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Abraham Kuyper and the L.A. Dodgers

Respecting sphere sovereignty amid a corporate culture war

The LGBTQ flag flies at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on June 16. Associated Press/Photo by Mark J. Terrill

Abraham Kuyper and the L.A. Dodgers
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Sports continues to be an arena for conflicts in the cultural struggle between “woke” values, LGBTQ activism, and traditional religious and conservative values. On the one hand are figures like Jonathan Isaac of the Orlando Magic, who has launched a self-identified “anti-woke” apparel line. On the other side are massive corporations and organizations seemingly devoted to pushing a transgressive agenda.

The New York Times columnist David Brooks decried the decision of the Los Angeles Dodgers to give a platform to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, whom he describes as “a group of L.G.B.T.Q. activists who have provided invaluable services to those in their community.” The problem with the Dodgers and the Sisters isn’t the substance of their stances on issues related to sexuality and politics. Rather, for Brooks the issue is that the protestors engage in spectacle, as they protest “in a way that dishonors the nuns who live in poverty serving the poor. They do it in a sophomoric way designed to cause offense.”

So Brooks’ problem is mostly a matter of style, and he begins and closes the piece with that legitimate complaint. In a pluralistic and democratic society, we need to affirm the rights of speech and protest of those we disagree with, even those with whom we disagree vigorously. But people should conduct themselves with some measure of decorum.

In the midst of his commentary on the Dodgers affair, however, Brooks invokes the Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) and his idea of sphere sovereignty. For Kuyper, each institution and association of civil life has its own genuine arena of responsibility and authority. Churches are authorized and empowered by God to proclaim the gospel, families are willed by God to nurture children and ensure human existence into the future, governments are to protect the rights of everyone and ensure legal justice, and schools are instituted to provide intellectual and moral formation for students. Each of these and infinite other institutions have their own coherent logic, structure, and purpose, and the integrity of these diverse spheres has to be protected.

People are exhausted by unwelcome cultural moralizing from corporations, and Pride Month is the apex of such cultural messaging.

Part of Brooks’ complaint isn’t just that the Dodgers helped promote a group whose rhetoric is offensive. It’s that they did something that has nothing inherently to do with the purpose of a baseball club: winning games by scoring more runs than the opposition. “When the Dodgers embraced the culture war spectacle, even just a little, they eroded the integrity of their sphere,” writes Brooks. There’s a sense in which Brooks is right. Giving attention to a group like the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence has nothing to do with baseball. It distracts and divides us. But for Brooks the problem is only a matter of degree; the issue for him isn’t Pride Nights by MLB teams but rather the “spectacle” of the Sisters.

Brooks is right to point to the dangers of thoroughgoing lines of division in society. We run the risk not only of living in a world of identity politics, but of pressing that political identity on to every other area of our lives, including economics and the marketplace. To a large extent people are exhausted by unwelcome cultural moralizing from corporations, and Pride Month is the apex of such cultural messaging. There is a natural backlash when attempts to direct the culture through marketing go too far, as we have seen in the Bud Light and Target debacles. This is the reason why the NHL, as opposed to the MLB, is pressing pause on some of the spectacle surrounding themed events.

If we only decide to patronize institutions, brands, and organizations that signal their adherence to a particular set of ideological issues, then we can start to engage in a kind of identity economics with deleterious implications for our prosperity as well as our broader flourishing. But it is entirely appropriate for each one of us to use our economic resources to God’s glory and to support enterprises that provide true goods and real services to our societies.

Even as there are distinct spheres of life that have their own validity and coherence, the human person must remain faithful and integrated across each one of these settings. We don’t drop our moral principles when we step into a grocery store or change our theological convictions when we enter a baseball stadium. The doctrine of sphere sovereignty helps us understand what is unique and distinct about different areas of our social life, but it offers no rationale for radically secularizing our lives or creating entirely value-free areas of society.

Baseball teams should be primarily concerned with putting a winning product on the field just as more broadly businesses should be focused on providing goods and services that people find useful and valuable. But between the extremes of radical ideological activism (identity economics) and totally secular uniformity there is a great arena of cultural diversity, disagreement, and ferment that we ought to acknowledge and affirm. Each of the spheres is distinct and has its own integrity, but the human beings living in the world move among and between these spheres all the time. The real challenge for Christians is to remain faithful in all of these different settings.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute, and the associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.

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