25 July 2014

Skillen on the Good of Politics

Does politics have only a remedial function or are we created for political life from the beginning? Does government exist only to counter the effects of human sin, or does it play an important role in human life even apart from sin? These are among the crucial questions James W. Skillen addresses in his new book, The Good of Politics: a biblical, historical, and contemporary introduction. Founding president of the Center for Public Justice, Skillen, now retired, has woven a rich tapestry that owes much to the tradition of political reflection associated with the great Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper.

The first part of the book lays out the contours of the biblical drama, particularly as it relates to the Christian's task of citizenship in the political community. As a Reformed Christian, Skillen characteristically begins with the sovereignty of God and the comprehensive scope of his kingdom. Indeed God's kingdom is not merely a spiritual kingdom, as some would have it, but has relevance for the totality of human life in his creation. God's kingship is "over every human authority in this world" (9). Caesar and God do not exercise separate domains, for even that to which Caesar has a relative claim belongs ultimately to the God who has given him his high office. In this respect, all two-kingdoms approaches to life fall short by failing to give God his full due.

What I most appreciated about this section is Skillen's exploration of the biblical notion of sabbath and its relationship to our work as God's image-bearing creatures. Many Christians tend to look at sabbath observance as a mere legalism telling us what we can and cannot do on the Lord's Day. But without a proper emphasis on sabbath, we fall into the temptation of thinking we can usher in God's kingdom by our own efforts. To be sure, we have definitely been given a task – multiple tasks in fact – to fulfil in his kingdom, but it is God himself who crowns our efforts and brings them to their ultimate fruition at the Seventh Day of his grand redemptive-historical week. As Skillen puts it, "Christians who focus only or primarily on the 'next life' fail to see how their lives and labors in this age are part and parcel of what God will bring to fulfillment in the age to come. By contrast, those who focus only on life in this age miss the revelatory and anticipatory meaning of who they are and what they are doing" (24-25). God is pleased to use our efforts to advance his coming kingdom, but only he can redeem these efforts through his Son Jesus Christ. Skillen is in the process of writing a new book precisely on the topic of creation's sabbath and the political vocation, and, if his discussion here is any indication, we have much to look forward to when it is published.

The second and middle part of the book deals with "key historical developments," extending from the early Christian era up to the present, with special emphases on Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, the Anabaptists, John Calvin and Johannes Althusius. Here Skillen explores the ambiguity in Augustine's identification of the two cities, which in some passages seem to encompass two quite distinct communities of persons driven by their disparate loves, but in others appear to mark a contrast between the present earthly life and eternal life in the heavenly city that transcends it. If we follow the latter approach, then it turns out that the two cities do not manifest themselves in two different groups of persons but encompass many of the same persons in the present age. This ambiguity is carried forward especially in Lutheran circles, but also by other Christians who tend to read the spiritual/directional opposition between obedience and disobedience into the structural differentiation of such human communities as state and gathered church.

I was pleased to see Skillen's treatment of Althusius in particular, because the 17th-century political and legal theorist is unjustly neglected in the English-speaking world, though he is better known among German-speakers due to the influence of the great 19th-century legal scholar Otto von Gierke. Althusius laid the groundwork for a revived notion of citizenship as active membership in a political community as opposed to mere subjection to a monarch. More significantly, for Skillen's purposes, Althusius articulated a theoretical basis for what might be called the pluriformity of communities and authorities characterizing a mature differentiated society. (In this respect, Gierke's effort to view Althusius as a precursor to Rousseau's popular sovereignty is wrongheaded.) Catholic social teachings have labelled this conception subsidiarity, while Reformed thought has spoken of "sovereignty in its own sphere" or sphere-sovereignty. Both of these have profound implications in countering the influence of the various totalistic ideologies that have so marred recent human history.

Then there is John Locke, whose treatment comes, not in the second section of the book, but in the third. Lock, of course, had a powerful influence on the American founding, as evidenced by Thomas Jefferson's use of his thought in the Declaration of Independence. Many American Christians are reluctant to take on Locke because of his exalted status in that country's civil religion. Indeed Locke is a moderate compared to such radical French Enlightenment philosophers as Rousseau and Voltaire. His thought seems superficially to be more compatible with conventional religious observance. Nevertheless, Skillen effectively reveals the defects in Locke's approach, especially his understanding of government as the product of social contract: "for Locke there is no such thing as public authority or public government but only the consolidation of many private self-governments into a common or compound self-government" (172). Government is not ordained by God to do public justice; rather it is established by sovereign individuals to fulfil their own chosen purposes. As Skillen puts it, "Locke's god simply turns over the world to autonomous individuals for their own individual appropriation" (180). Government is ancillary to the needs of these individuals. This is all part of the larger liberal tradition's tendency to reduce the diversity of human communities to voluntary associations.

In the third part, Skillen makes a positive case for "engaging politics today." Much of this will be familiar to those who have read his previous books, especially In Pursuit of Justice, but it is worth revisiting this material in the larger context of the present book. Here he reaffirms that "God created humans for political life. God did not establish government and politics only in reaction to sin" (117). Along with this comes the basic conviction that justice is not simply about the needs and wants of individuals. A biblical understanding of justice requires that government attend to the institutions of civil society as well by protecting their distinctive identities and unique tasks in the world. Government itself is not intrinsically tethered to a pagan ethic, as Robert Kaplan and Anabaptists alike aver, but, like every human community, is obligated to live out in its own proper way the divine command to love God and neighbour.

The third part, where he fleshes out the implications of the first two parts, is where some readers may take issue with Skillen. First, electoral reform.

Like most English-speaking democracies (with the notable exception of New Zealand), the United States has a single-member-plurality electoral system, popularly known as first-past-the-post (FPTP). This means that the entire country is divided up into so many territorial constituencies, each of which elects one member to the legislative body based on who receives the highest number of votes, even if it falls short of an absolute majority. Skillen rightly points to the defects of this system, which are even more obvious in Canada, where majority governments are almost always formed based on only 35 to 45 percent popular support. Skillen's proposed reform would turn each of the 50 states into "a single, multimember district from which the state's allotted number of House seats would be filled by means of PR [proportional representation]" (149). This would ensure that few votes would be wasted, as they are under the current arrangement, and that more voters would be represented by the parties for which they voted. Among other things, he believes that this would hold Congress more accountable to voters, facilitating the advance of the public good, breaking the power of special interest groups, and diminishing pork barrel politics.

Although I would like to think Skillen is right, I suspect that he has overstated the likely virtues of PR and of the more highly disciplined parties that it might encourage. European democracies, which generally operate under some form of PR, are not immune to the influences of interest groups, even if the institutional context in which they are compelled to operate is significantly different from that of the United States. Furthermore, as this page from the German Bundestag's website indicates, the input of such groups may actually be solicited as part of the formal legislative process. To be sure, public justice cannot simply be the sum total of the aggregate influence of the most powerful interest groups. Yet, as the late Sir Bernard Crick understood, political authorities must take into account a diversity of interests, recognizing that the common good consists, not in abstractions hovering above the hurly-burly of ordinary politics, but in the often contentious deliberations over the relative merits of their respective claims on the body politic. Here even local communities need to have a voice, which FPTP does well at representing, but which a party-list form of PR would not. This is something that Skillen perhaps needs to acknowledge more explicitly.

My own preference would be for a form of PR that preserves the best of the current arrangement, such as the mixed-member-proportional (MMP) system currently in use in the Federal Republic of Germany, New Zealand and elsewhere. Then again, if most North Americans are unpersuaded of the injustice of FPTP, they may not find the case for any form of electoral reform especially compelling, which explains the failure of the 2007 referendum on MMP in Ontario and repeated failed efforts to abolish the Electoral College in the US. Clearly those of us favouring reform must surmount the twin hurdles of complacency and cynicism standing in the way of just representation.

This brings us to a related issue, namely, the adequacy of the US Constitution to account for an America which is no longer a collection of federated states but is a fully integrated national political community. I suspect that many readers will bristle at the thought that their country is saddled with an "outdated Constitution" (134). Many conservative protestant Americans identify strongly with a narrative in which the framers of the Constitution play a near messianic role and the Constitution itself functions as something approaching a scriptural text. Skillen bemoans the fact that there have been so few efforts at updating this document to bring it into the 21st century (135).

However, I would like to suggest from my Canadian experience that focusing too heavily on amending a constitutional document may not be the most fruitful avenue for pursuing political change – even badly needed change. We've tried it north of the 49th parallel more than once, and the last two such efforts have failed miserably. Moreover, there will always be a certain distance between a constitutional document, however well- or badly-framed, and the empirical constitution, that is, the political system as it actually functions. For example, no matter how carefully a document delineates the respective powers of federal and state/provincial governments, the balance between the two levels will shift over time with the changing needs of the polity. And all of this occurs without a word of the document being altered.

There is much more to be said on the issue, but I will limit myself to observing that Skillen may not be wise to risk tampering with the popular reverence for the Constitution as a document when there may be other, more effective ways, e.g., legislative, judicial or merely conventional, to compensate incrementally for deficiencies in the larger political system. In this respect there is something to be learned from Martin Luther King's appeal to the Constitution, and not just to an intangible natural right, to secure the status of black Americans as full citizens of the body politic.

The Good of Politics is part of a series of projected volumes by Baker Academic on Engaging Culture, and as such it admirably fulfils its purpose. However, the publisher might wish to move this information into a preface from its current position opposite the title page where it is easily missed.

Readers have come to appreciate the wisdom and insight that Skillen has displayed in his work over the years. This new book certainly lives up to our expectations. The Good of Politics is a biblically and historically rich primer on the political life for everyone persuaded that the claims of Christ extend to our calling as citizens. Of course, not everyone will necessarily accept that political life has a creational basis, and even Kuyper had his doubts on this score. But Skillen makes a strong case for this position here, and even sceptics would do well to add this book to their summer reading list.

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