Christianity and Politics: Appraisal of Practice (2)

Christians’ Involvement at the State Level

Throughout his essay Dr. Spoelhof hammered home the idea that distinct characteristics of American life have made our parties ones of expediency rather than programmatic parties based on principles and ideologies. On this basis many of our people justify their participation in onc of the two major parties. This information is simply mythology, without factual foundation in practical party politics in Michigan. Political studies, such as J. H. Fenton’s Midwest Politics have shown that party politics in Michigan is issue-and program-oriented rather than personality-and job-oriented. Mind you, former Governor G. M. Williams was nationally known as a doctrinaire liberal. In an analysis of the politics of public education in Michigan, three political scientists observed the following:

The emergence of the Democratic party as a dominant force in state politics has been accompanied by a realignment of the major parties. The forces that have gained control of each have succeeded in making the parties more responsible in the classic sense of the term: that is, each party is programmatic or committed to certain specific policies. Thus, in Michigan, the parties present alternatives, and their disparate views are reflected in the day to day operations of government.

The party cleavages in Michigan relate, first of all, to political ideology and then to implementation.

Throughout the state, debates between party adversaries Rared up whether it was election time or not. The debates covered a wide range of issues; the principle ones were, however, the representativeness or apportionment of the State legislature, the nature of the state’s fiscal policies and concern that present policies had caused industrial enterprises to move outside the state, and “welfarism.”13

The politics of public education and apportionment of the legislature provides us with another case study. Our people pride themselves with the fact that a Christian Reformed man has been elected to the State Board of Education. This case could prove that it is possible to effectively permeate one of the major parties. Upon the advice of Dr. Spoelhof the Calvin Board of Trustees in their Report to the churches made known that:

Dr. Peter Oppewal was elected by the voters of the state of Michigan to a seat on the Michigan State Board of Education…This…position is especially important and strategic in view of the State Board’s new role in the thorough reconstruction of the operation of the higher educational system of Michigan provided for by the new state constitution.14

The new constitution, however, also provided for members to be nominated by partisan conventions and partisan election (Art. VIII ). Why and how was Dr. Oppewal nominated by the Democratic Party? True, he is a Professor of English, but this does not necessarily qualify one for this position. (If educational qualification was required, the Party should have nominated his brother who is a Professor of Education at Calvin.) What made him acceptable to the secular labor-union dominated Party is that he was “one of the five college professors who began a court suit to challenge the 80-20 formula set up in the new constitution for the creation of State Senate districts.”15

Having received the endorsement of the Kent County democrats, his supporters at the state convention went to the Wayne County party caucus and reminded the labor leaders of his liberal position on apportionment. They were convinced of his liberal philosophy and he was nominated.

In the ill-fated 1964 presidential election the democrats won all eight seats on the new Board of Education, which has authority over the entire public school system. The immediate reaction was well summarized in an editorial:

It is clear from the results…that the Constitutional Convention made a grave error when it provided that members of the new State Board of Education should be elected on a partisan basis.

….there is no escaping the fact that decisions made by a one-party board are likely to encounter strong resistance in some part of the body politic simply because they represent the philosophy of only one party…

The overriding importance of education demands that the state’s program be kept as free from politics as possible.16

The editorial only pleads for constitutional provisions for non-partisan election. To keep public education free from (partisan ) politics will demand greater changes, because public schools are government units, and teachers are civil servants. “Clearly, then, education is one of the major functions of state government today. In fact, much of state politics is politics concerned with public schools.”17 State school board members are government officials. They decide statewide educational policy. They appoint a superintendent who is responsible for the planning and administration of educational policy. Via the Department of Education, they determine the adoption of textbooks and curriculum, too. In short, government control over public education is total and taken for granted. While most people condemn state control of education in Russia, they accept it as self-evident in these United States. Dr. F. McKinnon, a Canadian educator, critically observed that the “educational system is the largest instrument in the modern state for telling people what to do.”18

Dr. Oppewall and many other Christian teachers accept these conditions and circumstances as natural. He and his supporters are a party to government control over public education. Just imagine what this means if the state government of Michigan would control the Christian schools as it does the public schools. Would it not be equally unacceptable for public schools? Dr. Oppewall and many of his colleagues may have strong objections to church control over Calvin College. Apparently, they have little or no reservations about government control over public schools. How could he accept his Party’s nomination for such a strategic position, if he did? One may ask himself what kind of effective, Christian witness this is. Such a witness is more in line with the character of American institutions (state control over public education) than with the thrust of Calvinism (the principle of sphere sovereignty). What does it profit to win such a strategic position and be wrong in principle? Others may consider it more honorable to be right in Christian perspective and lose an important election. As the late Adlai Stevenson once said: “‘the true test of a political party is not whether it can win an election, but whether it can govern a nation.’” (As quoted by Z. Fercncy in Chimes, Feb. 9, 1968.)

Reformed Men in Executive Branch

Another Christian Reformed man who is “far up the ladder of success” is Dr. W. De Vries, former Professor of political science at Calvin College. For the past six years he has been one of the “key advisors” to Michigan’s Governor, G. Romney.19 In June 1963 he gave a lecture at the Christian Reformed Ministers Conference entitled “The Christian in Politics.” Most ministers must have liked what they heard, because he became a “newly appointed contributor” to The Banner, the official organ of the Church. What does he understand by Christians in politics? In two important articles his central thesis is:

…as a church and as individual members in it, we have not made the kind of impact on the political process that we can and should. We can work in an established political party; and if you don’t like the way it is run, you should try to change it and it can be done…Our presence and voice should be felt on public school-boards as well as in city council halls and legislative chambers. Each church member can help to create the climate in which it becomes honorable and worthwhile actively to participate in politics. Finally, we can encourage the church and its leaders to study and comment on the great moral issues of our times. In short, we should do what the generations before us have left undone.20

He, too, dismisses a Christian party as irrelevant and impractical and hopes that Synod after some study come to similar conclusions.

In a second article his argument is:

…that while individual political participation by our members in governmental affairs is increasing, the Christian Reformed Church (as an organization) is not having the impact on our society and its government that it should.21

He recommends that the Church and Synod appoint different committees to study political problems and, on the basis of clergy—and laymen’s advice m’ official pronouncements. His advice did not go unchallenged. Dr. C. Seerveld, Professor of Philosophy at Trinity Christian College, wrote a perceptive reply which was finally published almost a year later. His understanding of Christians involved in politics and the kind of impact needed is radically different. He writes:

The need of our people is not to be busy in politics, making a social impact. What our Reformed communion desperately needs is a sense of communal action articulating Christ’s rule in the face of the American public. Needed is a biblical faith movement in labor, social and political areas, not just increasing personal involvement.

So I can understand conscientious objectors to Christianly organized social action; but I cannot stand for ambivalent guidance which narrows the full, biblically Reformational communal approach to Christian culture down to individualistic witness supplemented by a mistaken, almost Romanist conception of the institutional church’s role.22

Dr. De Vries expects om people to run for office as church members. In a speech at Morehouse College, Governor Romney said: “As an American citizen, I’m not running for public office…as a member of any particular religious faith” (Press Report, May 1967). Was this at the advice of his advisor Dr. De Vries? What would De Vries’ reaction be if the Mormon Church and its leaders did what he advises our Church (leaders) to do? Romney wants to be judged on the basis of political convictions, not as a member of his Church. There are, then, “two Romneys”: Romney the Mormon and Romney the Republican—an expedient separation of theological faith and political belief. “For many Republicans, however, Romney’s party creed is more important than his religious doctrine” (Time, March 3, 1967, p. 21). Among the articles of faith of Romney’s political creed are: voluntarism, individualism. morality, and America as God’s country. The Romney advisors have tried to brainwash the American people that Romney is not as conservative as Goldwater. But many have de-mythologized this propaganda. The historian, Margaret L. Coit, in a recent book review wrote:

Even Barry Goldwater would have voted for Romney. who is curiously like Goldwater in his moral dedication, his determination to restore the primary virtues of individual initiative and responsibility, of God and brotherhood, of order and law.23

To the best of our knowledge the “Dutch Mafia” and others of Dutch background have not changed the religious direction of the Republican Party on the local and state level. There exists no group of Concerned Christian Republicans within the Party. They can agree with the principles and philosophy of the Party, and the way it is run. In politics, our people are not so much of Reformed persuasion as they are of conservative commitment. In many instances, they seek to justify their political conservatism in terms of Christianity.

Reformed Men in State Legislature

Among the members of our Church in the State Legislature is Senator R. VanderLaan, a former political science instructor at Calvin. He, too, was asked to write an article on practical politics for The Banner. He adds nothing new to the point of view of Dr. De Vries. It is only less scholarly and more confusing. Like Dr. De Vries, Sen. VanderLaan believes that:

…the political involvement of members of the Christian Reformed Church has been hampered by (1) the ethnic background of its members; (2) the very nature of political activity which appears to be in contradiction to the Christian teaching and life; (3) the desire on the part of some for a separate system of political involvement; and (4) the lack of any guidepost as to the relation of the church to the state and the Christian to political activity.

Tn a letter to The Banner this writer said that Sen. VanderLaan completely misunderstands the history of the Dutch Calvinists in America, because the first immigrants understood their political responsibilities, perhaps even better than the first generation of American Calvinists. Having elevated tradition to principle, our American background has hampered us in our understanding individual and concerted Christian action.

What is more significant is Sen. VnnderLaan’s misunderstanding of politics. He identifies ethical and moral issues with politics. According to Mr. VanderLaan, “Christian involvement means that I should apply Christian convictions and principles to the ethical and moral issues that I face from time to time.” With reference to this sentence, Rev. H. Lunshof in an important letter asks: “What about political issues?” (The Banner, July 7, 1967). The answer is very simple.

Sen. VanderLaan (con-)fuses politics and morality. The problem is as old as political science and the teachings of the medieval church. Let us briefly refer to two recent writings within our own Church, for such teaching helps explain the strong reservation about Christian organizations among the theologians and their misunderstanding of what is wanted of Christians in politics.

Theology of Politics

Dr. L. Smedes, Professor of Theology at Calvin College, is not known for his support of organizing a Christian party, but he is well known for his strong position on the social concerns of the Church. In two important articles he dealt with the difficult “question of whether and how the Church ought to speak on matters social and political.” He hopes to have found a balanced, middle way between the “false alternatives” of “guilty silence and unwarranted meddling.” He writes:

We can get at that way by making a distinction between moral principle and political policy. Moral principle is the province of the Church. Political policy is the province of government. But politics, like all other areas of life, has a moral dimension, always.25

Classical political theorists like Aristotle claimed moral principle to be within the province of government. Along came the church theologians like Thomas Aquinas, who claimed the moral principle in politics to be within the sphere of the Church. The Church would speak out on moral principles which the princes and politicians could apply in policy decisions. To put it differently, theologians arc concerned with purpose of politics, the public officials with power in politics.

Dr. Smedes’ subtle distinction may be a middle way but is similar to the medieval way and not a way out. He is still caught right in the middle of a Christian synthesis mind. His distinction is dangerous and devastating to any integral, Christian witness in politics. A proper distinction could read this way: political policy is based on political principles, while ecclesiastical policy is based on church principles. Tn both spheres, principle and policy should not be based on theology and ethics, but the power of the Word of God. Furthermore, his distinction is useless in coming to grips with the problem of concerted Christian political action. His distinction is related to his conception of the Church, coming close to identifying the body of Christ with the eccleiastically organized institution. His problem of whether or not the organized church should speak on political issues is self-imposed. A Christian political party in America would speak out on what Dr. Smedes believes the Church in principle should do. Hence, his concern for church involvement in politics rather than a Christian party. Church lobbying in the State legislature or the nation’s capital is, however, a poor substitute for the most direct avenue of Christian witness.

One scholar who is well known for his unctuous teaching regarding Christian organizations is Dr. H. Stob, Professor of Ethics at Calvin Seminary. Like Dr. Spoelhof, he could support such organizations, if the conditions and circumstances warranted. Unlike Dr. Spoelhof, who bases his opposition on the American tradition, Dr. Stob seeks to ground his objections in the Scriptures. This is a more serious problem. His position is:

…we dare not, in fidelity to Scripture, be absolutistic and simplistic, and advocate in the name of Christ, what can be advocated only in terms of expediency.26

Like the two major parties, a Christian party would also be one of expediency. Dr. Stob, like Professor Smedes, makes a peculiar distinction between principle and policy. Ethical principle is concerned with “Our Christian duty” and political policy is concerned with “a way or method by which to implement a Christian concern for society and the state.”27 The key to his teaching is the relationship between Christian ethics and politics as he sees it. He says he uses the term “power structure” to refer to a party or union “as a purely descriptive term,…not to judge but to describe a fact; not to assess but to disclose a state of affairs.” This unqualified term does not describe or disclose the full nature and purpose of voluntary organizations like political parties. What’s more, the use and his understanding of the concept is not “purely descriptive.” It does imply a value judgment of the state of affairs. In principle, Dr. Stob is radically opposed to such Christian organizations. To him a Christian party might well be a contradiction in terms, because he sees parties as “power structures” and Christian ethics as a theology of love. In his Christian mind, Christian love and power politics are basically opposite principles. As a consequence of his absolutistic position on love, he can only advocate Christian “power” organizations in terms of expediency, strategy, and policy: as a “responsible Christian strategy,” “at best a policy about which Christians. may have honest and tolerable differences.” But, in fidelity to Scripture, he cannot advocate Christian organizations as a Scriptural mandate. It is precisely at this most crucial point, namely their understanding of the meaning and place of the Bible in the Christian’s life, that Dr. Stob and Messrs. Antonides and Vande Zande go in two opposite directions.

Furthermore, Dr. Stob writes:

If…recourse is had to the principle of antithesis, and if, what is worse, the question at issue is argued in terms of simple fidelity to Christ, the advocates of separate Christian organizations will not get the hearing they would otherwise deserve, and they will, 1 fear, do injury to their cause.28

The very opposite is true. In their fight for the right of legal recognition Messrs. Antonidcs and Vande Zande unashamedly made recourse to these commitments. They did get a hearing before the Ontario Labour Relations Board and the CLAC was certified, which advanced their cause of effective witness in the Canadian labour world. If they had denied the name of Christ or remained silent about their fidelity to the Scriptures they would not have deserved a public hearing and support of our churches.

Dr. Stob’s false alternatives between love and power, principle and expediency have prevented him from arriving at an integral Christian theory of the structure and functions of labor unions. In addition, his understanding of political organizations as “neutral, i.e., non-ideologically structured,” is too simplistic, an ivory-tower-man’s abstraction—divorced from the actual states of affairs in his own city and state. At the most he is able to offer some sound ethical principles which individual Christians in politics supposedly ap ply to the moral issues of the day. What a moralist, in teaching. and in politics, is unable to provide is a Christian theory of party and government. It is not surprising that so much opposition to Christian organizations has come from Christian Reformed ministers. That such teaching takes place at a Reformed Seminary is surprising. It is to be expected that increasingly ministers and members of the Church will look toward the establishment of separate ecclesiastical committees to speak out on social, economic, and political issues. This will be a further falling away from full-fledged concerted Christian direction and action in the world. The decision before the Reformed Christians in America is the choice between a “secular church” or a Christian party in the world of politics.

Needed: A New Reformation in Politics

The theories and practices of the Calvinists we have discussed are not necessarily Christian. It is not coincidental that the Christian perspective of the men we have mentioned are or have been connected with Calvin College. They reflect what is so characteristic of Calvin as a Christian liberal arts college. In theory and practice, integrated Christian education is understood to mean integrating Christian Reformed theology with a prevailing positivistic or pragmatistic science of politics, economics or history. This is the one outstanding characteristic of a Christian synthesis mind. They have reduced the calvinist commitment to culture to a participation of Christians as individuals or as church members in politics. But, as Dr. Seerveld keenly observed:

A man on the inside, pressure group and lobbying for a good cause has nothing to do with biblical Christian social action. Just because the unelected expert advisor on some public official’s payroll is a Christian does not alter the fact that this complex, dubious, increasing phenomenon in American political life of an influential, unelected bureaucratic ruling elite practically prccludes the genuine involvement of God’s little people in a biblical faith movement in politics…A pragmatic parody of Kuyperian practice in America could be worse than negligence: …our gain on terms the secular mind understands is not seeking God’s kingdom first.29

Christians may have leading positions in local, state, and national politics, but where shall Christian political leadership be found? We may want more Church members in practical politics, but America urgently needs Christian politicians, preferably of Reformed persuasion. Unfortunately, the Reformed Christians are committed to the man-centered ideologies of conservatism, liberalism, or socialism. These ideologies assign redemptive powers to man’s Reason, to Nature, or to History. To compromise one’s Christian commitment with these humanistic movements is to discredit Christianity. Christianity not only “outpromises every ideology,” but it offers a radically different and true promise in matters of “life, liberty, happiness, community. and forgiveness.” Todays “Isms” offer a false promise in matters of life and death, peace and war, prosperity and poverty.

Never before have Americans had such serious doubts about their two party system. Is this not a time in which learned and practical men who have been giving leadership do some serious soul-searching as to our calling, task, and commitment in politics? Political scientist Rene de Visme Williamson has correctly realized, “that where the Christian faith thrives, the promises of Christianity arc fulfilled.”30 What the political situation in contemporary America and Canada needs is nothing less than a new Reformation. According to Williamson:

We need a systematic and sustained reinterpretation of political science in Christian terms; we need to provide a body of concepts as part of a guiding political philosophy which is Christian in spirit, conclusions, and techniques. The promises of the Christian faith cannot save the world unless the world is Christianized, and Christianization demands an intellectual effort to guide political effort.31

In the realm of practice we need a new style of politics which is truly reformational in character. God-centered political action is what we all have to work for now and in the future. 0 0 we have the vision? “Our faith is our future” (Williamson, p. 256).

13. N. A. Masters, R. H. Salisbury, and Th. H. Eliot, State Politics and the Public Schools. New York: A. A. Knopf (1964) pp. 210, 211–12.

14. Report of Calvin College Brd. of Trustees, Agenda (CRC Synod) 1965, p. 20.

15. See Grand Rapids Press, Nov. 3, 1964; election supplement.

16. “This is not what was Intended,” Grand Rapids Press, Nov. 6, 1964.

17. Masters et. al., op. cit.

18. F. MacKinnon, The Politics of Education. Toronto: Un. of Toronto Press (1960), p. 4.

19. At least live members of the Governor’s staff are of Dutch background. “Wags call Romney’s staff the ‘Dutch Mafia’ because it includes several men from the conservative Duteh protestant group.” (Christianity Today, March 17, 1967, p. 43.)

20. W. De Vries, “Why Become politically Involved?” The Banner, Feb. 4, 1966, p. 5.

21. W. Dc Vries, “Wanted: Social Impact,” The Banner, July 15, 1966, p. 4.

22. C. Seerveld, “A Call to Communal action for Christ,” The Banner, Jan. 20, 1967, p. 14 and Jan. 27, 1967, p. 5, respectively. This article is still worth re-reading for everyone.

23. M. L. Coit, “The Dream Nobody Wanted to Hear,” Saturday Review, April 6, 1968, p. 37. See also W. V. Shannon, “George Romney: Holy and Hopeful,” Harpers, Feb., 1967, pp. 55–67.

24. R. VanderLaan, “The Christian in Politics,” The Banner, Feb. 17, 1967. p. 5.

25. L. B. Smedes, “Should the Church Speak on Political Issues,” Eternity, Dec. 1966, p. 23 and Jan. 1967, p. 23, respectively.

26. H. Stob, “Christian Organizations,” Reformed Journal, Oct. 1963, p. 4.

27. H. Stob, “Christian Organizations: Principle and Strategy,” Reformed Journal, March 1964, p. 10.

28. H. Stob, “Christian Organizations,” Reformed Journal, Oct. 1963, p. 4.

29. C. Seerveld, “A Call to Communal action for Christ,” The Banner, Jan. 20, 1967, p. 15.

30. R. de Visme Williamson, Independence and Involvement. Baton Rouge: La. State University Press (1964), p. 58.

31. Ibid., p. 63.

Dr. Philip Bom is instructor of Political Science at the University of Dubuque in Dubuque, Iowa.