James Skillen: “Rethinking Our Political Responsibilites”

“Rethinking Our Political Responsibilites”
by, James W. Skillen

During my forty-plus years of teaching college and then directing the Center for Public Justice, two issues kept perplexing me. One was the fact that Americans in general, and Christians in particular, spoke easily about God and politics (in phrases such as “God bless America”) but seldom if ever spoke of Christ and politics. The second perplexity was the regular and easy expression of love for America, on the one hand, but of suspicion and even disrespect for government, on the other hand.

Cover ArtHow did these attitudes come about? What do they mean? The Good of Politics represents an attempt to find answers to these questions and to explain the two perplexities.

With regard to the first expression or attitude, the New Testament makes clear that Christ is Lord of lords, and when Jesus gives the Great Commission to his disciples, he states, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). Somehow, over the centuries, our understanding of the supreme lordship of Christ was reduced to something spiritual not material, to something heavenly and inward not earthly and outward, to something redemptive and ecclesiastical over against the responsibilities of government.

When the American colonies were established, the Puritans had the idea that their settlement came about like Israel’s exodus from Egypt. They were fleeing the Pharaoh of Britain, crossing the Red Sea of the Atlantic, and entering the Promised Land of New England. Eventually that idea of a new Israel took hold of revolutionaries, whether Christian or not, throughout the colonies. America as a whole was God’s new Israel, a new covenant people, to become a light to the nations. From that time on, the people and their political leaders who called on God addressed a public, political God. American Christians have tended to think of that God as the Christian God, but Jesus Christ no longer performs a revelatory role in earthly politics. The meaning of his lordship over all evaporates from this world’s politics and the meaning of his kingdom is put off until he returns at the final judgment. But to privatize Christ during life in this age and disconnect his lordship from the God who blesses America is to misunderstand the Bible.

The challenge for Christians today is to rethink the meaning of earthly political responsibility in the light of what the Bible actually teaches about Christ’s lordship over all nations and his fulfillment of the one and only Israel as the long-anticipated Messiah who breaks down the wall between Jews and gentiles in inaugurating the kingdom of God.

The second perplexing attitude, the disconnect between loving America and questioning or hating government, is partly related to the first attitude. The love of America is often more than simple patriotism. It is a civil-religious belief that this God-blessed nation is the key to democracy and prosperity in the world, the guarantor of freedom and the key to historical progress under God’s providence. Government, on the other hand, is what humans establish by contract to protect their private property and the pursuit of happiness. It would be best if government did not have to exist, but because of threats to life and liberty, government is necessary to restrain evil and punish evildoers. Apart from this, government simply gets in the way of free people.

This view has ancient roots in the thought of the early church father Augustine, who believed that God established government because of sin. It is not natural for creatures made in the image of God. Much later, the most important political thinker who influenced American thinking, John Locke, offered a modernized version of Augustine. He also said that we are not by nature political creatures. But God is not the one who establishes government; humans do that by their own contract. Government is thus held in suspicion or even hated because it is an unnatural institution that will always try to do more than it is supposed to do. That is why we live with the conundrum of loving the nation as God’s new Israel while distrusting government. But this, too, is unbiblical and does not square with the responsible governing of political communities.

What I try to do in The Good of Politics is first to show how the Bible presents a different framework for understanding just governance—the relation between government and citizens in communities of public justice. Then in Part Two, I survey the development of political thought and practice from Augustine to modern times to explain how people in the West and in many parts of the world have come to believe what they do about political life. Finally, in Part Three, I make a case from a Christian point of view for how we should approach the practical responsibilities of citizenship and governing today.

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James W. Skillen (PhD, Duke University) helped found the Center for Public Justice (CPJ), an independent, nonpartisan organization devoted to policy research and civic education for which he served as executive director and president. Now retired from the CPJ, he is engaged in full-time writing, mentoring, and speaking on political thought and public policy. Skillen has authored or edited numerous books, including Recharging the American Experiment, and lives in Birmingham, Alabama.

For more information on The Good of Politics, click here.