Pillarization and Pluralism

Why Kuyper’s ‘marketplace of ideas’ has incredible relevance for 2019.

One day many years ago, I was sitting in my living room with some friends. It was Sunday afternoon and we had just gotten back from church. We were drinking strong, black coffee in cups with little windmills on them and eating Dutch pastry – gebakjes – when the subject turned to immigration. 

“I don’t mind all these immigrants coming here,” my friend said, balancing her gebakje on her knee. “I just wish they’d give up their culture and become more Canadian.”

I don’t remember how the gebakjes tasted, but years later, the irony is still delicious. 

When I studied immigration history in graduate school in the 90s, teachers used to say that the United States was a “melting pot” where people are assimilated into a larger American identity, and that Canada was a “mosaic” where different and distinct cultures make up the whole. 

A quarter century later, neither analogy has held up very well. In America, lots of Hispanic immigrants have stubbornly refused to jump into the melting pot, causing a lot of friction with Anglo-Americans. In Canada, the rise of a far-right, anti-immigrant and pro-assimilation party (ironically with roots in Quebec) is tugging at the fabric of the mosaic. 

One of the big questions of our time – especially as more emigrants move around the globe looking for economic opportunity, escaping dictatorships or taking refuge from extreme climate events – is “how do we preserve culture, when cultures collide?” The answers so far have come in the form of white nationalism and repackaging of Nazi ideology on one side, and nervous handwringing, indignant and hollow appeals to “values” and thought-policing on the other.

Resolving the tension
As I mentioned in my last article (“Digging to China,” Oct. 14), there are two forces at work in culture: one force is minority cultures pushing back against a majority culture – like the creation of Hispanic communities inside U.S. cities. The second is the pressure of a global mono-culture – the economic forces that put a Starbucks on every corner and a Marvel movie on every TV – that threaten to wipe out all cultural differences. These days, the latter is definitely winning out. But despite the increasing sameness of our cultural experiences, people are no more empathetic, trusting, or understanding because of it. 

But there’s an idea – one that’s buried deep in the DNA of Reformed thinking and philosophy –that may provide an answer or help resolve the tension. 

Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper, the granddaddy of the neo-Calvinist tradition, was trying to solve a similar problem in Holland in the 1880s. He saw that Protestants, Catholics and Social Democrats (or secular society) had very different ideas, beliefs, cultures and solutions to shared problems. Kuyper’s answer was not to fight this, but rather to encourage it – to allow each cultural view to create strong “pillars” made up of their own schools, labour unions, farming organizations, political parties, newspapers and even sports clubs – which allowed each group to thrive and live out the consequences of their ideas. 

This “pillarization” of Dutch society was, in effect, a kind of competitive pluralism. And – while “pillarization” disappeared in the Netherlands after WWII as the country secularized – the idea that the best way to get along is to allow cultures to thrive, to fully express themselves, to compete with one another in the marketplace of ideas and – in that way – contribute to the wellbeing of everyone lives on today in the Reformed churches in North America. The Christian school movement, Calvin College, Redeemer University College, CLAC, CPJ and even the newspaper you are reading right now are all part of that legacy. 

Reformed & relevant
Kuyper’s idea – which is radical today in a world of partisanship, thin skins and social media bubbles – was that religion, politics and culture are far too important to keep silent about. He saw that culture and beliefs are so important, we need to be allowed to preserve them, develop them and celebrate them. He believed it was necessary to work with people who hold competing ideas to pursue the greater good, together. That’s why he had no room for racism. In fact, in his Stone lectures of 1898, Kuyper even took the radical step of saying that interracial marriage is not only acceptable, but “the physical basis for all higher development.” 

In other words, right at the heart of our Reformed tradition beats an idea with incredible relevance for 2019: that what brings people together and creates societies where people look out for one another and care for one another is not social cohesion and sameness but promoting, celebrating and encouraging differences. And that by talking to one another – openly and honestly – about what matter most to us, we’ll move forward, together. 


  • Lloyd Rang

    Lloyd Rang works in communications and is a member of Rehoboth CRC in Bowmanville.

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