Christianity and Politics: Appraisal of Practice


The previous article dealt with an evaluation of Dr. W. Spoelhof’s historistic and pragmatistic theory of the American political party system.1 After dealing with his theory of pressure groups, the present article will turn to some cases of Calvinists involved in practical politics at the local and state level. The purpose of this article is to examine the non-Christian principles which guide Calvinists like Dr. Spoelhof in their theory and practice. Again. the discussion among our people does not center so much around the problem of individual versus organized witness as it does around the question of what kind of separate Christian political organization there should be. The different perspectives are not merely a difference of technique, but essentially a difference in political philosophy.

Pressure-Group Democracy

Dr. Spoelhof opposes a Christian political party, because it would be impractical, a-traditional, and un-American. He pleads for a separate Calvinistic pressure group, for it “is precisely here that organized Calvinistic political action can be carried on best and most effectively” (Spoelhof, p. 168).

The pressure of interest groups approach presents one of the most significant opportunities for Calvinistic or orthodox Christian, political action. It is an opportunity which we have sadly neglected. Here we can be distinctive, here we need not compromise our principles….Only through this method could there be created any measure of consensus among Calvinists on political issues… (p. 169).

He pleads for this approach, because it is within the American tradition of pressure-group democracy, and the “modus operandi of American politics” is the modus vivendi for Calvinistic action. According to Dr. Spoelhof pressure groups are…

…an indispensable feature of our political life! They are the natural evolution of our two-party system and a necessary concomitant to that system….Pressure groups fill a lacuna in our political system. They are the mainstay of our two-party system. (p. 168)

Let us take a brief look at the world and life view of those who define voluntary organizations as interest, pressure, or political groups. What are the presuppositions of this concept of pressure group democracy? The following are some basic principles underlying this vision of the political system.

The concept “interest group” implies that the basic motive in man is self-interest and that political action is a roundabout way to fulfill one’s interests. Political theorists distinguish between short-sighted and rational self interest. For example, your first reaction would be against paying taxes, but “reason” tells you that paying taxes is in your own interest in the long run. The darwinian idea “pressure group” implies a world of evolution. Interest groups struggle for power and influence. For example, the U.S. Congress is seen as the arena for competing interests. Legislation is then said to be merely the outcome of a forceful clash between powerful pressure groups. It is considered naive to believe that legislation is the result of deliberation on the basis of justice. It is not a world in which responsible political parties seek to promote the public interest. The parties themselves are but aggregates of pressure groups seeking to satisfy private interests of certain pressure groups. The term “political group” implies that politics is predominantly group politics. Political groups are still individualistic, because groups are considered aggregates of individuals whose purpose it is to assist the individuals to seek their self-interests. It is said, for example, that the only way for Christian schools to survive is for parents to organize into a pressure group, because congressmen supposedly are impressed by the powers of (numbers of) a pressure group like CEF.2 The world of rugged individualism makes way for collective individualism. It is a view of the world devoid of Christian political principles. It is a world of politics in which God is distant or declared dead. At the most there remains the liberal’s belief in an “Invisible Hand” which checks and balances powerful and weak pressure groups.

The theory of pressure group democracy is a reaction against laissez-faire liberalism, but not against liberalism. Interest group theory is the new political philosophy of “interest-group liberalism.” There is nothing American about the variety of voluntary organizations, but many American political scientists have made an ideology of it. In an important article, political scientist Theodore Lowi points out that the theory of pressure group democracy “became elevated from a hypothesis about political behavior to an ideology about how the democratic system ought to work and then became ultimately elevated to that ideology most widely shared among contemporary public men.”3

This “interest group liberalism” is also a reaction against majoritarian and popular democracy, which confessed the “Sovereignty of the People.” Twentieth century “people’s democracies” in Communist Russia clearly demonstrated that the common people do not constitute a common god, and that the masters of deceit are the elite. In the light of these totalitarian developments, political scientists have attempted to build a new kind of democracy, namely, pressure group democracy, also known as political pluralism. Professor Robert Dahl writes the following in his important textbook.

The fundamental axiom in the theory and practice of American pluralism is, I believe, this: Instead of a single center of sovereign power there must be multiple centers of power, none of which is or can be wholly sovereign. Although the only legitimate sovereign is the people, in the perspective of American pluralism even the people ought never to be an absolute sovereign; consequently no part of the people, such as a majority, ought to be absolutely sovereign.4

This is a tremendous insight. One would be tempted to associate it with Abraham Kuyper’s principle of sphere-sovereignty. But Kuyper derived this theory not first of all and only from history, but mainly and primarily from being in the grip of Scripture.5 Political pluralism or pressure group democracy is incompatible with the Calvinist theory of sphere-sovereignty. Acknowledging that God. is the only legitimate sovereign and acknowledging His law for the creation-order, a Christian social scientist can account for the structural differences of organized institutions, such as church and state and voluntary associations, political parties and labor unions, the freedom and authority within each of these; and the great variety of other societal relations.

Theorists of pressure group democracy, denying the relevance of God’s Word Revelation for theory and practice, have been unable to account for the true nature and different tasks of societal structures. Consequently, they have reduced all organized activities to voluntary and political groups of equal importance to the individual’s needs. The rich diversity in societal relations is reduced to one common definition: political groups. The distinction between political and non-political institutions and organizations disappears. Churches like governments are defined as political groupings. Parties are but one means to influence the conduct of government. Pressure groups like labor unions are another means to shape government policy. Parties themselves are a conglomeration of pressure groups. “They arc the mainstay of our two-party system.” (Spoelhof, p. 169). This kind of democracy supposedly has saved us not only “from the evils of exaggerated partisanship of the multi-party system” (Spoelhof, p. 169), but according to the well-known political theorist Alfred de Grazia, this new democratic ideology “may establish the only political order that in this century and that to come can compete successfully with socialism and communism in America and in the world.”6

Christians must not be misled, however, by the false prospect of interest group democracy to stem the tide of totalitarianism. It is but one of the contemporary “isms,” namely: Croupism. The Croup is everything, and every group is political; thus total politics. The choice before Americans is not between pressure group democracy and communism. That is not a choice, but an echo. The decisive choice for all of humanity is between the new democratic ideology of American liberalism and Russian communism on the one hand, and a recognition of the principles of sphere-sovereignty, on the other hand.7

A Calvinistic Pressure Group?

The above is a concise summary of the view of life and the world behind the not so innocent man-centered theory of pressure group democracy. Dr. Spoelhof (un-)consciously accepts this relativistic and pragmatistic theory as nonnative for separate Christian political action. A Calvinistic pressure group in America is possible and permissible because we live in a so-called pressure-group democracy. “Here we can be distinctive, here we need not compromise our principles.” (Spoelhof, p. 169). Does he realize that there is nothing distinctively Christian about this theory of American democracy? He fails to see that he has compromised his Christian perspective at the very outset of his prescription for political action. His acceptance of pressure group democracy has almost totally estranged him from the Calvinistic theory of sphere sovereignty. All there is left of this Christian theory is that such a Christian pressure group should bc free from “ecclesiastical attachment…lest the voice of the pressure group become the voice of the church.” (Spoelhof, p. 169). Take, for example, his understanding of the Christian Labor Association (of Canada) as a pressure group which “should first of all seek to influence the source of pending evils” and as a “subcommittee of a Christian Political Action Committee” (Spoelhof, p. 169). However, the C.L.A.(C.) is not organized as a pressure group. It is a full-fledged labor union responding directly to the Scriptural mandate. A labor union—the AFL-CIO or the C.L.C not withstanding -is not or ought not to be a subgroup of the (New) Democratic Party. And a Christian lahar association is not a “subcommittee of a National Calvinistic Action Committee.” Like a political party on the political level, a Christian labor organization is the most direct, most obvious, and most efficient means of witnessing in the world of labor. True, Christian labor leaders need not work in a vacuum, but the support which they have received from Christian educators at Calvin College, with few important exceptions, has on the whole been negative and destructive. Dr. Spoelhof and many other Christian teachers would do well to seriously study the wise words of Christian labor leaders like Messrs. Antonides and Vandezande when they write:

It is absurd to speak of Christian pressure group; this is a contradiction in terms. The emergence of pressure groups is another indication of the degeneration of political. life. It is incorrect to point out that pressure groups are part of the North American tradition, and that therefore Christians should make use of them. Christians should not adjust to traditions, but they must challenge them and strive to reform life when traditions are in conflict with the Word of God… Behind the idea of pressure groups lies a humanistic view of man and of society. The Christian community will not be effective in politics until it challenges and opposes the secular theories and practices of modern political life. Nothing is more urgently needed than a prophetic witness in a world led astray by many false prophets.8

Local Christian Political Action

Practice and theory are interrelated. Both are intimately related to one’s ultimate commitments. This must be kept in mind as we reflect on some cases of involvement in practical politics. Strangely enough, Dr. Spoelhof writes:

Many of the objections to the formation of a separate confessional party on the national level would not necessarily apply to the municipal level….A separate local confessional party, given certain conditions and circumstances, could well be the best type of Calvinistic action. (p. 167, italics added)

One of the conditions necessary is “the degree of concentration of politically-minded orthodox Christians in your municipality.” (Spoelhof, p. 170) Tn the city of Grand Rapids, where there is such a concentration, devout Calvinists are still inclined to oppose the formation of a Christian party on the same grounds as Dr. Spoelhof used at the national level. They are committed to the American ideal of a non-ideological, two-party system. Take, for example, the case of Dr. T. Brouwer who is opposed to the idea of a local Christian party as being ineffective. He pleads for direct individual and group permeation in the local Democratic Party. He strongly recommends it “for its compatibility with both the character of American institutions as well as the thrust of Calvinism….Recently, Dr. Brouwer was elected local district representative of the Michigan Conference of Concerned (McCarthy) Democrats, a partisan pressure group “which seeks to make itself heard within the framework of the party organization” on the direction of the Johnson Administration which they helped elect in office. Mind you, Mr. Z. A. Fereney resigned as state Democratic Chairman “‘for reasons directly related to fundamentals of political philosophy, principle and procedures.’” (Grand Rapids Press, Nov. 30, 1967) (italics added). Addressing a group of Calvin students he “expressed concern that the American two party system was a forum no longer open to certain people.” (Calvin College Chimes, Feb. 9, 1968). The political philosophy of these democrats is extremely liberal. Dr. W. H. Kooistra, a Calvin alumnus and local psychologist, who attended the CCD convention in Detroit last December remarked that the “convention itself presented ‘a good cross section of liberal Americana.’” (Chimes, Dec. 8, 1967 ) What should concern our Reformed Christian people is that the initials CCD in Grand Rapids (and), Michigan does not stand for Concerned Christian Democrats. If it is true that the Democratic forwn was not open to this partisan pressure group of liberal democrats, how can one ever realistically expect such a party to be open to the permeation of a pressure group of Christian democrats. Of course, the Democratic Party is and has always been open for individuals with a private Reformed theology and a professed liberal ideology. In many cases such persons seek to justify their political liberalism in terms of Calvinism.

If conditions are favorable for a local Christian party, certain circumstances are not. Two of the circumstances mentioned are the type of local election and form of government which prevails. Dr. Spoelhof writes:

Many municipal governments have their officials elected on a non-partisan ballot. That would automatically preclude the establishment of any type of political party whose main concern is to win elections. (p. 167)

Here too, the existing political system at the local level is accepted as nonnative or conditional for distinctive Christian action. A non-partisan local election in Grand Rapids supposedly makes the establishment of a Christian party superfluous. However, political studies of non-partisan elections in major cities in Michigan have shown that such elections are not as non-partisan as, or different from, partisan elections.10 Party organization is also needed in nonpartisan elections.

The type of local government is a much more weighty circumstance preventing genuine individual or united Christian witness. Since 1916 Grand Rapids has what is known as the Commission-Manager form of government.

This plan of government provides for a small, part-time elected governing body…to make the policy decisions, and a full-time City Manager, whom they appoint, to carry them out. The City Manager is a specialist in the things that make government run efficiently, economically and beneficially for the people of a community.11

What is the political philosophy behind this type of government, if any? Far from being a neutral form of government, it is based on revolutionary principles. It is based on the belief that science and technology can reorganize (local) politics rationally, originally on F. W. Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management. The emphasis is on the one best way to organize government efficiently. Efficiency is the ultimate value. The principles of business organization are applied to politics, because government is simply a public business. The structure of local government is like a large business organization. The voters are stockholders, who elect commissioners who function like a board of directors of a business. The commissioners choose a professional manager who runs the community under the supervision of the city commission. This progressive reformist ideal of municipal government has gained wide acceptance in America. Richard S. Childs, the founding father of the city manager government, optimistically concluded his major work by saying:

There stands the panorama of the program of the modern political reformer. There is no competing school of thought, no contrary program. You will find it scattered through every university textbook on government and even in high school texts, stated with approval but with less completeness and urgency. But this book is the first documented statement of the whole uncontested creed.12

The goal of this progressivist was “Politics without Politicians.” Politics is not an art of amateurs who control city machines, but a science for professional experts. Political issues arc but technical problems and technical decisions are non-ideological. The question of collecting garbage, for example, is a technical problem. “There is no Christian or non-Christian way of collecting garbage,” is the usual remark. However, recent developments in New York and Memphis have clearly demonstrated that collecting garbage is not merely a technical decision for city government. Fundamental principles of human and government relations enter into such “technical problems” of garbage collecting by city employees. Furthermore, most cities retain part time commissioners, even though, in fact, city managers frequently shape policy-decisions.

Some of our own people have held the position of city commissioner. For example, in the late fifties, Dr. J. VandenBerg, then Professor of economics at Calvin College, was elected to the city commission. And, if he had wanted to, could very well have been elected mayor in the early sixties. It did not take long for him, however, to reali7.e that when one joins an existing organization one cannot really give effective witness as to what we Christians stand for. In general, the decisions have been made by the manager, and all that the commissioners can do is vote Yes or No. Ninety and nine percent of the commissioners’ votes are 6-0, a near perfect democracy, equalled and excelled only in Soviet Democracy. There is no significant minority or loyal opposition voice to offer an alternative course of action. There need not or cannot be, because all political decisions are reduced to mere technical decisions. Most likely Dr. VandenBerg and others never fully realized exactly why this is the case. They accepted their local government system and participated in it without seriously reflecting on the principles and procedures behind it. Nevertheless, such a political system precludes any genuine Christian political witness. It is suggested as a possible explanation that this system of local government could have greatly contributed toward a political apathy among Reformed Christians.

If our people in a city like Grand Rapids are sincerely Christian minded in their political calling, the following could be done now. They could join Christian action organizations such as the Christian Action Foundation, whose primary task would be to offer an adult political education program to train our people to think and reflect upon politics Christianity. It must be “radical” in the sense that the very foundations of our political system must be questioned, thought through, and built anew. Concretely, in Grand Rapids, they could work for city-wide partisan elections on the basis of proportional representation, and seriously consider adopting another form of local government which provides for a citizen’s democracy. The golden opportunity is now that the city is considering reorganization of its municipal government. The local chapter of CAF could awaken the dormant voice of the Reformed Christian people, provided it has the right leadership -which is not self-evident and something to be feared. Such necessary leadership can only be forthcoming when the present leaders themselves experience a radical change of Christian perspective.

(To be continued)

1. W. Spoelhof, “Calvinism and Political Action,” in God-Centered Living. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House (1951) pp. 159–73.

2. See Grand Rapids Press, Feb. 15, 1968. We share the ideals of CEF, but regret to see it being turned into a pressure group.

3. Th. Lowi, “The Public Philosophy: Interest Group Liberalism,” Am. Pol. Sc. Rev. LXI (March, 1967), p. 13.

4. R. A. Dahl, Pluralist Democracy in the United States. Chicago: Rand McNally & Co. (1967), p. 24.

5. See H. E. Runner, “Sphere-Sovereignty,” in Christian Perspectives 1961. Hamilton: Guardian Pub. Co. (61), esp. pp. 65–72.

6. A. de Grazia, “Nature and Prospect of Political Interest Groups,” Annals Am. Ac. Pol. and Soc. Sc., Vol. 319 (Sept. 1958), p. 122.

7. H. van Riessen, Society of the Future. Philadelphia: Presb. and Reformed Pub. Co., (1952), p. 69.

8. H. Antonidcs and C. Vandezande., “Christian Politics – Why not?,” Christian Vanguard, Feb. 1968, p. 13.

9. T. Brouwer, “Political Impact or Paralysis?” Reformed Journal, Oct. 1962, p. 6.

1o. O. P. Williams and Ch. R. Adrian, “The Insulation of Politics Under the Nonpartisan Ballot,” Am. Pol. Sc. Rev. LIII (Dec.. 1959), pp. 1052–63.

11. A. S. Olsen, This Is Your City Government. Grand Rapids: Published by the City Government (1967) p. 1.

12. R. S. Childs, Civic Victories: Unfinished Revolution. New York: Harpers (1952), p. 278. Quoted in J. P. East, Council-Government. Chapel Hill: Un. of N. Carol. Press (1965), p. 92.

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