CPJ's 2017 Kuyper Lecture

“Rediscovering Sphere Sovereignty
in the Age of Trump”

Dr. Charles Glenn

April 27, 2017

Grand Rapids, Michigan


[Editors Note: This lecture is based on a longer soon to be published essay drawing upon an extensive literature that includes the history and outcome of the 19th century “school struggle” in the Netherlands and Belgium, Abraham Kuyper’s teaching about “sphere sovereignty” and its relationship to Catholic teaching about “subsidiarity,” current debates about “democratic pluralism” in the United States, and educational policy proposals to promote family choice and school autonomy and distinctiveness. For a pre-publication copy of this lecture please email Dr. Glenn.]


Most Americans have never heard of Abraham Kuyper. If they have, they are likely to associate his name with “sphere sovereignty.” This concept first gained prominence during the seven-decade political struggle in the Netherlands to allow parents to select schools corresponding to their religious convictions.                                                           

  • Is sphere sovereignty still relevant? And, indeed, is Kuyper still relevant, except as an example of a statesman/theologian?
  • Can his ideas help us find our way in the present confusing moment in political and social life in this and other Western democracies?
  • How do they illuminate the profound divisions so apparent in the recent elections, and can they offer a way forward?

I will argue that, in fact, they do offer a principled approach to policy-making, especially in my own field of education.

Despite obvious differences, the present situation in the United States – and indeed in the Netherlands and other European countries – shares with the period when Kuyper began to be influential a significant feature: popular revulsion against the condescension and intolerance of a Liberal elite toward the values and interests of many of their fellow-citizens.

A primary locus of this conflict, in nineteenth-century Netherlands (and Belgium and France, Germany and Spain) as in twenty-first century United States, was public schooling.

The situation came to a boil in 1878, when a new generation of Dutch Liberals came to power, committed to government intervention in popular schooling and explicitly hostile to confessional schools. They enacted legislation providing that the state would pay part of the cost of local public schools.         

Confessional schools, Kuyper noted, would remain “free to hurry on crutches after the neutral [school] train that storms along the rails of the law, drawn by the golden locomotive of the State.”

The legislation reflected a growing anti-religious sentiment in some elite circles. While to an earlier generation of Liberals the role of the State was to provide support for schooling but without becoming involved in the content and goals of education, now “it was nearly the opposite: the State, the State, and again the State; everything must derive from it, in the spirit of ‘the modern worldview,’ which must penetrate the entire state apparatus.”

It was in opposition to this claim on the part of the State to shape the minds and hearts of youth, to be sovereign over the most intimate aspects of family and individual conscience, that Kuyper and his allies, as he wrote, “focused all our fight on the school struggle. For there the sovereignty of conscience, and of the family, and of pedagogy, and of the spiritual circle were all equally threatened.”            

Kuyper’s distinctive contribution was, in the name of God’s sovereignty over all aspects of life, to apply this principle to a strong agenda of social policies going well beyond explicitly ‘religious’ concerns. This was the first party program in Dutch history and, in the very year when the Liberals enacted legislation that placed new burdens on confessional schooling, their opponents achieved the nation-wide organization that enabled them to reverse the Liberal program.  

Kuyper insisted on an understanding of the nature of sovereignty as ultimately belonging to God and attributed in only limited fashion to different sectors of the created order. “Sphere sovereignty defending itself against State sovereignty,” he wrote in 1880, “that is the course of world history . . . in the order of creation, in the structure of human life; it was there before State sovereignty arose.”

Kuyper did not seek to dominate the society and culture of the Netherlands, but to make room for institutional pluralism. As a Dutch historian has written, Kuyper “struggled against uniformity, the curse of modern life; he wanted to see movement and contrasting colors in place of gray monotony.”

The Liberals had overreached. The threat against the confessional schools that many of the common people had labored and sacrificed to establish aroused and created a movement that reversed the political fortunes of the Liberals and brought state support for confessional schools. Calvinists and Catholics built up the capacity of societal institutions to resist any over-reaching by the State, and arranged for public funding of these institutions, in what the Belgians called “subsidized freedom” and the Dutch Christian Democrats called “social decentralization.”

In the two countries – Belgium and the Netherlands – that today have the most highly-evolved systems of educational freedom, these arrangements did not simply drop from the sky but were achieved through bitter struggle (the schoolstrijd, the lutte scolaire) and mobilization of elements of the population who had been seen as the voiceless target of educational policy.

It was over-reaching by liberal elites in both cases that brought to naught what had seemed the inevitable progress of their agenda. In place of the unlimited intervention of the State to shape minds and hearts, loyalties and dispositions through popular schooling, the resistance of the Protestant and Catholic “little people” led to a great flourishing of grass-roots organizations and institutions to meet a wide variety of needs.

The State’s role became one of coordination, of support, of intervention only when local efforts failed.

Something similar has been happening in American politics recently, as evident not so much in the 2016 election of Donald Trump as in the political shifts in many states, and – with respect to education – the growth of thousands of alternatives to the district public schools that, fifty years ago, seemed an unmoveable and central institution of American life

Already, nearly three million students attend public charter schools and nearly four hundred thousand are taking advantage of programs making it possible for them to use public funds to attend private schools; these numbers are growing sharply each year.

What we have been hearing from the supporters of Donald Trump – though it by no means began with them – is resistance to what they perceive as the overbearing power of the national government and of the liberal “coastal” elites who are thought to set the agenda of that government and to impose it on society in general.

The issues are at least as much cultural as they are political, the over-riding of local and parental concerns. There can be no denying the political potency of such grievances, however exaggerated they may sometimes be. Nor is it very different from what Abraham Kuyper wrote in 1873, with similar exaggeration:

Can it be denied that the centralizing State grows more and more into a gigantic monster against which every citizen is finally powerless? Have not all independent institutions, whose sovereignty in their own sphere made them a basis for resistance, yielded to the magic formula of a single, unitary state? Once there was autonomy in the regions and towns, autonomy for families and different social ranks, autonomy for the courts as well as for the universities, corporations, and guilds. And now? The State has annexed all these rights . . .

But Kuyper, unlike today’s populists in the United States and in Europe, offered a conceptual framework for thinking about and prescribing for this over-inflation of central government authority. He was able to do so by drawing upon the Calvinist tradition of focusing on the fundamental significance of God’s sovereignty for every sphere of human life.

By asserting the unique sovereignty of God, Kuyper relativized and limited all other sources of authority and thus provided a basis for a democratic pluralism protecting the freedom of faith-communities as well as of individuals.

Is it too much to hope that we Americans can abandon the winner- take-all mindset that embitters our political discussions, and accept instead the principled pluralism that served as the basis of a lasting “pacification” in the Netherlands?                                                           

To do so, the late Steve Monsma and Stanley Carlton-Thies pointed out in their recent book, would require “neither that we agree completely with each other about our deepest beliefs (we don’t) nor that we stop trying to convince each other about what we think is best (we shouldn’t). Instead, principled pluralism simply asks us to agree to respect each other’s convictions not only in private life but also in public life.”

Sphere Sovereignty, Subsidiarity, and Decentralization

The rapid spread of public charter schools offers strong evidence that school-level autonomy and distinctiveness are appealing to millions of parents and to many thousand educators who choose to work in these schools. Each year more states adopt programs that enable parents to select non-public schools.                                                           

What we lack, however, is an adequate conceptual framework for guiding these developments, for promoting freedom within a framework of accountability. Charter schools, voucher and tuition tax credit programs, educational savings accounts, homeschooling . . . all exist as a result of ad hoc arrangements and negotiations, as accommodations to particular demands and situations.    

As a result, they are fragile and haphazard, inconsistent in the benefits they provide and sometimes harmful in their effects.

What is needed is a way of thinking about government, and about education, in a way that insists, with James Skillen, that “[a] just state is one that upholds structural pluralism as a matter of principle, not as an uncomfortable or grudging accommodation to interest groups, or to individual autonomy, or to its own weakness.”

Sphere sovereignty, elaborated by Kuyper as a way to think about and argue for an appropriate allocation of responsibilities for education and other domains of life, provides us with a valuable perspective from which to recommend consistent policies. A better translation of soevereiniteit in eigen kring might be “ultimate authority in its own sector,” understanding that authority to be finally subordinate only to that of God

Each sector of social action has its own distinctive mission which imposes restraints as well as goals. This would argue, for example, that schools are not simply agents, like branch offices, of the local public school district, nor are they simply agents of the families who entrust their children, but – while accountable to both families and government in different ways – possess their own distinctive mission and rationality.                      

What’s At Stake

When Stephen Bannon tells us that a primary goal of the Trump Administration is “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” we may understand the frustration behind such an agenda – including the altruistic as well as self-interested motivations that have led to ever-greater governmental interventions in society – but wish fervently that current political discourse rested upon a solider foundation than resentments and fears.

We have seen that Kuyper and his followers shared with today’s populists in Europe and North America a determined resistance to what they perceived as the over-reaching of government into sensitive domains of community and personal life. He resisted the tendency of the State to put itself, as he wrote, “in the place of God. The state becomes the highest power and at the same time the source of all right. . . . as the ideal of human society, a state before whose apotheosis every knee must bow, by whose grace everyone must live, to whose word everyone must be subject . . . the one all- providing state in which all human energy is channeled and seeks to come into its own.”

For the past three centuries, every government seeking to root its authority deeply among its people has turned at critical points to popular schooling as the chosen instrument of this agenda. Every such government has looked upon schooling provided under independent, auspices as a rival to state sovereignty and even a danger to national unity.    

As I detailed in The Myth of the Common School, a primary concern in elite circles throughout the nineteenth century was to use schooling and other instruments of socialization to remake the common people, to achieve what Franc?ois Guizot called “a certain governance of minds.”

Kuyper saw this claim of the State to a monopoly on the schooling of youth as a fundamental threat. “What we combat, on principle and without compromise,” he wrote in laying out the program of his political movement in 1879, “is the attempt to totally change how a person thinks and how he lives, to change his head and his heart, his home and his country – to create a state of affairs the very opposite of what has always been believed, cherished, and confessed, and so to lead us to a complete emancipation from the sovereign claims of Almighty God.”

A crucial distinction between the sides in the culture wars is between those who – like Kuyper – argue that different worldviews have a right to exist and find unhindered organizational expression in society, and those who contend that ultimately only a single perspective, that which they identify with enlightened modernity, must prevail.

Today, alternative perspectives on a whole range of issues, but especially around sexuality and its expression, are simply condemned as “hate speech.”  

A primary target of this elite effort to remake the people – especially those whom Mrs. Clinton unfortunately termed “the deplorables” – was the stubborn persistence of local communities maintaining alternative understandings of human nature and appropriate behavior. In particular, the efforts of such local communities to socialize their children in their own values and loyalties was seen as a major impediment to enlightenment, and continues to be a target of the liberal elite.

It is not primarily government agendas that undermine educational pluralism today, but a prevailing educational theory – “ideology” would not be too strong a word – that has taken the place of positive instruction in national and societal loyalty and the virtues required by citizenship.

In fact, the prevailing orthodoxy that today’s public schools seek to inculcate is not some form of civic virtue, but rather the current platitudes about tolerance and non-judgmentalism.

This shows no respect for ways of life based upon obedience to tradition, to faith, or to group norms, since these lead allegedly to lives that lack authenticity.

Nor does it – for all the talk of freedom – approve of public policies that support institutional accommodation of the cultural pluralism characterizing contemporary democratic societies.

Or, to be more precise, cultural pluralism is celebrated only so long as it limits itself to surface expressions, to music and dance and foods, but feared when it evokes fundamental beliefs, differences that “go all the way down.”

There is no problem with that position, in a free society, provided that the liberal education so defined is only one of a variety of educational options equally accessible on the basis of parental decisions.

Lack of respect for fundamental differences, insisting that they are mere illusion or matters of definition, while celebrating superficial “preferences” as though such bricolage could lead to personal authenticity, has created tremendous pressure toward uniformity of opinion under all the superficial glitter of “doing your own thing.”

Sphere sovereignty insists that no healthy society can be based exclusively upon individual possessors of rights and an over- arching State that guarantees those rights and possesses “the only legitimate authority.” It calls instead for structural pluralism, the social, political, and economic arrangements that allow communities drawn together around shared convictions about the nature of a flourishing life to live side by side and cooperate in common tasks and respond to common challenges, drawing upon qualities of character and loyalty that cannot be developed in the “naked public square.”

Implications for Educational Policy

So what are we calling for when we talk about founding educational policy choices on the principle of sphere sovereignty? This requires a better understanding of the nature and purpose of any school, whether public or non-public, which is adequate to its mission.

Schools should not be thought of as interchangeable administrative units for the provision of routinized services, but as profoundly moral communities at the intersection of a variety of compelling expectations.

From the perspective of sphere sovereignty, schools should be considered a distinct type of social institution, endowed with a distinctive nature and purpose and possessing the rights and responsibilities required to fulfill that purpose.

What are the nature and purpose of a school? It helps if we distinguish two words often used interchangeably: instruction and education.

Every adequate school provides effective instruction, and society (acting through government) has a responsibility to ensure that the interests of children and youth are protected by some form of accountability. It is thus appropriate for government to define measurable academic objectives and to intervene when these are manifestly not being met.                  

Public accountability for instructional outcomes should not, however, lead to a one-size-fits-all approach imposed on every school. Accountability is entirely consistent with educational pluralism (and thus with sphere sovereignty) if it is designed in a manner permitting competing notions of the good to flourish.

Every school also provides education, the shaping of character or settled dispositions, and some sort of orientation toward life and how it can be given significance, though in many cases today this occurs inadvertently, without any clear idea of goals or how they are to be achieved.                

Indeed, it may well be that in some schools with strong instructional programs the education provided – in hyper-competition, cliquishness, snobbery, unkindness – may leave the students less prepared than when they entered to lead a generous and flourishing human life.

For the education it seeks to provide, the school should be accountable not to society through government but to the families who have entrusted it with their children. This requires that families be empowered to make that choice. Kuyper wrote, in 1879, that “to raise a child is to permeate it with a certain spirit, to impress upon it certain ideas, and to inspire it with a sense of duty that will contribute to setting the direction of its life.”

The school we have described, both instructing and educating, and thus accountable to both society and to families though along different dimensions of its mission, fits very well into Kuyper’s model of sphere sovereignty.

In crafting educational policy on this basis, it is important to accord special protection to the distinctive educational mission of each school, the worldview that defines how it approaches every aspect of school life.

This would entail recognizing the ethos and distinctive character of each school as equally important as its test scores and attendance rate, and protecting those as not incidental but fundamental to the education process. It would mean, for example, protecting the right of each school to put together a staff that agree and act in accordance with the mission of the school, using religious criteria when necessitated by that mission without facing charges of illicit discrimination.

How is what I’m proposing different from what is already occurring? We have noted the remarkable spread of charter schools and the adoption by more states, each year, of voucher, tax credit, or educational savings accounts programs designed to increase parental choices beyond the public sector.

All of those developments, welcome as they are to those who support educational freedom, are tinkering around the edges of the system; none of them changes the basic assumption that it is the government-operated public school that represents the norm from which all of them are permitted exceptions.

From the perspective of sphere sovereignty, we should challenge the idea that the State can appropriately be the educator of its citizens, shaping them and their loyalties in response to the State’s priorities. There is increasing interest, in legal and policy circles, in what has been called “sector agnosticism,” the argument that government should not, in funding “public education,” take into account whether schools have a religious or secular character, are operated by public or by private entities, but only how adequately they are instructing their students.

Each alternative, of course, should be subject to the necessary discipline of providing academic skills and knowledge adequate to the demands of a productive and engaged life in society, and government has an essential role in ensuring that they meet this standard.

What government has no business doing, however, is imposing a single educational project and thus a single understanding of the requirements of a flourishing life upon all children and youth.

Kuyper, while opposing the monopoly claims of what he referred to as the “Sectarian School of the Modernists” to shape the Dutch people, in fact urged his followers “not to oppose the mixed [secular] form of education for those who want it, but to challenge the supremacy, the monopoly, of the mixed school and to demand alongside of it equal and generous legal space for every life- expression that desires its own form of education.” “Indeed,” he continued, “our unremitting intent should be to demand justice for all, to do justice to every life-expression.”        

An educational polity consistent with sphere sovereignty, then, would be one in which the role of government was limited to general oversight to ensure that every child and youth was adequately instructed, and that appropriate coordination took place. Government would provide resources and ensure justice, but it would not claim to educate, to form the hearts and minds of the next generation.

School choice advocates are often accused of seeking to destroy or at least undermine the public schools, but the intention of what I am proposing is to liberate them from the dead hand of bureaucracy and let them function as communities of educators around a common mission. In effect, to become like the public charter schools that have – when appropriately managed and regulated – produced such positive results. As it happens, such an arrangement has already been worked out in detail, in a book published twenty years ago by three distinguished educational policy specialists. They called for a system of “contracting” for public education that would redefine a local public school board as a community agent responsible for providing a portfolio of school alternatives.

Presumably, most of the schools would be those previously under the direct management of the school board, but now with an independent status like that of charter schools. This could also include newly-established schools or those that had operated as private schools. This would be “sector agnosticism” in action.

Among the responsibilities of the local board would be to “monitor schools to determine that all admit students without respect to race or income, that no child is obliged to attend a bad school, and that students attending failing schools are provided with viable alternatives.”         

These schools would take different approaches to instruction and adopt different ways of organizing the daily life of the school community, responsive to the differing needs and learning styles of students and to the educational goals of their parents. They should not differ with respect to the core instructional goals, but would be free to supplement these from religious or other perspectives.

Such a shift in the locus of responsibility for defining the goals and means of education could also have a profoundly positive effect upon the thousands of public schools whose staff, as often as not, do a good job of instruction but have little scope or encouragement to engage with the formation of character. Is it too much to hope that in more and more of them, over time, teachers would come to take a more ambitious view of their professional responsibility . . . of their vocation?

Of course, there are dangers inherent in a contracting arrangement under which faith-based schools would become part of the system of public education, dangers which I discuss at length in The Ambiguous Embrace (2000). In particular, control over the selection of teachers in conformity with the mission of the school must be non-negotiable.

Kuyper was convinced that the growing “attention to consciousness” in the late 19th century would have the inevitable effect that “world-views [would] pluralize,” and he “celebrated multiformity in general, and dared his followers to be different in church, school, and state as a means of defying standardization.” It is important to distinguish this concept of structural pluralism from the lightweight multiculturalism and fetishizing of “diversity” so common in American society today.

“The point,” Skillen argues, “is that we need not try to achieve political agreement about what constitutes good education. We need only agree that a just political order necessitates respect for family integrity, for diverse schools, and for the education of all citizens, and that apart from such respect justice cannot be done to citizens.”       

Why This Will Be Hard                   

Nevertheless, we should not fool ourselves that it would be a simple matter to implement “sector agnosticism” in the United States. There are two fundamental reasons why such an approach to the organization of schooling will be opposed.                                 

The first is that it is contrary to the self-interest of the mutually- supporting network of associations that have largely shaped the American system of public schooling . . . and that in other Western democracies as well.

But there is another barrier, more subtle but in some respects more formidable, to fundamental reform along the lines of Kuyper’s prescription: what he called “the vast energy of an all-embracing life-system” of secularism and its absolute claims that leave no room for the assertion of alternative interpretations of reality.

This secularist orthodoxy insists that religious beliefs be kept strictly private, in the tacit (and sometimes explicit) conviction that they will gradually die away as they cease to play any significant role in public behavior. There is a new intolerance which tends to see institutions and organizations based on strongly held religious views and mores as fundamentally illegitimate.

Once again, though, the example of Abraham Kuyper should give us some encouragement not to be discouraged by the fact that those who share our convictions about God’s sovereignty represent a minority of the American people. Kuyper’s 1879 election manifesto Our Program recognized that committed Calvinists were a minority, reliant on political collaboration. It was through tactical alliances on particular issues (notably with Catholics but also with organized Labor and other groups) and through persistence in building alternative institutions that the Dutch model of structural pluralism and educational freedom came into existence over several decades.

In the contemporary American scene, despite the cultural hegemony of an intolerant secularism, the social elements for constructing vigorous alternative institutions and communities are by no means lacking.

The willingness of state legislatures to adopt voucher, tax credit, and other policies that support family choice of faith-based schools is a reaction to the focused demand of religious minorities for educational alternatives. We can expect repeated challenges to the ineligibility of charter schools to have a religious character.    

Abraham Kuyper himself, with characteristic bluntness, in his 1880 lecture on Sphere Sovereignty, warned that “it depends on the life- spheres themselves whether they will flourish in freedom or groan under State coercion. . . . Servility, once it’s become shackled, has lost even the right to complain. . . . In any successful attack on freedom the state can only be an accomplice. The chief culprit is the citizen who forgets his duty . . “

Biblical Principles and Education

I must plead Guilty of applying Kuyper’s arguments outside of the context in which he made them, but it is because I believe we need a good dose of his principles in the political confusions of our own time. Here I will venture to speak theologically, biblically, as I have not in the discussion above. Sphere sovereignty has often, and correctly, been taken as a limitation on the absolute authority of the State, but it is important that we understand it also as a limitation on authority within each of the spheres.

Calvin provides a striking example, in view of the high valuation of the authority of the family that we have seen in Kuyper, quoting Ephesians 6:1, where children are urged to obey their parents “In the Lord.” Calvin comments, “[w]e see then that Paul commands children to obey their parents, not in everything, or without limitation, but so that God, who is the Sovereign and the only Father of all, may still retain his authority, and that earthly parents may not claim for themselves so much authority as to ascend the throne of God, as though they were lawgivers to souls.”

Thus sphere sovereignty pushes back, not only against the authority of the State, and of the dominant Culture, but also against unlimited authority in the family, or the school, or the church, or in any of the other spheres of human life, insisting always that these must be tested against the will of the Sovereign Lord, revealed in Scripture and in the person and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, understood with the help of the Holy Spirit and of Christian tradition.        

This means not only that the State has no right to claim authority over how children are educated (in the sense in which we have used that word, as the formation of character and worldview), but that schools should themselves always stand under judgment.

There is no room for complacency in the process of education, or of imposition or indoctrination, least of all in faith-based schools. A Christian worldview is not a blueprint to be followed but a process of reflecting on biblical principles and current realities, carried out ordinarily in company with other Christians and reliant on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Teachers and class discussion can help this process along, but such a perspective is solidly-anchored as the basis for a flourishing human life only if we through our own honest hard work.

Defenders of the common public school insist that its neutrality and freedom from a constraining worldview is a cardinal strength in a value-diverse society. Such an education, however, conveys to the young a persuasive message that traditional standards and life- goals are not important enough to compete with their own impulses and the influence of their peers.    

We need to insist without apology that faith-based schools can, in contrast, offer an unusually rich environment for nurturing critical thinking, precisely because of the shared conceptual vocabulary that they offer and that the common public school does not.    

Beyond clarity of vision, one of the most important dimensions of faith-based schools is that the adults involved – staff and parents – have a disposition to trust one another’s motivations and good intentions toward a group of vulnerable children for whom they share responsibility. There is abundant research indicating that trust within schools is a crucial factor in their effectiveness, academically as well as in the development of character.             

John Coons and Stephen Sugarman wrote, 35 years ago, that

[t]he most important experience within schools of choice may be the child’s observation of trusted adults gripped by a moral concern which is shared and endorsed by his own family. The content of that concern may be less important than its central position in the life of the institution. Even where particular values seem narrow and one-sided, a child’s engagement with them at a crucial stage of his development might secure his allegiance to that ideal of human reciprocity which is indispensable to our view of autonomy.

Surely that should be a primary goal of education, in any age, and the structural or institutional pluralism called for by Abraham Kuyper’s Sphere Sovereignty is the best guarantee that it will be available to families and their children.

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