A Calvinist Defense of Islam?

February 27, 2018
Title: Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear
Author: Matthew Kaemingk
Publisher: Eerdmans
Publish Date: January 25, 2018
Pages: 338 pages (Paperback)

Over the past 50 years, Muslim immigrants have migrated to Europe and North America by the millions. Their arrival has ignited a series of fierce public debates about religious freedom and diversity, terrorism and security, gender and race, and so much more. With every new terrorist attack, public controversy, and hysterical politician, the debate over “Muslim immigration” grows in intensity, emotion, and complexity. It is within this tumultuous political environment that I have tried to make a Christian case for “political hospitality” towards Muslims living in the West.

To the surprise (and perhaps shock) of many, I make my case for political hospitality towards Muslim immigrants from a rather conservative Christian tradition of “Calvinism”.

Now, it is certainly an understatement that conservative Christians—and Calvinists in particular—have failed to earn a reputation for warmth, generosity, or openness when it comes to religious difference in America. Here in the US, Calvinists—if they are known at all—are known for an intense focus on defending religious beliefs and boundaries. Calvinists are known in particular for defending two very specific (and unpopular) doctrines. These two doctrines concern the rebellious and sinful state of the human heart and the overwhelming sovereignty and power of God. Theological Rottweilers, these (often young) American Calvinists have largely failed to earn a public reputation for humility, civility, or hospitality with their fellow Christians, let alone their fellow Muslims.

So, how could a theological tradition that appears so rigid and inhospitable ever contribute positively to a Christian discussion of hospitality towards Muslims? The answer, of course, is that it can’t. If Calvinism is conceived of in this way, it is utterly useless on such a topic. Well, what if this is not the whole story of this thing Americans call “Calvinism”?

The truth is that this 500-year-old tradition is far more nuanced, complex, and global than is normally recognized. For the rest of this article, I want to introduce a different tradition of global Calvinism—an alternative stream that carries in its waters some profoundly important resources for defending Muslim immigrants and their inalienable dignity, rights, and freedoms in the United States.

However, before I do, I need to make one additional note: conservative Christians in America are extremely suspicious of phrases like interfaith dialogue, peacemaking, and ecumenism. Such discussions, they fear, seek to water down the gospel of Jesus Christ or cover up some very important disagreements between faiths—differences that need to be acknowledged. It is precisely here that this alternative stream of Calvinism can be so very revolutionary for conservative Christians who harbor these fears. In short, this alternative tradition offers conservative Christians a way to maintain clear disagreements with their Muslim neighbors on issues of theology and politics, while also commanding these same Christians to zealously defend the freedoms and dignity of their Muslim neighbors.

My book Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear lays out a full Christian defense of Muslim rights and dignity. However, I want to limit myself here to briefly discussing a single Calvinist theologian and a couple of the resources he provides for an alternative path to Christian political hospitality.

Abraham Kuyper was a political activist and theologian who disagreed with just about everybody. Catholics, Socialists, Liberals, Baptists, and even his own Calvinists—you name them, he fought with them. Kuyper loved a good argument about religion, politics, philosophy, art—just about everything. While this trait made often Kuyper insufferable, it prepared him to be a strong Christian leader in a deeply divided nation. Kuyper rose to political prominence in the 1890s in the Netherlands. This was a period when the Dutch people were evenly divided between four rival ideologies: Calvinism, Liberalism, Catholicism, and Socialism. With four very different ideologies all competing for political power, these four communities had to find a way to live together.

It was within this context that Kuyper developed a uniquely Calvinistic political case for the generous public dignity, rights, and freedoms of all religions and ideologies. In making his case for political hospitality, Kuyper did not water down his Calvinism—he doubled down on it.  Kuyper did not run from those two unpopular Calvinistic doctrines we discussed earlier (the sinful human heart and the sovereign power of God); instead, he used them to argue for generous public freedom for all faiths and political ideologies.

First, let’s talk about the rebellious and sinful human heart. Kuyper argued that because all people are sinful and rebellious, no one—Christians included—should ever be allowed to ideologically control a nation. Because all people—Christians included—are blinded by their own sin, no human being or ideology can ever claim to perfectly know the will and law of God. The political impact was simple: if human rebellion and sinfulness is pervasive, if no religion could see clearly or perfectly, if no ideology could wield political control without abusing it, then a system of political checks and balances for all faiths—including Christianity—was suddenly critical. Christian citizens, who take human sin seriously, must enter political discussions with a great deal of humility about what they know for sure, and what is possible. For all citizens, as the New Testament declares, we all “see through a glass darkly.”

Therefore, any Calvinist who has taken their own sin seriously, will necessarily approach their Muslim neighbor with a spirit of deep humility knowing that no sinful mouth can speak for God, that no sinful eyes can claim to behold all of God’s ways, that no sinful hand can grasp God’s judgment. A good Calvinist knows that Muslims and Christians stand in a dark sort of solidarity together in their common failure to live holy lives. The pretense of a holy hierarchy is not permitted amongst the Calvinists.

Now, that’s what Kuyper did with the Calvinist belief in human sin, but what about their dogged belief in total divine authority and control? Here Kuyper argued that if God is sovereign over a country, that means Christians are not.

Applied to our current context, if God is truly sovereign over Muslim mosques, schools, marriages, organizations, and fashion choices, that means Christians are not. Moreover, if God alone is sovereign over the history and future of the United States, that means Christians are not. Christians who are afraid for “the coming ‘Islamification’ of America” need to wrestle with a simple question. Is God sovereign over American history, culture, and governance, or not? The desire to “take back the country” simply cannot be reconciled with the belief that the country is already in God’s hands. Christian citizens don’t need to grasp after the nation—God already holds it. For people who believe in the power of God, the politics of fear holds no sway.

Now, the real challenges of Muslim immigration in the United States are deep, difficult, and complex. There are truckloads of political and theological qualifications that need to be added to this terribly brief account.  That is what this book is for.

However, my hope in this short article has been to provide one small window into an alternative political path that is open for conservative Christians and Calvinists in the United States. They do not need to follow unfaithful fearmongers down a political path of fear and fragmentation. There is another path. There is another way for conservative Christians to both hold on to their convictions and see that hospitality towards Islam is not simply a kind thing to do, it is a divine command.

For all Christians should know (especially my fellow Calvinists) that they neither earned nor deserved the love and hospitality that Christ demonstrated to them on the cross. Furthermore, they should know full well that they are called to demonstrate that same love and hospitality to their neighbors.

And so we come to a rather scandalous and unwelcome conclusion: if we fail to make space for our Muslim neighbors, we are spitting on a cross that made space for us.

“Love them as yourself, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

Leviticus 19:34 (New Living Translation)

About the Author
  • Rev. Dr. Matthew Kaemingk is an assistant professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary and the associate dean of Fuller Texas in Houston. Matthew's research and teaching focuses on Islam and political ethics, workplace theology, and Reformed public theology.  As of 2018, Matthew also serves as a fellow for the Center for Public Justice in Washington DC.  His new book Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear engages the burgeoning conflict over Muslim immigration in both Europe and the United States. Matthew earned his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and holds doctoral degrees in Systematic Theology from the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and in Christian Ethics from Fuller Theological Seminary. As a Fulbright Scholar in the Netherlands Matthew studied Reformed political theology and the European conflict over Islam. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewkaemingk.