We are living in the most interesting of times. The world is being ravaged by a deadly virus. Economic ruin seems to be descending on much of the world after government responses to COVID-19. Racial tensions have spilt over into what appears to be the end of a stable regime of law and order in the United States. The international political order is shifting before our very eyes. China is rattling its military sabre at India and Taiwan while the United States rapidly transforms into, at best, a declining and distracted superpower.
It is undeniable that we are living through conditions that could spawn dramatic political change. Weakened state and government actors leave power vacuums, whilst hostile civic discourse leads to the collapse of shared political culture. Economic uncertainty, demographic shifts driven by migration and aging populations, and declining confidence in social, legal and political institutions, point to a deeply unstable situation across much of the Western world. Revolutionary rhetoric is being touted, and revolution is a distinct possibility.
In an environment ripe for radical political change, it is worth asking careful questions about what a revolution is, and where it might stem from. One largely unknown, though influential, thinker who addresses these questions is Dutch historian and politician Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801–1876, conventionally referred to as “Groen”).
Groen’s insights, offered in the context of the advent and spread of revolutionary ideas from the late eighteenth century on, are provocative. This is partly because he asserted that the roots of revolution are not geopolitical and economic. Rather, Groen argued that the root of revolution is fundamentally religious. While material, political and social conditions underlie revolutionary fervour, he asserted that “apostasy … was the cause of the whole revolution.”
Groen purported his theory of revolution in a series of lectures delivered in the European autumn of 1845. His theopolitical analysis places unbelief at the heart of revolutionary politics. Unbelief, argues Groen, lies at the heart of radical political change.
The lectures were held in Groen’s own home across several Saturday evenings. Published two years later as Ongeloof en Revolutie (Unbelief and Revolution), these addresses are where this theory of politics and unbelief was worked out. Groen was already an eminent public servant and political historian, a man who would soon become a member of the Dutch House of Representatives. Indeed, Groen would further grow in stature and influence, becoming the spiritual and ideological grandfather of the first mass political party in Dutch History.
The Anti-Revolutionary Party, or ARP, was founded upon the Reformed Protestant and conservative-reactionary principles evident in Groen’s 1845 lectures. This party came to be a powerful influence in Dutch politics across the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries and boasted figures such as Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), and Herman Dooyeweerd (1894–1977) in its intellectual and political leadership. It was not simply an elitist reactionary force, either. It was a party which fought for the “little people” of Holland, the Calvinist peasant and Protestant factory worker. In many ways, Groen could be considered one of the fathers of Christian Democracy in Europe.
Unbelief and Revolutionary Thought
However, Groen’s reactionary conservatism certainly bled into the intellectual foundations of anti-revolutionary movements in Holland and accompanied the more grass-roots Reformed Protestant principles which are especially prominent in the writings and speeches of Kuyper. It is these principles which permeate Groen’s theopolitical analysis of revolutionary thought in Unbelief and Revolution. And, whether we agree with his historical analysis or his political-philosophical conclusions, Groen’s theopolitical theory of revolutionary politics and unbelief raises important questions for our own time, particularly about the foundations of our social life and the crumbling political culture of Western liberal democracies.
Revolution is, according to Groen, the inversion of the received “general spirit and mode of thinking” bequeathed to the West by Christendom. The ideas which undergird this inversion are “liberty and equality”, both recognisable tenets of the Révolution française, along with more general modern political ideas like popular sovereignty, the social contract, and the conviction that society can be artificially rebuilt with the consent of the people.
These ideas do not seem particularly insidious to the postmodern mind. The disconnect between them and the preceding medieval Christian civilization is also somewhat opaque. Ideas like equality and freedom are unchallenged staples of the modern liberal democratic world, as is the understanding that political legitimacy rests on the consent of the people. The social contract is more widely challenged in academic circles, but it is still a pervasive theory of the origins of political life. Further, the foundations of these political ideas can all plausibly be traced, in one way or another, to the influence of Christianity.
Groen’s analysis points to the presence of anti-Christian hostility embedded in revolutionary ideals, which explains his wariness of liberal principles. Early modern conceptions of the social contract, whilst not stemming from any deliberate anti-religious activism, can be plausibly understood as attempts to desacralise politics and separate theological knowledge from civic science. So, too, the claim that the artificial reconstruction of society is fine, so long as it is undergirded by consensus, might be understood as a society shaking its fist at the working of divine providence in history.
Groen’s “Revolution” is a specific historical series of events undergirded by a specific rejection of what he understands is a Christian conception of constitutional law and politics. While Groen accepts that certain abuses were prevalent in the constitutional order of the Ancien Régime, he argues that the principles of the said order were sound, founded as they were upon a Christian anthropology and a Christian understanding of political sovereignty.
In the first instance, Groen asserts that pre-revolutionary political constitutions were marked by a separation between authority and power; they were, in Groen’s words, “tempered monarchies”. These monarchies were characterised by an undivided authority that was invested solely in the monarch both as a public and private person; the interests of the two persons corresponded in a perfectly healthy way such that “the state was formed by [the monarch’s] personal relation to subjects and corporations, and … the affairs of state were the affairs of his house and dynasty.” This sounds like plain, old absolutism, but for Groen, this monarchy was “tempered” by the organic nature of his relationship to the estates of his realm, which held rights that could not be trampled upon.
A second principle of the ancient Christian constitutions was, according to Groen, the divine origin of civil authority. Was he, then, a divine-right monarchist? I am undecided. He points positively in Unbelief and Revolution to the patriarchalist theory of Sir Robert Filmer and purports a theory of political origins that traces its way back to Adam (a theory which he later rejects).
However, he could also be interpreted in other parts of the lectures as applying a straightforward reading of the thirteenth chapter of Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, as he does in the latter part of Lecture III. In either case, Groen sees a distinctly divine origin for government, a conviction which he believes is done away with at the Revolution.
Government and Patriarchal Monarchy
The third and fourth principles can be summed up in Groen’s understanding that variety in forms of government, be they monarchies or republics, all stemmed from patriarchal monarchy, and that in such polities each individual knew their place and the limits of their authority.
This deeply conservative vision of political society was being undone by revolutionary activity, and Groen responded with alarm. The inversion of these ideals amounted to an overturning of the venerable tradition of centuries-old constitutional practice which developed organically under the influence of Christian belief and Christian institutions.
The revolutionary realignment led, in Groen’s words, to a view of politics that “could not but antagonize king and subject, the subject seeing the king as a potential tyrant and the king seeing in the subject a potential rebel.” Groen saw in the new popular theory of legitimation, itself a key theoretical expression of the inverted constitutional principles, as a basis for continual conflict between ruler and ruled.
The result of this revolution was liberalism, an ideology which purports to love liberty. Liberalism is, according, to Groen, a “modified resumption of the Revolution”, because it is fundamentally an overturning of the received constitutional order given by divine providence. Unhinged from a divinely-mandated order, Groen sees the people acting upon their untethered “sovereignty” to overturn society. On the other hand, constitutional monarchs are also untethered under a liberal framework, for it is a revolutionary framework where they are “no longer held back by any sacredness of vested rights or historic liberties” but can now act “with revolutionary omnipotence” as “deputies of the sovereign people.”
Groen argues that “liberalism destroys liberty.” This liberalism is post-1789 liberalism; it is not the “Christian liberalism” that some political theologians have argued for. (Even Christian liberalism comes under attack from Groen, in Lecture VI.) It is a liberalism which builds upon the grounds of naturalism, and, following Jean-Jacques Rousseau, theoretically places sovereignty into the hands of the people but, in practice, ultimately sees this sovereignty handed over to the governing class who then claim to enact the mercurial “general will.”
Groen’s positive case for venerable constitutional principles cuts against the grain of much public discourse today. On the other hand, critiques of the liberal order and liberal political philosophy come from both the left and the right with some regularity.
Left-wing critics argue that liberalism is ultimately racist and patriarchal, that it sides economically with the already-wealthy, and that it perpetuates historical injustices which can be remedied only by radical intervention and, potentially, revolution. This critique is manifest in the recent demonstrations regarding racial injustice, but also in the violence and disorder perpetuated by radicals in the name of the same injustice.
On the right, Protestant and Roman Catholic “post-liberals” unite to level a critique not dissimilar to that of Groen. The historic roots of liberalism are flawed and liberal societies suffer from a materialistic moral malaise. What good is a society that lionizes freedom, if freedom sees people pursue ends which are damaging for themselves and others?
As Groen points out, under a naturalistic liberal state, the “promotion of material interests will be the sole aim”. This leads to the liberal citizen having “no basis for obligation beyond enlightened self-interest.” Quoting the Catholic priest and political thinker Hugh-Felicité Robert de Lammenais, Groen states that “men’s inclinations are made the sole measure of his duties.”
Regardless of liberalism, critiques or otherwise, the centre of Groen’s critique of revolutionary politics is the role of unbelief. For Groen, the materialism, injustice and state-violence evident in the liberal order are symptoms of a deeper disease. At the bottom of it, the revolutionary program is a twofold rebellion. “Revolutionary theories,” writes Groen, “are directed against Revelation [and] against History.”
Groen’s Debt to Hegelianism
History is, in some sense, both the revelation of God’s will and also the revelation of the Zeitgeist. Groen demonstrates a debt to the Hegelian philosophy of history through this formulation, which becomes more obvious in his assertion that “[h]istorical events … are nothing but the shapes and contours that reveal the sustained action of the spirit of an age.” If the spirit of Christ predominates in a people and age, the historical events of that era will reflect submission to Christian principles, which Groen equates with the constitutional tradition of Christendom.
The Revolutionary spirit of Groen’s time is quite opposite to this. Groen argues that, rather than epitomising submission to God and his Word, they evince a rebellion against God and an active unbelief. He applies himself to the development of revolutionary ideas and practice across a number of lectures (Lectures XI–XV), but it is not so much the apparent historical manifestation of the revolutionary spirit that interests us, here. It is Groen’s use of faith and the lack thereof in framing politics that I wish to investigate in the remainder of this essay.
“The Revolution doctrine is unbelief applied to politics.” So states Groen in what is probably the starkest and boldest statement of his central thesis. Unbelief, apostasy, rebellion against the Creator, works itself out in the political realm in revolution.
Groen’s assertion puts distance between himself and those who blame Protestantism for the decline of the Western world. The Reformation, he suggests, was not the beginning of unbelief and, therefore, the entering of the revolutionary spirit into Western Christendom. Rather, the Reformation “stemmed the tide of revolutionary unbelief” and brought a happy marriage of “freedom and submission” into political theory and political life.
The Reformation was not the source of the large-scale rebellion against Christian political principles, according to Groen. That source was, simply put, unbelief. “The theory and practice of unbelief shaped the Philosophy and the Revolution”, leading to debased constitutions, corrupted morals, and dead forms of religion. Groen argues that the “real formative power” of the revolutionary period was “atheism, godlessness, being without God.” Unbelief, unleashed into the world, “cannot but lead to the most radical of doctrines.”
Fundamental to this theoretical and, we should add, historical assertion, is a dialectic between revelation and reason. Groen, in a sense, identifies this key philosophical battleground across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as central to his case. The best of Christian thought had kept reason and revelation together; Anselm’s dictum of “faith seeking understanding” is a classic expression of this principle. In the revolutionary era, reason was lionized and, quite literally, deified. Edmund Burke, the English parliamentarian and philosophical opponent of the French Revolution, identified back in 1793 that the elevation of reason was key to understanding the revolutionary mind, and Groen simply followed his lead.
The setting aside of “the God of Revelation in favor of the supremacy of Reason … contradicts the very essence and immutable order of things”. Groen is here stating a kind of rule. If you feed in unbelief, you get radical politics: “atheism in religion and radicalism in politics” is a normal and expected combination.
How does Groen justify this claim? In the end, his argument takes a rather simple shape. When God is no longer sovereign, the human becomes sovereign. If humanity decouples itself from “unchangeable principles, men [begin] to soar without support in the airy spaces of speculation.”
But what of the Christian revolutionaries? And what of the benign deists and theists who argued for noble ideals and radical politics? Groen rejects the possibility that these men, influenced by Christian ideals, could stem the flow of radical philosophy and radical politics. The fundamental philosophy of the revolutionaries “was the sovereignty of Reason”, leading to “apostasy from God and materialism.”
Human reason, untethered from divine influence, is merely a confounding of “freedom of the mind with independence of the mind”. This misstep leads, according to Groen, to an unsound application of what ought to be sound ideals. For instance, justice, toleration, and liberty all result in their opposite: “for justice, injustice; for liberty, compulsion; for toleration, persecution”.
This is, in part, explained by Groen through the tendency in revolutionary philosophy to deny the corruption of human nature, a corruption which entails fallibility concerning the use of reason. “Reason, granted supremacy, must be obeyed”, and therefore everything and everyone that contradicts sovereign human reason ought to be forcibly corrected so that they learn the real meanings of justice, toleration and liberty. This sentiment recalls Rousseau’s ominous statement that people who do not follow the General Will shall be “forced to be free.”
Is this all that happens, then? Is it merely ideas? Certainly not, for Groen is most concerned with the practical outworking of the revolutionary ideal. The “sovereignty of the human will … dissipates itself in the depths of radicalism.” Human nature is let loose by human reason, and when human nature is untethered, the blame is shifted from people to forms. “The origin of evil,” for the revolutionary, “lies … in the institutions.” The forced perfection of institutions is necessary for the ascertaining of the blessed society. The beatific vision, a perfect earthly justice, is just around the corner if we can merely topple that statue or change that law.
This is the unbelieving root of radical politics, according to Groen. If humans, rather than God, are sovereign; if society is an association of consenting individuals, rather than a divinely assembled order; if human reason is supreme, rather divine revelation; if human nature is pure rather than corrupt; if all of these things are true, then the State is a project which can be perfected. Through politics, we can found Utopia. Liberty can and ought to be proclaimed to the captives because we can grasp it with our own power; it is within our reach by our own strength.
However, Groen warns that even though unbelief, expressed in politics, “proclaims Liberty,” it “must end either in radicalism or despotism: in the disintegration of society or in the tyranny of a state”. This, asserts Groen, leads to the saddest of all outcomes; a lack of hope. In such a situation, “men are content, from utter loss of interest or hope in any higher truth, to look after their material interests only.” The horizon is lowered such that people degrade themselves into conditions of pure materialism.
The only hope, the only way out of this despair, is to “renounce the Revolution principle and return to the Gospel.”
The Gospel vs. Politics
Groen’s account in Unbelief and Revolution is a theological account of political reality, an account which emphasises the role of belief (and unbelief) in the shaping of political ideas and political practices. There are many points in the lectures which could be, and ought to be, contested. This can be done elsewhere because I am interested in concluding this essay with a consideration of unbelief, and its impact on our politics.
Politics can be construed as a naturalistic endeavour, carried out in the natural world aside from any metaphysical convictions, let alone in the face of a metaphysical reality. Theologians and philosophers readily (and rightly) differentiate between the natural and supernatural realms, with politics falling into the natural. Another conceptual division falls along the lines of creation and redemption. Politics is not typically understood to be in the redemptive realm; it is a creational activity.
This appears to safely cordon off politics from the implications of theology and metaphysics. We can all just try and get along and forget about religion. Indeed, there is no need to acknowledge the divine at all, and religion can be dealt with as a policy problem, not as a theological one.
However, Groen’s discussion calls this neat division into question. His assumption, backed up by historical data, is that what a people believes about religion impacts how they think and act in terms of politics.
A further complication stemming from Groen’s analysis lies in the role of unbelief for politics. Liberal theories of politics and the public square typically dismiss the role of belief. What we believe needn’t impact how we behave in political life because politics is understood as an a-religious activity; religion is left at the door so public discourse can be carried out under a naturalistic framework.
However, the liberal account does not do justice to the possible impact of unbelief on politics. You can try and neutralize the political space all you like, but if Groen is right and unbelief actually matters for political practice, then the neutral space is no longer possible. Unbelief crashes the liberal neutrality party.
What about Groen’s account of the impact of unbelief on politics? Does it inexorably lead to radicalism and revolution? We might question this aspect of Groen’s theory. However, he cannot be dismissed so easily. His argument is not simply one of correlation and causation. Groen has worked out, to some extent, how unbelief might lead to radical politics and the degrading of civic life.
As we look around us, we see a decaying civic culture. My home, Australia, maintains a semblance of stability, but confidence in political and civic leaders is flagging, and our public institutions are no longer respected as they used to be. More dramatic evidence is available elsewhere. Need I mention the recent chaos in the United States? What about the growing political discord around Europe, as populations push back against the supranational cosmopolitan ruling class?
The recent pandemic, and the still-unfolding economic fallout from lockdowns, have exposed these political divides, deepening and hastening the political crisis of Western liberalism. Most analysts are wary of making bold calls about the conditions being primed for revolution. I agree it is too soon to make such predictions.
However, Groen van Prinsterer adds a different element to the discussion. He forces us to ask: what if the roots of the current crisis are not simply political? Perhaps we ought to think more carefully about Groen’s central claim regarding the role of religious belief in the building and destroying of political culture. The unbelief at the heart of liberalism, which poses as neutrality, might actually be playing a dynamic part in the current collapse of Western civic culture. Unbelief might lead to revolution.
Simon P. Kennedy is Lecturer in Intellectual History at Christian Heritage College in Brisbane, Australia. He is also an Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland.