The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction
Reviewed by Sean F. Evans, Political Science, Union University
In The Good of Politics, James Skillen argues that politics is not a necessary evil in our fallen world but an essential component of our Christian calling and a means to create a more just social order. By promoting a more positive view of politics, Skillen believes Christians can model responsible citizenship that supports solutions to thorny political issues that reflect the common good. Consequently, Christians advance the kingdom by teaching humans the proper way to live and pointing humanity to our Creator.
Skillen divides his book into three sections. The first section provides a biblical foundation for politics and government in the creation story, the imago Dei, and the kingdom of God. The second section provides an intellectual history of Christian involvement in politics from Polycarp to the present. The final section applies Christian principles to political engagement, the purpose of government, and contemporary political issues.
Skillen begins Part 1, his political theology section, arguing that the original created order was good and God chose humans, as those made in His image, to be His viceroys who would be stewards over the entire earth (Gen. 1: 26-28; Ps. 8: 4-6). This stewardship requires humans to govern by cooperating with each other to care responsibly for and develop all of creation – animal, human, and nature. Yet, human sinfulness brought disorder to His creation which necessitated Christ coming to redeem humanity and reconcile humanity and creation to God. As part of advancing His kingdom, Christians are to restore the created order by sacrificing our personal desires for the common good. Individually, Christians should exercise our political duties responsibly now because we will help govern the heavenly city (Rev. 21: 2-3). Collectively, government serves the common good by promoting justice, mercy, and peace in its respective domain.
Part 2 begins with an examination of Augustine’s The City of God where Augustine argues that government is an unnatural institution that God ordained after the fall to punish sin. Based on this negative view of politics, the Catholic Church began to separate the spiritual from the secular and placed the Church above government and every other institution. While Aquinas challenged Augustine’s conception of government believing government to be natural, Aquinas did not call for widespread Christian participation in government because he did not connect political activities on earth with our lives in heaven. Reformation thinkers challenged the political power and theology of the Catholic Church but kept the secular/spiritual distinction. Luther argued that God directly gives the state and church its authority and that true Christians would not need the state because they would live out the Gospel. However, government is necessary to provide order for nonbelievers and Christians could honorably serve as public servants to that end. Anabaptists demanded a total separation of church and state because they thought that using coercive force is contrary to the Gospel. Instead, Anabaptists thought that church members should live countercultural lives that draw humans to God. Reformed thinkers tried to integrate spiritual and secular ideas more under the sovereignty of God. This attempt at integration led Johannes Althusius to develop the concept of symbiosis whereby church, state, and other social institutions could serve distinct purposes but cooperate with each other. Finally, Skillen concludes this section by examining church-state relations outside the West, the rise of humanism and social contract theory with its emphasis on individuals, and the development of civil religion in America.
The third section builds upon Skillen’s political theology to develop the idea of principled pluralism and applies it to contemporary politics. Principled pluralism means that government has a “responsibility to recognize and protect each person and each legitimate human vocation, institution, and organization” (124). Embedded in this principle are two other principles. First, structural pluralism limits government by reserving a sphere of responsibility for individuals and groups like families, churches, nonprofits, and businesses. Second, confessional pluralism recognizes that Christians live in a world with people of different faiths and some with no faith at all. No one should be discriminated against based on their religious beliefs.
Overall, principled pluralism allows Christians to cultivate their beliefs within their faith but then asks them to use more general language when discussing their ideas within the public square by focusing on “the common good.” The remainder of the book applies this principle to political issues by arguing for a revised constitution that strengthens the federal government, a proportional representation system to promote greater political participation and more ideologically coherent parties, policies that strengthen families, protections for the unborn, greater parental control over education, an economic system that promotes each human’s capabilities while protecting the environment, and a more just world order.
In analyzing this book, it should be evaluated for what it is – an introduction. The three sections are very different but necessary in developing a Christian philosophy of politics. Yet, the topic of each section merits an entire book to consider the subject adequately. As an introduction though, Skillen can only provide breadth or depth but not both. Some may find fault with his breadth in some places and depth in others, but all readers can take away a richer biblical and philosophical understanding of politics from this book and for that it is to be commended.
The political theology section is a very good introduction to a Reformed view of politics. This section is comprehensive in its inclusion of biblical references concerning government, provides the context and meaning of the relevant passages, connects them to other passages, and subsumes them under the larger narrative of creation and the kingdom of God and how our work on earth will affect our lives in heaven. Moreover, Skillen anticipates and answers objections from potential critics. However while his occasional presentation of his position as a third way between Luther’s Two Kingdoms thesis and the Mennonite pacifist position is rhetorically effective, he sometimes oversimplifies the two positions.
Regardless, after reading this section one will see politics as a vital Christian endeavor that can positively impact the world. This perspective provides a needed corrective to the anti-government perspective of many Christians which may contribute to more Christians turning away from political involvement. Still, Skillen may underestimate the fallen nature of humans in believing government will remain within its constitutional boundaries and pursue the common good rather than the private interests of various groups. Moreover while Skillen goes in depth into a Reformed view of politics, he only briefly discusses the Lutheran and Mennonite position and ignores modern Catholic social teachings.
The intellectual history section provides a good overview of Christian teachings from the Church Fathers through the Reformation and the major trends affecting the church today. This section is very readable, identifies and relates the major thinkers and ideas during this era, and provides a good critique from his perspective. Of necessity, Skillen provides more breadth than depth but readers would know who to research further if they wanted greater depth. While most of this section examines Christian views of politics as the church rose to or exercised power, the contemporary era is one where Christianity is declining in influence and this section could have benefitted from including some of the major thinkers who are helping Christians navigate this more secular and hostile era such as Richard John Neuhaus, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Robert Audi.
The last section is valuable but needs to be read with the understanding that not all answers to difficult policy questions are obvious. The most commendable part of this section is his focus on principled pluralism. Too often Christians tend to develop a political theology that reflects their partisan or ideological perspective. However, Skillen uses this Christian principle to work out what it means in various policy areas that cross ideological lines. While some may fault the chapters on the economy and the world order for not being very prescriptive, it would be very difficult for someone to provide the correct answer, because no nation has found the proper way to apply principled pluralism by balancing economic growth with environmental sustainability or state sovereignty with following international norms. Instead, Skillen provides questions for people to consider as we navigate these policy areas and try to find the right balance through a process of trial and error. The weakest part of this section is that he engages opposing views less than the other sections. This oversight is especially problematic because if one does not accept some of his fundamental premises, then one is unlikely to accept his conclusions.
In general, Skillen’s book is a good introduction for one unfamiliar with Christian perspectives on politics. He provides a rich theology of politics that emphasizes the good that Christians and government can do, a good review of major Christian thinkers who have wrestled with these ideas, and a non-partisan application of Christian principles to political issues. Hopefully, this book will stir more Christians to engage in politics and reflect on how their faith motivates their political actions and policy positions.