James Skillen helped found the Center for Public Justice (CPJ), an independent, nonpartisan organization devoted to policy research and civic education for which he served as executive director and president. He is also the author of the forthcoming book published by Baker Academic called The Good of Politics. He kindly took the time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions.
Many thanks for agreeing to this interview Jim.
Many thanks for agreeing to this interview Jim.
Could you start by telling us something about yourself? In particular what started your interest in politics?
My interest in politics came very late, not really until I was finishing my doctoral dissertation. I grew up in a Christian family, met my future wife when we were in high school in Central Pennsylvania, and went off to college (Wheaton, in Illinois) with the hope of playing baseball and preparing for medical school. I did make the baseball team but became more interested in philosophy than physics so I majored in philosophy.
During my sophomore year in college (1963-64) I discovered Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd, and reading them changing my life. I pursued philosophy and biblical studies from that time on, through seminary and then, after Doreen and I married, for year at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. My decision to take up political studies at Duke University was because I knew too little about social, economic, and political life, and since Dooyeweerd was a philosopher of law, I figured I needed to understand law and politics in order to understand him. I wrote my dissertation at Duke on the development of political theory in The Netherlands, with special reference to Dooyeweerd.
It was during our last year at Duke that a friend invited me to become part of a group that was trying to start some kind of political or civic organization. I did so, and that was the first time that I really asked myself, "What does it mean to be a citizen and not just study politics and law?" During nine years of teaching political science and philosophy at three Christian colleges I got deeper and deeper into helping to found what became the Center for Public Justice.
Which thinkers or resources have you found most helpful in how you approach politics from a Christian perspective?
Clearly the Kuyper tradition was the shaping influence of my approach to politics. The work of Kuyper and Dooyeweerd framed my outlook and my questions about public life from a Christian point of view. Along the way, beginning in graduate school, I learned a great deal from many other people and political movements that would take too long to list here.
Your new book has a provocative title The Good of Politics as Christians don't think that there is any good in politics. What is the good of politics? And what is the perspective you take in the book?
One of my main aims in this new book is to show that the long-standing Augustinian view that government was given because of sin is not biblical. The responsibility of government to restrain evil and to punish evil doers (Rom. 13) arises because of sin, but governing of political communities is one of the responsibilities that is inherent in our identity as the image of God, given with creation. Parts One and Two of the book work through the biblical texts and the historical development from Augustine onward to show this, along with much more.
This means that just as humans have been created for THE GOOD OF friendship, marriage, family life, agriculture, science, the arts, education, and much more, so we have been created for THE GOOD OF life in political communities. If that is true, then we have to learn how to pursue such a good as part of what it means to be the human servants and stewards God made us to be.
I am intent in this book on showing that all of the dimensions of life I just mentioned, including political life, reveal something of who God is in relation to us, as the Bible says over and over again. God is the bridegroom of his bride, the parent of his children, the shepherd of sheep, the vineyard keeper, the rabbi-teacher of disciple-students, and the king of his kingdom, the lord of all lords, the lawmaker and adjudicator of justice, the peacemaker, and so forth and so on. In Christ we are to become like our Father in heaven who sends rain and sunshine on the just and unjust alike, and that entails efforts to work for public justice for all.
It has often been said that a personal faith shouldn't affect public politics - how would you respond to that? Should we become Christian secularists in terms of politics?
The Bible emphasizes from start to finish that everything we are and have belongs to God and should be offered up to God as an offering of praise. Christian faith is not one "package" among others that we carry around with us in this age. It entails a way of life—the way of bearing fruit, the way of loving God with all our hearts, souls, and strength, the way of following Christ in discipleship in all things. There is nothing about us and our lives that should not be guided by our faith in Christ, who told us that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him (Matt. 28). The question is not WHETHER politics should be practiced as part of our way of life in Christ but HOW it should be practiced. In that sense there is no "secular" part of life if one means by "secular" those things that are not related to or owed to God.
Frequent reference to a "secular state" often means a state that does not establish a church or that is not controlled from above by a religion. That usually suggests the division between sacred and secular that I am rejecting. I would prefer to speak of an impartial or non-discriminatory political community that treats people of all faiths equitably, fairly, justly. That is the kind of political community that Christians should advocate and support, because God has not given us the responsibility to try to separate good seeds and weeds in the field of the kingdom. That view of political life comes from biblical Christianity, not from modern secularism.
How does politics relate to the kingdom of God? Can we bring in the kingdom through politics?
God's kingdom is the way God is governing the creation toward the end of the fulfillment of all things in the presence of God (by sight, not longer by faith). That is not something that Christians can "bring in" or "make happen" by political or any other means. By the very nature of our creaturely identity in God's image, however, we do have many RESPONSIBILITIES in service to God, the king, master, teacher, friend, guide, parent, and bridegroom. Among those responsibilities is to serve our neighbors justly, to do justice, to administer justice (Heb. 11:33). And that is what should control our civic lives in political communities such as Great Britain, the U.S., and every other country in which Christians live. Just as family life and education, agriculture and music performance are part of our lives and should be offered up in thankful service to God through Christ, so should civic life be practiced in that way. Being a faithful parent or a good farmer does not aim to bring in the kingdom; it is part of what it means to follow a way of life in service to Christ the Lord and King of all creation.
Is God a Republican?
The range of approaches Christians take to politics is highly diverse, and in those countries that have political parties vying for elections and entering into government, the variety of approaches is very great. This is the realm of HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY, not of God's authority and disclosure. God isn't a Republican or a Democrat or a Socialist (or whatever) any more than he is a soybean farmer or a cattle rancher, a violinist or a french horn player. The Bible is not like Greek philosophy that is in search of the ideal form of government. The Bible is NORM oriented rather than FORM oriented. God calls us to respond to his call to do justice; it is our responsibility to build political communities and forms of government to do that. There is no ideal form of Christian government if one is thinking in terms of monarchy, democracy, a republic, or a benevolent dictatorship.
What advice would you give to Christians who want to get involved in politics?
My advice to someone interested in getting involved in politics would be much like advice I would give to someone who wants to get involved in sports, or music, or farming, or medicine. Count the cost, begin as an apprentice, learn from those who are mature in the practice of that responsibility. In our day that will undoubtedly entail study and reading, probably in university life and beyond.
And my emphatic advice would be to do it in community. Learn from what other Christians are and have been doing. Develop a community of friends, advisers, qualified practitioners around you to help guide you and who can learn from you. Look to them also as the ones who will help to hold you accountable. Political life is part of a way of life, just as family life, farming, and the practice of medicine and law. These are not "projects" or "events" or "excursions." They are VOCATIONS in which the practitioners pursue wisdom to follow the right path of service.
Are there any other projects in the pipeline?
I retired from the Center for Public Justice not only to be able to spend more time with children and grandchildren but also to have time to write and do some speaking and mentoring. The new book, The Good of Politics, has three parts to it, the first on biblical revelation, the second on some of the most important developments in political life and political philosophy in the West, and the third on political practice and responsibility. Each of those parts serves as a kind of introduction to the three major books I am now writing (and hope to finish writing, Lord willing). There will probably be some smaller projects along the way, but those three books engage me now.
What do you do for fun?
Doreen and I like music, reading, and walking—and of course being with our children and grandchildren. In addition, I like to play golf, when I can.
What books are you currently reading?
I have quite a number of books on different tables that I dip into when I feel like it and/or that engage me more deeply in current writing projects. Among them at the moment are a new book of edited essays by Erich Auerbach, the influential literary critic of several decades ago; a history of Alabama, where we just took up residence near our daughter and family; and a recent biography of Dag Hammarskjold, UN Secretary General in the 1950s and early 1960s.
What music are you listening to at the moment?
We have many CDs that are mostly of classical music. And we like to attend concerts whenever there is a good one. Recent "listenings" have included works by Berlioz, Bach, Mendelssohn, Franck, Brahms, and Schumann.