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

Defining the Role of Government

Amy E. Black


April 1, 2011
by Amy E. Black

Four months after Ivory Coast’s presidential election, Laurent Gbagbo refuses to cede power to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally-recognized winner. Amidst growing violence and unrest, the nation stands on the brink of civil war. Thousands of citizens are pouring into the streets demanding an end to authoritarian regimes in popular uprisings across much of North Africa and the Middle East. More than a year after the devastating earthquake that claimed more than 230,000 lives, about a million Haitians remain in temporary shelters with most of the rubble yet to be cleared.

These and other news headlines from across the globe remind us of the need for robust democratic governments. Yet far too many in the United States take their government for granted. We assume that elections will occur at regular intervals without violence and bloodshed.  We expect easy and safe transitions of political power. We are so accustomed to access to infrastructure and the provision of public goods and services that we give little thought to the myriad ways in which ­­­­federal, state, and local governments provide for our basic needs, public health, safety, and security.

Recent international events are stark reminders of the importance of a well-functioning democratic government and point us back to foundational questions: Why is government necessary? How should Christians interact with governing institutions and elected officials?

Democratic government rests on a foundation of public law, often codified in a constitution, which reflects the will of the people, is sustained by their consent, and sets proper limits on the scope and authority of the state. These laws reflect a concern for the collective well-being and specify the responsibilities we have to one another as a part of a political community. Governments maintain the rule of law, providing a judicial system to enforce laws and adjudicate disputes between citizens.

Well-functioning governments provide a framework that allows for private ownership of the means of production, what we often call “free markets,” which allows businesses to flourish and innovate as they provide employment, goods, and services.  At the same time, governments exercise the power to regulate, fostering accountability and establishing measures to safeguard citizens. All modern democracies recognize the need for upholding free markets and a regulatory state; nations differ in how they strike this balance.

As the Center for Public Justice Guideline on Government explains more completely, government helps sustain institutions such as schools, churches, and families that are essential partners for building and maintaining a robust civil society. Properly-functioning governments rely on mutual accountability.  Governments and their citizens are accountable to one another, and all are ultimately accountable to God. 

So how should Christians interact with government and elected officials?  It is easy to criticize particular programs and proposals. Commentators from the political left and right are quick to mock and belittle elected officials for apparent missteps. But in the cacophony of critiques, we can quickly lose trust in the very people and institutions at the heart of American democracy.  It is possible to raise concerns about policy proposals and political actions while still showing respect for those in authority and the offices they hold.

As part of a political community, we can and should hold those in authority accountable for their actions and raise concerns when governments veer off course. Instead of asking “what has government done for me,” however, we should raise the query “what can and should government do for society and for future generations?” We need to move from a primarily insular focus on how government appears to help or hinder our individual interests and think more broadly about government as a central institution for building the common good.  Concern for public justice requires a long-term and global perspective.

Should we engage in vigorous political debate?  Absolutely.  Can and will Christians disagree about the proper size and scope of government and the best means to achieve desirable goals?  Certainly.  Is government a necessary part of any discussion of seeking justice and the common good?  Without a doubt. 

­—Amy E. Black is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Department of Politics and International Relations at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.

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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.”