As some of you know, I went through a long phase where I was a huge fan of Ronald Reagan. I still am, to a large degree, but I no longer actively collect biographies written about him or things like that. In fact, the more I think about Reagan’s political philosophy, the more I agree with him in practice, but the less I agree with him on principle.
Reagan contended for the liberty of all people because he believed passionately in the wisdom of individual men and women to run their own lives, free of any government coercion. For a radio address given on December 22, 1976, for example, he wrote the following in praise of the high productivity of Americans:
All of this is because our system frees the individual genius of man. Released him to fly as high & as far as his own talent & energy would take him. We allocate resources not by govt. decision but by the mil’s. of decisions customers make when they go into the mkt. place to buy. If something seems too high priced we buy something else. Thus resources are steered toward those things the people want most at the price they are willing to pay. It may not be a perfect system but it’s better than any other that’s ever been tried. (Reagan: In His Own Hand, ed. Kron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson [New York: The Free Press, 2001], 13)
To this day, I find Reagan’s arguments for small government and free market capitalism persuasive, but I have realized a major flaw here: Reagan puts too much faith in the goodness and wisdom of individual men and women.
For this reason, I find the rationale of Abraham Kuyper (a 19th century Dutch Calvinist) much more persuasive. Kuyper argues for limited government control and for the freedom of the market on the basis of a distrust of people, not a trust in “the individual genius of man.” I just read his Lectures on Calvinism, and I found his overall perspective thrilling, especially his chapter on “Calvinism and Politics.”
Kuyper articulates a Calvinism that sees different “spheres of sovereignty” in life, where God has ordained different institutions to exercise dominion over the earth, per the creation mandate, and a just society would recognize all these different spheres.
So, for example, a family would have no authority over punishing criminals (which would be in the dominion of the State), but neither would the state have any authority in raising children (a function of the family). The point is that, while there is a very necessary and proper place for government (one which we may not as Christians ignore), the State is unjust if it goes beyond those bounds. In fact, Kuyper suggests that such a State would not only be unjust, but that it would be evil, lusting after power that God has not granted to it.
Kuyper names four spheres whose authority the government may not trespass: “1. In the social sphere, by personal superiority. 2. In the corporate sphere of universities, guilds, associations, etc. 3. In the domestic sphere of the family and of married life, and 4. In communal autonomy” (Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953], 96).
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. (Kuyper, Lectures, p. 96-97, emphasis added.)
All of this accomplishes three things:
- It gives me a theological, rather than a self-centered, basis for conservative politics.
- It makes me wonder whether I am justified in saying that the exponentially expanding role of the government under President Obama (although other Democrats and Republicans are highly complicit in this) is immoral and idolatrous, ignoring the proper sphere for which God ordained government. (I am about 85% comfortable with such a bold statement.)
- It makes me want to join the Constitution Party.