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More Stories Along the Way....

With such articulate partners (who are also acquaintances) in this political conversation, it's hard to know where to begin my response. There is so much food for thought. Thank you!

Diverging on Sphere Sovereignty

I'll begin by recognizing the degree to which I was struck by the similarity between Doug Koopman's and my experiences in our early years. Particularly surprising was the shared influence of the concept of sphere sovereignty on our thinking. Where I suspect we differ may be related to the influence of the concept of "subsidiarity" on his thinking. I admit that I was unfamiliar with the notion and had to do some research. I recognize a danger in speaking about it with minimal background. However, what I have been able to discover about subsidiarity seems to substantiate what I think may have helped land Doug and I in different political camps.

Kent Van Til published an article in the Theological Studies journal, Vol 69, Issue 3, 2008, in which he compared the principles of sphere sovereignty and subsidiarity. The conclusion to a section in which he summarizes some key concepts of Abraham Kuyper 's model of sphere sovereignty is enlightening:

"In sum, I find many similarities between Kuyper’s principle of sphere sovereignty and the principle of subsidiarity. First, both derive from a worldview that is assumed to be divinely ordered. Subsidiarity derives from natural law and sphere sovereignty from the reformed doctrine of common grace. Second, both limit state-sovereignty and seek to develop the roles and scope of intermediate institutions. Third, both insist that all areas of life are influenced by faith. Fourth, both agree that the state can and should have an active role in society, but do not wish to see the state dictate to, or take over the roles of, lesser institutions. In general, the principle of subsidiarity seems to construct a hierarchy that leads to the common good, whereas sphere sovereignty provides a process by which diverse spheres may successfully interrelate." (‘Subsidiarity and Sphere-Sovereignty:  A Match Made In ...?’, 2008, 69 Theological Studies 626)

I suspect that Doug and I lean toward different political camps because his view of sphere sovereignty tends to emphasize limitations (perhaps influenced by the subsidiarity concept) and my view tends to emphasize interrelatedness. Stated another way, Doug's concept seems to emphasize vertical relationships and my view tends to emphasize horizontal ones. I recognize that it's a bit of a fuzzy distinction but I hope it's one that bears further analysis and discussion.

Doug's description of the concept of sphere sovereignty begins with "....sphere sovereignty claims that each sphere of life has distinct responsibilities, authority and competence, standing equal to other spheres and in direct responsibility to God." He concludes that "....the main job of each level or branch of government, and government as a whole, is to protect the boundaries among the spheres."

That contrasts with my understanding of the spheres as being interrelated but having a distinctive leading aspect, or modality, as outlined by Herman Dooyeweerd, a leading refiner of Kuyper's sphere sovereignty concept. Richard Mouw (Reflections on Sphere Sovereignty) summarizes how Dooyeweerd's interrelatedness contrasts with a heirarchical (subsidiary) view. 

"Dooyeweerd sees the Roman Catholic view as a hierarchical scheme in which the state is the “totality of natural society,” with the church as representing an even higher manifestation “of Christian society in its supranatural perfection.” In such a view, as Dooyeweerd describes it, communities such as family, university, and corporation are lower parts of these higher organic unities: families are organically subordinate to the state, and the state to the church. By way of contrast,  Dooyeweerd insists, sphere sovereignty does not merely prescribe a practical “hands off” policy; rather, the boundaries that separate the spheres are a part of the very nature of things. Neither the state nor the church has any business viewing the other spheres as somehow under them. Kuyper’s scheme places “the different spheres of life alongside each other” finding their unity not in some “higher” visible community but in the ordering of a creation that is ruled by God."

In my years of elected service, I've always viewed my role as helping to find ways in which government can assist in ensuring that there is justice for all. That typically happens best, in my experience, when sectors, or spheres, work together. Shalom happens when church and state work together for "the least of these". Shalom happens when business and state work together to ensure economic justice for all. Shalom happens when schools and  state and families work together to ensure that every child is able to flourish within their individual capabilities.

Racism is Alive and Strong

Koopman ends with a nod that strikes a chord with me - to moving toward "a more genuinely diverse and tolerant nation." A preponderance of experiences in my work, social and political lives has led me to believe that the most significant issue currently facing our society is racism. There was a time when I thought, like many others, that we had moved beyond the racism of my childhood. I now recognize that, while we may see less overt racism these days, the societal outcomes for people of color in our nation clearly indicate that systemic (often unintentional) racism is alive and strong. Learning to recognize the privilege I have as a white male has been a long struggle and is ongoing. One of the places I've landed in my learning has been to prefer to use words like "affirmative" rather than "tolerant". The Kingdom that we help usher into this world should be one that does more than tolerate our diversity. It should affirm and celebrate its divine beauty!


So many things in Kevin Den Dulk' essay resonate with me! In keeping with my tendency to tell stories, I'd like to highlight some of his observations with some personal experiences.

My Team - Aaaarrrggghhh!!!

Right off the bat, I love Kevin's assertion that " American political parties are making a mess of democracy....". Oh my, yes! He goes on to say " As many as one-in-three party members have serious reservations about their own team." Even a partisan officeholder like me has serious reservations about my team! In my community we have a demonstrably weak local Democratic party organization. It is fraught with bickering and infighting. I'm often amazed that people can fight so hard....and over what? A Democratic candidate hasn't won a county-wide election in 35 years! It's the same old arguments and fights, year after year - what does the old saying suggest about doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results?  I try to avoid local party meetings because there is so much dissention and I'm reluctant to suggest that any newly excited partisan attend for fear that they'll be totally turned off and lose interest. I've also seen the state and national Democratic party come in to town during Presidential election years, try to totally take over local campaign efforts, and instantly disappear a few days after election day, leaving a host of hard feelings and bitter tastes.

Later on, Kevin suggests that "Parties in government appear....hampered by encrusted leadership." My own local Democratic party was controlled for years by an "elite" group of local labor leaders. They controlled local party elections to ensure their continued control of the party. (Again, one would wonder why, in the absence of any election successes.) When some like-minded non-union activists tried to expand the party base, the efforts were met with stiff resistance. I'll never forget trying to set up at a caucus site to sign up new party members, in the 1984 presidential caucus, and being evicted by the party chairperson. In my opinion, the local situation has improved but there is currently a somewhat similar situation in which Bernie Sanders supporters are accusing local party leadership of not being open to new ideas and participation. I suppose some things never change....

Comparative Campaigning

In his references to the competitive spirit that is inherent in political parties, Kevin says  that "Competing and highlighting political differences are not necessarily morally disqualifying." I'm reminded of my first campaign for County Commissioner. I had been encouraged to run by many in my urban neighborhood of older homes to run against the long-time Republican incumbent, partly because he owned a significant number of rental properties in the area that were not very well maintained. During the campaign, a volunteer did some research in public city records and found hundreds of housing code violations on dozens of my opponent's rental properties. I received lots of encouragement to attack my opponent for those violations. After many conversations with friends and advisors, and considerable soul-searching, I agreed to send out a flyer that laid out dozens of the worst violations and compared that record of neglect to my opponent's record of ignoring a number of local neighborhood issues that citizens had complained to me about as I campaigned door to door. As you might imagine, the piece was not well-received by my opponent and his supporters and was attacked as a despicable act of desperation. But I have often used the brochure as an example of appropriate "comparative" campaigning. To win an election against an incumbent, differences have to be pointed out. I've learned the truth of another campaign saying - "You can't win a beauty contest against an incumbent." But highlighted differences need to be verifiable and relate to qualification for office or performance in it.

Kevin also notes the danger in being a "critical insider". "....it is surely a fraught vocation, especially considering how easily the mobilization of our differences can swerve into demonization of the other side." Early on in my first stint as a local officeholder, I voted against accepting a grant to establish a local D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program. I had done some research on the program and the data was pretty clear that, although the program did an effective job of improving the perception of law enforcement personnel among youth, it had little or no effect on the level of substance use or abuse. That opposition to the program led to my opponent, in the election that followed, characterizing me as "soft on crime" for my opposition to the D.A.R.E.  program. That's contemporary politics for you!

Living In Bubbles

I have significant sensitivity to Kevin's observation that "Housing patterns are increasingly correlated with partisan attachments (there are now companies that will help you find a match between neighborhoods and your partisan loyalties)." Until our recent move to a condo a few blocks away, my wife Pat, and I lived in the same house for 40 years. We often reflected about the" bubble" that we seemed to live in. While there may have been a few closet independents in our neighborhood, you would hardly know it from conversations or election-year yard signs. The one staunch Republican on our block eventually stopped coming to neighborhood social functions. Now, the population of the 30-unit condo that we eventually moved to seems to be similarly left-leaning.


One of Kevin's concluding recommendations for combating political polarization is to "Crush the gerrymander". How true! Over the three decades that I've campaigned for elected office, despite not having moved during the period, I've been in four different district configurations. My current district is the local poster-child for gerrymandering. It stretches from downtown to the southern border of the city and covers parts of all four  of its quadrants (NE, SE, NW, SW). It is sometimes referred to as the "snake district" because of its unusual shape.

The Church and the church

Still another question raised by Kevin, that deserves further discussion (perhaps in the final postings of this eCircle conversation), is the role of the institutional church in partisan politics. He asks it this way - "But is there anything churches should be better equipped to tackle than disciples who turn their tribes, partisan or otherwise, into an idol?" He prompts me to ask - how can the church speak prophetically to the political issues of our time? I believe one thing for certain - that the political sphere is an integral part God's world with which the church MUST engage.

My research on subsidarity, referenced earlier, led me to writings by Kent Van Til. Interestingly, an article by Van Til explores some similar themes to Den Dulk's commentary on the election of our current President and the overwhelming support of white evangelicals. Kevin notes the question raised in many circles - "How could white evangelicals vote for him?". Van Til engages in a similar analysis in regard to Roy Moore, a controversial candidate in the recent special election for an Alabama Senate seat. Readers of this discussion might find that article interesting and helpful. ("Evangelical Alabamans:  Don’t vote for Moore, even if his Christian presuppositions are correct", Religion New Service, Dec. 8, 2017)


I have enjoyed reading the analyses of my writing partners have benefited from their wisdom and experience. I look forward with great anticipation to the final segments of our discussion!


It's a Small, Small World

Sidebar story - The name Kent Van Til, referenced in this essay, piqued my curiosity since my mother's maiden name is Van Til. It didn't take long to discover that Kent and I grew up in the same town of Highland, Indiana and went to the same elementary school, high school and college. We share a somewhat well known "Uncle Kees" (pronounced "Case"), Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Seminary, and that makes us second cousins. Most interesting was the discovery that Kent and a first cousin on the Talen side of my family, both married sisters from the same Grand Rapids family. That was "double bingo", as we sometimes say about discovering Dutch, Reformed family connections.

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Reader Comments (1)

Thanks Jim, for the honorable mentions in this and other places. I have learned from this discussion. I wish you were a bit younger man, and would run for U.S. Congress. Have any proteges who could do so?

January 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterKent VanTil

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