The Center for Public Justice is a nonpartisan organization devoted to civic education and policy research on public justice. The Center seeks to base its work on a comprehensive, Christian, political foundation. The CPJ regularly publishes articles like the accompanying column by Stephanie Summers in weekly issues of its newsletter, Capital Commentary.
James Skillen, mentioned at the end of this column, taught political science at Dordt College, helped found the CPJ (1977), served as CPJ executive director (1981-2000), and then as president (until 2009).
The Central Iowa Network of CPJ invites interested readers to join in a candid, civil discussion of this column at Smokey Row, Wednesday, Jan. 16, at 6:30 a.m.
To learn more about the Center for Public Justice, go to www.cpjustice,org/ content/about-center.
Over the past few days, friends, colleagues and commentators have crunched data in an effort to interpret the results of the recent election. Cries for the president or the Congress to now turn or return their attention to myriad issues that were left in a state of suspended animation prior to the final few weeks of the campaign have been voluminous. We are no longer the nation so recently described by robo-calls, photographs on direct-mail pieces and Super-PAC advertisements, but we are America, a nation facing many complex problems that need comprehensive solutions.
I’ve spent these past few days in many conversations where I’ve been asked the question, “So now what? What should we who follow Jesus do?”
It is encouraging to me that the number of men, women and institutions asking questions that are more than merely pragmatic are increasing in number. However, I am convinced that the answer to this question rests in a far more foundational question: What is the whole political enterprise made for? The answer to this question is the key to determining what we should do and how we should respond to the many questions of public justice that will continue to arise, not only post-election, but for years to come.
The Center for Public Justice must continue to educate Christians about the fundamental nature of politics itself. Our Guideline for Political Community, the first in our series of Guidelines for Government and Citizenship, begins by affirming the importance of articulating such fundamental, philosophical questions. Because “the political community—government accountable to citizens, and citizens under government—constitutes one of the most important institutions of contemporary life,” questions about the nature, not only the practicalities, of political community are indeed questions well-worth asking. With these answers in hand, we will be able to more effectively determine what a just response should be.
First, humans are made to build a just political community. Our Guideline orients us towards the nature of political community itself. Rather than political community existing primarily for the restraining of sin or because free individuals devised a structure to ensure maximum protection of our stuff, we assert, “Humans have the capacity to build political communities because God created us with this capacity.” And because we were made by God with this capacity, “We therefore have the responsibility to create the organized institutional means of upholding and enforcing justice for all.”
Second, we must live within the mutual obligation of citizens and public officials, where both are accountable to God. Our Guideline references the “covenantal character” of this relationship, pointing to the ways in which we as humans “bear responsibility to one another as creatures called to heed God’s standards of justice, love, and good stewardship.”
Third, we must champion the limited, but very important role of government in constructing the political community. Our Guideline identifies that “rather than trying to direct the exercise of all responsibilities and to satisfy all needs” government bears the responsibility “to recognize and protect by law the independent, nonpolitical responsibilities that belong to the people.” Government has a responsibility to articulate in law the protection of nongovernmental organizations and responsibilities, and citizens have a responsibility to exhort government to fulfill this task.
Fourth, we must promote the full recognition and protection of institutions and organizations, not only individuals. It is not sufficient for government to only protect individual rights, while merely giving a nod to the many institutional roles and corresponding responsibilities humans bear that fall under the broad category of civil society, such as families, churches, businesses, and the like. The diversity of our society demands careful public-legal protection of institutions.
Finally, we must recognize that the political community should not be fashioned as a community of faith, yet religious freedom must be protected. This applies not only for the Christian faith, but also for general civil-religious faith as well as secularist faith, as Jim Skillen articulated when describing the implications of this fundamental principle: “Rather, our republic should be constituted as a community of citizens that does not discriminate against anyone for reasons of faith. Consequently, all citizens should have equal access to and equal rights in the political community, regardless of faith—just as they should be so treated regardless of their skin color, gender, ethnicity, and social status. Christian efforts to promote a just society must therefore also include the aim to protect the religious freedom and other civil rights of all citizens—not only in their worship communities, but also in education, welfare services and more.”
This calling on citizens and government is broad, challenging and ill-suited to the reductionist messages that populate campaign cycles. My hope is that we who follow Jesus now take up this calling in all its glorious complexity.