Revisiting sphere sovereignty to interpret restrictions on religious freedom

The concept of sphere sovereignty, at the core of the reformed view of government and society, is one of Abraham Kuyper’s greatest legacies. However, sphere sovereignty is more than just an ordering principle of society. In this paper, the Kuyperian concept of sphere sovereignty will be revisited in order to describe the multidimensionality of religious freedom. Specifically, this paper will show that the concept of sphere sovereignty can be used to interpret restrictions on religious freedom.

An essential dimension of religious freedom is the notion of separation of church and state. Yet, in Kuyper’s vision, the notion of religious freedom encompasses much more than the separation of the church sphere and the government sphere. The first section of this paper will try to show that (I.) restrictions on religious expression in any sphere of society are restrictions on religious freedom. This paper will show that true religious freedom requires not only a sovereign church sphere – the respect of church autonomy –, but also the freedom for (Christian) religious expression in the family sphere, the school sphere, the business sphere, government sphere, and in all other spheres.

The second and third sections of this paper will provide examples of two global dynamics which in very distinct ways go against sphere sovereignty, and specifically restrict (Christian) religious expression in different spheres of society. The first global dynamic that will be analyzed in this paper can be identified as (II.) “Islamic extremism” is a strategy, used by actors with an Islamic supremacist agenda, which tries to bring a country (or the world) under the ‘House of Islam’ through violent and/or non-violent actions. In theocratic Islamic regimes, for example, the ‘mosque’ sphere takes over the government sphere, as a means to intervene in other spheres of society, thereby restricting religious freedom.

The second global dynamic that can be identified as (III.) “aggressive secularism” is a radical expression of secularism, which not only seeks to exclude religion from the public domain, but also from various private spheres. For example attempts to intervene in confessional education could be reinterpreted as illegitimate interventions of the school sphere, and as restrictions of religious freedom.

Qualitative and quantitative data collected by the World Watch Unit of Open Doors International will be used to illustrate the way sphere sovereignty is intervened in these two dynamics.
The paper will conclude with a reflection about (IV.) the virtues of sphere sovereignty as a guarantee against tyranny, and therefore also as a safeguard of religious freedom.

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The Observatory of Religious Freedom in Latin America is a program of the Foundation Platform for Social Transformation, a registered charity in Voorburg, The Netherlands under Chamber of Commerce #50264249.

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