The Matter of Sovereignty -- Martin E. Marty

"Sovereignty" is at issue in many Protestant contentions over religion in American public life

By Martin E. Marty|May 6, 1999

"Sovereignty" is at issue in many Protestant contentions over religion in American public life. The vast majority of American Christians believe that God is somehow sovereign over all. But most of them relate this faith to theories of governance in which believers and unbelievers and all varieties between them share civil life on equal terms. They find ways to be faithful to their religious and civic spheres and, despite tensions, do not try to get their concepts of God's rule legislated at the expense of the interpretations and rights of others.

Increasing minorities of Protestants today revisit centuries-old applications of the idea of sovereignty. They dream of and work toward effecting patterns of governance in which that sovereignty is explicit. That is the point where those who do not share their view get nervous: will a formally and legally "Judeo-Christian" society take form?

Hearing about this when seniors argue is one thing. To glimpse it in the apparently benign context of childhood education is another. Martha Sawyer Allen last month gave a fair-minded account of an instance, Calvin Christian School in Edina, Minnesota, in the "Faith and Values" section of the MINNEAPOLIS STAR-TRIBUNE (March 13).

Allen describes fifth-grade children at work with a current project: planning a colony, just as their foreparents did in the British colonies that became the United States. The children designed a Christian place out in space, where they can depict the world as they wish it could be now. "Any faith is welcome," they say--but they are really dedicated to "the supremacy of the Judeo-Christian God over the universe and history." "On the front lines of the culture wars," writes Allen, Calvin teaches its 425 students that God is sovereign over all. (Some old-Calvin sneaks in mildly. One student says the children want to rescue people from going to hell; another adds, however, "we shouldn't be nasty to them because they're not Christian. It just means God didn't choose them.")

At the college level, reports Allen, is the MacLaurin Institute, "which is connected to the University of Minnesota"--someone find out how and tell us--which teaches a Christian worldview to college students. Allen quotes Bob Osborn, director of the MacLaurin Institute, who argues that most academicians say today "that you have your story and I have mine, but don't tell me there's a larger story." That, he says, is why Christians (of his sort) have such trouble in public discourse. "The culture wars today are about history. Time after time our leaders' views of history are instrumental in shaping the future of this country." MacLaurin and Calvin start young in their efforts to reshape history and, in shaping children, shape future leadership.