The Good of Politics
Reviewed by Tim Hoiland
For decades James Skillen has been thinking deeply and carefully about politics and public policy from an evangelical perspective. Despite the culture wars raging to his right and to his left, he has managed to maintain a degree of nuance and sanity that is all too rare among political commentators, Christian or otherwise. Needless to say, he has earned the right to be heard.
The founder and former executive director of the Center for Public Justice, a nonpartisan think tank that seeks to apply Christian principles to public policy issues, Skillen has long advocated a robust view of civic responsibility, believing that Christians are called to collaborate with others for the sake of the common good.
He has written a number of books, including Recharging the American Experiment: Principled Pluralism for Genuine Civic Community and The Scattered Voice: Christians at Odds in the Public Square. His latest work, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction, can best be understood as a natural continuation of his life's work.
Skillen begins the book by situating his exploration of political engagement in the story of God's redemptive work in Scripture. He emphasizes a theology of the kingdom in which Jesus, who is Lord over all, is not out to obliterate kings and kingdoms but rather to establish true justice in their midst. He goes on to reflect on the political significance of the biblical teaching that all people are created in the image of God. As image bearers, we experience blessings and assume responsibilities, including political ones.
The second part of the book provides a sweeping historical perspective on political thought, spanning from Polycarp, Constantine, Augustine, and Aquinas all the way to Calvin, Luther, and the Anabaptist reformers.
The book concludes with a section of reflections on what it looks like for Christians to engage politics today. Skillen pays some attention to particular political issues—like marriage, family, economics, and the environment—but rather than prescribing political solutions, he's far more interested in providing a framework for thinking about civic engagement and public policy.
Skillen structures the book in this way for a very clear reason. He wants to show that despite everything that has changed in human society over thousands of years, certain principles remain constant:
In the course of history, from the time of God's covenant with Israel at Sinai until today, many things have changed, for better and for worse: the responsibilities of governing officials, the structure of states, the patterns of economic life, the obligations of family members, and most other conditions and institutions of human society. Nevertheless, the normative precepts of God still stand: love your neighbor, do justice, be merciful, be good stewards, walk humbly with God. The questions for us today are essentially the same as those of ancient times, but we must try to answer them in circumstances of greater societal differentiation, a shrinking globe, and a rapidly expanding world population.
Unfortunately, though the book checks in at around 200 pages, it tries to do too much. Its three sections—identified in the subtitle as "biblical, historical, and contemporary"—probably belong to three separate books. While it's important to consider how the Bible's teachings should inform our civic engagement, large portions of the first section seem tangential. And though there is much to learn from the ways political thought has developed across time and space, attempting to summarize two millennia of world history in fewer than 70 pages is inevitably going to be problematic. The third section, in which we turn to contemporary applications, likely gets closest to what readers would have anticipated from the beginning in a book framed as an "introduction" to thoughtful political engagement.
Skillen is deeply influenced by the Dutch politician, journalist, and theologian Abraham Kuyper. At times the influence is overt, but more often it's implied, as for instance when he makes a case for "principled pluralism" and when he argues for different institutions to be able to do what only they can without other institutions unnecessarily intruding—what Kuyper and his followers refer to as "sphere sovereignty."
At certain points he pits his own Kuyperian views in contrast to both the libertarian and liberal inheritors of John Locke's political paradigm (loosely representing Republicans and Democrats in the contemporary United States). He also writes in contrast to the Anabaptist political vision of John Howard Yoder, as well as Yoder's contemporary heirs like Stanley Hauerwas and Richard Hays.
Like Skillen I believe that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, there is a good side to politics. And sharing the broad strokes of the Kuyperian view, I believe that political life is a legitimate Christian calling. Though there are ways that The Good of Politics could have been better, I have no doubt that this book will help many as they seek to navigate the messiness of political engagement as followers of Jesus and citizens of his already-but-not-yet kingdom.
Tim Hoiland is a writer, editor, and content strategist. He blogs at TimHoiland.com and tweets at @timhoiland. This review first appeared at The Englewood Review of Books (EnglewoodReview.org) and appears here by kind permission.