On October 20, 1880, Dr. Abraham Kuyper gave the inaugural lecture at the founding of the Free University of Amsterdam. Entitled “Souvereiniteit in Eigen Kring” (literally, “Sovereignty in its Own Circle”) and presented to a mixed crowd representing academia, officialdom, and common citizens, this address has survived as a signature feature of the Kuyper legacy. It is the source of his most famous saying—”there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry ‘Mine'”—as well as the framework and defence for a defining feature of his social thought. Considering that Kuyper’s influence and stature were such that it was said of him on his seventieth birthday that “the history of the Netherlands in church, in state, in society, in press, in school and in the sciences of the last forty years, cannot be written without the mention of his name on almost every page,” the lasting prominence of this admittedly arcane lecture in itself is reason to uncover its genius.
Although the lecture was theoretical in character, Kuyper went out of his way to emphasize that he was motivated by both practical issues as well as religious imperative. “We have not been driven to this work like Maecenases out of love for detached learning. Rather, the urge to this risky, not to say presumptuous, endeavour comes from the deep sense of duty that what we are doing must be done for Christ’s sake, for the name of the Lord, out of its high and holy importance for our people and country.”
Although a scholar, it was as a journalist, politician, preacher, and educator that Kuyper was forced to deal with everyday policy questions. It was in the context of resisting the encroachment of a secular state, dominated by the influences of liberal enlightenment thinking, that Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty took shape.
Before proceeding to unpeel the layers of which sphere sovereignty is composed, there is an implicit onus to clarify the relevance for engaging a concept conceived an ocean away and circumstances far removed to the twenty-first century North American economy. For me, that onus has been more than answered by the questions raised in almost 20 years of active engagement in public life and in the economic realm.
As a political activist, the original questions that animated Kuyper regarding the appropriate role for the state remain relevant. In Canada, the size, function, and willingness of the state to actively involve itself in all areas of life—from providing significant subsidies to support industries and regions that inherently lack economic viability to establishing crown corporations that compete with private industry to make a profit—have been the topic of extensive debate during recent decades.
My professional life has included working with industry associations on issues that went beyond the capacity of individual market players to sort out. Many times it was tempting to appeal to state power to force unwilling parties to focus on the greater good, but was that really the best answer? As well, for 11 years I served as a national representative for a medium-sized Canadian trade union.
In an era when union influence was declining, when tough economic times made virtually every step of progress for members difficult, and when conservative-minded governments actively took steps to reduce the influence of unions in the name of economic progress while more collectivist-minded governments were ready to support the demands of unions with the state’s coercive powers, difficult questions emerged. What are the limits and task of the state in the economic realm? Where do intermediary institutions like industry associations and unions fit in? Do the claims of religious truth have anything to say in the face of the seeming secular sovereignty of the market’s invisible hand or—as many experience it—clenched fist?
Today, as the chair of a small economic think tank, my assignment is to provide answers to these questions in a language and format that will engage a secular and multicultural society. Engaging the wisdom of those who have previously struggled with these questions is a worthwhile source of insight.
These specific institutional questions cannot be answered outside of a brief, larger contextual review of our economic circumstance, although these comments are only preliminary and hence sweeping and general in nature. The burden of proving these can be saved for another time and place, but it is helpful to explicitly state assumptions in order to distinguish the position that I will take from issues in the current debate.
I believe in markets. Not blindly or in an idolatrous sort of way where market sovereignty has the right to run roughshod over every aspect of life. I am deeply troubled about what markets do to people, feeding their materialist addictions and creating a consumerist cafeteria from whose offerings few seem able to resist the temptation to overindulge.
But the misuse of something does not invalidate its proper use. The interaction of supply and demand, the spark to creative discovery which it ignites, and the dignity afforded the human person in providing freedom and choice seem, in spirit, consistent with the purposes for mankind. They all can be utilized in a way to give glory to the Creator. To paraphrase one contemporary testimony, the market can make us work for more than wages and it can make us manage for more than profit. Our trade with each other can highlight our mutual interdependence, cause us to cultivate and celebrate each other’s giftedness, and, when fulfilled responsibly, can highlight the wonderful diversity that is inherent in God’s good creation.
Admittedly, these theoretical possibilities seem far removed from the daily economic life that we ordinarily experience. Even most religious people have buried the underlying religious premises, and our economic debates have been reduced to questions of power and systems. Truth and justice are foreign terms in most economic discourse.
The recent exchange between John Gray in the New Statesman and The Economist regarding the extent to which we celebrate, or denigrate, the triumph of market capitalism and globalization in our post-1989 world illustrates the point. As M. A. Casey comments on this exchange ( First Things, October 2002):
It is an argument dominated by the question of economic liberty, its rights and its limits. But it is also shadowed by another question, the dark horse of religion. Both sides have a vague idea that religion is important in some way or other, but where it fits and the role it plays, remains unclear.
The question of the appropriate role of institutions in our current economy is not just one that arises from personal experience. In a presentation to the Fourth Regional Congress of the Americas held in Toronto in June 2002, MIT Professor Thomas Kochan noted the need to “update public policies and labor market institutions to catch up with changes in the nature of work and the workforce.” The motives backing this call for changing focus on economic outcomes, more than any underlying truth, question but speak nonetheless eloquently to the challenges we face. Uneven distribution of wealth, the perception that globalization is not helping the North American standard of living and costing jobs, and the collapse of confidence in the integrity of our market institutions are the drivers that Kochan cites. He argues that there is broad public support for a reshaping of the institutions that are involved in our economic life.
In the United States, a recent task force dealt with the same underlying pressures as they manifest themselves in a different legal and social context. In both countries, we are struggling with a creaking public policy framework supporting employers and workers that was premised on post-Second World War “Fordist” assumptions about a standard employment relationship between workers and, typically, large employers.
The role of the trade union is an important component of these discussions. The reach and influence of unions are declining throughout the world. A recent study by Henry Farber and Bruce Western suggests that private-sector union density in the United States, already having fallen below 10 per cent, may fall to as low as two per cent, leaving unions as little more than a fringe interest group rather than a significant social partner.
Although Canadian numbers remain at a very different level, having stabilized above the 30 per cent mark since the 1970s, significant changes are occurring there as well. A 1999 CPRN-Ekos study indicates that an increasing number of Canadians are looking outside of certified unions for collective representation, with a total of 16 per cent of the workforce—approximately half as many as are unionized in the more traditional sense—having some aspect of their employment relationship governed through a collective process. (For a more extensive treatment of these changes, see my essay “Beyond Unions?,” Comment, Summer 2002).
Sorting out the specifics of these changes is not our purpose here. However, questions about the appropriate roles and interactions of institutions do bring to bear more fundamental questions about how we order society. Of course, it is not necessary to reach all the way back to Kuyper for insights on this subject. During the past 25 years, the arguments presented by Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus in their 1977 To Empower People have been central to the public policy debate. The essence of their argument was that mediating structures, which they defined as “those institutions standing between the individual in his private life and the large institutions of public life,” could become the “basis of far-reaching innovations in public policy, perhaps of a new paradigm for at least sectors of the modern welfare state.”
Taken superficially, it would seem that mediating structures have universal endorsement. As Berger and Neuhaus noted, “there is little political mileage in being anti-family or anti-church.” However, the underlying question is where does the moral authority or legitimacy for these mediating structures come from?
Berger and Neuhaus’s argument responds to the contention that society is made up essentially of two spheres: the public and the private. Meaning and purpose is found in individual private life, while public life is impersonal, unsatisfying, and ultimately seems illegitimate. Mediating structures are a means of overcoming this.
Many who handle [the tension between the values experienced between public and private spheres] more successfully than most have access to institutions that mediate between the two spheres. Such institutions have a private face, giving private life a measure of stability, and they have a public face, transferring meaning and value to the megastructures. Thus, mediating structures alleviate each facet of the double crisis of modern society.
Most discussions of mediating structures have taken place within the context of classical liberal political thought, where essential sovereignty (and the source of values) stem from the individual with rights, and the state derives its authority from these individuals through some form of social contract.
Berger and Neuhaus’s focus was civic life, not the economic realm. In fact, most of the literature on civil society explicitly excludes the economic realm from consideration or application. Yet, as Alan Wolfe has noted:
Although there are obvious and important differences between the market and the state, they also share similar logics. . . . Neither speaks well of obligations to other people simply as people, treating them instead as citizens or as opportunities. Neither puts its emphasis on the bonds that tie people together because they want to be tied together without regard for their immediate self-interest or for some external authority having the power to enforce those ties. Finally, neither wishes to recognize one of the very things that make liberal democracies modern: that people are capable of participating in the making of their own moral rules. Modern liberal democracies face so many frustrations because their economic and political accomplishments create potentials that the operating logic of their moral codes denies.
Without trying to dot all of the theoretical i’s and cross the t’s, two issues emerge from this that explain why Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty concept is preferred. First, we can observe how people behave in both their state and market activities and realize there is something more than just the exercise of individual human rights or maximization of economic self-interest at work. A theoretical framework that focuses only on the interaction of the individual and the collective is inadequate to explain how a market society prospers, and building only on this bi-polar framework produces results that highlight the negative tendencies of the market system. Some form of mediating structure, or intermediary institutions, play a vital role. On this, Berger, Neuhaus, and Kuyper are essentially on the same page.
The second issue involves identifying the source of their legitimacy. Berger and Neuhaus argue that the strength of mediating structures is that “they exist where people are,” and it is their capacity to respond to the values of the citizenry, without totalitarian excess, that provides the source of legitimacy. They distinguish this from classical liberal thought, noting that
liberalism—which constitutes the broad center of American politics, whether or not it calls itself by that name—has tended to be blind to the political (as distinct from the private) functions of mediating structures. The main feature of liberalism, as we intend the term, is a commitment to government action toward greater social justice within the existing system. . . . The concrete particularities of mediating structures find an inhospitable soil in the liberal garden. There the great concern is for the individual (“the rights of man”) and for a just public order, but anything “in between” is viewed as irrelevant, or even an obstacle, to the rational ordering of society. What lies in between is dismissed to the extent it can be, as superstition, bigotry, or (more recently) cultural lag.
In this scheme, individual rights and values remain the source of moral legitimacy. Pains are taken to note that these values do not remain private in character but extend and give life to institutions. Given that mediating structures are able to function in a manner that is closer to and more responsive to the constituency they serve, these structures protect and propagate values against the natural totalitarian tendencies of the collective. As Berger and Neuhaus note in an essay marking the twentieth anniversary of To Empower People:
Our definition of mediating structures was rather clear: those institutions that stand between the private world of individuals and the large, impersonal structures of modern society. They “mediated” by constituting a vehicle by which personal beliefs and values could be transmitted into the mega-institutions. They were thus “Janus-faced” institutions, facing both “upward” and “downward.” Their mediations were then of benefit to both levels of social life: the individual was protected from the alienations and “anomie” of modern life, while the large institutions, including the state, gained legitimacy by being related to values that governed the actual lives of ordinary people.
Much of what Berger and Neuhaus have developed, together with the army of theorists who have built on their work, is helpful in addressing the real-life questions that modern-day economic practitioners confront. Of course, as they note themselves, they were not the first to focus on the importance of intermediate institutions in the social order.
The importance of intermediate institutions has been affirmed by many authors in modern political thought, going at least as far back as Edmund Burke’s defence of the “small platoons” against the “geometric” abstractions of the French revolutionaries. The same institutions are included in the principle of “subsidiarity” in Roman Catholic thought.
That the contribution of a turn-of-the-century Dutch thinker is overlooked on this list is understandable. It was the centenary of his Stone Lectures at Princeton in 1998 that sparked a broadened awareness of Kuyper’s thought among North American scholarship. However, the similarity of Kuyper’s perspective to the civil society concept is evident. As the contemporary Kuyperian scholar Richard Mouw notes:
Kuyper’s perspective on social issues has much in common with the views being put forth today by thinkers who are concerned with the proper shape of the “good society.” A number of North American social critics (Peter Berger, Robert Bellah, and Mary Ann Glendon among them) have emphasized in recent years the important role that “mediating structures” play in providing a buffer zone between the individual and the state. . . . Like these contemporary thinkers, Kuyper was eager to curb the power of the state. The various cultural spheres do not exist by governmental permission. God establishes them, and no human authority has the right to violate the Creator’s intentions. Kuyper would appreciate the emphasis these days on “mediating structures,” but he would be nervous about any tendency to spell out their importance in purely pragmatic terms.
Although Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty concept was first publicly presented at the 1880 opening of the Free University of Amsterdam, his Stone Lectures, delivered at Princeton in 1898, provide the most convenient English language source for his views. In the third lecture, “Calvinism and Politics,” Kuyper pointed out how
there exists, side by side with this personal sovereignty the sovereignty of the sphere. The University exercises scientific dominion; the Academy of fine arts is possessed of art power; the guild exercised a technical dominion; the trades-union rules over labor—and each of these spheres or corporations is conscious of the power of exclusive independent judgment and authoritative action, within its proper sphere of operation. Behind these organic spheres, with intellectual, aesthetical and technical sovereignty, the sphere of the family opens itself, with its right of marriage, domestic peace, education and possession; and in this sphere also the natural head is conscious of exercising an inherent authority,—not because the government allows it, but because God has imposed it.
Within the sphere sovereignty framework, the sphere of government has a unique place.
Bound by its own mandate, therefore, the government may neither ignore nor modify nor disrupt the divine mandate, under which these social spheres stand. The sovereignty, by the grace of God, of the government is here set aside and limited, for God’s sake, by another sovereignty, which is equally divine in origin. Neither the life of science nor of art, nor of agriculture, nor of industry, nor of commerce, nor of navigation, nor of the family, nor of human relationship may be coerced to suit itself to the grace of the government. The State may never become an octopus, which stifles the whole of life. It must occupy its own place, on its own root, among all the other trees of the forest, and thus it has to honor and maintain every form of life which grows independently in its own sacred autonomy.
Does this mean that the government has no right whatsoever of interference in these autonomous spheres of life? Not at all.
It possesses the threefold right and duty: 1. Whenever different spheres clash, to compel mutual regard for the boundary-lines of each; 2. To defend individuals and the weak ones, in those spheres, against the abuse of power of the rest; and 3. To coerce all together to bear personal and financial burdens for the maintenance of the natural unity of the State. The decision cannot, however, in these cases, unilaterally rest with the magistrate. The Law here has to indicate the rights of each, and the rights of the citizens over their own purses must remain the invincible bulwark against the abuse of power on the part of the government.
There are obvious and controversial questions that arise from this which go beyond our present purposes. Our burden here is to utilize these principles in sorting through contemporary questions in the economic sphere. In doing so, I appreciatively take note of Richard Mouw’s analysis of sphere sovereignty, distinct from certain other Kuyperian scholars, in which he notes the dangers in trying to precisely define spheres, with the result “that we are tempted to view the creation as containing spaces or ‘slots’ that need to be filled with various kinds of institutions and associations.”
In sorting out the particular applications of this concept to particular historical situations, an appropriate degree of humility and caution are to be preferred over dogmatic assertions. “We must explain as best we can why it is that we are deeply convinced that all of this is, while surely a speculative exercise, the product of sanctified imaginations,” argues Mouw.
In sorting through these theoretical reflections, three insights emerge that I find particularly helpful in thinking about contemporary economic questions. The first is that within the various spheres, there are different created norms or standards by which institutions are to be guided. The second is that Christian thought challenges the dominance of any one sphere, including the economic sphere. All spheres need to be viewed in light of their common accountability to God and His overarching purpose. The third is that government has a positive role in creating space for the different spheres to function according to their defining norms.
The fact that different spheres are guided by different standards is self-evident. The norms for family are clearly different than the norms for a church or for a government. According to Kuyperian thought, it is generally accepted that within the economic realm, the stewardship of resources is the norm by which economic institutions are to be guided. A helpful explication of this principle—although not written in the context of an explicitly Kuyperian perspective—is found in Christopher Wright’s Living As the People of God (1983) where he suggests that this will characterize itself with four benchmarks: a sharing of the earth’s resources, celebrating the dignity and responsibility of work, living with the expectation of growth, and a sharing of the resultant products.
Although this is helpful in distinguishing the economic sphere from other spheres, it does not solve the question as to the purpose of institutions within the economic sphere. Does this mean that businesses, trade unions, and industry associations are all to be evaluated by the same normative principle of stewardship?
Although we note Mouw’s warning not to use the sphere sovereignty principle as a template to fill in an institution in every slot, it is nonetheless helpful to break down modern economic production into its constituent parts. It takes a combination of economic capital, intellectual capital, human capital, and social capital for most modern economic production to occur. A business enterprise needs to manage all four and keep them in balance if long-term prosperity is to be realized.
If faithful economic stewardship requires the responsible management of all four sources of capital, it is clear that the business enterprise cannot be held solely responsible for this task. Various functions need to be undertaken which are economic in character (i.e., they do not belong to another sphere, such as family or education) which the business enterprise as we know it is incapable of and not well suited to perform. The practical reality is that other institutions play a necessary role in fulfilling these tasks.
The trade or industry association is one institution that fills the gap. Not only do industry associations provide coherence and voice to an industry interacting with external forces, such as government and other industries, but these associations also play essential roles in developing training programs and standards, initiating recruitment programs, and promoting best practices. Given that in many industries competition occurs between regions as opposed to between businesses, which may vie for local market share but rely on each other’s reputation to develop a local market reputation allowing a region to compete for investment against other regions, the cultivation of intellectual and social capital through industry associations is an important feature in modern economies.
To illustrate how this works in practice, let me point to a recent working paper published by the Ontario government that builds on the cluster competitiveness theories of Harvard Professor Michael Porter.
While the role of trade associations is not explicitly dealt with, the arguments about the evolving nature of trade obviously point to the important role of information sharing and cultivation of social capital—a task for which industry associations are best suited. Gideon Strauss recently highlighted these developments (“The Social Architecture of the Ontario Economy,” Comment, Summer 2002) as follows:
What particularly interests me in this paper is the recognition by its authors that “economic relationships are intertwined with social relationships.” Because of this recognition, they pay attention to social capital, defined as “the social networks and norms that facilitate collective action.”
“A region with a high degree of social capital is likely to support effective collaboration between customers and suppliers (and even between competitors). Social networks tend to be conducive to shared ideals, norms, and values, fostering a sense of trust and thereby facilitating economic activity. Trust lubricates the gears of the economic engine.”
The way in which “economic relationships are intertwined with social relationships” is evident in the development of clusters—particularly in the interaction of trust and rivalry in a market.
When it comes to the cultivation of human capital (a term whose connotations I profoundly disagree with but acquiesce to using only as a convenient shorthand), the role of the trade union takes centre stage. Management spends considerable time and resources trying to obtain the wisdom of front-line workers into the production process. (This is clearly a much more complex process in medium- or large-size firms where personal relationships and the leadership “reach” of executives cannot extend to every employee.) Although historically employee-representative structures have been seen as defensive mechanisms against abuse, I think it is helpful to understand them positively, using the standard of stewarding the human capital of a business.
Trying to accomplish this outside of institutional structures focused on this task has proven to be difficult. Studies have shown that these arrangements rarely are able to survive either a tough time crisis or a change in leadership personalities. Workers need to be able to, without fear of consequences, honestly say either “yes” or “no” to any question asked of them. If workers cannot say “no” to a management idea, the “yes” received in a worker participation program may not be reliable.
By this I do not mean to defend all that is being practiced or understood by the label “union” in the contemporary North American setting. While here my purpose is to advocate for the normative role of an institution focused on the stewardship and protection of “human capital,” I do hasten to add that this should not be construed as a defense of the status quo. As I have argued elsewhere, a less paternalistic model of worker representation than that espoused by militant social unionists is the key for labour to prosper. Obtaining the candid input of workers is a crucial management challenge and difficult to achieve in today’s corporate environment where workers understandably find it difficult to trust management to look out for workers’ interests. Unions can play a constructive role in minimizing the risk that is inherent in speaking out with candid suggestions for change and creative suggestions for building a better mousetrap. They do, however, need to do so without the political baggage and controlling tendencies for which they have become too well-known.
Both the industry association and the trade union have a positive role to play in stewarding our economic resources. One need not argue that these institutions are relevant in every culture or economic circumstance. However, most sophisticated understandings of economic stewardship in a modern context would allow that the business enterprise on its own is incapable of full-orbed economic stewardship, and hence finding space for and promoting the role of other institutions is a valuable contribution towards a healthy economy.
The second insight that emerges from Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty concept is the danger of any one sphere dominating the others. Kuyper developed his concept against the backdrop of state totalitarianism, and it would seem that a concern about statism has dominated Christian thought until recent times. However, as Elaine Storkey has pointed out, there is another totalitarian principle that deserves our attention:
Effectively a new organizing principle has moved into place in the West that acts in the same totalitarian way as statism did in a previous era. . . . It is the principle of consumerism. The irony is, however, that this new totalitarian principle has not grown out of the statist but the individualist pole; it has been shaped and developed in response to the primacy of the sovereignty, needs, demands, and wants of the individual.
It is here that the benefits of appealing to different institutional norms become apparent. One need not simply wait for a transformation of individual values to percolate up and impact the values of an organization (although clearly in any democratic society, the values held within organizations will always be connected to those held by the individuals who comprise them). Nevertheless, one can make moral appeals based on the inherent purpose and character of the spheres. To state the case once again using Storkey’s words:
Our Kuyperian insight leads us to challenge the supremacy of consumerism, to ask what the proper purposes of economic life are and what limits there should be to its influence. Do we need to work so much? Should consumption intrude into home, school, community, sport and the arts on such a massive scale? Can it ever be right to exploit workers in the Third World to keep profits high and prices low in affluent countries? Kuyper’s insights also help us to recognize that work, trade and economic output need a different focus: They are for good living. Economic activities thus need to respect families, justice, good marital sex, and rest from work and shopping. In short, we need an institutional life that is not dominated by consumption.
A theme that dominates Kuyper’s writings is that the sovereignty of God extends not only over individuals but the entire creation. The domination of any sphere, just as the persistence of any sin, resulted in something being put in the place of God’s honour and hence a fundamental idolatry. As Peter Heslam notes:
[Kuyper] considered the doctrine of God’s sovereignty to be the fundamental principle of the Calvinistic worldview, and it was one he often expounded in his discussions of both political and cultural matters, and of theological matters. In doing so he was concerned to counter the idea that Calvinism was primarily a dogmatic position concerning the doctrine of redemption and of significance only to the church. The dominating theme of Calvinism, he explained, “was not, soteriologically, justification by faith, but, in the widest sense cosmologically, the sovereignty of the triune God over the whole cosmos.”
This is more than a pious ad hominem against idolatry. It is understanding that our economic task falls within our created purpose which, in the words of the classic Westminster articulation, is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Our task as economic stewards literally, to take care of the planetary household on behalf of Some one else is to promote the cultivation and advancement of physical, social, intellectual, and human capital which will inevitably result in wealth creation. However, as sphere sovereignty reminds us, this is not our only task, and the exercise of this good task must be realized within the context of giving glory to God for all of His good gifts and living consistent with His commands. The cosmological and soteriological are vitally connected, such that the adoration of the saints is directed to “the Lamb,” forever reminding them of the centrality of the Cross in the divine plan. Although Kuyper would probably not disagree, it is not inappropriate to note that this distinction between the cosmological and soteriological can lead to an undue emphasis of one over the other, which is not without theological consequence.
That insight, although critical of the impact and observable behaviours of much of contemporary capitalism, is distinguishable from most of the anti-market objections which are most loudly heard today.
The third insight that we derive from Kuyper is that government has a positive role to play to protect the various institutions of society and allow them to fulfill their functions. The power of this principle is helpful in sorting through the practical policy questions we face. For example, Canadian governments (at least those of certain political stripes) have been preoccupied during the past few decades instituting process-based pay equity legislation, whereby companies and trade unions were required to jointly measure the skill, experience, responsibility, and working conditions that go into various classifications in order to try to overcome the systemic discrimination they believed must be behind the wage gap between the genders. On the other hand, other governments (usually those of the opposite political stripes) have been busy not only undoing prescriptive equity legislation but also making the organization of unions more difficult, believing that the collectivist ideologies behind leading unions was detrimental to economic progress.
Kuyper’s approach would condemn both approaches as misguided and ultimately counterproductive. The task of the state is to promote the different social institutions, to create space for them to fulfill their mandate, and not to prescribe particular outcomes that more properly belong in the purview of the spheres. As he noted in his original 1890 address on the subject:
The cogwheels of all these spheres engage each other, and precisely through that interaction emerges the rich, multifaceted multiformity of human life. Hence also rises the danger that one sphere in life may encroach on its neighbor like a sticky wheel that shears off one cog after another until the whole operation is disrupted. Hence also the raison d’etre for the special sphere of authority that emerged in the State. It must provide for sound mutual interaction among the various spheres, insofar as they are externally manifest, and keep them within just limits. . . . Even in defining laws for the mutual relationships among the spheres, the State may not set its own will as the standard but is bound by the choice of a Higher will, as expressed in the nature and purpose of these spheres. The State must see that the wheels operate as intended. Not to suppress life nor to shackle freedom but to make possible the free movement of life in and for every sphere: does not this ideal beckon every nobler head of state?
So, to apply this to the examples that have been our preoccupation in this paper, trade unions and industry associations have a place and a positive role to play, and the state should promote that role without interfering or prescribing any preferred outcomes.
When Kuyper presented his thoughts at Princeton in 1898, he concluded with a lecture entitled “Calvinism and the Future.” In it, he appealed for the application of Calvinistic principles to “every department of life.” He pleaded that those identified with Calvinism should “cease to be ashamed of their confession, but should find the courage to put into practice ‘in word, deed, and whole manner of life’ what they confessed to be true.” Kuyperians generally cannot be accused of having disregarded this plea, being better known for a sometimes overzealous application of frameworks and systems and a sometimes triumphalist spirit that has understandably caused resentment among those who arrive at their destinations through a different road.
Nonetheless, we shouldn’t denigrate the insights we find. It seems to me that finding a positive normative basis on which to organize our economic sphere, to protect it both against the consumerist totalitarian tendency of individualism or the interventionist social engineering intrusions of statism, is helpful for those who wish to participate in economic life to the honour and glory of God.
Ultimately, sorting out questions of how to order our society and economy are more than utilitarian questions; they are fundamentally religious questions and necessary to work through if we are to live obediently as His image-bearers. In the words of Kuyper: “God’s majesty and sovereignty require that we believe God’s Word, not because of what it says, but because it is His Word, not because we think it beautiful and true, but because He has spoken it.” The fact that it is also beautiful and true only illustrates the glory of the creation we have been given to enjoy, and the Creator we have been called to serve.