Vocations, vacations, and politics in public

Take time this summer to escape into responsibility and reflection. Take a retreat, for new vision and old certainties made fresh again.

Appears in Summer 2007 Issue: Summer reading
June 1st, 2007

Monks take vows. Modern urbanites and suburbanites take vacations. This summer I plan to do both. I am thinking of it as a "new monastic" spiritual pilgrimage with a neocalvinist twist. My idea is this: instead of the usual beach trip, I am taking a trip to the beach to renew and to rededicate myself to God and to my own vocation or "calling."

As conversation partners, I am taking along books I've long wanted to read or re-read, because they address key questions in my field of politics, government, and public policy. They address both basic and big questions, the hard challenges that keep surfacing, and a few of the questions that keep me up at night. After more than ten years in my present calling, I am at an impasse and I need both new vision and reminders of old certainties made fresh again.

The time is ripe for a trip to the beach—not as an escape from responsibility but as an escape into it, and for deep reflection on God's call and on the possibilities for a more just politics. The books below offer just such insight.

Beach time provides the space, scenery, and stillness to hear this call again, and to recover a truer, more compelling understanding of day-to-day purpose and passion that is easily lost in the rough and tumble of life. So, along with the suntan lotion and beach ball, I am packing a desire for renewal, some questions to explore, and a few resources to guide me in what is an essentially spiritual, as well as vocational, quest.

Great rescue project

In his article on Vocation in the Oxford Handbook of Theological Ethics, the Princeton Theological Seminary professor emeritus Max Stackhouse traces how the term "vocation" developed historically. People, today, often view the service they offer through their working lives as "commercialized expertise for hire." However, alongside this dominant view there is a much richer notion and experience of work we've inherited. This view has deep roots in early monastic movements and in the teachings of great reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Wycliffe. In this view, with our work we can answer God's call to care for and to develop the diverse parts of life: politics, business, family, the arts, et al. that God creatively "patterned" into this very good but, now, fallen and deeply broken world. So the challenge comes to each of us: How can I exercise God-blessed creativity in my part of the garden where God has put me?

The best answer I have found to that question is in a series of lectures given by the New Testament scholar N. T. ("Tom") Wright at Regent College on the themes of creation and new creation. Regent has made the lectures, Creation and New Creation, available as CDs and in downloadable MP3 files for the "iPod"—making it easy to listen to them at the beach or anywhere. This is the first resource I'm putting into my travel bag.

In these lectures, Wright unpacks passage after passage of Scripture to explain the main storyline of the Bible from Genesis to Christ's resurrection to the return of Christ. The implications of the story he tells have explosive consequences for how Christians think about politics and all their culture-reforming activities in this world. The plot summary:

  • Creation is not meant for destruction but for re-creation (Romans 8; Revelation 21, 22);
  • The work of government in promoting justice in God's world has its own special calling by God (Romans 13); and
  • God did not abandon his creation, nor should we. Christ is risen and we have work to do, not least of all in and through politics and government to use our influence and creativity to pursue justice in a world where human sin and the Fall perpetuate injustice that God despises.

Wright shows how both pious withdrawal by one segment of the church, and the acceptance of a naïve social gospel by the other, misled the church in recent generations. He charts out a different path for Christian engagement based on the biblical narrative of "creation-fall-redemption." He shows how scripture calls us to begin now to implement God's great rescue project in this world in anticipation of Christ's return. In other words, one crucial truth at the heart of the gospel that many Christians have forgotten is this: Our efforts today matter. All things are being made new and we have a role to play. Here lies the surest foundation for meaning in our vocations, including the biblical rationale for serious Christian engagement and political organizing to renew government and civil society inspired by a distinctly Christian political vision.

No personal convictions allowed?

The second resource is a book I have found incredibly helpful in developing just such a Christian political vision for my vocation. The book was originally titled Just Politics by its author, political thinker and human rights scholar Paul Marshall. Its publisher gave it the less fitting but still evocative name, God and the Constitution: Christianity and American Politics. Instead of tackling exclusively constitutional matters or the particularities of American politics as the title might suggest, the book lays out a careful and illuminating introductory framework to use for thinking about politics as a citizen or practitioner.

People who reasonably harbor doubts whether politics can be done as a legitimate Christian calling should read this book. So should anyone who is seriously exploring a vocation in public service. Marshall challenges prevailing views that religion and politics shouldn't mix. He critiques attempts to silence religious perspectives and engagement in politics and public life as undemocratic and incompatible with a just pluralism that welcomes all citizens into the public square without requiring them to first leave their deepest convictions outside. He also warns Christians against twin errors many have made in recent years. We should hold neither too low a view of politics (as if nothing important can be achieved) nor too high a view (believing that we can easily usher in God's Kingdom by political means). Serious progress for justice is possible, step by step, if we hold a proper view of the both the promise and the limits of politics as a real gift from God. Politics, Marshall explains, "is the art of building support for and making possible that which is right."

He includes helpful chapters on domestic and international politics, the meaning of justice, religious freedom, and human rights. In an insightful chapter on "Church, State, and Religious Freedom," Marshall shows how a Christian approach to politics can create more space for diverging views of citizens in multicultural societies than many other alternatives on offer, including liberalism and political correctness. He offers the contemporary example of public policies that deny public support for the religious schooling chosen by parents of many different faiths. Marshall writes: "Liberalism's public exclusion of religion should be understood not as a form of respect for religious differences, but in reality as trivializing religion and attempting to monopolize the public realm for its own ideology."

No value-free politics

James Skillen's book, Recharging the American Experiment: Principled Pluralism for Genuine Civic Community, takes this analysis a step further. He shows how Christians can be a blessing to the public order when they work for just public policies for people of all faiths out of Christian convictions. In sharp contrast to the media image of politics as only a power game, or what often appears to be a big charade of image and symbol without substance, politics and the hard work of government can be one practical way to "love thy neighbor" and promote a more just society, says Skillen. This, too, is a book to take to the beach for learning, listening, and reflection on what type of political witness is both needed and possible in our day.

Recharging the American Experiment provides the Christian interested in politics with a detailed, but readable, political philosophy to take into the challenging work of developing public policy. Skillen's recommendations and explanation of what he terms "structural and confessional pluralism" are relevant within the American context, but can be adapted elsewhere. He explains that, contrary to popular perception, there is no such thing as value-free politics. Politics, in this sense, is unavoidably a religious calling. The only question is what type of religious vision we permit to guide and to direct our policy-making and to shape our understanding of what justice requires the state to do or not do.

Skillen lays down a serious challenge to the standard way politics is conceived and practiced today in most countries as a "public secular matter" with religion assumed to lie in a wholly separate "private domain." Politics depends on fundamental, moral understandings rooted in religious worldviews. Political argument, he explains, "is grounded in basic presuppositions about what is moral and immoral, just and unjust, good and evil."

In a fairly brief manner, Skillen outlines basic duties that any just state should fulfill. The book provides basic criteria to assess whether public policies honour such important matters as religious freedom for citizens in all spheres of life. As well, it addresses the institutional rights of schools, businesses, families, and other institutions and associations that constitute the vital parts of a healthy civil society.

Homeless in the spectrum

Encountering the type of comprehensive, Christian perspective outlined by Skillen and Marshall is encouraging, but also discouraging. They leave no doubt that one can pursue political service that is integrally and distinctively rooted in the biblical tradition Tom Wright expounds. Hard intellectual work has been done to pave the way for this and future generations to take up the challenge to pursue justice in the public square in the service of Christ.

However, we must seriously take stock of the contemporary predicament in which we find ourselves, as both Marshall and Skillen also do, to their credit. Given the priorities of the current political parties on offer, it is easy to feel politically homeless, and even helpless, when we set out to build support for the whole spectrum of policies that a robust vision of faith-based justice for all inspires. In the United States, neither major party seeks to align its policies consistently with Christian principles. As the Canadian political science professor David Koyzis outlines in another excellent resource, Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies, the dominant political approaches at work shaping public policy today tend to make an idol out of some aspect of God's good creation including such things as personal freedom or the free market. As a Dutch Christian political leader of a previous generation, Abraham Kuyper, noted, thanks to both "common grace" and the reality of sin or "the antithesis":

Christians should expect to find both common ground and rejection when they engage politics with their own principles in tact, even though they aim to promote not their own narrow special interests, or "justice for 'just us'" but the public good for the entire political community.

On the other hand, the sad reality is that most Christians in today's public square often uncritically accept and adopt political ideologies without considering how they need to be reformed by a biblical perspective. There are also few opportunities for Christians to organize politically to incarnate an alternative to existing liberal or conservative parties and policies. Most Christians, in fact, seem quite happy fitting into one party or another and working for shared aims. As a result, it is not unusual to find many Christians opposing one another in politics and holding even widely divergent views on matters such as abortion, economic justice, and the environment. In this context, it is difficult for many people even to conceive that an approach to government and public policy exists that is both rooted in a comprehensive Christian perspective and able to promote for people of all faiths a more flourishing, just society than the dominant (and seemingly exhausted) ideologies of the day. As Skillen writes:

In the face of today's national and global crises—ideological, ecological, spiritual and institutional—(. . .) some Christians are struggling to find a more solid place to stand from which to offer public witness to the ways of God on earth.

Resurgence of faith-based statecraft

Indeed, let me conclude by noting two other resources to pack, should you take your own beach trip this summer. The first is a major sign that we also live at an unusual moment of opportunity. The former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright's The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs deserves careful attention because it shows how many in the foreign policy community have newly awakened to the power of religion on the world stage. She describes how the terrorism of "9/11" and the resurgence of Christianity and other faiths around the world have convinced her and many others that any political perspective that excludes the pervasive shaping power of religion is not only myopic, but also potentially dangerous. The old answers supplied by a secular worldview no longer work in the halls of power in the same way they once did. Albright builds a persuasive argument for recovering religion as an essential dimension of statecraft: "The State Department," she concludes, "should hire or train a core of specialists in religion to be deployed both in Washington and in key embassies oversees . . . Faith-based diplomacy can be a useful tool of foreign policy."

We may also be witnessing a resurgence of serious evangelical thinking about public policy after a prolonged period of decline. This is particularly encouraging, since if it is true that the current state of Christian political organizing is only in seed-planting stage at best, disarray at worst, then the nurturing of careful, innovative, public policy thinking is a major priority that can serve future generations.

To actually change society, contemporary and future Christians will need more than biblical wisdom and a good political philosophy, though both are necessary to reach the goal. Good ideas need to be translated into public policies that can be enacted into law. One recent volume packed with public policy explorations by Christians has received close study. Toward an Evangelical Public Policy: Political Strategies for the Health of the Nation, edited by Ron Sider and Dianne Knippers, displays a wide range of Christian thinking about public policy issues such as abortion, bioethics, human rights, welfare, the environment, and war and peace. The book includes a recent declaration signed by many evangelical organizations that lay out useful principles that could serve as beginning guidelines for Christian public policy development and civic engagement. For additional guidelines that take some of this analysis further, let me commend the Center for Public Justice's downloadable Guidelines on Government and Citizenship.

Policy principles developed in consultations supported by the U.S. National Association of Evangelicals include support for representative democracy, just government, and fundamental liberty, and a commitment to work for:

  • the protection of religious freedom and freedom of conscience;
  • the nurture of family life and the protection of children;
  • the sanctity of human life;
  • justice and compassion for the poor and vulnerable;
  • the protection of human rights;
  • the promotion of peacemaking; and
  • the protection of the environment.

This agenda for evangelical engagement will require the development of specific public policy proposals about which the book proposes only initial steps. This is a sobering reminder that much work is needed in the future.

More Christians are needed to take up vocations and to make vows to serve in public life: in parliaments, in think tanks, in courts, in citizen movements, and other sites of renewal in God's world. More workers and more resources are needed in the harvest field if Christians are to contribute to the transformation of public life.

Topics: Literature
 

Stephen Lazarus brings to Cardus a love for people, public policy and research. He manages Cardus' multiple research initiatives and coordinates the Faith Alliance Network as part of Faith in Canada 150. Stephen is a public policy researcher and media professional with expertise in social policy, Christian political thought, and religious freedom advocacy. Prior to joining the Cardus team in 2016, Stephen was based at the CBC in Toronto, as a television producer, writer, and researcher for CONTEXT with Lorna Dueck, an independent faith and current affairs program that airs nationally on Global TV and in the US. He has also served as a consultant and researcher for the Henri Nouwen Society.

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