How should Christians view politics? The spectrum to answer this question seems to be larger than the very political spectrum in place. On one end, there are those who believe America should be a Christian theophany. On the other, there are those who believe Christians would violate allegiance to the Lord Jesus by participating in political activities from holding office to casting votes. What’s worse, in light of this broad spectrum of Christian thinking on politics is the relative ignorance that many Christians bring to the table of political theory, activity, and discussion. But at the end of the day, many of us still watch the news (aka Twitter). Many of us are aware of the corrupt nature of politics and politicians. And all of us are sick and tired of political campaigns, propaganda commercials, and the inglorious clashes between political candidates. So, is there anything worthy in politics?
James Skillen seeks to show the worthiness of politics and the godly necessity of politics in The Good of Politics. Skillen previously served as president for the Center for Public Justice and writes frequently on public policy and political thought. Skillen undertakes a massive task in this short book. In his introduction, Skillen writes that The Good of Politics seeks to answer three questions:
(1) What is the relation between politics and its cultural context (religion and morality)?
(2) What is government for and how should its responsibilities be properly exercised?
(3) What, if anything, does Christianity have to say about political life and the ordering of society, and what, if any, political responsibility does the Christian faith urge upon those who profess to follow Jesus Christ? (x)
Skillen describes his goal in writing as a reexamination of Christian engagement in political life (ix). A central argument in this light is that politics is more than necessary restraint on the fall of man, and is in fact central to God’s original design for mankind. Skillen writes, “God created humans to develop, fill, and govern the earth in his service until the work of their generations is completed” (7, emphasis his). And although sin has disrupted this created order, Christ came in part to “redeem humans, thereby reconciling all things, properly reordered, to God” (7). As a result of the created order, Skillen argues “that early governance is part of what it means to be created in the image of God” (8). Skillen shows that politics is not a power struggle absent of meaning and purpose.
Skillen divides the book into three main sections. In the first section, he deals primarily with the biblical story and how it relates to politics. In this section he examines the biblical accounts of creation, the image of God, and the kingdom of God. Through this biblical drama, Skillen establishes a political theology that highlights the goodness of politics. In the second section, Skillen probes church history by looking at the early church fathers, Middle Age theologians, the Reformers, and modern theologians. Through such a survey, Skillen develops a philosophy of politics. Finally, in the third section, Skillen surveys contemporary political issues like family, marriage, and education, as well as looking at the role of government today.
These three sections are very diverse and a variety of topics are probed throughout. While the majority of the book is insightful with each topic that is discussed, it seems that Skillen stretches himself too thin. Reading through the introduction and first few chapters demonstrates Skillen’s commitment to the purpose of the book, as politics is presented as holding a vital place in life pre- and post-fall. However, the book at various places throughout, particularly in the third section, starts addressing topics that require more room to flesh out.
Section one is a valuable introduction to political theology that establishes the thought that humans were created to live in community and as vice regents to the created order. As a newcomer to political theory, I found this section to be personally edifying, as it gave me a proper and much more positive understanding of politics and its role in the world. I did find Skillen’s critique of positions he disagrees with, such as the two kingdom theory and political pacifism, to be unfair because of the short amount of space given to explain these positions. He borders on caricature, which are not easily noticed unless one is familiar with these alternative positions.
Section two was a refreshing read, as Skillen did not become dry in his discussion of political philosophy in the history of the church. Historical sections in books tend to be incredibly dry and boring, unless they deviate from the truth. Skillen traced the development of political thought from the early church fathers to the modern period. Still yet, in attempting to make the thought of Augustine accessible to readers, Skillen barely scratches the surface. However, for the sake of an introduction to “the good of politics,” his presentation of his (and others’) thought is sufficient.
The third section was a brief discussion of various massive issues in public policy. This is a section where the reader will find the most variations of agreement and disagreement. However, Skillen once again seems to barely engage differing positions, which is especially frustrating if you disagree with his conclusions. There is no denying his initial premise to this section, though:
Christian political engagement must address the constitutional and public policy relationships to these institutions [family, marriage, and schooling] (156).
The biggest issue I faced in reading this final section was how Skillen casually prescribes answers while overlooking the difficulties within these major public policy decisions. Readers will not find any profound answers to public policy controversies, such as the protection of both entrepreneurial economy and the environment (see 178-181). The book would have been served well without this final section. It’s not that this section carries no value at all, but it seems it would fit better in a further developed book of its own.
The Good of Politics is an engaging and intriguing book that will greatly serve those wanting to grasp a Christian perspective of politics. This book is a sufficient introduction to political theology and philosophy and readers like myself with relatively limited knowledge of politics and its relationship to the Christian faith. While Skillen may have attempted to combine a few books in one, it is both an engaging and enlightening read for anyone interested in how a Christian should engage politics. Despite some deficiencies, I came away from this book with a much more positive view of politics and its place in God’s world. In the end, Skillen’s vision of a politically engaged Christianity is honest and compelling:
From a biblical point of view, the whole world is one world and it is God’s creation. And the gospel of Jesus Christ goes out to the entire world. Christians should, in faithfulness to Christ, have no difficulty subordinating every responsibility they have (political, economic, familial, educational, and more) to the way of life of the kingdom of God. And yet the difficulties of living as faithful Christians are ever present. No Christian person or community is in a position to act self-righteously or to claim a position of special privilege or preeminence among fellow humans. In this shrinking, warming, flattening, warring world, people everywhere may legitimately ask, What does the Christian way of life have to offer by way of wisdom, justice, and love for the responsibilities of governance, child raising, economic development, science, technology, schooling, and everything else that pertains to life in this world? Words are not sufficient to answer that question. The response must come from the practice of a Christian way of life (194-95).
Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggershttp://www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife Erica and their dog, Simba.