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

Constituting a Political Community

James W. Skillen


October 22, 2010
by James W. Skillen

(In this column we explore the principles that guide the Center for Public Justice and the ways in which people put principles into practice. For the first few weeks, to provide a quick reference for those who want to know where the Center stands on various issues, we will use edited versions of articles Jim Skillen wrote for The Public Justice Report which introduce our Guidelines for Government and Citizenship.)

The first Guideline defines the nature of a "Political Community." It begins by stating, "The political community—government accountable to citizens, and citizens under government—constitutes one of the most important institutions of contemporary life."

Many people in the world enjoy relative peace, stability, and flourishing societies and economies because they live in relatively sound political communities. The citizens of those political communities are willing to submit to their governments because they have means of holding them accountable and they have laws that make it possible for them to enjoy the benefits of a public life shared in common with all other citizens. By contrast, the reason for much of the violence, instability, poverty, and lack of education in many other parts of the world is the lack of sound political communities.

The Guideline asserts that political communities exist because "God created us with this capacity." Political community is possible because God created human beings to be political creatures. "The mutual obligation of citizens and public officials exhibits a covenantal character, pointing us to the accountability of government and citizens to God." God made humans for communities of public justice; therefore, as citizens we are obligated from the start to see that our political order is one that does justice to all. Just as humans were created for family life and education, for working together and building organizations of all kinds, so, too, men and women are made for political community. And that kind of community has its own covenantal characteristics that demand mutual accountability between citizens and government as well as accountability of the political community to God.

A political community is a "public-legal community different in kind from nonpolitical communities and associations such as families, churches, businesses, and many kinds of voluntary organizations." The limits of government come not only from what government should not do, but also from what government should do. The limits to government's reach derive not only from the freedom that other institutions should enjoy, but from the political community's own character and purpose. Government exists to provide public-legal order and the public well-being of its citizens.

"A sound and healthy republic is one in which government recognizes and protects by law the independent, non-political responsibilities that belong to people. . . . At the same time, the constitution of a political community must ensure that all citizens can participate freely in the political process through effective democratic representation." In some of their capacities, people need to be free from government's direct rule, but in their civic capacity they need to be free to participate vigorously in the political process, to fulfill their civic responsibilities of helping to make the political community a just one. And if all citizens should be free to participate in political life, then they should "enjoy equal treatment in the rights, privileges, and benefits of the republic's commonwealth, for the sake of the common good."

The final statement of this Guideline emphasizes the fact that the American republic like every other political community exists in an international arena of many political communities. This is where public justice takes on an international meaning. Just as citizens and governments bear covenantal obligations to one another and to God, so political communities bear covenantal obligations to one another and to God, since they live together in one world under one God.

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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.”