Kuyper on Decentralization, the Family, and the Limits of State Authority
Religion & Liberty Online

Kuyper on Decentralization, the Family, and the Limits of State Authority

kuyper12In Guidance for Christian Engagement in Government, a translation of Abraham Kuyper’s Our Program, Kuyper sets forth an outline for his Anti-Revolutionary Party.

Founded by Kuyper in 1879, the party had the goal of offering a “broad alternative to the secular, rationalist worldview,” as translator Harry Van Dyke explains it. “To be “antirevolutionary” for Kuyper, Van Dyke continues, is to be “uncompromisingly opposed to ‘modernity’ — that is, to the ideology of the French Revolution and the public philosophy we have since come to know as secular humanism.”

Greg Forster has compared the work to Edmund Burke’s response to the French Revolution, calling it “equally profound and equally consequential.” And indeed, though written nearly a century later and set within a different national context, Kuyper’s philosophy aligns remarkably close with that of Burke’s.

The similarities are most notable, perhaps, in the area of social order. Kuyper expounds on the subject throughout the book, but in his section titled “Decentralization,” his views on what we now call “sphere sovereignty” sound particularly close to Burke’s, though rather uniquely, with a bit more “Christian-historical” backbone.

Kuyper observes a “tendency toward centralization” among the revolutionaries, wherein “whatever can be dealt with centrally must be dealt with centrally,” and “administration at the lower levels” is but a “necessary evil.” Such a tendency, he concludes, “impels to ever greater centralization as soon as the possibility for it arises.”

The problem with this, Kuyper continues, is that “except for the initial starting point there is no place anywhere in this system for self-rule or popular initiative.” As centralization continues to accelerate, the individual citizen is left with fewer areas of action and recourse. Voting becomes the primary means of influence, and as a method for social actions, happens far too infrequently to be of much use. “A citizen is lord of the land, and therefore he may vote,” Kuyper writes. “But no sooner does his ballot drop into the ballot box than he is no longer lord, and the one elected has become master of his fate.”

Such a consolidation in the “mastery of one’s fate” is bound to override plenty of God-ordained and God-directed roles and institutions. Thus, in opposition to such an orientation, Kuyper promotes an “organic formation” of governance, one that avoids the top-down steamrollers of the planners. “The smaller parts come first,” he writes, “and those things of smaller dimensions form and make up the larger nation. So the parts do not arise from the nation, but the nation arises from the parts…And this remains true even when descending to a lower level.”

These lower levels stretch from state to region to village to family, and yet it is with the family, not the individual, that Kuyper stops. “Once you arrive at the family you have reached the final link,” he writes. “The basic unit for us is not the individual, as with the men of the [French] Revolution, but the family.”

Here again, the Burkean tones come through, as Kuyper reminds us that “it does not depend on an individual whether he will be part of a family.” Therefore, “in the transfer of the family to the individuals…we come into contact with a relationship that is entirely independent of people’s will or doing and that is laid upon them, over them and around them, without their knowledge, as part of their very existence, hence ordained for them by God.”

It only makes sense, then, that it is with the family — the foundation of anti-revolutionary politics — that Kuyper sees the greatest opportunity for explaining and clarifying the limits of state authority.

Guidance For Christian Engagement In Government, Kuyper, Ons Program, Our Program

Offering a series of questions (of which the following is but a sample), Kuyper prods us to consider the broader implications of where we assign responsibility:

Does the responsibility for good order in the family rest with the head of the family or with the head of the state? Does your calling as a father to keep order in your family extend only to the things that the state leaves unordered? Or, inversely, does government have a right to intervene in your family only if you scandalously neglect your calling with respect to your family? In the matter of ruling your household, do you complement the state, or does the state complement you?

After examining these questions at some length, Kuyper proceeds to connect the dots:

For if I accept these two ideas: first, that the central government supplements the governments of region, municipality, and family instead of the governments of region, municipality, and family supplementing the central government; and second, that a country cannot be cut up into arbitrary sectors but instead is composed organically of life-spheres that have their own right of existence and came to be connected with each other through the course of history—then for anyone who thinks for a moment, the matter is settled in favor of decentralization.

Then, surely, to centralize all power in the one central government is to violate the ordinances that God has given for nations and families. It destroys the natural divisions that give a nation vitality, and thus destroys the energy of the individual life-spheres and of the individual persons. Accordingly, it begets a slow process of dissolution that cannot but end in the demoralization of government and people alike.

Despite the sneers about “national pride,” “narrow provincialism,” “urban smugness,” and the much dreaded “mediocrity,” and despite all the noise about “love of humanity,” the uplifting power of “cosmopolitanism,” the inscrutable mystery of “state unity,” and the broad outlook of “men of the world”—despite all that, we shall continue to love the old paths, since they are paths by divine dispensation. With all who are of the antirevolutionary persuasion we shall maintain, over against the fiction of the all-competent, all-inclusive, and all-corrupting state, the independence given by God himself to family and municipality and region as a wellspring of national vitality, according to the ancient law of the land. (emphasis added)

We ought to be careful in how we interrupt and apply Kuyper from here to there, but Christians can learn plenty from this small little bit when it comes to the care and concern we ought to assign to the distinct roles and relationships that make up society.

As Kuyper clearly concludes, throughout our political activism, Christians have a responsibility to preserve and protect the “ordinances that God has given for nations and families,” and to make clear and affirm the “natural divisions that give a nation vitality.”

For some surrounding context of the above quote, as well as some basic rules Kuyper prescribes for decentralization, see an excerpt posted here.

For a more in-depth explanation of these rules, grab the book.

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.