The concept of sovereignty at present occupies a central place in the thinking of both churchmen and statesmen. Since the first world war the trends in theology have placed renewed emphasis on the sovereignty of God and its meaning for human history. That is, churchmen have become more concerned about “the supremacy of Christ and the recognition in the whole range of our culture of the sovereignty of the God who revealed himself in Christ.”1

On the other hand, it needs no brief to establish that statesmen are now especially interested in sovereignty. In the discussions of our approaching postwar world the concept of sovereignty plays a leading role. The winds of debate are whirling about it. The most portentous barrier in our country against adequate provision for international cooperation is the fear of bargaining away our sovereignty. With that in mind an examination of the concept of sovereignty may prove very fruitful for our thinking in the areas of both church and state.

The Divisibility of Sovereignty

The modern theory of state sovereignty had its origin in the religious struggles of the sixteenth century. In those countries where the Reformation made its greatest gains it was necessary to find some authority which could vindicate the dissenters against the authority of the church and maintain necessary order, while the influence of the church was felt to be crumbling. It was natural that the authority denied the church should be transferred to the state. Not the will of the Roman Church, but that of the Protestant state was to be supreme. Accordingly, we find born a point of view which made the political state, or its government (generally a king) absolutely omnipotent within the boundaries of its territory.

Among those who first formulated and defended that theory were Jean Bodin, the Frenchman; Hugo Grotius, the Dutchman; Samuel Pufendorf, the German; and for England, Hobbes and Locke. The common characteristic of all their statements is that the sovereign, whether a king, or a parliament, has absolute and undivided supremacy. That is, the sovereignty of the sovereign was regarded as “indivisible,” not capable of being shared by other coordinate entities. It was supposed, in other words, that the sovereign powers of government could not be distributed among more than one organ of government without destroying the sovereign.

Historically that conception of sovereignty has been adequately refuted by our federal form of government. The framers of our constitution were confronted with the desire for state autonomy on the one hand and for centralization on the other hand. These two desires are reflected in the division of powers between the states and the federal government. The constitution makes no mention of sovereignty as being vested wholly either in the one or the other. The divisibility of sovereignty is implied in the entire set-up of our federal union. The federalism thus devised has been America’s contribution to the problem of sovereignty.

The historical demonstration of the divisibility of sovereignty is significant for every area of our corporate life—for church and state, for industry and education, and for every other area of group life. Its significance is well illustrated by the changed aspect which our partnership in world government assumes when viewed from this angle. The recognition of the divisibility of sovereignty promptly places an entirely different aspect on the matter.

For if sovereignty is divisible, the creation of world government does not imply the destruction or surrender of national sovereignty. If sovereignty were really indivisible, it could rest with only one sovereign. In that event it would be an either-or matter. Either the national governments must retain all sovereignty, or they must surrender it to a new world government which may be created.

But if sovereignty is divisible, the creation of a world government is no threat to the existence of independent sovereign states, but implies rather a functional redistribution of the powers of government to meet changing world conditions. It implies a further division of the sovereign powers of government between the national states and a world government after the pattern of our American federalism. And just as the American states have remained sovereign to the extent and for the purposes for which it was seen fit to leave them sovereign within a united nation, just so the national states should and will be left sovereign in all matters which are not wholly irreconcilable with the elimination of international anarchy and the preservation of world peace.

Such a union of sovereign states may have the same effect on nations as a marital union has on individuals, it may multiply their responsibilities and divide their rights, but in so doing it will not detract from their stature and importance. It will rather enhance their greatness by adding to their security, improving their stability, prolonging their lives, and generally giving each of them, whether large or small, the status of members in a world partnership for the common good.

The Myth of Absolute Sovereignty

Addressing a group of Chelsea war workers recently, Sir Samuel Hoare is reported to have said: “Just as I do not believe that any human being, however excellent he may be, can be safely entrusted with absolute power, so I am convinced that no state, however intelligent and well-meaning may be its officials, can safely be allowed a monopoly of power. I share, therefore, the view of many of my continental friends who wish to see a renaissance of non-state activities in Europe.”2

A “renaissance of non-state activities” is urgently needed everywhere. But such a renaissance will not come if we continue to view the state as the legitimate repository of a “monopoly of power.” It all comes down to the type of sovereignty you ascribe to the state. If with the early modem political theorists, you regard sovereignty as indivisible and inherent in an omnipotent state, you will sooner or later get what Europe got under a Louis XIV, or a Mussolini, or a Hitler: a juggernaut which crushes liberty and arrogantly defies the world.

A well-balanced domestic economy of liberty under law, as well as a rational international order, calls for a restatement of the concept of national sovereignty in such form that it eliminates the idea of a “monopoly of power.” That idea should be eliminated, first, because it is false in fact; it does not square with life. The allegiance given to other centers of loyalty such as the church and the trade union; the right of revolution affirmed by all democratic peoples and incorporated in our Declaration of Independence; and the ultimate triumph of any man’s conscience when he refuses compliance with government orders, are all examples of the limitations upon the sovereignty of the state by sovereign powers outside itself.

The idea of a “monopoly of power” should, secondly, be eliminated from our concept of sovereignty because the idea has a dangerous influence in shaping our mental attitudes. On the domestic front it offers the perfect philosophic justification for the worst features of the totalitarian state, in a world that is inevitably tending toward large-scale, socialized institutions it is fatal to view the state as the legitimate repository of such excessive authority. In the field of international relations, on the other hand, the theory of the all-sovereign state has been the inspiration for much of the blatant hyper-nationalism and its resultant arrogant defiance of the world will-to-peace.

For these reasons political pluralists have long maintained that it is essential to recognize the fallacy of the concept of an absolutely sovereign state and it is important to substitute for it a way of viewing society which will square more nearly with the facts of life, a conception which will be fundamentally social and basically reverent of human personality. Such a concept may be formulated if we take life as we find it at its best and on the basis of these findings construct our theory of sovereignty.

Wherever we look we find man not as an individual, but as a member of groups—families, churches, educational institutions, labor unions, employers, associations, consumers, and producers’ cooperatives, and the like. In a free economy the conduct of society is governed largely by these voluntary associations. They are of fundamental importance in the organization of society.

Life is, in fact, and therefore the state should be decentralized not only territorially, as in our federal union, but also functionally. In democratic societies the state has in fact served much as a federal union of functional groups, discharging the functions common to all the groups, protecting the groups in their several distinctive functions, and where necessary, protecting individuals against each other and the groups.

This at least is a way of viewing the state which steers clear of the evils of totalitarianism. Moreover, it revivifies our greatest contribution to political science, viz. federalism. It does this because it re-interprets it to mean a functional, as well as a geographical federalism. It views the state as composed of interrelated and functionally autonomous groups within which individuals seek to exercise those rights and duties which are essential to the attainment of their full personalities. And on that basis it defines sovereignty as authority distributing among the autonomous functional groups of society, each group enforcing its authority by sanctions appropriate to its character, and all groups federally related in and to the state, which is the coordinator and protector of the groups and of individuals.

A Christian View of Sovereignty

In his recent statement on “What Christians Stand for in the Secular World” the late Archbishop of Canterbury points out that the “limitless individualism of revolutionary thought” aims at a social order in which men as individuals direct the destinies of their states. This aim, he warns, “defeats its own object and becomes the fount of totalitarianism.” The Archbishop then adds:

If we are to save freedom we must proceed, as Maritain urges, from democracy of the individual to democracy of the person, and recollect that personality achieves itself in the lesser groupings within the state—in the family, the school, the guild, the trade union, the village, the city, the county. These are no enemies of the state and that state will in fact be stable which deliberately fosters these lesser objects of loyalty as contributors to its own wealth of tradition and inheritance.

Christianity has always favored these lesser units. The Catholic Church itself is composed of dioceses, in each of which the structure of the church is complete, representing the family of God gathered about the Bishop as its Father in God. And the civilization which the church most deeply influenced was characterized by an almost bewildering efflorescence of local and functional guilds of every sort. (Christian NewsLetter Supplement, No. 198, Dec. 29, 1943)

It will be noted that the Archbishop makes, at least, these three points, among others, in this quotation: (1) we should emphasize democracy of the person; (2) personality is achieved in the lesser groupings; and (3) Christianity has always favored these lesser units.

Although emphasizing the importance of the groups within the state, the Archbishop does not go on to discuss their relationship to state sovereignty. Had he done so he would undoubtedly have agreed with those who insist, as do political pluralists, that these “lesser units,” if they are to function effectively, must be viewed as sharing with the state its divisible sovereignty. Only such a pluralistic view of sovereignty is consistent with a Christian political philosophy.

There can be no absolute sovereign to a Christian, save only God. Therefore, all other sovereigns must be relative, limited, partial. Moreover, all other partial sovereignty must be derived from God’s original and absolute sovereignty. Even our oft-mentioned “popular sovereignty” is after all only a derivative sovereignty.

As was pointed out by the leaders of the Counciliar movement in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the “power of God works in and through the people.” Men like Marsiglio of Padua and Nicholas of Cusa—brilliant religious exponents of democratic principles in a pre-democratic era—fearlessly accepted the doctrine of popular sovereignty. But they always construed it to mean a derivative sovereignty properly exercised, under God, in the church by the general body of believers and in the state by the people. God’s sovereignty, they held, can be exercised only through human agents. The “people” collectively, therefore, become the bearers of divine sovereignty.

However, as the Protestant Johannes Althusius later (1610) pointed out, the “people” function collectively through a variety of associations. They discharge their collective, derivative sovereignty through various functional groups. For Althusius these associations constituted the real members of the state, which he regarded as a federal union of functional “lesser units.”

A conception of sovereignty, formulated along these general lines, but varied by time and circumstances as to the specific form it takes, is especially congenial to the Protestant religious mind. This is true since the Protestant regards himself as directly responsible to God, without benefit of clergy; and since he, eliminating the distinction between sacred and secular, regards all human relationships as sacred. If all of life is sacred, if every person is God’s viceroy, and every functional group is charged with a divine mission to execute its part in the master plan, then each must be permitted to carry out its part, as far as possible, without dictation from without and accountable only to its Maker.

Such a conception creates a sense of mission and purpose in the component parts of society strong enough to defy the tyranny of a usurping state. It may not be accidental that the defiant challenge to totalitarianism issued by the churches in occupied Holland sprang from soil where for decades its religious political leaders had been preaching that sovereignty, under God, resides in the functionally autonomous spheres of society. The impact of such a philosophy has a bracing effect on the entire fabric of human relationships. To borrow a Barthian simile, it is the pinch of cinnamon which can season our political thinking and redirect it toward our sovereign God.

It all comes down to what the Archbishop pleaded for—the necessity of fostering greater responsibilities within the “lesser units” of society; giving human personalities the opportunity to develop and grow within these “lesser units;” and building a more stable state because it rests on a series of “lesser units,” each of which is suffused with a unique function and shares a sovereign responsibility to discharge that function worthily.

1 The Christian Century. June 30, 1943, p. 768.

2 “Associated Press,” September 20, 1943.