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

Connecting Principles and Practice

Gideon Strauss


October 15, 2010
by Gideon Strauss

Cornelius Plantinga wrote in Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be (1995) that “[i]n the literature of Scripture, wisdom is, broadly speaking, the knowledge of God’s world and the knack of fitting oneself into it. The wise person knows creation. She knows its boundaries and limits, understands its laws and rhythms, discerns its times and seasons, respects its great dynamics. … She knows some of the deep grains and textures of the world because she knows some of the ways and habits of its maker.”

Articulating a similar view for the political sphere, Paul Marshall wrote in Heaven Is Not My Home (1999), “If principles and universal truths were sufficient to make laws or to run governments, we would no longer need personal judgment. But we also need people who have the skills, among other things, to make a judgment about a particular person or a particular city or a particular crime.”

In short, to faithfully pursue public justice, we must both develop sound guiding principles rooted in an understanding of creation, and we must engage in the difficult work of applying those principles to the often thorny problems at hand.

Marshall offers two striking examples to support his argument—one from the court of law, the other from the basketball court:

“Murder is wrong—always. But was this act murder? And, if so, was this person the murderer? We will never know this without the facts of the situation. This requires us to learn, to know and to make judgments about the infinite variabilities and idiosyncrasies of human life.”

“Michael Jordan is not a great basketball player simply because he (usually) keeps the rules. He is a great player because he has learned what the possibilities are within those rules, and he has the skill to act out those possibilities. Merely knowing the foul rules or the free-throw rules does not teach us how to dribble, pass, or dunk. Rules tell us what we must do to win and what we can and cannot do. They give us our normative direction, the boundaries to our action. But we still have to learn how to play. … Even a good referee can be a lousy player.”

The general argument holds for areas well beyond these two courts. Marshall continues:

“[W]e cannot fully appreciate all the complexities and potentialities of the ‘game,’ until we start to play. In art, politics, education, and work, the end result is not predetermined (except in the glorious final sense of Christ’s ultimate victory and the renewal of all things). Our life always involves real questioning, probing, trying, and revising as we struggle to learn and to do God’s will in the situation at hand.”

In this column we will explore the complexities and potentialities of politics, in particular looking at the connections between principles and practice. For the first few weeks, we will use edited versions of articles Jim Skillen wrote for the Public Justice Report to introduce the Guidelines for Government and Citizenship. These Guidelines address the nature of political community, the task of government, and the responsibility of citizens, and illustrate how the Center’s philosophy expresses itself when applied to a number of key policy areas.

In later weeks, we will invite practitioners—the Michael Jordans of policy, statecraft, public administration—to interact with the Guidelines, exploring their implications, considering their inadequacies, suggesting fresh formulations, and indicating new possibilities: in every instance speaking out of their experience “on the court.”

We hope that these explorations of principles and practice will indeed “encourage thought and discussion on critical issues; provide a springboard for public policy development or academic research; show why single-issue politics is deficient; and foster the development of a more just society, in which all citizens enjoy the right to articulate and promote their political views.”

—Gideon Strauss is CEO of the Center for Public Justice and editor of the Capital Commentary.

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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.”