Back in the days following Richard Nixon’s resignation, there was a lot of discussion about whether Gerald Ford should or should not grant Nixon a pardon. Once that pardon became a fact, the consensus among news reporters went something like this: The Nation has been traumatized by the Watergate scandal, and needs to stop obsessing over it. Therefore, Ford has done the right thing. Instead of focusing on past wrongs, the Presidency is now free to get back to running the country. (Italics added) For an idea on how pervasive this phrase is, google the phrase “running the country” and see how many places those words appear.
It’s the last phrase of that opinion I want to call attention to, because it has recently surfaced again. In his interview with George Stephanopoulos last week, President Trump said: “I do a good job running the country.”
Not the same as the Nation
What I’m about to say about that expression should not be taken as mere carping about words. The words phrasing a belief reflect how we think about it. The inaccurate phrase alters the belief itself over time when not phrased accurately . So the first thing I point to is that the Federal Government is not the same thing as our nation. The nation is made up of individuals who are members of many types of social communities, in addition to being citizen-participants in its government. For example, the nation includes marriages, families, schools, and churches. It also includes businesses, charity and artistic organizations, as well as unions, political parties, and clubs of various kinds.
We also point to the fact that the President does not even run the entire Federal Government. Whoever holds that office is the chief of the executive branch of the Federal Government, but does not “run” its two other components: the legislature (Congress) and the courts. And those limitations don’t yet include the fact that each state in the US also has its own government, which the President also doesn’t “run.”
Limits on Government
The idea of limits to executive power goes back a long way in the history of the US and of its ancestry in British common law. For centuries, a King or Queen of England was under legal restraints concerning entering a private home, for example. A King of England could knock at the door of a family’s dwelling, but needed permission to enter. The monarch is the head of the government. However, families (and other social communities) are not parts of the government. That is a fact even though these communities are surely included in the nation.
It was the Christian political thinker Abraham Kuyper who gave this idea its most cogent development in the early 20th century. Kuyper noticed that the scriptures recognize a number of different kinds of authority in social life. He pointed to the authority of the parents in a family or the owners in a business. The teachers in a school and the clergy in a church have a delimited sphere. This holds as well for the elected officials in government. He spoke of each distinct kind of authority as a “sphere” of life. He taught that each authority proper to a particular sphere had a God-given immunity from interference from authorities in other spheres. No one sphere can claim to be running the country.
We call this “sphere sovereignty.” It’s the reasoning behind our sense that something is wrong in certain situation. For example, when the government rather than parents tries to say what sort of education their children should have. Or when the government tries to require membership in a particular church. It’s also a violation of sphere sovereignty when special interest groups attempt to influence a government legislature in their favor,. Why? The task of the legislature is to achieve the common good. (for more on this, click here and here) As I put the point in The Myth of Religious Neutrality: “The Christian view of [government] is that [the government] should not favor Christianity… [It] requires that government… concentrate on the goal of bringing about a maximally just society for all people, whether they believe in God or not” (p. 319).
God is in Charge
This is why it’s so important not to let the expression “runs the country” get off without being called up short. On the Christian view, “there is no single social institution or [human] authority that is supreme over all the rest. And assigning such a status to any community is to have it usurp a status that belongs only to God” (p. 298).