Beyond "Engagement": The Next Conversation We Need About Politics
Beyond "Engagement": The Next Conversation We Need About Politics

Beyond "Engagement": The Next Conversation We Need About Politics

Looking elsewhere for the robust embrace of politics that will speak today—to our time and place and audience.

May 1 st 2014
Beyond "Engagement": The Next Conversation We Need About Politics
The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction
The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introductionby James W. Skillen. Baker Publishing Group, 2014. 240 pp.

Whose "Introduction?"

"Introductions" are a tricky genre. While they aim to be simple and accessible, pulling that off takes maturity and seasoned wisdom. You don't write "introductions" when you're just getting started yourself. Only master teachers can provide entrées to complex material without oversimplifying. The best "introducers" are those who make it look easy without dumbing it down. Stellar introductions are beautiful, enticing tapestries that hide a lot of the blood, sweat, tears, and years behind them.

There are two questions we should bring to any introduction: For whom? For when? No introduction falls from the sky as a timeless crystallization. An introduction comes from somewhere and is aimed at someone at some particular time. It's why "introductions" have a shelf life. Any introduction has to picture the novices who will receive it, anticipating their questions, their hesitations, their suspicions, even their resistance and the hurdles they'll need to overcome to be "inducted" into a conversation, a practice, or a discipline. It's no accident that each generation needs new introductions to classic material—to, say, art history or French cooking or bee-keeping—because the gaps in our knowledge or the prejudices of our age will change. Every "introduction" is trying to overcome something, and those obstacles are peculiar to time and place and audience. Even the demons we're trying to exorcise change.

James Skillen's latest book is offered as an "introduction" to The Good of Politics. So I bring to it these two questions: Is this the introduction we need? And is this the introduction we need now?

Of course, it all hinges on defining that "we." If you are trying to work your way out of a simplistic, heaven-centric, a-cultural version of evangelical piety that is allergic to politics . . . well, then this might be the book for you. Skillen has written an introduction that aims to show you that, while "the kingdom that God sent [Jesus] to establish is indeed different from the kinds of political systems with which we are familiar," that "does not mean the kingdom of God is unrelated to earthly politics." He's exactly right.

But my question is: Does anyone really think otherwise today?

Are there any of those folks left? Is that our biggest challenge in this generation—to get Christians "engaged" with politics? Do we need an introduction that convinces Christians to care about politics—that convinces them about "the good of" politics? Look around: you'll see an aging generation that spent most of its time quite invested in politics as the central front of their culture war; or you'll note a new "Wilberforce" movement of young people, mobilized by International Justice Mission, who are invested in the rule of law as essential to ending injustice; or you'll see an emerging generation who have effectively decided that their new-found concern with justice seems to basically line up with the platform of NPR and the Democratic party. In any case, I don't run into too many Christians who are keeping themselves pure of political taint and setting up shop waiting for the rapture. Even those who are waiting for the rapture seem (perhaps incongruously) to be invested in political involvement of various sorts.

We don't need an introduction that convinces us whether to engage in political life; we need one that shows us how. What we get in The Good of Politics is yet another version of 101 that repeats things we've already learned from Rich Mouw or Nicholas Wolterstorff or Jonathan Chaplin or even Chuck Colson. Indeed, Skillen himself was an important leader in this respect, founding the Center for Public Justice in 1977 and authoring important books that argued for a creational affirmation of political life for a generation that needed to be convinced of the good of "engagement." But his new book is more of the same. It would have been a great introduction to "the good of politics" in, say, 1974—right about the time Rich Mouw published a version of the same argument in Political Evangelism (1973) and Politics and the Biblical Drama (1976). In other words: we've been there and done that. By this point, Kuyperianism deserves better. And this generation needs something quite different.

A Biblical Vision of Justice

That's not to say the core message here is wrong. To the contrary, Skillen re-articulates well what I take to be pretty standard fare for those informed by a Kuyperian sensibility. This might be summed up in two principles of political life he sees implied by the biblical narrative:

  1. "Do right by every creature so that each receives what God intends for it." This is the biblical affirmation of a diversity and difference coupled with a concern for justice. A significant part of "doing justice" is to help each creature—and each sphere of creation—realize the ends for which it was made. In this sense, doing justice requires attention to difference and uniqueness: that men are not women, that children are not adults, that schools are not churches, that the market isn't a government, and much more. Creation is a plethora of "kinds," Scripture tells us, and each creature and sphere of creation is called to play a unique part in the symphony of praise that is the cosmos.

  2. "God's mercy and patience in dealing with human disobedience" is a kind of biblical parable for us. Just as God demonstrates patience and longsuffering toward a transgressive humanity, so we who govern and administer justice are required to also suspend judgment—to "judge not." (A theme exhaustively explored in Oliver O'Donovan's Ways of Judgment, I might add). "God calls for righteous living," Skillen notes, "and yet not every injustice and act of hatred is overcome." The task of politics is not to carry out the judgment that is God's. Faithful governing is not synonymous with trying to enact the eschaton before the Parousia.

These principles are important, and inform some of the best parts of the book, such as Skillen's discussions of sphere sovereignty, principled pluralism, education policy, and the importance and irreducibility of the family for society (though his conclusions about same-sex marriage are remarkably coy).

The problem is that what follows from all of this feels either truistic or simply a theological rationale for a particular form of American constitutionalism—as if a "biblical" understanding of justice naturally entails the American project. "The question for Christians," Skillen summarizes, "is this: How should we engage politically, guided by the vision of Christ's kingdom that has not yet been revealed in its fullness?" That's a pretty big, vague question. The answer seems at once predictable, tired, and hollow: "In the political arena, therefore, we should work for the kind of political communities in which those who fill offices of government act as public servants to uphold public justice for the common good, willingly accepting their equality with all citizens under the law." Fair enough: but is anybody really going to disagree with that? If not, then we're on the terrain of truism. The Good of Politics tends to do this: offer theological rationales for things you had already assumed were a good idea.

Casting Out the Wrong Demons: A Potted History

As I suggested above, every "introduction" is trying to overcome something. The problem with this book is the demons it's trying to exorcise. I just don't think they "possess" anyone right now. The result is somewhat quixotic. Or at least a form of shadow-boxing.

On Skillen's account, all of our political errors stem from "believing that Christ's kingdom is spiritual, or not of this world, or only ecclesiastical, or only future." In other words, the demons to be exorcised are dualism and clericalism: an anti-creational, a-cultural piety that cares only about heaven and/or a misguided desire to have the church rule the state. He sees this growing out of misguided beliefs. Specifically: "It is the combination of the belief that government was given because of sin and the belief that life on earth exists in negative tension with heaven that has lead to the development of almost every approach Christians have taken to government and politics." Every approach except—you guessed it—Skillen's (who, it should be noted, conveniently avoids the fact that John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper also saw government as a postlapsarian institution, necessary only because of the Fall).

If you identify dualism and clericalism as the threats, then your solution is going to be engagement and sphere sovereignty. In other words, if you think the problem is that Christians either don't care about politics or want the church to run the state, then your "introduction" is going to emphasize the good of politics (and creaturely, cultural life more generally) in a way that is distinctly anti-clerical, persistently downplaying the church. And Skillen delivers, once again exhibiting the problem with the Kuyperian fixations on sphere-boundary policing. Bent on what he calls "de-ecclesiasticization," the significance of the sacramental body of Christ is once again effectively marginalized. This standard Kuyperian trope de-politicizes the church (hence his rejection of Hauerwas's emphasis on the church as polis) in a way that is not only wrong-headed but also mis-directed. This emphasis might be correct if there were hordes of people around looking to "establish" a particular religion or denomination as the official state religion. But is that really our problem now? Hardly. As a result, Skillen spends a lot of time trying to convince most of us of things we already accept. And in the process, he repeats the errors of a Kuyperian tradition that downplays the sacramental body of Christ. The church as organism trumps the church as "institute"—which is nice for weekends, but please don't think of it as "political."

This mis-framing of our challenges also seems to be behind the most frustrating section of the book—a survey of "key historical developments" from Augustine up to the present. I'll refrain from dwelling on this here, since such concerns would be better voiced in a scholarly context. Suffice it to say, I think Skillen should leave history to others. His reading of Augustine is remarkably skewed, misinformed, and dated. (Skillen is mostly indebted to secondary sources on Augustine that date from the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s. One finds nary a reference to now classic studies by Robert Dodaro, Jean Bethke Elshtain, John von Heyking, or Eric Gregory.) Augustine, for Skillen, is the beginning of the problem, but the Augustine we meet is the caricature of Reformational philosophers in the 70s—the big bad dualist, fixated on a "heavenly" city who nonetheless effectively instituted Christendom (this despite the fact that Augustine's City of God was written precisely against those who had confused the empire with the city of God). There are a lot of ways to get Augustine wrong; Skillen repeats almost all of them.

Frustration with Skillen's history is matched by my astonishment at the parochial nature of his contemporary conversation partners. While this book is an "introduction" and not a scholarly tome, as I suggested above, the best introductions take the best scholarship, wisdom, and knowledge that we now have and make it accessible for our generation. In this respect, The Good of Politics doesn't reflect advances in what has been a lively conversation over the past generation. Indeed, it seems unthinkable to write a book like this today and not take into account the constructive proposals of people like Nicholas Wolterstorff, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Jonathan Chaplin, Peter Leithart, and Oliver O'Donovan (Skillen cites only O'Donovan's anthology, engaging none of his constructive work in Desire of the Nations or Ways of Judgment). Skillen might protest that he's really interested in specific policy proposals, not philosophical and theological reflection on macro questions. But I don't think that's an out, since he spends a good portion of the book on just such "macro" questions and takes that as the frame for more specific policy proposals at the end of the book (a section that reads more like a collection of op-eds on various topics than a comprehensive proposal for how we should be engaged in political life).

Liberalism Redux? Beyond Proceduralism

Finally, I finished the book wondering about the upshot of all this. Or perhaps better: I finished the book with the taste of milquetoast in my mouth. Admittedly, this is a common aftertaste when I read some Kuyperian proposals that rail against the threats of various totalitarian violations of sphere boundaries and plead the case for a continued religious voice in our public and political life. Both of these concerns are right on the mark, but the way things look after accepting them looks a lot like a kind of liberal proceduralism, it seems to me. Appeals to "creation-order norms" and affirmations of "the common good" are invoked to basically underwrite what looks like a pretty standard liberal democratic game. To which my question is: Is that all there is?

In a review of George Marsden's new book, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, Molly Worthen reaches a similar concluding question with respect to Marsden's Kuyperian "solution":

So what changes does he want, then? I cannot figure it out. In the public square, he seems to urge a Kuyperian agreement to disagree: "Even though differing peoples need to recognize that no one stands on neutral ground, but all are shaped by their highest commitments, they can still go on to look for shared principles on which they can agree as a basis for working together." Isn't this exactly what all modern democracies, at least at their best, are trying to do? It is difficult to see how Marsden's ideal Kuyperian community would be, in practice, much different from the American present.

I felt the same in concluding Skillen's book, and often feel the same about some other Kuyperian proposals. I wonder if, as Eric Miller has recently suggested, we don't actually need a more robust embrace of "ideology" in this respect—a more forthright and unapologetic Christian politics that, in the name of the common Good and the good of politics, reconsiders Christendom for the missional project it was. That is the sort of question that reading Oliver O'Donovan and Peter Leithart has left me with. But it is a question that a reader of Skillen's book could never understand.

James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith was the editor-in-chief of Comment from 2013-2018, and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the new editor-in-chief of Image Journal


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