Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Bush at Calvin: the Commencement Address

The President’s critics must be disappointed. His speech was pitch perfect, focusing heavily on Tocquevillian themes that are not specifically religious, mostly reading religion through Tocquevillian lenses, and also offering the inevitable (for Calvin) reference to Abraham Kuyper.

Those concerned about "theocracy" should consider this characterization of Kuyper’s thought:

The most characteristic feature of Kuyper’s political thought is the principle of soevereiniteit in eigen kring, usually referred to in English as...simply "sphere sovereignty." Sphere sovereignty implies three things: (1) ultimate sovereignty belongs to God alone; (2) all earthly sovereignties are subordinate to and derivative from God’s sovereignty; and (3) there is no mediating earthly sovereignty from which others are derivative.

I am no Kuyper expert, but even this very strong statement implies a separation of various earthly institutions, and not the "church" ruling "the state." Indeed, it could be taken largely as a "pluralistic" gloss on Romans 13:1.

Here is Bush on Kuyper:

Kuyper was a Dutchman who would be elected his nation’s prime minister, and he knew all about the importance of associations because he founded so many of them -- including two newspapers, a political party, and a university. Kuyper contrasted the humanizing influence of independent social institutions with the "mechanical character of government." And in a famous speech right here in Grand Rapids, he urged Dutch immigrants to resist the temptation to retreat behind their own walls -- he told them to go out into their adopted America and make a true difference as true Christian citizens.

The President reads Kuyper through a Tocquevillian lens, emphasizing his pluralism and reliance on separate social institutions, over against government.

The most that can be said is that President Bush implicitly responded to his critics by reminding them that the (Kuyperian) principles of Calvin College call them to active service in support of their fellow human beings, not to relying solely on a monolithic, "mechanical" government. The anticipatory criticisms of Bush were more "political" than his response, which put the ball squarely back in the courts of those who are called by their college and their denomination
"[to offer their] hearts and lives to do God’s work in God’s world."

For more on the speech and its reception, go here and here.

Update: Here’s a "neo-Calvinist" endorsement of Bush’s remarks on Kuyper. Note also the last photo in the slide show you can find here.

Update #2: This WaPo article suggests greater support for Bush at Calvin than had previous press accounts. Elizabeth Bumiller suggests that the anticipated protests cut a 45 minute speech to a non-partisan fifteen. I’m dubious. As a professional commencement attender, I’ve never seen anyone exceed about 25 minutes, and people start squirming at 20. Bush speechwriters would know this and wouldn’t be so insensitive as to damage the cause of their employer, right?

Last Update: Here’s CT’s wrap-up, as well as a "conspiracy theory" I don’t quite buy. What I do believe is that Jim Wallis took advantage of his talk, just a couple of weeks before the President’s scheduled commencement address, to make sure the glowing embers burst into flame. No more on this now, I promise.

Discussions - 3 Comments


Dull stuff. Any commencement speaker can urge students to do good works ... "armies of compassion," etc., etc., etc. The president should have used this rare opportunity to say something that measures up to the crisis of our times. Instead, he said very little.

Benedict XVI he ain’t.

Off without a big hitch, and a good speech. Well researched and covers some very good points. Very good move in this chess game being played out here in the US. Interesting to see how dismissive some libs/repubs will be of it all.


A good speech if his goal was to warm the hearts of soccer moms and minimize the anger of the people at Calvin who signed the statements against him.

A weak speech if his goal is to be a leader who speaks candidly about the real issues of our times.

The two are not easily compatible.

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