catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 1, Num 5 :: 2002.11.08 — 2002.11.21


Interview with Jim Skillen

President of the Center for Public Justice discusses church and politics

We recently sat down with Dr. Jim Skillen, President of the Center for Public Justice, to discuss current issues as they pertain to the relationship between the Church and the State.

What actually is the Center for Public Justice?

We want to be an advocate for justice. But we’re doing it by making people rethink the very nature of government and politics because much of what is taken for granted today doesn’t hold water; interest group competition, conservative versus liberal, etc. But what we’re trying to do is demonstrate what a developing Christian philosophy of government would mean in the public policy arena. So we do public policy research. We’re involved very much in trying to educate citizens to develop and take their civic life more seriously and develop leadership qualities. So our mission statement is to equip citizens, develop leaders and shape policy.

You don’t specifically have the word Christian in that, but I know a huge part of your target audience is made up of Christians and people who are wrestling with how to practice their faith in the public arena. First question, what responsibility do you feel that Christians have to work through government or the institutions of government?

Well, it’s part of what constitutes us as people in this world. It’s like asking what responsibility do parents have to work through their families, or church members to work through their churches or people who are employees through their places of employment. We are citizens in this country or in any country and have an obligation to try to do that and therefore to do justice, which raises the question, what is justice? And we have to try to answer that. We don’t use the word Christian primarily because it just suggests a self-interest kind of effort, a group that is trying to do something for Christians, to get an advantage for Christians. In that phrase “public justice,” we’re trying to suggest the norm that needs to be argued over. So somebody says, “Oh, I’m for justice, sounds good,” but what do you mean? Then you get arguing about what it should mean and that’s the way we think we ought to be engaged.

Thinking of that previous question about focusing on Christians, our struggle is that there’s a message that’s in the broad evangelical community that calls for a lot of Christians to either pull out of government or to somehow be anti-government or to somehow change government according to the Christian agenda. Is that what the Center for Public Justice is all about?

No, not at all. In fact, it’s interesting, there is a tradition in the Christian West that government comes about only because of sin and evil, therefore there’s no positive thing for it, just to hold back evil. That flows right into the modern liberal idea that it would be best that we not have government at all, that we do it just grudgingly to protect your apples and my sheep from being stolen by one another. And our argument is that no, political life is as much a part of God’s calling for us in this world, to help shape public communities of justice. There’s a very positive task for government to do as well as a retributive, punishing task because of injustice and that’s what we ought to be calling people to. Calvin, for example, said that the service of a magistrate, of a public official is the highest calling one can have. The Bible is loaded with the imagery of the righteous judge and the very vision of the kingdom fulfilled is the new Jerusalem, a political entity with the King of Kings in it. So if Christ is King of Kings, but all government’s about is something evil, then it’s a pretty odd conjunction. So our argument is that this is a very positive thing. It doesn’t mean that governments always do right any more than church leaders or educators or parents always do right. But the task that’s there, the office, the calling, is a very high one and that’s we ought to be working for.

And that means justice for everybody. If what one means by “Christian agenda” is to get something for us and push it on other people, that’s not what we’re about, but political communities, governments, are about imposing order. And so it’s going to be one way or another, you’re going to drive on the left side of the road or the right side of the road, I mean, that’s an imposition. Red’s going to mean stop or it’s going to mean go. You have to have an order that’s imposed. So in that sense we are contending for what ought to be a rightly imposed order, but one that will do justice without discrimination to Christians and non-Christians alike.

That sounds great in theory, but practically speaking for the average Christian, for a Christian who really wants to practically get involved in some way, either politically or through the institutions, does it just mean that I have to join some kind of political party or that I have to run for public office in order to get involved? What are practical ways we can work for justice through the system?

Well, most of us by the very nature of our lives would have to be considered passive citizens and I mean passive now not in not doing anything, but in the sense that it’s not a full-time job. The last thing I would be suggesting is that every Christian has to become a full-time political activist. People have other jobs to do. Most Christians can’t become full-time educators, can’t become full-time pastors, can’t become full-time business people. The very nature of society, but also of the Christian life the way we ought to see it, is an interdependency. I depend on Christian artists doing art and some teachers to teach the kids and some business people to do business, I’m a passive person in that regard. But I have to make a decision as a parent what school to send my kids to. I have a voice in what I would say about those arenas in which I function. Our contention is that every citizen, every Christian ought to realize that their civic obligation is theirs but it’s in conjunction with others. So we want the Center for Public Justice to be that means through which people can find their voice, through which they can get guidance so they can make better civic decisions as citizens.

Practically speaking, how does the Center do that?

Some of the policy work that we’ve done and the arguments we’ve made for things like welfare reform in a certain direction, we try to show how that’s grounded in certain principles and to put that to people, we do a Public Justice Report quarterly. We put out Capitol Commentary, just one side of a piece of paper, 600 words, every two weeks on some hot topic of the day to try to provoke thought and help people see how we’re thinking about that. We do it meeting with political leaders, we do it in conversation with educators and others who are shaping people, speaking at conferences like this.

Let’s say I’m in some state in the country and I have a particular issue that I feel as a Christian I need to address, let’s just take the environment for example, and that has local, state and federal networking that’s involved in decisions. How might I go about that utilizing either the services of CPJ or just as a normal, local church member? What ought I to do?

Well, first I would always say to check our web site just to see if we can be of any help. There are a huge number of issues which we haven’t addressed because there’s very limited interest in what we’re doing. There aren’t enough Christians who are really highly engaged in this kind of thing. They see politics as dirty or useless. So with our reserves, we have given pretty serious address to policies of education and welfare and now on a number of the defense and war questions. We have not done much of anything on things like social security or healthcare, urgent matters. Something like the environment is an arena in which we have done some things. I’ve been involved enough in shaping of farm bills to see what goes on there. I’ve written a Capitol Commentary recently on why I thought President Bush should not have signed the farm bill that was passed which does all kinds of bad things from our point of view. We had that in our annual Kuyper lectures, a lectureship we hold. We had Calvin DeWitt who’s an environmentalist, a strong one, give that lecture with several respondents. So there is a book and some readings that we’ve done that would kind of give people an indication. But most of our work, even where we’ve done mostly policy work and developed policy arguments, is oriented towards toward trying to help people fulfill responsibilities, not giving them answers.

So what we’d end up saying to you is, “Why are you interested in that question? Are you thinking of trying to help in your community or to write to your governor or to run for public office? What’s your interest in the environment? Well, here’s some framework for thinking about that, here’s what we have to offer.” It may help you fulfill 5% of your responsibility, maybe 7, in some cases maybe 20. But we’re not going to do your responsibility for you. It’s to try to help shape people who can become the leaders in their communities.

So part of what you’re saying is that your real goal is to try to challenge me to think through whatever I’m passionate about and to do it based not only on your experience, but perhaps pointing me in some directions or to methods that might be more effective than just holding up a billboard or . . .

. . . And thereby to help us give leadership. You have to enlarge the network. Paul Dewis, I think he just lost his election in Michigan, he was the Majority Whip in the Michigan House until he ran for the State Senate last week—Paul Dewis was someone who got ahold of our literature when he was in college. He went on to become a physician. He decided to get into politics to help overcome racial division in Michigan and to work on healthcare and education. He’s called us many times and he’s said, “Your publications, the conversations I’ve had with you brought me into this in the first place, helped me see how I have to fulfill my responsibility.” That’s what we would like to see. We’d rather have one person who’s decided to get into office and who can give leadership and go broader than we could, than to have fifteen people who know nothing and can’t think, but say, “Well, the Center for Public Justice says, the Center for Public Justice says, so here’s the answers.” And if somebody asks them, “Well, why is that the answer?” they say, “Well I don’t know but that’s the answer.” That’s not what we want. We want to shape leaders.

A concern for many of us who are attempting to engage in culture and think about the simple fact from our perspective that culture is not optional, is how should we look right now at the whole tenor of the issue related to Iraq. Let’s start with the prior issue of our position related to the International Criminal Court. You’ve written on that, you’ve thought a lot about it. Speaking to the Christian in the pew, who wants to learn more and think biblically about this, what would you say?

Well, I’ll make a few comments, but before I even do, I’d like to frame why the International Criminal Court seems like a difficult thing and seems a bit threatening to the person in the pew. It’d be a little bit like you saying to somebody in the pew, “What do you think about the fact that farmers are now deciding to use this kind of fertilizer rather than that?” Well, see, they wouldn’t know what to think about it. They don’t know anything about farming if they didn’t grow up on a farm. And that’s something that’s way down the line of responsibility, but if you got involved a bit and began to see what farmers are up to, what kind of pollution is affecting things, you’d begin to see the judgment that was required to do this crafting of agriculture. It’s a cultural activity. So much of culture requires that one has learned the art of that responsibility. You just don’t go out and play golf against Tiger Woods. You just don’t go play tennis against Serena Williams. You just don’t go out and do something culturally, paint a painting and want society to see it?

Create a movie or?

Precisely, but we ought to be doing it. So the fact is that many of us, after perhaps generations of having not paid attention to it, where there have been too few Christian movie makers or artists or politically engaged officials—at that point, what we tend to do is we want to ask a question that’s way down the line, like, “Tell me, what’s a Christian fertilizer?” Well, that’s like saying, “What’s a Christian public policy answer to the Iraq war?” Well unless you’re willing to go through the hard work of admitting first of all, we don’t know anything about that, unless we get back through, “What were all those arguments about just war? What’s the nature of the relation of states to what is a shrinking world, which is what’s calling for more and more international governance issues?” That’s what’s behind the International Criminal court.

But one good thing about the American experience even though most of us have forgotten about it is that the United States at the beginning tried to have a confederation with practically no federal government, something that would just wave its hat at them and say, “You’re all independent states.” And we soon found that didn’t work for lots of reasons and got a tighter federation. Well that’s kind of a miniature picture, that was back when it was kind of a homogenous society with very few people, but it was a mini picture of what’s now going on in a very complicated way in Europe. European nations are realizing they’re so closely intertwined that they have to begin to develop international institutions which eventually might replace their sovereignty with the United States of Europe. That’s a mini picture of the world. The world is shrinking. Populations, the globalization processes economically and everything else are bringing countries more and more together, so unless they can come up with World Trade Organization rules, etc., it’s going to be impossible to have anything but conflict and tie-up.



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