of races in South Africa. Kuyper writes:

If you hold that a nation is a product of a divine dispensation in history and that therefore every state is delimited by the natural radius of the national life thus shaped—then of course any idea falls away that you can embrace a Javanese and a Frisian, an Achin and a Hollander as fellow citizens of one and the same state, as members of a single organic community.

The tension between Kuyper’s Wilsonian idealism and the dark specter of racial segregation is present throughout his manifesto on colonial affairs. He writes:

We shall respect the shape and form of peoples and nations as they have come to be in their independence and distinctiveness under the providential rule of the Creator. So, let us stop trying to melt together what by nature cannot be melted together.[2]

Kuyper, of course, was mainly thinking about the Netherlands. He even argued in his treatise on National Defense (Chapter 18) that the first defense of any nation is a moral defense, the most significant components of which were: (1) knowledge of the history of our country, (2) the sense of justice, (3) civic spirit, and (4) diplomacy. To defend the nation was foremost an internal and spiritual struggle for Kuyper; navies, militias, recruitment, and more only follow after the sure purpose and nature of the nation is established. His whole treatise on defense begins with this idea of the “defense” of the nation.

Herein, then, the third fundamental point of Kuyper’s manifesto on foreign affairs: the moral obligation of the Christian Gospel as foundation and fertile ground for any kind of political and social order. This was, in Kuyper’s opinion, the main claim that colonial affairs needed to champion: the “free proclamation of the Gospel.”

There were Three Systems, said Kuyper, that the Dutch could consider in “what to do with its overseas possessions.” The first two, exploitation and colonialization, he considered unfit for a Christian. Exploitation was an obvious violation of God’s law, and colonization was both impractical and “unnatural.” Thus, he argued, the only “sound, lawful, and honorable system for us as a Christian nation is a system of trusteeship.”

Trusteeship was a carefully chosen word since Kuyper wanted to be clear these peoples should not be “under tutelage forever.” No, he called them rather “minors,” with Dutch guardians who were responsible to foster (1) a moral education, (2) wise management of the estates, and (3) if it please God, to achieve greater independence. The foundation for all three, and the hermeneutic clue for moral education, was the “Christianization of the Indies.” He writes:

In our colonial program the Christianization of the Indies cannot be some extra ingredients but must be the chief inspiration for all who also honor in the Christ of God, the Savior of the Gentiles.

Only, argued Kuyper, “turning to a Christian principle of life can open up for these peoples the prospect of higher development.” And, as further evidence of his early Christian nationalism, Kuyper makes clear that “factually only the Christian nations in Europe and America have attained that purer disclosure of nobler strength that has created human society as we know it, a society to which the former—and in part still present—heathen civilizations in China and British India can in no way be compared.”

There was no question in Kuyper’s mind, then, that the development of a people was integrally related to their knowledge of Jesus Christ, and that the best evidence to his day showed that civilizations which accepted that saving faith bore the fruit of economic, social, and political progress. This was a kind of Christian imperialism, to be sure, but not one that seems ultimately rooted in prejudice of race or geography. The Dutch, for Kuyper, were a kind of chosen catalyst, not the only or even main inheritors of the gift of the Gospel. That this faith was deeply European in expression, and that this development was Eurocentric in the extreme, is certainly notable, but hardly unique for the time. Indeed, what is more unique is Kuyper’s insistence on self-determination. Pre-empting larger movements toward freedom of religion or belief, Kuyper includes this critical caveat in his Trusteeship: “the Christian principle… desires to triumph in no other way tha[n] through persuasion.”

Could Kuyper then have appreciated the idea of multiple modernities, organic nations producing the diverse fruits of their religious ground motives? Perhaps so, suggests James Bratt: “They are not destined to become just like us. Western innovations could and would become thoroughly assimilated for native ends, as the Japanese had just dramatically demonstrated against Russia.”

[1] A version of these articles was published as Robert J. Joustra, “Abraham Kuyper Among the Nations” Politics & Religion Vol. 11, Issue 1, pp. 146-168.

[2] There is some debate on “which Kuyper” gets the last word on unity and diversity of nations and races. In the Volume 1 Introduction of the English translation of Pro Rege,Clifford Anderson argues that “unity and universalism have the final word.”