Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Y2K Politics

James Skillen


January 3, 2000

 No person in the year 1000, however brilliant and imaginative, straining to look far ahead, could have guessed even a small fraction of the enormous changes that would mark the next millennium. Nor can we, at the start of this new year, predict what lies ahead in our new millennium. How will technology change? What will be the impact of cloning, globalization, space travel, new weapons of mass destruction? Will our generation witness the coming of the new heavens and new earth?

While we cannot know just how the future will unfold, we can be sure that governments and societies will face two challenges, both of them perennial to governance and both especially pressing in our time.

One challenge is how a political system can do justice to citizens of diverse faiths. Too often, governments have simply adopted the faith of the majority, or of the ruler, treating all others as second-class citizens. Conscious of the injustice caused by elevating one faith above others, liberal societies have pursued a politics of common values, setting divisive religious beliefs outside the public square.

But this solution makes second-class citizens out of all believers who will not or cannot set aside their convictions like overcoats when they enter the public realm. For the brief moment when being modern seemed synonymous with discounting faith, this injustice might not have seemed so pressing. It is now apparent, though, around the world, that religion is a rising, and not a passing, concern. Thus the pressing question: What is a government to do when its citizens hold different faiths and all insist that their beliefs must guide them in public as well as in private life?

The other key challenge is to realign government and civil society, government and the other institutions that also shape and serve people. In the name of advancing the common good, the trend over the past centuries has been to make government the animating center, if not the sole provider, of key services. Think of public education and public welfare.

Elevating government in this way has gained us universal standards and the mobilization of vast resources. But the standardized services lack diversity and the power to reach deep. Meanwhile, faith-based and community-rooted programs, innovative and personal, have been pushed out to the margins. No wonder that many countries are now trying to find ways to bring government and these other institutions into closer partnership.

These two challenges are not unrelated. The greater government's monopoly in areas where citizens hold different convictions that demand distinctive practices, the greater the tension because of the conflicting views.

But there can be a positive connection. The more that public tasks are accomplished through partnerships between government and social institutions embodying differing convictions, the greater the chance that all citizens will find in the public realm services that honor their deepest beliefs.

How can these fruitful partnerships be constructed? How can room be made for diversity without unleashing divisiveness? How can we gain the benefits of a personalized approach without losing essential common standards? There are no easy answers. But neither can the challenges be avoided at this time in history.

It is the mission of the Center for Public Justice to search for ways to deal more justly with the diversity of convictions while seeking to connect more fruitfully government and social institutions. Our biblical faith compels us to seek justice for people of all faiths and to pursue ways for government to work with and not against civil society. We invite you to join us in advancing public policies toward these ends in the new millennium.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Director of Social Policy Studies
   Center for Public Justice

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”