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

Christian Civic Education

Arlan Koppendrayer


December 21, 2012

By Arlan Koppendrayer

One might assume that an election, certainly a presidential election, would be an exciting time for a high school civics teacher.  Well, somewhat.

Elections—and especially presidential campaigns—offer nearly endless discussion opportunities with my students. “Mr. K. what do you think of the marriage amendment (Minnesota)?” or “What do you think of ObamaCare?”  

More interesting to me are the questions they don’t ask. “How does a bill become a law?” or “Why do we have a Senate and a House?”  Questions about the mechanisms or structure of government are rare.  Although some do ask about the Electoral College, and one quipped, “What’s the minimum ACT score I need to be admitted?”

Student interests stand in contrast to a typical high school civics textbook. There we see much about the structure and mechanism of government. Which branch should do what? Granted, some space is given to the origins of U.S. government and some to political behavior, but textbooks understandably reflect the national standards for civic education, and the latter are mostly given to questions of structure and task.

As a teacher in a Christian high school, I’d like to suggest some additional, key topics that can add both depth and an opportunity for needed Christian perspective to a high school Civics course.

Many of my students live in a Congressional district represented by a congresswoman of national recognition. In her they see one example of an evangelical Christian with an approach to public office, typical of the Christian right. Introducing students to other Christian perspectives helps them imagine approaches to public policy and service that might resonate better with their understanding of the biblical story. When some background explanation is given, articles from Capital Commentary have proven helpful. Other Christian writers, Ron Sider for example, can at least help broaden notions of possible biblical understandings to the task of government, even if that approach is one less consonant with the school’s or teacher’s perspective.

In his book Healing for a Broken World, Stephen Monsma makes a compelling case that government is instituted by God as part of his gracious provision to inhibit evil and promote justice. In a Christian high school context at least, it is appropriate to explore what it might mean that government has its origin in creation and is part of God’s gracious provision. It is NOT beyond the ability of a high school junior or senior to explore the implications of this truth.  Did God intend for government another role than simply being small or a panacea?

As I write this, several students in my senior Government class have just finished presenting their findings on the life and work of Abraham Kuyper. Their explanation of sphere sovereignty gives us a place to begin thinking about a Christian perspective on the appropriate role government might play in a multifaceted society.  An understanding of society as composed of many spheres arising out of creation, each with its own integrity may be new to an adolescent, but it is not out of reach.

Christians from different corners are injecting “common good” terminology into the current political conversation. A recent article by Andy Crouch in Christianity Today is one example.  Perhaps it is not surprising that the concept is left unmentioned in at least some high school texts, even advanced placement (AP) texts.  However, the concept of the common good can function as one possible tool by which high school students, certainly Christian high school students, can evaluate public policy.

American exceptionalism is another port of entry for Christian reflection in high school civics. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and others have enlivened the term. More recently former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and President Obama have either alluded to or spoken forthrightly of it. Contexts in which the term is used are not difficult to find. Likewise, its origin is quite traceable. What does the phrase mean? Are we exceptional?  If so, in what sense? Are we more exceptional than some other nations? Does American exceptionalism have a connotation incompatible with a biblical vision of the Kingdom of God?  Many high school students are quite capable of going a couple rounds with these questions.

Grandiose notions of designing a high school government course that will fascinate all students are just that, grandiose. Helping high school students think from a foundational, Christian framework about government and public policy, however, may be less difficult than we anticipate. But we WILL need to think beyond the standards and textbooks.

—Arlan Koppendrayer is a Bible and Social Studies teacher at Calvin Christian High School in Minneapolis, MN, where he also serves as Chaplain.

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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.”