The Complicity of Reformational Philosophy with the Politics of the Religious Right



The Complicity of Reformational Philosophy with the Politics of the Religious Right

by Glenn Friesen




Many writers claim to follow reformational principles, but have used these principles in very regressive and reactionary ways to support and to promote the political ideas of the religious right. They have used ideas of religious presuppositionalism, worldview and religious antithesis to argue that those who do not share their own worldview do not know the true facts. They have misused the idea of sphere sovereignty to argue for the minimal state. And they have rejected the idea of human rights and have discriminated against others. This complicity with right wing politics has become clearly evident in their support for the policies of President Trump.

I. The problem

More than 80% of white evangelical voters supported the election of President Trump, and they continue to do so, despite his regressive social policies, including the removal of protections against business abuses, the attempt to dismantle The Affordable Health Care Act, his discrimination against immigrants, his racism and misogyny, his threats against the free press and claims that they are spreading “fake news,” his disregard for the idea of truth, his tax policies that disproportionately benefit the wealthy, his support of an accused pedophile candidate for the Senate, and his threat of nuclear war against North Korea.[1]

Some of these evangelicals include members of the Christian Reformed Church, who claim to follow the ideas of Abraham Kuyper and of later reformational philosophers. These reformed evangelicals have been among the most conservative voters in the U.S., traditionally voting Republican.[2] This is very evident in Western Michigan and Northern Iowa, two areas strongly populated by those of Dutch ancestry. In 2014, Martin Lewis reported on the voting patterns by county:

Several counties that were heavily settled by the Dutch are still noted for the their strongly conservative political orientations…The more specific factor here, however, is again religion, as these areas are also bulwarks of Dutch Reformed churches, which have in general retained their conservative orientations much more in parts of the United States than in the Netherlands (Lewis 2014).

Trump’s famous statement that his supporters are so devoted that they would vote for him even if he shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue was made while he was visiting Dordt College, a Christian Reformed college. He was introduced with a prayer that said “Thank you [God] for Donald Trump.”[3] In response to criticism for hosting the event, Dordt College replied that it had hosted other candidates, too, and listed Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Lawrence Lessig, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio.[4] All but one of these other candidates were Republicans.

It is true that some reformationals have spoken out against Trump. James Skillen has argued that Trump was unprepared and unqualified for the job of President (Skillen 2017).  And many churches have objected to the administration’s separation of children from their parents who attempt to immigrate to the U.S.. See the “Reclaiming Jesus” Declaration, signed by representatives of many churches, including evangelical churches and including a representative of the Christian Reformed church.[5] I am grateful for these protests. They have denounced some of the moral failings of the Trump Presidency, including his misogyny, racism and xenophobia.

But there are deeper philosophical ideas whereby evangelicals are complicit with the politics of the religious right. And these ideas come from the misuse of reformational ideas.

Although they are a minority of evangelicals, reformed evangelicals have profoundly influenced the majority of evangelicals in adopting ideas such as (1) a Christian worldview based on theological presuppositionalism (2) the religious antithesis between different worldviews, (3) the idea that those who do not share their worldview do not know the true facts, and that therefore we can discount “liberal” media (4) an incorrect interpretation of sphere sovereignty that tries to limit the just intervention by the state in other organizations and (5) opposition to ideas of human rights.

II. Sphere sovereignty misused to support the minimal state

In 1879, Abraham Kuyper founded the Anti-Revolutionary Party. This political party was opposed to the ideas of the French Revolution. It opposed the Revolution’s emphasis on human rights. They viewed the idea of rights as rationalistic. They argued for gradual evolutionary change instead of revolution. To draw up a list of rights for all time may have unintended consequences, for none of us is clever enough to anticipate future developments and what may or may not be needed. And they opposed the Revolution’s emphasis on government control of other societal organizations. Instead, the Anti-Revolutionary Party argued for the principle of “sphere sovereignty”—the idea that each societal organization, whether church, state, school, family, business, the sciences, or the arts, had authority within its own sphere that was not derived from nor controlled by the state.  The state should not intervene in these other spheres.

Kuyper and his interpreters argued that the principle of sphere sovereignty is Calvinistic. But that is not so. Kuyper, and Groen van Prinsterer before him, obtained the idea from non-Calvinistic sources such as Franz von Baader and Julius Stahl (Friesen 2018). Indeed, Groen followed Stahl to such an extent that he was known as “The Stahl of Holland.” Groen knew that this was not a compliment, because Stahl was viewed as a reactionary. Groen denied that he was reactionary. He pointed to a citation from Baader that advocated evolution over revolution (Friesen 2018). Evolution implies gradual change. I would add that one of Baader’s favourite sayings was ‘non progredi est regredi’ [not to progress is to regress] (Baader, Werke 11, 347).

In practice, the politics that Groen and Kuyper practiced were frequently regressive.[6] They did not promote change, even in a gradual sense, but tried to return to ideas prior to the French revolution. This is evident even in the name of the political party founded by Kuyper in 1879—The Anti-Revolutionary Party. This party was socially conservative and purported to base its politics on the Bible. It supported the idea of pillarization—a division of Dutch society into institutions controlled by Protestants, Catholics, and humanists, who were regarded as “pillars” of Dutch society. Eventually, this principle was extended so that each group had its own schools, newspapers, and radio and television broadcasting networks, promoting differing worldviews. The division of education and media along religious lines led to a mistrust of what was being taught and said by the other pillars.[7] There was a suspicion of other groups, just as today many evangelicals mistrust the “liberal” media.

In South Africa, the idea of pillarization was used in racist ways to give different services according to race (Plantinga 2006). A further problem of pillarization is that it did not include all religious groups. Where do Jewish organizations fit? They are not Catholic, Protestant or humanist. What about other religions, such as Islam and Hinduism? The principle of pillarization is unworkable in today’s multi-religious societies.

When I studied at the Free University in the 1970’s, Hendrik Van Riessen, who taught systematic philosophy, made no secret of his support for apartheid in South Africa.[8] Dooyeweerd never endorsed apartheid. But Dooyeweerd’s description of the lack of development in South Africa was certainly racist (NC III, 497-98). Many South Africans used reformational ideas to support oppression (Baskwell 2006). Gideon Thom says

South African Calvinism received a major setback when certain scholars ostensibly succeeded in using the concept of sphere sovereignty to justify the legally enforced and systematic separation of races (Thom, 361).

Paul Schrotenboer, who for a time served as the executive director of the AACS,[9] also supported apartheid. He wrote

The separate development of the races, the upliftment of the non-White races to a position of maturity and equality [in] separate homelands—that is big apartheid. It has much in its favor.[10]

The Anti-Revolutionary Party also opposed women’s right to vote, de-colonization, co-education, mandatory vaccination, divorce and abortion. It also favoured the death penalty.[11] There were attempts to reform the party in the 1960’s by concentrating on social justice issues, but those efforts were largely unsuccessful (Kennedy 2002). In 1974, the party merged with the KVP and CHU to form the CDA.[12] In 2002, Jan Peter Balkenende, who had anti-revolutionary roots, became Prime Minister. He entered into a coalition with other parties including the far-right party Pim Fortuyn List. Fortuyn, who was assassinated in 2002, had made several anti-Islamic remarks and wanted to ban further asylum seekers from gaining admittance to the country.

The followers of Groen and Kuyper and Kuyper’s Anti-Revolutionary Party have failed to recognize that Herman Dooyeweerd, the most well-known reformational philosopher, had a much less rigid view of sphere sovereignty.[13] Dooyeweerd did not support the idea of a minimal state. On the contrary, he believed that the state could and should intervene in the affairs of other societal spheres on the basis of public justice, the public interest, and equality. Based on these principles, the state has an interest in health care, education, the prevention of abuse in families, and the regulation of business. This is of importance in countering the views of those religious conservatives who want to reduce the present role of the state–for example, by getting it to abandon programs like Medicare and The Affordable Health Care Act, or to reduce business regulations that protect consumers and individuals (Friesen 2018).

Peter Nijkamp incorrectly uses the idea of sphere sovereignty to promote a minimal state. He says

A good starting point for a public policy for this purpose [public investment] would be to accept that everything which can be done on a private basis should be done on a private basis. Sphere sovereignty is important to maintain a proper distinction between the private and the public sector (Nijkamp 1980, 64).

On the contrary, Dooyeweerd allows intervention by the state even where the private sector is already involved!

Some reformational philosophers use sphere sovereignty to argue that there should be no intervention at all by the state in other organizations. In 1953, Hendrik van Riessen said this about sphere sovereignty:

Each sphere of authority is limited by its own societal relationship. The relation of authority and freedom exists within such relationships and not externally. The social relationships exist together on a basis of equality; the one is not subordinate to the authority and control of the other. Subjection to authority exists only within a relationship. Societal relationships properly stand in a coordinate relation to each other, not in a preferred or subordinate position (Van Riessen 1953, 71).

E.L. Hebden Taylor’s 1969 book The Christian Philosophy of Law, Politics, and the State was for sale at the Institute for Christian Studies when I was a student there. The book tries to summarize Dooyeweerd’s philosophy, and refers to other reformational scholars like Bernie Zylstra, Hendrik van Riessen and Evan Runner.[14] Taylor cites Van Riessen with respect to sphere sovereignty. Taylor says that the idea of sphere sovereignty is an “intellectual weapon” against totalitarian tendencies in society. The family, the university, the commercial or business enterprise, the farm, the recreational club and whatever other groups naturally develop out of the organic life of human society, including the churches, do not owe their origin, existence, or structural principle to the state. But although Taylor may be right that these organizations do not owe their origin to the state, this does not mean that the state can never intervene in them or that the state has no authority over them. Yet this is what Taylor argued:

They have an inner principle and cultural task all their own, entrusted to them by Almighty God. They hold a cultural mandate directly from the Creator for the pursuance of their own peculiar task. Upon this sovereignty given them by God the State may not infringe (Taylor 1969, 416).

Similarly, Nancy Pearcey argues that non-state spheres should be independent, and ‘free from statist intervention.’[15] And Troy Gibson, a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, cites Kuyper’s idea of sphere sovereignty as the reason for rejecting then President Obama’s proposals to ban unregulated farm chores by children.[16] But farm work is a very hazardous occupation, and on Dooyeweerd’s principles, the state would be justified to impose regulations on farming. Farming is a non-political organization, and, as such, it is bound to the state in a one-way relationship of enkapsis. We may disagree on whether such safety regulations are needed, but it is wrong to invoke sphere sovereignty as the reason for non-intervention.

And in his Master’s thesis at the Free University of Amsterdam, supervised by Sander Griffioen, Gregory Baus takes the even more extreme position that ‘tax-based funding of social programs is incompatible with Dooyeweerd’s view’ (Baus, 2017).[17] But that is certainly not Dooyeweerd’s view! Dooyeweerd says ‘The state may promote the interests of science and the fine art, education, public health, trade agriculture and industry, popular morality and so on’ (NC III, 445). Footnote 2 on the same page says that where the State gives financial support, ‘this is done with revenues from taxation levied from its citizens by means of governmental coercion.’

Baus’s misreading or ignoring of Dooyeweerd’s clear words is a good example of one’s politics driving one’s philosophy. It encourages a Marxist critique that such a philosophy is merely a superstructure that is in fact based on previous political convictons. Baus himself does not describe his politics as right wing, but rather as anarchist. But the end result is the same insofar as he supports the idea of a minimal state.

In his recent book Herman Dooyeweerd: Christian Philosopher of State and Civil Society, Jonathan Chaplin has shown that Dooyeweerd did not advocate a minimal state, but the he believed ‘that the state is in principle empowered to act within every sector of society, insofar as an issue of public justice has arisen’ (Chaplin, 298). But because Chaplin misunderstands Dooyeweerd’s idea of enkapsis, he continues a conservative reading of Dooyeweerd. In fact, Dooyeweerd’s use of enkapsis allows him to develop a view of societal sphere sovereignty very different from that of Abraham Kuyper, and one that allows the intervention of the state in other societal organizations because there is a one-way enkaptic relationship (Friesen 2018).

III. Worldview and Presuppositionalism

A recent article in The New York Times discussed the influence of Cornelius Van Til on the religious right, especially his ideas of presuppositionalism and Christian worldview.[18] Van Til was a follower of Abraham Kuyper’s ideas, and he was for a time one of the editors of Philosophia Reformata. Van Til’s ideas were popularized in the U.S. by Francis Schaeffer,[19] whose film series ‘How Should We Then Live?’ was one of the main forces in mobilizing evangelicals to political action and in forming the religious right.[20] Julie Ingersoll, in Evangelicals and Democracy in America says ‘Some call Schaeffer the most important evangelical theologian of the twentieth century and his influence in terms of encouraging evangelicals to engage the world is undeniable’ (Ingersoll 2009, Vol. 2, 302 fn6). Both Schaeffer and Van Til emphasized the idea that there is no common “point of contact” between a Christian worldview and other worldviews.

But Dooyeweerd did not believe in an antithesis between groups of people. He did not believe that there is no point of contact; instead he insisted that there are “states of affairs” that we can appeal to when talking to others who do not share our worldview. He rejected the idea that worldviews are based on theological beliefs. Instead of theological presuppositions, he urged that we speak of ontical presuppositions from our experience. Ontical presuppositions are those that differentiate between the temporal, the eternal, and the intervening state of supratemporality. These ideas were not obtained from Calvinism.

And Dooyeweerd did not agree with using Scripture in a propositional sense as a basis for his philosophy. He opposed creationism. He even disagreed with using the Ten Commandments as a basis for a Christian philosophy of law (Friesen 2015, 17, 233-40, 329, 372, 386).

IV. Fake News and Alternative Facts

Christopher Douglas argues that the origin of the ideas of “fake news” and “alternative facts” can be found in Christian fundamentalism. By rejecting the theory of evolution, and the historical-critical method of Bible scholarship, fundamentalists posited alternative ways of doing science, and posited alternative facts (Douglas 2017).

In my view, this alternative way of doing science, and the idea of alternative facts can also be found in reformational thought. In his book referred to above, Hebden Taylor criticized the ideas of “scientism”: ‘The dominant motive of most modern universities, labor unions, schools, radio and television stations, newspapers and political parties is faith in science’ (Taylor, 376). Taylor’s work invited mistrust of media and science; he also questioned the idea of facts held in common. He says ‘there can be no facts at all without some undergirding value system and frame of reference’ (p. 10). And ‘Our ordering principle in terms of which we see the “facts” revealed by modern scientific discovery differs radically from the ordering principles of apostate humanists’ (p. 199). And he speaks of facts as being created by one’s values:

It is only in terms of some value system that the sociologist and political scientist can in fact discover even the so-called “facts” of social life. The values he holds will determine what he “sees” as facts. His values will create the facts he uses as the basis for his view of the nature of various social phenomena. Without values there are no facts (p. 379-80).

Many of Taylor’s ideas are related to those of Van Til, whom he also cites. Van Til’s ideas of theological presuppositionalism and of the religious antithesis of worldviews are also found in the reformational philosophy of D.H.Th. Vollenhoven (Dooyeweerd’s brother-in-law). And there was a looping back of Schaeffer’s ideas to reformational philosophy, in that Henk Geertsema, a professor of philosophy at the Vrije Universiteit, was also associated with Schaeffer’s Dutch l’Abri organization.

Rousas Rushdoony was also influenced by Schaeffer (Lindsay 2009, Vol. 2, 326, fn9). When I was at l’Abri in 1970, I was referred to some of Rushdoony’s writings. So was Julie Ingersoll when she visited l’Abri in the late 1980’s (Ingersoll, 204). Rushdoony introduced Dooyeweerd’s idea of sphere sovereignty to many North Americans. But Rushdoony and his Chalcedon Foundation have misinterpreted Dooyeweerd in a most extreme way. They have argued for a return to Old Testament law and punishments, including the execution by stoning of homosexuals, adulterers, incorrigible delinquents, and others. He mentions Islamic fundamentalism as the same kind of return to faith-based law.[21]

But Dooyeweerd did not believe in an antithesis between groups of people. He did not believe that there is no point of contact; instead he insisted that there are “states of affairs” that we can appeal to when talking to others who do not share our worldview. He rejected the idea that worldviews are based on theological beliefs. Instead of theological presuppositions, he urged that we speak of ontical presuppositions from our experience. And Dooyeweerd did not agree with using Scripture in a propositional sense as a basis for his philosophy. He opposed creationism. He even disagreed with using the Ten Commandments as a basis for a Christian philosophy of law (Friesen 2015, 17, 233-40, 329, 372, 386).

V. Opposition to “Scientism”

As already mentioned, some reformationals like Hebden Taylor oppose what they call “scientism.” Jeroen de Ridder, a professor at the Vrije Universiteit, also critiques scientism. He defines scientism as ‘the view that science is the only genuine source of knowledge about ourselves and the universe we live in’ (De Ridder 2014). Scientism believes that

Science isn’t just concerned with physical reality and observable human behavior, but can — and should — also speak with authority on those matters that used to be solely within the purview of the humanities: e.g., the human mind, art, music, literature, free will, morality, rationality, and religion.

Now while it is true that the natural sciences are different from the social sciences and the humanities, it seems to me that too often, the charges of “scientism” and “reductionism” are used to try to defend beliefs that run counter to science or rationality, or when parts of our knowledge—for example, our theological beliefs–are said to be in a non-scientific area, there is a misuse of reformational ideas.

Our beliefs, including our theological beliefs, need to take account of the findings in other theoretical disciplines. That includes cosmology, physics, and historical investigation.
Doooyeweerd emphasized that theology is itself one of the sciences (in the German sense of ‘Wissenschaft’ or theoretical knowledge). And if Dooyeweerd criticized the overreach of science, it was not to rescue some theoretical disciplines like theology from other disciplines like the natural sciences, but to make a distinction between theoretical and pre-theoretical experience. It is not that pre-theoretical experience is non-scientific or non-rational, but that it is the foundation and basis for any theoretical analysis. To be fair, De Ridder does argue for the priority of everyday knowledge and of non-empirical knowledge and intuition. And De Ridder does mention some books that combine popular science with philosophical discussions. But in my view, he ends up being too dismissive of certain scientific findings while not acknowledging the theoretical basis for many of the ideas that he is himself trying to defend against scientism.[22] In contrast to De Ridder, I believe that Stephen Hawking is correct that philosophy needs to be aware of developments in physics. So does theology. This does not mean that physics has disproved the “big ideas” of the origin or design of the universe. But surely the arguments that philosophers and theologians use must change. If there is design it must be in the context of why chance evolutionary development occurs in relation to physical laws that are so appropriately conducive to the origin of the universe and of life.[23]

VI. Worldview, antithesis and alternative facts

It is well-known that President Trump has represented some of his lies as “alternative facts” and that he opposes the real facts as “fake news.” Support for some of these ideas can be found in reformational philosophy.

Now I am not suggesting that President Trump has read reformational philosophy (or any philosophy). What I do believe is that Trump’s evangelical supporters have been influenced by reformational philosophy, and that they support his lies and his attacks on the media in terms of their idea of how worldview determines facts.[24] We can clearly see this complicity in Nancy Pearcey’s online blog, and I believe that this is representative of many of Trump’s supporters.

Nancy Pearcey studied at both The Institute for Christian Studies and at Schaeffer’s l’Abri Fellowship. An article in The New Yorker has shown the connections between Pearcey’s understanding of Francis Schaeffer and the ideas of Michele Bachmann, a candidate for the Republican leadership.[25] If you have any doubt about the extreme right-wing implications of her views, take a look at the online blog ‘The Pearcey Report,’ maintained by her husband Rick Pearcey. The blog makes many references to Dooyeweerd, Kuyper, and Schaeffer. It also actively supports President Trump and his policies. The blog refers to opinions of far-right commentators like Ann Coulter. It says that we should mistrust media reports because these media have ‘no values.’ The blog says that the Charlottesville neo-Nazi marchers were a ‘negligible group’ and that ‘white supremacy’ and its evils became the centerpiece of ‘all the fake news reporting on the event’ and that white supremacy is a ‘mythical enemy.’ The real race war should apparently be to protect white Americans.[26] And with respect to the candidacy of Roy Moore, an accused pedophile, he is said to be the victim of ‘fake news.’[27]

More recently, ‘The Pearcey Report’ has included a link to a very right-wing article defending Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist whose hate-speech has been blocked by some social media.[28] The article sees regulating social media as a sign of authoritarianism. The same page of Pearcey’s blog contains another article from Breitbart dismissing Slate’s critique of Alex Jones. And it contains another article: ‘Top Ten Black Racists: Being a Racist can be a ticket to Success—if you’re an African American.’

There is no doubt that fake news exists. We have seen evidence of fake news stories planted by the Russians on Facebook. Jeroen de Ridder has presented lectures on the epistemology of fake news (de Ridder 2018). He argues that fake news induces false and misleading beliefs and decreases the reliability of one’s sources. This is all very true. But what I do not see in his analysis, and which I think is crucial for this discussion is why people like President Trump and Nancy Pearcey refer to genuine news as “fake news.” What is the basis for calling information “fake”  when it is true? I believe that the idea of differing worldviews, no point of contact, and religious antithesis play a role here.

Emanuel Rutten is a colleague of De Ridder at the Vrije Universiteit. Rutten defends the idea that there are “non-factual truths”—truths that do not correspond to facts in reality. He refers to Heidegger’s idea of truth disclosing itself in what he says is a mystical way, or to Kierkegaard’s idea of subjective truth. Rutten says that this idea of non-factual truth is not the same as the claim that there are alternative facts. There are no alternative facts, but only alternative views of what the facts really are (Rutten 2018).

I agree that there are no alternative facts. But Rutten’s arguments for non-factual truth is far too defensive. He says that his faith is not based on rational arguments, but on his experience. Surely his religious experience is a fact that is also subject to investigation. And he does nevertheless try to argue rationally for the existence of God, although his argument is logically fallacious.[29] When asked what he would do if his proof of God’s existence is disproved, he says that his grounds for belief are non-rational. He is advocating non-factual and non-rational truth. I do not find that helpful.

VII. Family issues and Human Rights

The Christian Reformed Church is one of the most conservative churches with respect to gay rights and transgender issues, regarding these as lifestyles resulting from sinfulness.[30]

Jim Skillen, who has opposed some of President Trump’s moral failings, has argued against gay marriage (Skillen 2004). Skillen argues that a homosexual relationship cannot lead to procreation, and that therefore it is not a marriage. But Dooyeweerd expressly says that marriages are not based on procreation. He says that marriage and family are different, and that it is not correct to view procreation as the essential structural purpose of marriage (NC III, 305-7; 323). Dooyeweerd does not address gay marriage but he does say that marriage is qualified by faithful married love, and that its essence should not be confused with either an ecclesiastical nor a civil institution (NC III, 311). Cannot a gay marriage be equally qualified by love between the partners? As for transgender issues, many of the church fathers regarded God as androgynous, and Jesus’s pronouncements of our life hereafter also would indicate an androgynous existence (Friesen 2018).

Why do so many reformationals oppose issues relating to the LGBTQ community? It is true that there are some statements in Leviticus and elsewhere that seem to oppose homosexual acts. But Dooyeweerd argued that the Bible should not be used as a basis for politics. Not even the Ten Commandments should be used in this way.  I am grateful that Nicholas Wolterstorff has defended same-sex marriage (Postma 2016), but his views are very much in the minority among reformationals.

Many colleges based on reformational principles have been very active in opposing the rights of homosexuals. They have imposed moral codes of conduct that infringe the equality rights of their students and staff. In Canada, our Supreme Court has held that The King’s University (which purports to follow reformational ideas) may not discriminate against homosexual staff.[31] And in 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada held that another Christian university, Trinity Western University could be barred from setting up a law school because it required its students to sign a code of conduct, or covenant, which discriminated against LGBTQ students.

…the requirement that students sign the Covenant as a condition of admission effectively imposes inequitable barriers on entry to the school and ultimately, inequitable barriers on entry to the profession. It was reasonable for the LSBC [Law Society of British Columbia] to conclude that promoting equality by ensuring equal access to the legal profession, supporting diversity within the bar, and preventing harm to LGBTQ law students were valid means to pursue the public interest. The LSBC has an overarching interest in protecting the values of equality and human rights in carrying out its functions. Approving or facilitating inequitable barriers to the profession could undermine public confidence in the LSBC’s ability to regulate in the public interest.[32]

The majority on the court held that there was only a minor infringement of freedom of religion. The covenant was not necessary to study law in a Christian environment. Any infringement of freedom of religion was outweighed by its discriminatory effect on LGBTQ students contrary to the Charter. The former chief justice held that there was a major infringement on freedom of religion, but that the Charter has priority.

The more interesting ruling, and one that I find compelling, was by Mr. Justice Rowe, who held that there was no infringement of freedom of religion at all.

…it does not suffice that the claimants sincerely believe that studying in a community defined by religious beliefs contributes to their spiritual development. Rather, the claimants must show that they sincerely believe that doing so is a practice required by their religion.

And, noting that the university was required to admit all students, whether Christian or not, he said

Where the protection of s. 2(a) [of the Charter] is sought for a belief or practice that constrains the conduct of nonbelievers — those who have freely chosen not to believe — the claim falls outside the scope of the freedom. Therefore, interference with such a belief or practice is not an infringement of s. 2(a) because the coercion of nonbelievers is not protected by the Charter

Paul Marshall, a former student and later professor at the Institute of Christian Studies, and a member of the conservative think tank The Hudson Institute, has written that the Trinity Western case is “a major blow to religious freedom”(Marshall 2018). Gene Haas, Professor of Religion and theology at Redeemer University College, posted on Facebook

Supreme Court of Canada rules against Trinity Western University in the matter of Law School graduates, by supporting the refusal of Law Societies of Ontario and BC refusing to accept future TWU graduates. So much for religious freedom in Canada.[33]

Why is discrimination against gays considered so fundamental to religious freedom? If passages from Leviticus are so fundamental, then why not take other sections of the Bible just as literally applicable today, in the way that Rushdoony does? Why do they not recommend the stoning of adulterers and disobedient children? Do reformationals oppose gays because they are such an easy target? Evangelicals are not being consistent here. Furthermore, evangelical do not emphasize enough other portions of scripture, such as the prophetic ones that speak of helping the poor, healing the sick, opposing injustice in business dealings, and of the just and equal application of the law.

Cardus, a Christian think tank with reformational origins and with continuing links to reformational scholars[34] had supported Trinity Western and its discriminatory covenant. Following the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, Cardus issued a statement lamenting the decision and stating

Canadians of all faiths will have less latitude to publicly dissent from majority opinions on social issues that clash with their beliefs. Now more than ever, we need a robust and clear defence of freedom of conscience and religion and public faith.[35]

But Cardus is not fighting merely a majority opinion on a social issue. Equality rights are enshrined in Canada’s constitution. Why does Cardus believe that discrimination against homosexuals is fundamental to freedom of religion? I submit that reformational scholars should distance themselves from Cardus and its support for such discrimination. The decision of the Supreme Court of Canada is correct, and it is also in line with the interpretation of Dooyeweerd I have outlined in this article. The state may intervene in non-state organizations on the basis of equality, public justice, or in the public interest.

How do we promote public justice and the public interest? How do we protect what Dooyeweerd called ‘juridical equality and freedom of all individuals in their inter-personal civil relations’ or ‘inter-individual justice, legal security and equity’? Can we include the idea of human rights, which the state can use to correct abuses and to protect individuals in other organizations?

Many of the early reformational thinkers, like Groen van Prinsterer and the Anti-Revolutionary Party, objected to any list of human rights. They viewed the idea of rights as rationalistic. They argued for gradual evolutionary change instead of revolution. To draw up a list of rights for all time may have unintended consequences, for none of us is clever enough to anticipate future developments and what may or may not be needed.

Although I sympathize with such a gradualist approach to politics, it is no longer realistic in my country. Canada has adopted a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that is enshrined in our constitution. The courts have interpreted the Charter in some unexpected ways, but it is our law. Similarly, the United States has enshrined a Bill of Rights in its Constitution. And this Constitution is in many ways dependent on the ideas that led to the French Revolution. The European Union also has codified human rights, although in a somewhat different way, since so many different countries are involved. Perhaps Britain after Brexit will not have codified rights, but I doubt that human rights will be abolished.

To rely on human rights today is not to accept a revolutionary principle. After all, it is more than 200 years since the principle of equality was proclaimed in the French Revolution. To continue to disregard equality rights is indeed to be regressive. And we have already seen that Dooyeweerd refers to equality and equity when describing the state’s interventions based on public justice and the public interest.

We have had a long time for courts to deal with the meaning of human rights. Some of those decisions are yet to be made by the courts. For a constitution is like any other statute, and liable to be interpreted differently in changing circumstances. Whether we agree that these rights should ever have been enacted, they are there, and we now need to work within them. Not everything that humanism has done is wrong.

Dooyeweerd acknowledges this:

…from a purely historical point of view [humanism] has done more for the recognition of public freedom for religious convictions than did seventeenth-century Calvinism (Chaplin 392 fn51, citing Roots of Western Culture, 83)

Some reformational scholars have tried to restrict the idea of human rights. In an article published by The Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, David McIlroy argued that human rights should not be interpreted as something that is possessed by individuals. McIlroy cites Nicholas Wolterstorff in support of his view that rights are to be viewed only in relation to obligations, and that these rights are to be interpreted in a way that does not promote litigiousness, but rather harmony within a community. McIlroy argues that what God gave Moses at Sinai was not a Declaration of Rights, but the Ten Commandments, a list of our obligations (McIlroy, 2014).[36] McIlroy’s ideas do not make sense to me. Dooyeweerd rejected any idea that legal theory is to be based on the Decalogue. And from my perspective as a lawyer, an individual has no legal standing unless he or she possesses rights. Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms says that everyone has fundamental freedoms.  And Section 15 says every individual has rights:

  1. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Litigation is often required to enforce equality rights in communities and organizations. Enforcing these rights may cause disruption and disharmony within communities. Without litigation to enforce these rights, the U.S. would still have racial segregation. And Christian colleges like The King’s University and Trinity Western University would still be allowed to discriminate against homosexuals.

An interesting application of human rights and freedoms to Dooyeweerd’s philosophy was made by his son-in-law Ernst Stern. See Stern’s two-volume work, Wat zal men doen? Een filosofie van de rechten van de mens. He interprets Dooyeweerd’s philosophy in terms of human rights. Now I don’t think that Stern has a proper grasp of Dooyeweerd’s philosophy. And yet his approach can provide insight into how human rights are related to each modal aspect of our experience. Stern also argues that we can apply Bonhoeffer’s idea of “a world come of age” to the increasing secularization of our society.

VIII. Conclusion

Must reformational philosophy inevitably lead to these kinds of misunderstandings, and to an ultra-conservative, right-wing view of politics? I don’t think so, but the danger is there, as reflected in the history of politics in the Netherlands, in South Africa, and as shown by recent developments in the United States and Canada. The danger is particularly so in that line of reformational philosophy linking Vollenhoven, Van Til, and Schaeffer. In part due to the social implications of their very different philosophies, I have in previous articles sharply distinguished the philosophies of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven. I have also urged reformationals to fully understand Dooyeweerd before attempting to make changes to his philosophy.

It is a mistake to use the idea of sphere sovereignty as a way of preventing the intervention of the state where there are issues of public justice, equality, or human rights. Dooyeweerd’s philosophy is not an ideological superstructure to justify the anti-revolutionary politics of his day. His philosophy is based in our religious experience. Our actions, including our politics, arise from out of that supratemporal experience and they are to be expressed in our temporal world in love and justice, including the principles of ‘juridical equality and freedom of all individuals in their inter-personal civil relations.’

Those who support the politics of President Trump cannot be said to be following these principles of love and justice. We need to reject ideas of theological presuppositionalism and religious worldview when they are used to divide people in a religious antithesis. We need to support science and rational argument, and oppose any talk of “alternative facts.” We must reject any idea of sphere sovereignty that supports the idea of a minimal state. The state needs to intervene in health care for its citizens, in consumer and environmental protection from business, in the education of its citizens, and in enforcing equality and human rights. This includes the rights of gays, lesbians and transgendered individuals.


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[1] See editorial by Mark Galli, ‘The Biggest Loser in the Alabama Election,’ Christianity Today, Dec. 12, 2017, online

[2] Noll 2007, 155-56.



[5] Reclaiming Jesus.

[6] Chaplin acknowledges that this Dutch political tradition regarded itself as being emancipatory and progressive. But outsiders did not see it that way (Chaplin 2007, 144). Chaplin points out that Dooyeweerd rejected reactionary tendencies, and favoured “progressive” ones of integration, individualization and differentiation (Chaplin 2007, 148).

[7] It must be emphasized that pillarization is not the same as sphere sovereignty. Denominational differences within an organization are not the same as differences given in creation between different types of organization. To the extent that pillarization represents a delegation of state power to less centralized bodies, it is also a kind of subsidiarity or pluralism. Dooyeweerd did not support pillarization (Friesen 2018).

[8] Van Riessen was a co-author of the publication Apartheid voor Zuid-Afrika een zegen [Apartheid, a blessing for South Africa]. There were student protests at the Free University of Amsterdam when Van Riessen was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Potchefstroom (Muskens 2013, 139). In 1974, the Free University had broken its relationship with the University of Potchefstroom because of its support for apartheid. The governing body of the Free University sought to have the Managing Council convince Van Riessen to refuse the doctorate. But the Council did not do so, arguing that this was a personal matter for Van Riessen, and that Van Riessen had been shown to be a notorious pro-apartheid figure who would not change his opinions (AABN Zwartboek (1980), 17.

[9] Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship.

[10] Paul Schrotenboer: Conflict and Hope in South Africa (Hamilton, Guardian Press, 1968), 31. Cited by Theo Plantinga, ‘The Reformational Movement: Technology and Verzuiling’, Myodicy, Issue 26, June 2006, online at

[11] See Stoop, 2001. In 1926, W. Zevenbergen, a professor of jurisprudence was dismissed from the Free University for opposing the death penalty. The vacant position was filled by Dooyeweerd.

[12] The Netherlands has a complicated political system of 28 different parties elected by proportional representation.

[13] Dooyeweerd also states that there are only two institutions: the church and the state. Other societal organizations are linked with the state in a one-way relationship of enkapsis, in which the state has priority. The state can intervene in such other societal organizations based on the principles of equality, public justice, and the public interest

[14] In this book, Taylor argues for the superiority of capitalism in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution (p. 547), and for the right of Christians to wage nuclear war (p 430ff). He spoke against the legalization of homosexuality (p. 375). And he argued against the idea of evolution (p. 260).

[15] ‘When ‘Making Nice’ Means Submit to Statist Ideology, it’s Time to Revolt,’ (Jan21/11,

[16] ‘Statism versus Sphere Sovereignty, Obama and the rest of us need a dose of Kuyper,’ online blog at

[17] Baus has no discussion at all of Dooyeweerd’s idea of enkapsis between the state and other organizations.

[18] Worthen 2017. She cites Van Til: ‘We really do not grant that you see any fact in any dimension of life truly.’ I believe that this idea of no point of contact fosters a belief in “alternative facts” and a disbelief in facts that used to be held in common. And it allows for the disparagement of science, of the ideas of the academic community, and of the news gathering services in general which are dismissed as “fake news.”

[19] Schaeffer learned of Dooyeweerd through Hans Rookmaaker, who in turn learned a version of Dooyeweerd from J.P.A. Mekkes while they were interned in a prison camp in the war. Schaeffer based his ideas more on those of Cornelius Van Til, who had his own interpretation of reformational philosophy, and who had his own disagreements with Dooyeweerd.

[20] See Lindsay 2009. Schaeffer’s son Frank Schaeffer assisted him in organizing the religious right, but has now renounced and apologized for these views. See Frank Schaeffer’s website

[21] See my discussion of Rushdoony at Friesen 2015, 30 fn7. Confusion has been caused because Rushdoony wrote the introduction to Dooyeweerd‘s book In the Twilight of Western Thought (1968).

[22] For example, de Ridder’s defence of the idea of a priori truths. Dooyeweerd disputed that there are a priori truths.

[23] Such a debate will center on whether or not there is a multiverse–other universes that have different physical laws that are not conducive to the evolution of the universe and life. Even if God designed the laws of our universe, issues will remain of theodicy, whether this is the best of all possible worlds, and whether a less cruel way of creation might have devised. And if time originated at the Big Bang, is there a time before time?

[24] Some reformational scholars have compounded the problem by trying to relate reformational philosophy to postmodernist ideas of truth. A discussion of that issue is beyond the scope of this paper. It is unlikely that most evangelical supporters of Trump have been influenced by French postmodernism.

[25] Lizza 2011. Bachmann was influenced by Nancy Pearcey’s book Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), which relies on Schaeffer’s idea of a Christian worldview. In her book, Pearcey makes numerous references to Dooyeweerd and his philosophy, but misuses his ideas.

[26] ‘The Real Race War: Not the Fake One Against ‘White Supremacy’’ (Aug16/2017 post, online at

 [27] ‘Actual Disgrace, Fake News: Judge Roy Moore & Real Scandal in Alabama Senate,’  (Nov13/17;

[28] ‘What suppressing Alex Jones Really Means,’ from The Washington Post. Linked at (accessed Aug. 8, 2018). The page from that newspaper contains numerous references guns: ‘best selling concealed carry handguns’ and ‘Hand cannons: The world’s most powerful handguns.’

[29] He argues

Everything that is possibly true is knowable
It is impossible to know that God does not exist
Therefore God must exist.

This is nonsense. Apart from the problem of trying to derive a necessary truth (God must exist) from a premise that begins with possibility, the conclusion does not follow from its premises. The assertion that God exists is an assertion that is possibly true and therefore knowable. So is its opposite, the assertion that God does not exist.  The fact that we cannot know that God does not exist does not prove that God does exist. The only valid argument here is trite, and not very different from the old ontological argument:

Everything that is necessarily true is knowable
That God exists is necessarily true
Therefore, that God exists is knowable.


[31] Vriend v Alberta [1998] 1 S.C.R. 493

[32] Law Society of British Columbia v. Trinity Western University [2018] SCC 32.

[33] Facebook posting June 15, 2018.

[34] Cardus was established in 1974 as the Work Research Foundation through the efforts of Bernard Zylstra and Harry Antonides. It publishes two magazines, Comment and Convivium. Comment is edited by James K.A. Smith. Its previous editor was Gideon Strauss. Jonathan Chaplin is a Senior Fellow of Cardus.

[35] Statement issued on June 15, 2018.

[36] Jonathan Chaplin was the director of the Kirby Laing Institute at this time.