Book Note: The Good of Politics by James Skillen

by Dan Miller.
cover of book
The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Introduction by James W. Skillen (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014)

James Skillen thinks that most Christians have an impoverished view of politics, regarding it as a necessary evil in a fallen world. Skillen wants them to think of it as something inherently good, an essential part of the social order like families and churches. He notes that while politics can be corrupt and governments can be tyrannical, families and churches can also manifest sinful characteristics but Christians accept both as divinely ordained institutions. He concludes that if Christians were to engage in politics from a proper creational perspective, they could develop more constructive approaches to current issues.

Skillen divides his new book, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Introduction (Baker Academic, 2014) into three sections. The first deals with Biblical teachings on politics and government. The second provides a historical survey of the church’s teachings about and participation in politics. In the final section Skillen explains his own understanding of politics with some examples of how his approach might shape Christian thought and action in several areas of current political debate.

Skillen begins his review of biblical teaching on politics by describing humanity’s role as God’s “viceroys,” with a divine mandate to rule the earth. That creation mandate culminates in the kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus. He rules by serving and giving his life for others, whereupon he receives “all authority in heaven and on earth” which suggests to Skillen that proper political authority is intended the benefit of the ruled, not the rulers. He challenges the view that Christ’s kingdom is separate from the kingdoms of this world, claiming that all earthly political authorities operate under the lordship of Christ who is “king of kings and lord of lords.” That means that worldly rulers have legitimate authority but it also means that their actions fall under the judgment of God in the here and in the age to come. Hence they are under obligation to do justice, not only by punishing evil doers but also by giving everyone what is “due” them as exemplified by this passage from Job which Skillen cites: “I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist them.” (Job 29:12)

The book’s second section begins with Augustine’s stark distinction between the city of God, a spiritual community founded on love of God and others, and the city of man, a worldly community of self-love. To Skillen, Augustine’s negative view of earthly government shaped subsequent Christian thinking on the subject, leading it to be regarded as something that exists only because of the fall and that is largely confined to restraining evil doers by the use of un-Christ-like violence. Thus the medieval Church claimed that “worldly” political rulers were inferior to “spiritual” ecclesiastical authorities and should defer to them.

Protestant Reformers generally respected secular rulers but they continued to make a sharp distinction between “spiritual” and “worldly” authority. For Lutherans this meant that the church should concern itself with worship and personal behavior, leaving rulers free to use whatever unsavory means were required to maintain order in society at large. Christians might serve as soldiers or magistrates, but in doing so they would have to follow norms appropriate to a sinful world, not the rules of a loving Christian community. Anabaptists drew an even sharper distinction between the Christian community and the world of politics, claiming that no true Christian could serve as a public official since such a person would have to employ un-Christian means to enforce the will of government.

Skillen believes that Calvinists offered a more balanced approach, calling for collaboration between secular and ecclesiastical authorities, each of which had a divinely appointed sphere of authority. Calvin expected government to support the true church and prohibit “false religion” but he also believed that secular rulers should submit to the moral law as it was taught by the church. This idea encouraged challenges to arbitrary rulers and, stripped of its theological content, led to the Enlightenment ideal of a social contract that limited rulers to protecting of the rights of their subjects.

The United States, says Skillen, exhibits several strands of religious politics. The dispossession and cultural domination of Native Americans was justified as a mission to Christianize and civilize them. The separation of church and state was supported by the Protestant denominations who competed with each other for converts, a mission they pursued so successfully that America remained a largely Christian nation even though it lacked an established church. In the twentieth century, Black Christians and some white liberals offered a vision of America as a purified community where the ideals of the Declaration of Independence would be wedded to the millennial hopes of the Old Testament prophets. Far more popular however is a conservative vision of America that rejects government activism in favor of gospel preaching and personal piety which will preserve the nation’s Christian character and secure its survival by winning divine approval.

Having surveyed the Biblical roots and historical evolution of Christian political thought, Skillen offers his own approach. Rejecting the Augustinian claim that government is inherently sinful, the Calvinist claim that government should establish right religion, and the Enlightenment claim that government exists only to protect the rights of individuals, Skillen opts for “principled pluralism.” This means government must not just protect individual rights but divinely ordained relationships and institutions as well such as families, schools, businesses, and churches. (Skillen asserts that government has an obligation to treat all religious traditions with equal respect, an eminently sensible policy but one which merits a fuller theological justification than he offers.) Going further, he says government has an obligation to promote the “common good” which he defines as “a well-governed community of peace, mutual support, just treatment, and exercise of responsibility by all citizens…” (p. 140).

Skillen concludes with some specific policy recommendations to illustrate what a truly Christian politics might look like. To get citizens to fulfill their political obligations, he advocates a system of proportional representation that would allow a greater range of political options to be expressed and reduce the practical disfranchisement and consequent disillusionment that the two-party system engenders. To encourage parents in their familial obligations, he wants government to require them to protect the life of their unborn children from the moment of conception and he advocates tax support for religious as well as secular public schools. In addition, government should promote a “responsible economy” which encourages entrepreneurial talent, free markets, and “proper self-interest” but which also gives “foundational, even constitutional” recognition to the natural environment as an entity meriting state protection. Recognizing the increasingly globalized nature of modern society, he recommends some strengthening of local and international political institutions at the expense of national governments: “only a politics that disperses sovereignty both upward and downward can combine the power required to rival global market forces with the differentiation required of a public life that hopes to inspire the allegiance of its citizens” (p. 186). He concludes with an appeal for Christians to involve themselves in these complex issues, using the wisest insights of their faith to guide their actions.

Skillen covers a lot of ground in this short volume. Not surprisingly, his generalizations occasionally miss the mark. For example, he complains that American evangelicals believe that “politics and culture belong in different categories” (p. xvii). It might be more accurate to say that they put politics and culture in the same category: both are “worldly” and therefore suspect. His recommendations which combine conservative ideas about abortion and same-sex marriage with liberal aims regarding environmental matters and international cooperation probably won’t win him the entire approval of any particular reader, but perhaps that suggests that he has something to say to both sides in the culture wars. His central theme—that the existence and role of governments do not merely reflect the fall but grow out of the original plan of creation and thus have a positive mandate to promote the common good—should prompt some good discussion. If Skillen has his way, it will also promote more frequent and more thoughtful participation in politics by Christians as well.

Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

One thought on “Book Note: The Good of Politics by James Skillen

  1. Pingback: BA Books & Authors on the Web – September 26, 2014

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