The Obama administration’s HHS mandate has led to significant backlash among religious groups, each claiming that certain provisions violate their religious beliefs and freedom of conscience.
Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling was a victory for such groups, but other disputes are well underway, with many more to come. Even among many of our fellow Christians, we see a concerted effort to chase religious belief out of the public square, confining such matters to Sunday mornings, where they can be kept behind closed doors.
In navigating these tensions, Abraham Kuyper’s Our Program (Ons Program) offers a wealth of perspective, particularly when it comes to how Christians ought to think about their role in the broader society. Recently translated under the title Guidance for Christian Engagement in Government, the book contains an entire chapter in opposition to a “secular state,” including a marvelous bit on freedom of conscience that’s worth excerpting at length.
“There should be freedom of expression, freedom of belief, freedom of worship,” Kuyper writes, “but above all, the root of all these freedoms: freedom of conscience.”
The conscience marks a boundary that the state may never cross.
The limits to state power reside in the will of God. Government has as much power as God has assigned to it. No more; no less. It sins if it leaves unused a portion of the power assigned to it, but also if it arrogates to itself any power that is not assigned to it.
There is only one power without limits: the power of God, whence it is called almighty power. Anyone who accords the state the right to exercise power as if it had no limits is guilty of “deifying” the state and favoring “state omnipotence.” That is not indulging in “oratorical phraseology” but simply indicating a purely logical concept. [emphasis added, here and in any bolded text hereafter]
Kuyper certainly believes that government has a role to play, noting that “government alone has public power,” granted by God, “whereas all other organizations in and of themselves are of a private nature.”
Yet God has granted other specific duties, responsibilities, and functions to other distinct institutions, organizations, and individuals. “Things will not be right,” Kuyper writes elsewhere, “until the citizen’s energy breaks out in all directions and creates the opportunity for the state to do nothing extra and to focus exclusively on cultivating the field it was assigned.”
God called institutions of all kinds into being, and to each of them he granted a certain measure of power. In other words, he distributed the power that he had to assign. He did not give all his power to one single institution, but he endowed each of those institutions with the particular power that corresponded to its nature and calling.
The various entities—human persons first of all—which God called into being by his creative powers and to which he apportioned power, are almost all, in whole or in part, of a moral nature. There is a distinctive life of science; a distinctive life of art; a distinctive life of the church; a distinctive life of the family; a distinctive life of town or village; a distinctive life of agriculture; a distinctive life of industry; a distinctive life of commerce; a distinctive life of works of mercy; and the list goes on.
Now then, next to and alongside all these entities and ever so many other organizations stands the institution of the state.
Not above them, but alongside them. For each of these organizations possesses “sphere-sovereignty,” that is to say, derives the power at its disposal, not as a grant from the state but as a direct gift from God.
It is here, through a framework of “sphere sovereignty,” that we begin to the promise of social harmony and rightly ordered relationship. Yet it is also here where we see the inevitability of social conflict.
In working out who decides what, and what role each organization and individual ought to play, we will continue to run into problems, particularly as it pertains to government. “In disputes of this kind, government is judge in its own cause,” Kuyper writes. “Time and again governments, represented by sinful people, abuse their exclusive prerogative to compel by force.”
Kuyper’s solution? Protect and respect freedom of conscience:
“For this…abuse there is no other cure than absolute and full respect for freedom of conscience…The only point of support that has ultimately proved invincible and indomitable over against the power of the state is the conscience.
Conscience is the most intimate expression of the life of a human being. Conscience knows that it has received its power directly from God. Conscience revolts against every unjust verdict that ends a dispute. Conscience will not badger government whenever it acts as the owner of a field of which it is only the temporary caretaker.
These excellent traits derive from the fact that conscience is the immediate contact in a person’s soul of God’s holy presence, from moment to moment.
Withdrawn into the citadel of his conscience, a person knows that God’s omnipotence stands guard for him at the gate.
In his conscience he is therefore unassailable.
If government nevertheless dares to push through its “abuse of force,” the end will be a martyr’s death. And in that death government is beaten and conscience triumphs.
Conscience is therefore the shield of the human person, the root of all civil liberties, the source of a nation’s happiness.
As many will be quick to argue, and indeed, as many already have in their opposition to Hobby Lobby, such a perspective opens the door to endless opportunities for self-serving excuse-making among the citizenry.
Kuyper recognizes the threat, but in the end, he deems freedom of conscience well worth the risk:
To be sure, we are very much aware that in our sinful conditions two
wrongs can occur in connection with conscience…Nevertheless, although we admit the reality of this problem, [using freedom of conscience as a hypocritical pretext], we would rather needlessly step aside ten times to a false conscience than even once repress a good conscience.
Ten times better is a state in which a few eccentrics can make themselves a laughingstock for a time by abusing freedom of conscience, than a state in which these eccentricities are prevented by violating conscience itself.
Hence our supreme maxim, sacred and incontestable, reads as follows: as soon as a subject appeals to his conscience, government shall step back out of respect for what is holy. Then it will never coerce.
Kuyper was writing in 1879 for a different country and culture and in the context of a distinct governmental structure and system. Indeed, the broad strokes highlighted here ought to be considered in light of these particularities. But even still, in analyzing our current state of affairs, surely there’s something here to absorb and deploy.
The government has a God-appointed job, as Kuyper notes in great detail, yet its authority does not hover above all else, but rather contributes alongside us. To serve society and glorify God to the fullest, it must recognize its proper authority and keep to it. “Fathers have power over their children,” Kuyper notes as an example, “not as a gift from the state but by the grace of God.”
If our goal is to rightly relate across all of God’s created order, with each organization, institution, and individual fulfilling its God-given task, any sweeping, government-imposed violation of the conscience — whether on families, businesses, schools, or churches — ought to be viewed with severe skepticism, not out of some arbitrary individualistic or anarchistic impulse, but “out of respect for what is holy.”
As future battles unfold, let us hope for and strive to be citizens whose “energy breaks out in all directions,” and as we fulfill our God-given tasks and vocations, giving our gifts and talents across all of life, let us seek to preserve a government that will allow it.
A Translation of Abraham Kuyper's "Our Program"