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The United States has a new president; the first to ever acknowledge the threat of white supremacy in an inaugural address. Exactly two weeks before that address, a violent mob including known white supremacists stormed the U.S. Capitol, enraged by the lie that widespread voter fraud in majority Black and Latino cities had stolen an election.
Like us, Abraham Kuyper watched a violent white supremacist insurrection in the United States. We can learn from Kuyper, but only if we heed his warnings without repeating his mistakes.
Few called it a coup immediately, but that’s what it was.
They said it was the work of patriots working to wrest back the reins of government from corrupt and incompetent politicians.
Others said it was the work of white supremacists, a “carefully orchestrated campaign that included raucous rallies, race-baiting editorials ... and sensational, fabricated news stories.” It was an attempt to reverse the outcome of an election.
It was Nov. 10, 1898, in Wilmington, N.C.
An organized mob of thousands of white people accompanied by a militia known as the Red Shirts massacred dozens of their Black neighbors. The pretext was the destruction of a Black newspaper that had dared to challenge the myth that lynching was a justified response to the rape of white women by Black men. But the editorial in question had been written in August. It was a thinly veiled excuse used by the white business class of the city to overturn the results of the November election.
They deposed the democratically elected government and installed white supremacist politicians. They used their political power to pass voter suppression laws, and in 1901 the solitary Black member of Congress, George Henry White, announced he would not run for reelection. When White left his seat, Democrat Alston Watts gave a speech in the capitol building in Raleigh stating that “from this hour on, no Negro will again disgrace the old State in the council of chambers of the nation. For these mercies, thank God.” George Henry White left not only politics, but North Carolina. There would not be another Black person elected to Congress from North Carolina until 1992.
Abraham Kuyper was in America at the time, and he followed news of the insurrection closely. For Kuyper, Wilmington was evidence of not only a corrupted politics in the United States but also of a God-ordained racial hierarchy.
What we witnessed on Jan. 6, like what occurred on Nov. 10, 1898, was also part of a much wider reassertion of white supremacy. Some of today’s Red Hats stand in the tradition of the Red Shirts of 1898.
Kuyper on Race
Kuyper believed in the superiority of white people.
I am hardly the first person to point this out. Kuyper’s racism, as former Calvin history professor James Bratt writes, was basically “contemporary European race theory” with “a dollop of biblical imagery” about the children of Noah (p. 293). But Kuyper did have a “singularly hostile view of sub-Saharan Africans” (p. 381). While some have pushed back on the notion of Kuyper as the theological father of Apartheid in South Africa, Kuyper clearly believed, in his own words, in the “indisputable ... superiority of every white race.”
In reflecting on the Boer colony in South Africa, Kuyper is crystal clear that “the Hottentots and the Bantus were an inferior race, and that to put them on a footing of equality with the whites, in their families, in society, and in politics, would be simply folly,” and he praises the “practical genius” of the Boers, who understood that when it came to interracial sex, “to have carnal intercourse with the Kaffir women is to commit incest.”
Albeit, Kuyper’s racism was a softer, more paternalistic racism. He did not believe in an inherent and unchangeable white supremacy. He blamed both Black people themselves and the inhumanity of their treatment by White people for racial disparities, but imagined that under the care of whites, Black people might improve. Kuyper, for example, follows up his comments on Boer attitudes toward interracial sex with the comment, “But on the other hand they have treated their slaves as good children.”
Kuyper was not just a white man of his times, though. Kuyper wrongly wound his views on race tightly around one of the cornerstone doctrines of Calvinism: election. He believed in “election in the realm of grace as well as in the realm of nature,” that “whether one is to be born as girl or boy, rich or poor, dull or clever, white or coloured or even as Abel or Cain, is the most tremendous predestination conceivable in heaven or on earth,” and that:
To put it concretely, if you were a plant, you would rather be a rose than a mushroom, if insect, butterfly rather than spider ... and again, being man, rich rather than poor, talented rather than dullminded, of the Aryan race rather than Hottentot or Kaffer.
This is not to “cancel” Kuyper. My own great-great grandfather, Johannes Van Boven, served for a time as Kuyper’s personal secretary. I have letters the two men sent to one another. I am a professor at Calvin University. I am an elder in a Christian Reformed Church.
I also believe we can learn from Kuyper at this moment. Kuyper was deeply concerned about political party machines and authoritarianism in U.S. politics, but his inability to faithfully discern the truth about a racist coup that played out even as he traveled this nation should stand as a stark warning for all of us in his tradition.
Kuyper and the Coup
The mostly white, mostly male, mostly Christian mob that descended on the U.S. Capitol was, as in Wilmington, attempting to overturn the results of an election. Both insurrections were driven by fears about a loss of status in society, the marginalization of white evangelical Christian faith, the erosion of white political power. The Q-Anon crowd shares the Red Shirts’ fixation on racist allegations of wild sexual perversity. Some of the Red Hats, like the Red Shirts before them, share a distrust of the authenticity of Black faith, a sense that it is dangerous or unpatriotic.
Kuyper shared these concerns. He was afraid of Black people. He raised the false specter of what today people would call “white genocide,” warning that “The Blacks are increasing in South Africa ... and ere long their numbers will reach a figure which will become menacing for the whites.”
Kuyper viewed his own Christianity as distinct from that of the Black Christians he met in the United States, and he considered the Christianity of Black people as incapable of keeping them from violence. Reflecting on the Wilmington Coup, he wrote:
(D)o not believe that the Christianising of these Blacks has obliterated their racial passion. During my tour in America, last year, I had confidential conversations with men-of-colour of all conditions, and I brought away with me the conviction that conquest over the white man remains and always will remain their chimerical ideal. ... Moreover, the violent scene at Wilmington in 1898 afforded another proof that between Blacks and whites there will never be lasting reconciliation.
No doubt Kuyper was reading heavily biased accounts of the Wilmington Coup, but it is nonetheless remarkable that he uses it as an example to declare that multiracial existence, let alone democracy, is an impossibility. And he places the blame for this squarely on Black people and their Christianity.
It is Black faith that Kuyper claims is tinged with “racial passion” and a desire to dominate the other. Kuyper is repeating white supremacist tropes, racist ideas that legitimize the use of violence as necessary to retain power.
In Varia Americana, written about his travels in the United States, Kuyper also links race relations in the United States and South Africa, writing that those who criticized the Boers for how they treated Black South Africans would come to a different conclusion if they had the chance to interact with Black people in America. Here Kuyper adds to unjustified fears about Black numbers and Black faith unfounded concerns about Black sexuality, particularly that of Black men. He concludes, “This alone explains the cruel Lynch law.”
At the same time, Kuyper was sharply critical of the ways race and party politics mixed in the United States. In a later chapter in Varia Americana on American politics, he wrote that the “clashes that occurred in Wilmington” were rooted in Democratic anger at Republicans nominating Black candidates in the South. This left Democrats with, “the shortest straw in Washington” and so they worked to “pit everything that is ‘white’ against the blacks” to prevent these candidates from being elected, if necessary “with a pistol and a Remington gun.”
This horrified Kuyper. He called it a “violation of justice and law,” or a “rape of law and order.”
This is the irony of Kuyper. He both reinforces white supremacy and blasts the way race is being used to fan political flames and flaunt the rule of law. As Bratt writes, he saw the way a “religion of mammon,” a “lust for money,” drove American political and religious life (p. 277), but could not see greed at the root of so-called “race riots” like the ones that smashed the successful Black business district in Wilmington.
This is also a great danger for those who stand in Kuyper’s tradition today. The insurrection on Jan. 6, like the one in Wilmington in 1898, was not simply a violation of law and order. While Kuyper was blind to the full horror of what happened in Wilmington, he saw that party politics in America was infected with racism, economic exploitation, and authoritarianism.
Kuyper demands discernment. Bratt is correct that Kuyper’s attitudes about race would have been at home in the American South or Nazi Germany (p. 293), but he’s also correct that Kuyper can help white evangelicals separate their Christianity and “their supposed social conservatism, from the gods of the market and of militaristic nationalism to which this group is so perpetually beholden” (pp. 380-381).
Kuyper has been invoked by those defending Kinism, or Apartheid, or the Doctrine of Discovery. But Kuyper also inspired Allan Boesak and the Belhar Confession condemning Apartheid, and Nicholas Wolterstorff and his commitment to justice and human rights.
Kuyper himself, in the final of his Stone Lectures, the same one where he declares it self-evident that one would rather be “of the Aryan race,” sounds a warning about what he calls “modernized private life,” out of which:
There emerges a type of social and political life characterized by ... an ever-stronger desire for a dictator, by a sharp conflict between pauperism and capitalism. ... And the end can only be that once more the sound principles of democracy will be banished, to make room ... for the coarse and overbearing kratistocracy of a brutal money-power.
Some current politicians like to name-check Kuyper, but they ignore his deep distrust of big man politics and the corrupting influence of wealth, while parroting his most famous quote as an excuse for what at times borders on Christian nationalism or Dominionism.
We must reject Kuyper’s racist mistakes and embrace his condemnation of economic exploitation, reflexive patriotism, and authoritarian government. Let us be honest both about him and ourselves. As the executive director of the CRC, Colin P. Watson Sr., wrote: “Amid the cries of this moment, I hear the plea of some leaders that, ‘this is not who we are.’ The sad truth, however, is that this is who we are.”
If we, like Kuyper, reaffirm a surface-level commitment to the rule of law without also committing to fully dismantling white supremacy, we have learned little over the last century. We run the risk of rightly condemning Confederate flags in the halls of the Capitol while missing the extent to which this was also an exercise in white supremacy. We need a true reckoning with our racist heritage as a nation. The Kuyperian tradition must also reckon with its own racist heritage. It is easy to condemn overt white supremacy, but more difficult to condemn Kuyper’s insidious racist paternalism. If we do not, the events of Jan. 6 may be, as Kuyper believed, yet “another proof that between Blacks and whites there will never be lasting reconciliation.”
Let’s hope and pray that, on this point, Kuyper was wrong.
About the Author
Joseph Kuilema is an assistant professor in the social work program at Calvin College. He and his wife attend Sherman St. Christian Reformed Church.