Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Liberalism, Democracy, and Sphere Sovereignty

Clay Cooke


by Clay Cooke

If Americans were to agree on one thing in present-day politics, it would likely be that the United States is a highly polarized nation.  What they often do not realize, however, is that the founding principles of the American political system frequently contribute to this polarization.  These founding principles are undergirded by two seemingly contradictory political philosophies -- liberalism and democracy (which is why the United States is known as a liberal democracy).  Liberalism finds supreme value in the sovereignty and ever-increasing liberty of the individual, whereas democracy finds ultimate worth in the sovereignty and ever-increasing equality of the “people.”

These two schools of thought engender an immediate tension that can be seen in most political controversies today -- in President Obama’s recent jobs bill, the federal budget crisis, and the health care debate.  In the debate over health care, for example, most Republicans argue that more federal involvement would obstruct individual liberties and consequently do more damage than good in providing health care options.  On the other hand, most Democrats contend that additional federal health care assistance would help generate greater equality, giving more Americans access to health care services.  The ideals represented by these positions -- liberalism and democracy -- are both basic to our Constitution, yet they often clash with, or come at the expense of, one another.  Unfortunately, if these are the only two sources of our political imaginations, we have little hope of ameliorating the deep-seated polarization in our current political environment.  

This does not, however, mean that Christians should reject liberalism and democracy and thereby refrain from political participation.  After all, as a liberal democracy the United States deserves our genuine commitment as citizens.  Yet it is crucial for our political engagement not to confuse Christian discipleship for a partisan form of American citizenship, where, for example, liberty or equality encapsulates our view of the ultimate good.  For in the end, we are citizens of another republic -- the Kingdom of God.  His Kingdom should first and foremost shape our political imaginations and actions. 

In light of this fact, what is an appropriate relationship for Christians to have with America’s political structures?  Drawing upon the thought of John Stuart Mill, we can approach political life with the goal of putting pressure on liberalism and democracy.  This enables a nuanced understanding of these two ideals--not simple accommodation or rejection--and ultimate fidelity to another worldview, namely, Christianity.  Pressure permits appreciation and suspicion; it is a qualified acceptance. 

In order to put adequate pressure on liberalism and democracy, we need another way of approaching politics.  We need another language, one that goes even deeper than the language of liberty and equality. The 19th and 20th century Dutch theologian and politician, Abraham Kuyper, provides the language of “sphere sovereignty” for this task.  Based upon his belief in a divine ordering to the cosmos, Kuyper holds that differing modes of human interaction--politics, business, art, and so on--possess their own unique character, authority structure, and integrity.  For example, a government’s nature and purpose is different from that of a business.  Kuyper labels these various modes of human interaction “spheres.”  His goal is not so much to explicate a meticulous philosophy of how creation’s spheres operate, but to discern some kind of loose conception of God’s creating and redeeming purposes for them. 

For instance, in his analysis of the political sphere, Kuyper avers that a government’s chief responsibility is to pursue justice for its citizens.  In order to do this, he says that a government has three primary roles: 1) to act as a referee between the spheres, ensuring that each sphere operates within its proper boundaries, 2) to protect the powerless from the powerful within each sphere, and 3) to certify that citizens are accountable for the preservation and unity of the state through fair taxation.  Granted, this language of sphere sovereignty is far from a panacea to the acute polarization we currently experience in American politics.  Yet it does at least force us to consider how an issue like health care policy relates to Kuyper’s three specified roles for government.  Moreover, it challenges us to work within the framework of God’s creating and redeeming purposes for politics, as opposed to that of liberalism or democracy, big government or small government.  In the end, sphere sovereignty can help us live as more faithful citizens of the Kingdom of God, and as American citizens who pursue the common good with “gentleness and reverence” toward our neighbors (1 Peter 3:16). 

—Clay Cooke is pursuing a PhD in Ethics at Fuller Seminary, with a minor in Historical Theology.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”