The Basic Principles of the Center for Public Justice


1. The Biblical Call to Social Responsibility

2. The Question of Authority

3. What Constitutes a Political Community?

4. Government with Representation

5. Political Fairness and Equity

6. Government and the Responsible Society

7. Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Conscience


1. The Biblical Call to Social Responsibility

March-April 1994

By James W. Skillen

[This is the first part in a series of articles elucidating the basic principles and the approach to politics of the Center for Public Justice written by Dr. Skillen.]

With this article we begin a series that seeks to rearticulate the aims and foundations of the Center for Public Justice. What better place to begin than with a short commentary on the recently released Chicago Declaration II (CDII), "A Call for Evangelical Renewal." CDII came out of last November's twentieth-anniversary conference celebrating the first Chicago Declaration of 1973 [see The 1993 Chicago Declaration in the January-February, 1994, issue of the Public Justice Report].

Back in 1973, the efforts that eventually led to the founding of the Center for Public Justice were just getting started. In fact, a number of its founders were in conversation with Ron Sider and others who wrote the first Chicago Declaration and started Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA). The concern shared by both organizations was to rejuvenate, or to initiate for the first time, responsible social action on the part of Bible-believing Christians. ESA decided to concentrate on raising the social consciousness of Evangelicals in order to overcome the perceived conflict between evangelism and social action. Those who established the Center for Public Justice decided to focus more particularly on the nature of civic or political responsibility and to ask what distinctive contribution a Christian view of life should make to the fulfillment of that responsibility.

While the second Chicago Declaration has a different cast than the first one, both aim to raise Christian social consciousness in general. CDII arose from an ad hoc gathering of Evangelicals at a three-day conference. ESA leaders had drafted a declaration ahead of time, but a large, pre-selected group of conferees wrote a new document on the spot. Thus, the document represents no particular church or organization; it is backed by no authority other than those, like ESA, who have decided to adopt it as their own. It authorizes no particular institution or authority to carry through with a concrete social or political program. Rather, CDII is a call from a gathering of Evangelicals to anyone who will listen. It is an appeal to Christians to act with greater consistency in loving God and in serving a needy world.

The origin of the 1993 declaration helps to explain both its strength and its weakness. As a heart-felt appeal from an ad hoc group of believers, the document is free to do its heart-searching work without anyone being required to heed it. Its authority resides solely in the quality and force of its moral appeal. If CDII speaks the truth at this hour and can grip one group of Christians after another with the power of God's own call to repentance, renewal, and committed service, then it will have served a powerful purpose. Christians ought to examine and discuss it carefully with that in mind.

Woven through the document is a brief but clear summary of the Gospel. It begins as an expression of thanks for the work of the Holy Spirit in Christian communities where "the sacrificial and compassionate demonstration of the reconciling love of God" is exhibited. Frequently it speaks of the need for repentance from sin and for the acceptance of God's grace in Jesus Christ for forgiveness and renewal. It emphasizes that salvation comes from God in Christ, not from human efforts. It pleads for a "missionary church that, by its witness and love," will draw people "into a living relationship with our Lord." It emphasizes the wide scope of the Gospel, which "is not divided—it embraces both the call to conversion and the summons to justice." And CDII closes on a note of hope and expectation: "Come Lord Jesus."

The weakness of such a declaration, however, appears at the point where its readers must ask what it means—what its implications are, and what it should lead them to do in response. In this regard, the document is a little more difficult to assess.

On the one hand, CDII is very clear about what its authors think should result from heeding its appeal. Much of it is structured in terms of a repeated, rhetorical contrast between "weeping" for what is wrong in the world and "dreaming" of what a healthy world should look like. And it concludes with a series of statements articulating the "commitments" that the authors are making.

From these paragraphs taken together one cannot miss the authors' judgment that godlessness, racism, the disparity between rich and poor, escalating violence and abuse, gender conflicts, marriage breakdowns, environmental destruction, and consumerism are evils that ought to be overcome. And by contrast, the expectation is clear that knowledge of Jesus Christ, racial reconciliation, greater economic equality, conflict resolution, gender and generational harmony, and ecological responsibility are the good things that ought to exist.

In order to resist what is evil and to promote what is good, CDII calls for a renewed commitment to the kingdom of God, to the ardent worship and love of God, to preaching the Gospel, to repentance from complacency about the status quo, and to energetic engagement in social renewal. "Obedience to Jesus' teaching and example," says CDII, "demands congregations that integrate prayer, worship, evangelism, and social transformation."

If CDII is clear in identifying the evil it does not want and the good it does want, this does not necessarily mean, however, that it has achieved its purpose. After a quick read of the document, for example, one might feel that it says nothing significant at all. After all, who will disagree about the lists of goods and evils? Doesn't every Christian want to see an end to racism, environmental destruction, family breakdown, and violence?

Here is where we need to ask more difficult and probing questions about who the declaration addresses and how it addresses them. Typically, people do not act to resist evil and to promote good in the abstract. People do not typically act under the command of a conscience oriented toward good and evil in general. Instead, people act as participants in a variety of specific relationships, organizations, and institutions, ranging from friendships to citizenship in the state, from marriage to membership in a local church. Most questions about good and evil, therefore, come to them as they exercise actual responsibilities in these concrete circumstances.

Take, for example, the statement quoted above about the need for congregations that will integrate "prayer, worship, evangelism, and social transformation." What does this mean? To whom is it addressed? One would hope that pastors and elders in particular churches might read CDII and ask whether the members of their congregations are spending enough time in prayer, worship, and evangelism. But when it comes to "social transformation," what are local pastors or congregational leaders to do? Should every congregation organize soup kitchens and political campaigns? Is there anything that a congregation should not try to do as it heeds the challenge of CDII?

The question, you see, has to do with the relationship between the congregation and all the other institutions in which its members participate. Church members also happen to have marriages, families, jobs, civic responsibilities, schools and clubs. It is all too typical today-and very understandable—that many believing Christians feel overwhelmed by responsibilities. CDII might easily sound burdensome to them, like a call to change the world when they can barely keep up with housework and a job.

Many church leaders feel the same way. They are already busy running so many programs, promoting missions and evangelism, counseling so many marriages, and trying to prepare a decent sermon now and then, that the thought of taking on even more responsibility seems insane, particularly if CDII is calling them to help organize the transformation of the world. Precisely out of a sense of responsibility, many Christians can easily—and in a good conscience—turn a deaf ear to yet another appeal to assume more responsibility.

Who, then, should bear responsibility for resisting the specified evils and promoting the particular goods that the document enumerates? Every individual does not bear all of these responsibilities in the same way. And particular congregations should not try to bear all of them. It is married couples who need to hear the call to strengthen marriage. The boards and managers of particular corporations are the ones who need to reevaluate their promotion of consumerism. Citizens and government officials need to heed the call to overcome legalized racism and to do more to stop urban violence.

In each of these cases, the call to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God takes on a distinctive character. The call to action does not go out to people in a general, undifferentiated mass. When we ask how we should heed God's call to live thankful lives as redeemed sinners in Jesus Christ, our response must arise from within the actual responsibilities we bear as parents, teachers, employers, citizens, consumers, scientists, artists, and so forth.

How should people in each of these realms of responsibility respond to the appeal of CDII? In trying to answer that question we become aware of the document's limits, for it does not seek to distinguish and clarify such responsibilities. It does not even specify what the informal gathering of Chicago signers will do to fulfill the commitments they enunciate in CDII. This is a moral appeal without directives. It is a prayer for good to triumph over evil, but it offers no guidance about how to achieve the good. And the primary reason for this is that the vocal "we" of the document is not, in fact, a viable subject of action. Those of us who gathered in Chicago and signed the document affirmed "our" commitment and recommitment to certain aims, but we were constituted to do nothing more than sign a declaration. The "we" of the document has no continuing identity beyond the conference; we bear no responsibility together; we have no means by which to act as a group. "We" are not responsible.

But does that matter? Isn't it enough for Christians occasionally to utter prayers and appeals like this just to remind ourselves of the direction in which we ought to be walking? Perhaps. And if that is enough, the strengths of the document to which we refer above will carry the day. But perhaps that is not enough. Perhaps we have reached the point in history when a general appeal made by a gathering of people that bears no responsibility amounts to nothing more than a "resounding gong or a clanging cymbal." Out of weakness in actual performance, Christians gather to do the easy thing: to declare their wishes, which impress no one. Perhaps a declaration such as CDII is so empty and has so little punch that it will actually prove to be counterproductive.

The proof, of course, will be in the pudding. Will actual congregations, real families, specific business enterprises, and particular Christian organizations act in ways that demonstrate more fully than they have in the past what it means to live responsibly before the face of God? Particular organizations, such as the Center for Public Justice, should seek to work out the political implications of CDII's call to responsibility. And, of course, the implications that the Center articulates will be disputed by other Christian civic organizations. That is reality; that is the actual arena of dispute in which Christians struggle to decide how to serve God in their civic capacities.

Only in such concrete relationships and organizations can people use the word "we" as a subject of action and mean anything by it. The "people of God" do not exist as an acting subject in mass, in general, outside particular structures of accountability and responsibility. That is why the real challenge of evangelical social action today lies not in undifferentiated appeals to an undifferentiated community of believers, but in learning how to follow Jesus in all the different ways God requires of us in our actual marriages, families, work, civic life, buying and selling, and congregational worship and fellowship.


2. The Question of Authority

May-June 1994

By James W. Skillen

[This is the second part in a series of articles elucidating the basic principles and the approach to politics of the Center for Public Justice written by Dr. Skillen.]

Government and the People

By what authority do governments govern? What is the ultimate source of their authority?

Almost everywhere today, authority is questioned. Anyone who holds an office of authority seems to come under suspicion. And yet no institution or organization can function without a board of directors, or an executive committee, or a president, or all of the above.

Whether suspect or not, any position of authority forces this question: by what authority does one hold an office of authority? In a voluntary organization the answer to this question may come easily: authority arises from those who organize it and write its bylaws. For a family the answer may seem obvious, namely, that those who produce children have the responsibility and the authority to rear them.

When it comes to politics and government, however, the question of authority remains much in dispute. But you ask, how can that be? Surely we settled this question in the United States at the very start, didn't we? Government is of the people, by the people, and for the people. Governmental authority is grounded in the ultimate authority of the people.

Well, yes and no. In democratic countries such as ours, governments are tied by elections and other means to the governed, but "the people" are not obviously or unambiguously authoritative. Our Constitution, for example, was designed to set limits to the expression of a popular will. The Constitution cannot be amended without a huge effort in every state—an effort that goes way beyond anything needed to elect representatives. The Constitution, written by people a long time ago, carries more authority than do the people living under it today. Within that constitutional framework, the president has more authority than any single senator or representative. The U.S. Supreme Court has authority denied to all other Americans. "The people" clearly do not act as a mass to govern themselves. So in what sense is American government grounded in the ultimate authority of 'the people"? Is this reality or a myth?

At the very least we can say that American government is accountable to the governed. Americans have, by constitutional design, rejected autarchical government—the kind of government that depends on nothing outside itself and is accountable to no other body of human beings. We have a limited, government that depends in various ways, including regular elections, on the people being governed.

But still we have to ask, in what sense do "the people" function as the ultimate authority to which government is accountable? If, in response to this question, we answer that the people are ultimate because they need not appeal to anyone or anything beyond themselves, then we have simply transferred the idea of "autarchy" to the people. In other words, people acting democratically can do as they please and design government to do whatever they want it to do without reference to anything outside themselves. Government is nothing more than the expression of the will of an autarchical, self-sufficient people.

But if this is true, another question arises: what constitutes a people? Why should any individual submit to any other person or group of persons among "the people"? Why should I accept the principle that the will of the majority holds authority over me, especially if I think I am right and the majority is wrong? If a human mass of people can be autarchical, why can't every individual be autarchical? In fact, isn't our system based on the principle that "the people" are nothing more than the sum of autonomous, self-governing individuals? If so, then by what authority other than myself should I submit to anyone other than myself? Do "the people" as a fictitious mass really hold any authority at all?

Ultimate Authority

In the final analysis, there is no way to avoid the question of ultimate authority. Even if we Americans think we have escaped the indignity of being subject to autocratic kings, to aristocratic landowners, to ecclesiastical authorities, and to every other outside authority, we are still left with the unanswered question of why any of us should have to submit to anyone else, especially to a mass called "the people." There is nothing self-evident about the claim that the people may hold authority over me or that a majority should have authority over minorities in the name of the people.

We can go one step further. By what authority may I claim to have authority over myself? The self-government or autarchy of each individual is not even self-evident. After all, I did not create myself or rear myself. I can escape neither historical nor environmental influences, neither my own genetic make-up nor death. To claim that I am a self-sufficient authority unto myself is a pretty bold and pretentious claim for someone so tied to forces and authorities beyond my control.

So, then, perhaps there is no ultimate authority for government. And perhaps that's the reason for the predicament we are in. Governments govern not with authority but merely with whatever meager power they can muster by trying to keep people as happy as possible in the illusion that they are the ultimate authority behind government. Governing has become little more than interest-group brokering and poll watching as governments give lip service to the authority of the people, who, in turn, pretend to acknowledge the authority of government.

By this point, you might suspect that I am about to reach the conclusion of an argument that will prove the existence of divine authority over human beings and their governments. The logic will lead inevitably, step by step, to God's ultimate authority since we cannot locate it among human beings. But not so fast. That conclusion will not appear inevitable to most people who remember a little history and who have heard arguments like this before.

Religious Arguments Discredited

For example, a Christian answer to the question about ultimate authority has been largely discredited or twisted beyond recognition. One reason why the argument for God's ultimate authority over government has become suspect is that this argument has usually been made by another human authority claiming divinely appointed superiority over civil government. Different ecclesiastical authorities once argued that civil governments are subordinate to the church because God grants authority first or chiefly to the church. Even in Puritan New England, only church members had the right to vote. So the argument for the ultimacy of divine authority was made not so much to credit God's authority over government but to claim divine credit for the superiority of a particular human authority (whether church or monarch) over government.

The populist, democratic answer seems to be an improvement here, and in the early Republic it even made use of an appeal to divine authority. According to this argument, government's authority derives from the people as a whole, not from church, king, or aristocracy. This can be justified in a religious way by saying that God implanted inalienable rights in every person. On the basis of those inalienable rights of freedom and property individuals then delegate limited authority to government. Thus, government derives its authority from the people who derive their authority from God.

Two difficulties remain. The first is that an argument for the divine origin of individual rights doesn't really offer a new answer to the question of how government derives its authority from the people. Individual rights may come from God, but government's authority does not come from God. This simply drives us back to the problems associated with claims of autarchy. What if a minority believes that its God-given rights are not being respected by a government whose authority is supposedly grounded in the rights of the people? By what authority is this minority obligated to submit to government? Why should it not appeal to God's higher authority and disobey the government? How can any individual, or minority group, or even a majority appeal to God's authority above government if God holds no direct authority over government but only over the individuals who create government? How can government claim authority over people if it has no basis for its own authority other than that granted by the people?

The second difficulty with the position that God has authority over individuals but not directly over government is that it adds nothing to the practical workings of representative government. A group of citizens might try to justify its cause by appealing to divine authority, but it will gain the right to exercise authority only if it can win votes. Politics remains a power struggle among contending groups, and those who win have the right to govern whether or not they appeal to God. An appeal to divine authority for government becomes entirely extraneous and beside the point. Or it may become a threat to those who believe that politics has nothing to do with God. People who get elected by calling on the name of God may appear suspect because it might seem that they would be willing to do undemocratic things after they get elected.

Divine Authority and Human Responsibility

Is there any way to resolve these difficulties? Perhaps, but it requires a distinctive standpoint. If God's authority is really ultimate over government, and in human affairs generally, then there can be no claim whatsoever to human autarchy. Neither individuals nor "the people," neither government nor the church, can be autarchical, because all are subject to God.

The Center for Public Justice affirms that good government is a task of human stewardship granted by God. According to the Scriptures, government is a gift of God's grace, which is being revealed finally and fully in Jesus Christ, who now lays claim to ultimate authority over all human affairs, including human government. This confession authorizes neither Christians nor any church to claim special authority over civil government. It does, however, turn attention to the transcendent grounds of government's authority and away from every autarchical claim by individuals, by "the people," and by anyone who holds a government office.

This means at least three things in regard to our reflections above.

First, we should recognize that a legitimate political appeal to divine authority will have to be something different than an argument to justify the authority of one group (such as Christians) or one institution (such as the church) over the body politic. Government in the body politic requires its own ground of ultimate authority, not a transfer of that ground to some other non-ultimate human entity.

In the second place, consequently, we ought to agree that arguments about how government ought to fulfill its obligations should appeal to God-given standards for government rather than to some other institution's or to "the people's" claim of divine authorization or inspiration. The mutual accountability of citizens and government before God should not be thwarted or confused by one group's or one institution's claim to divine authorization that would supposedly put it above and beyond the ordinary accountability process of representative government.

This leads, in the third place, to the biblically grounded proposition that government is directly accountable to God and derives its authority ultimately from him. It is not just individuals who have God-given rights; governments have a direct calling from, and an obligation to, God to govern according to principles of justice that transcend human devising. But government's authority is of a specifically limited, non-autarchical kind that ought to be inscribed in a constitution and guarded carefully by means of regular elections, judicial review, and other means of accountability.


3. What Constitutes a Political Community?

September-October 1994 

By James W. Skillen

[This is the third part in a series of articles elucidating the basic principles and the approach to politics of the Center for Public Justicewritten by Dr. Skillen.]

People use different words to refer to the political orders in which they live: nation, state, country, republic, commonwealth, kingdom, and more. In some cases, these political entities are defined by a constitution ("basic law"), which specifies the tasks and limits of government in the state.


The massive movement toward democracy in the past two centuries has greatly increased the number of written constitutions around the world. The key demand of democratic movements has been for an end to arbitrary government by autocrats and for the establishment of limited and representative government. The purpose of a constitution is to mark off the boundaries of the political order and to specify the responsibilities of government and the people so that arbitrary and unrepresentative government can be eliminated.

The movement toward democracy and constitutionalism has by no means solved all the big problems of government and politics, however. One big question for every constitution, for example, concerns the nature of the state. What should a constitution constitute? Not many constitutional states have adequately answered this question. Most of them, including the United States, have used their constitutions to do two primary things: (1) to lay down electoral procedures and to distinguish the levels and/or branches of government, and (2) to list a number of protected rights that the people hold independent of government.

What these constitutional features do not do is to clarify the identity and purpose of the republic or commonwealth itself. Of course, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution seems to do this: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

But these words, as preamble, do not function as operative law, and they remain quite general in regard to what the republic should be. To "provide for the common defense" may sound like a fairly specific stipulation, but the other phrases about justice, domestic tranquility, general welfare, and the blessings of liberty remain quite open and unlimited. In other words, neither the Preamble nor the actual text of the Constitution distinguishes the responsibilities of the federal and state governments from the responsibilities of families, churches, schools, business corporations, and numerous other institutions in which people bear non-governmental or non-political responsibilities.

Identifying the Republic

Perhaps this is asking too much of an 18th-century document, but the matter is urgent for us today. Our struggle in the United States now is not that of trying to end the arbitrary rule of a king or to gain representation for the people in law making. Our predicament is that "the people," who lay constitutional claim to all authority over government, to the protection of their individual rights, and to the right of participating in regular elections, cannot agree on what the republic ought to be.

One faction in the country believes that government should govern as little as possible because the main aim of government should be to "secure the blessings of liberty," which means individual freedom from government. According to this view, the political order (the republic) should be something minimal, merely a means of protecting individual freedom and private property, rather than a prominent community in its own right with government acting (and spending) to promote the social good of all citizens.

A contrary American faction seems to take its cue from the Preamble's phrase "to promote the general welfare." The United States is a political community under government and its citizens find a higher degree of fulfillment in being part of that community than they do as mere individuals. The purpose of the political community, therefore, is to enhance itself, which means to enhance the wellbeing of all citizens through legislated measures covering everything from social security to government-run education to universal health care—all funded by general taxation or by other means mandated by government.

The fact that these extremely different views of what the United States ought to be can coexist within our borders bears testimony to the ambiguity inherent in our Constitution. And the ambiguity is due largely to the fact that the Constitution says so little. It affirms popular sovereignty and individual rights while creating several different branches of the federal government. Such a constitution sets up the very dynamics that may now be crippling the United States. It says that the people, by means of majority votes, may use the government to do whatever they want it to do as long as they follow constitutional procedures and do not violate individual rights. But increasingly, individuals and minorities within the U.S., who do not like what government is doing, are turning to the courts to protect their rights and to charge the government with violating constitutional procedures. Instead of "the people" feeling that the majority is representing them adequately, an increasing number of them now feel that life in the republic is merely a battle among competing interests.

The point is this: a constitutional state or republic needs more definition than simply a description of its government offices, a listing of prior individual rights, and an articulation of some procedural rules for elections and the conduct of government. If the United States exists to establish justice, to promote the general welfare, and more, then we need to know what kind of justice and welfare properly belongs to the republic.

Distinguishing Political Community from Other Communities

This is where the Center for Public Justice wants to go on record arguing for a clearer specification of the character of the political community in distinction from other kinds of communities. A just republic should be clear about its identity as a community that binds citizens to government and government to citizens for public justice and not for any and every kind of good thing that the majority of the people might want. Citizens under a constitutional government make up a community that is quite different from communities of parents and children in a family, of teachers and students in a school, of employers and employees in a corporation, and so forth.

For one thing, a political order recognizes the right of government to monopolize the use of force (except in some cases of self-defense) for the purpose of enforcing its laws on everyone within the territory over which it governs. States are territorial communities of public law, which can be enforced by the police. Military forces controlled by the state may use force to defend the state. Families, schools, churches, corporations, and voluntary organizations have neither the right to use force nor an exclusive territorial claim. The kind of authority that parents, teachers, church authorities, and corporate boards exercise holds only for the members of their families, schools, churches, and corporations. Moreover, if any of these authorities violates a citizen's civil rights, the government may intervene (by force, if necessary) to protect the civil rights of those persons.

Within a single territory, in other words, many different kinds of organizations and responsibilities can coexist, but only one authority has the right to make territorial laws that are binding on all citizens and residents regardless of the other organizations and relationships to which they belong. It is in this sense that all non-government law making has a private character to it. This is not to say that families, churches, corporations, and scientific organizations, do not function in public or have public rights, influence, and impact. But it is to say that these organizations may not make laws that bind a person outside their own private jurisdictions.

Having said this much, we must return quickly to our concern about the identity of the state—the republic or commonwealth. A state should exist not in order for "the people' to use government to do anything they want with it, but rather so that citizens and government may establish and sustain a just public legal order. Such an order is upheld by laws that assure all citizens of fair treatment and that protect them in their many different vocations and responsibilities from unjust treatment by other citizens, by private organizations, and by government itself. Of course this involves the protection of many individual rights, the due process of law, and the assurance of an equitable share in public goods such as highways, parks, sewage disposal, fire protection, and much much more.

People Are More Than Citizens

But one of the most important aspects of public justice in a state is the government's proper recognition and protection of all the non-governmental responsibilities people have. Or to put it another way, citizens under government are always more than simply citizens; they are people whose talents and vocations may involve marriage, family life, business, science, art, journalism, and a thousand other non-political activities. A just state is one in which government protects what is not political and does not attempt to exercise an unlimited or omnicompetent authority in every aspect of life.

In the United States we tend to take for granted that our government cannot be totalitarian because we are a democracy, we hold regular elections, and we protect individual rights. But "the people" in a democracy can, by means of majority votes, push government to rule on a host of non-political issues. Such overreach, or over-extension of government power, is typically what offends the advocates of minimal government, and their reaction is to become even more hostile to government. The dynamic that unfolds is one of increasing conflict between minimalists, who want government to do as little as possible, and maximalists who want government to do any good thing they want it to do. In both cases, true public justice gets lost.

Citizens living under government do constitute a real community defined as a public-legal community, and all of its members (who should properly be called "citizens") have a right to share in the fruits and benefits of its commonwealth. Government in a republic has more responsibility than merely to defend individuals against thieves and murderers. A minimal government will not be able to promote the general welfare of the republic. But by the same token, a maximalist effort to promote any and every good thing by means of government may interfere with or dislodge responsibilities that properly belong to parents, teachers, scientists, doctors, pastors, neighbors, friends, and entrepreneurs. Public justice means doing justice both to the "republic" (from the Latin res publica, meaning public entity) in which all citizens share, as well as to what people hold separately in capacities that are not politically qualified.


4. Government with Representation

January-February 1995

By James W. Skillen

[This is the fourth part in a series of articles elucidating the basic principles and the approach to politics of the Center for Public Justicewritten by Dr. Skillen.]

A recent article in Britain's Economist (Nov. 12) reporting on the last November's American election said, "All political structures are threatened by popular cynicism, distrust and the longing for more direct forms of citizen action. Revulsion goes wide and deep."

Strong language. But do Americans really long for more direct forms of civic action? And would something more direct actually overcome the cynicism and distrust? Voters managed to act quite decisively last November to elect enough Republicans and to throw out enough Democrats to shake up Congress and put Washington on notice. Moreover, thousands of interest groups, many supported by citizens at the grass roots, maintain direct access to legislators in Washington and state capitals. Why then all the cynicism and distrust?

Opinion surveys during the election showed that most of those voting Republican also wanted diminished government in Washington, or at least less expensive government. Is that desire the flip side of distrust? If government cannot be trusted, is the answer simply to demand less of it or to give it less to spend? How small will government have to become before it can be trusted?

The internal contradictions and incoherence of these opinions will become clear soon enough. The remedy for cynicism, after all, is better government not merely a smaller amount of untrustworthy government. And better government in a country of more than 250 million people will come not by means of direct (town-meeting?) democracy but by a better system of representation. The fundamental question is this: what constitutes trustworthy government, and how can it best be held accountable by citizens through a just system of representation?

Commentator George Will, along with millions of citizens who have been voting for term limits, believes that de-professionalizing representative government will solve the problems. In other words, rig the system so that no representative can return to office for more than a few terms. It is not enough that government should be distrusted; citizens should distrust themselves and take away some of their own voting power. Term limits, it seems to me, is cynicism turned against citizens without overcoming cynicism about government. Term limits hardens the law of distrust.

Those who told the pollsters that they want a smaller federal government also appear to be living with contradictions and refusing to face up to reality. Insofar as the federal government is active in delivering Social Security benefits, defense against foreign aggression, tax reductions for home owners who pay interest on mortgages, an interstate highway system, and a thousand other benefits, then most citizens do not want less government. In fact, the Republicans made clear in their campaign promises that they would not touch Social Security if they won the right to begin reducing federal spending and down-sizing government. Federal expenditures will remain massive even under a Republican Congress. The real question is, what should government be doing at each level and how should it act with the authority needed to uphold justice rather than merely to broker the demands of competing interest groups?

The Office of Government

The first thing that the Center for Public justice emphasizes is that government is a God-ordained office of accountability. This in itself does not answer the question of how much or what kind of responsibility government has, or how its responsibility should be divided federally or among different branches of government. But it does say that government is ultimately accountable to God, and its authority to uphold justice is a trust from God rather than a mere expression of popular will. Consequently, government is not free simply to do whatever the people want—whether that means doing as much as some people want or doing as little as other people want. Government is called by God to establish, enforce, and adjudicate just public laws for the wellbeing of the commonwealth.

Rather than falling back on cynicism, distrust, and revulsion, citizens should turn their critical attention to the reasons why government is failing to do justice. We should be seeking deep reforms rather than superficial antidotes. Term limits, balanced budget amendments, the line-item veto, a moment of silence in public schools—these are not serious enough to melt away cynicism and overcome distrust of government.

Insofar as government at various levels has overreached its authority either by taking on (or by overruling) the responsibilities that properly belong to individual persons, or churches, or schools, or other institutions, then undoubtedly government has failed to fulfill the obligations of its divine office. In these circumstances government needs to be reformed. But we should not imagine that such reform can be achieved simply by cutting government expenditures or by taking away a particular kind of unjust overreach by the federal government and giving it to state governments. The key is not to obtain less government but to get government to do what it ought to do.

If the most recent American election portends a growing popular debate about the proper task of government, then we should be very thankful for the election's outcome. Christians should jump at the opportunity to participate in a much-needed debate about the proper calling of government, which has been ordained by God for a complex society such as ours. But if the only debate that now occurs is a squabble over who will be able to cut government spending the most, or who will be able to hold onto a bigger share of the diminishing American pie, then we will be worse off than before.

If, for example, in order not to touch Social Security expenditures, Congress tries to balance the federal budget by eliminating rather than reforming relief programs for the poor, then we will not see greater justice flowing from "less" government. If, on the other side, in order to protect the jobs of public school teachers and public social service providers, state and federal governments refuse to institute reforms that could improve education for all students and allow greater room for non-government service agencies to help the poor, then public justice will not be uphold simply because "more" government is retained. If government enacts tax cuts that merely help the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, then it will not be fulfilling the demands of its office. If government at any level continues to take tax revenue for purposes that thwart family responsibilities, personal initiative, and religious freedom, then it will not thereby promote justice but will only use its superior force for evil.

The only way the American people can overcome their distrust of government is by holding government accountable to its high calling of justice rather than demanding benefits or tax relief (or both) that force representatives into the position of merely playing off competing interests against one another. The divine office of government cannot be satisfactorily filled by interest-group brokers. It does not matter whether the special interests are pleading for more or for less government. Government is an office required to rise above pay-offs, bribes, and special-interest pleadings to uphold a just public order for all citizens and for the well-being of the Republic as a whole.

Meaningful Representation

The right of citizens to be represented by officials whom they elect is an essential ingredient of modern democratic politics. Not that elections guarantee just governments, but they serve as one kind of accountability structure for government. Why is it then that citizens feel so alienated from government even though they have the right to vote? Why does George Will campaign so vigorously for term limits when regular elections give voters the opportunity every two or four years to limit the terms of incumbents and to elect new representatives if they want to do so?

The problem arises in part because of the kind of electoral system we have in the United States. Citizens are not represented according to their convictions about what government ought to be and do. Rather citizens are represented on the basis of the district in which they live, where a majority winner represents everyone, including those who voted against him or her. This winner-take-all, single-member-district system of representation is seriously flawed in two different ways.

First, this system makes it impossible for minority viewpoints (even 25 or 30 percent of the population) to gain representation. And often those people simply quit voting and become cynical as they realize that they are required to submit to government without representation.

Second, this system makes it very difficult for a national party to organize (and discipline) all its members around a common platform designed to serve the public interest. Each representative is on his or her own, and therefore everything has to be negotiated in Congress after the election. Voters do not get to vote for a firm national platform that will compel the winning party to perform according to its promises. The closest we've come to this in recent decades is the 10-point "contract" that the congressional Republicans announced prior to the 1994 election. But that "contract" was not a complete platform and it only promised a congressional vote on each issue, not that all Republicans would stand together in support of each point. Our system, then, produces separate, undisciplined representatives who become sitting ducks for the influence of unelected interest groups that dominate the bargaining process in Washington.

The way to overcome this double-trouble electoral system is not through term limits. Term Limits will only strengthen the influence of interest-group professionals while making it impossible for citizens to keep on electing excellent representatives. It will do nothing to develop strong national party platforms or to allow minority viewpoints to be represented.

What we need instead is a system of proportional representation (PR), beginning in the House of Representatives. In a PR system, nothing keeps a popular party from winning a large majority, but minority parties are also free to gain representation. House seats would be allocated to different parties in each state in proportion to the number of votes each party receives in that state. Not only would this system encourage more citizens to participate in elections by overcoming their sense of alienation; it would also force parties to adopt strong platforms, to discipline their members around those platforms, and to become national in scope.

The reason that parties would develop strong and comprehensive platforms is that PR is not a winner-take-all system. A party wins votes only by defining itself clearly in contrast to other parties, not by being ambivalent or unclear. Further, no party will keep members who casually disregard its platform after they are elected to Congress. And finally, each state party will work to build a strong alliance with sister parties in other states so that a national party can function as a single unit in Congress. No party will be guaranteed a majority in the House of Representatives. Each will have to demonstrate its strength nationwide, and that will require disciplined, national parties with strong and clear party platforms.

The United States needs a new and more just system of representation, which makes room for minority parties as well as majority parties, and which thereby promotes a more serious, ongoing national debate about the proper role of government—a role that Christians should recognize as an office accountable to God.


5. Political Fairness and Equity

July-August 1995

By James W. Skillen

[This is the fifth part in a series of articles elucidating the basic principles and the approach to politics of the Center for Public Justicewritten by Dr. Skillen.]

The Center for Public justice affirms that government should act in the public interest, treating all citizens fairly and equitably. Sounds simple enough, but what does it mean?

For many people the democratic process circumscribes what is possible for government to achieve and leaves little room for anything more to be said about fairness; the people should get what they want. Others believe that justice is a goal or ideal that can never be fully actualized, so the word is largely irrelevant for practical political considerations.

In contrast to these two views, we believe that justice is a genuine standard that always places its demands on people and governments. Even though it may be difficult for us to discover what is fair and just in every circumstance, the principle should always occupy center stage in our political deliberations.

Among other things, justice demands of government the fair and equitable treatment of citizens not only in the courts but also with respect to government's distribution of public goods and services. This means no discrimination among citizens for wrong or irrelevant reasons. In seeking to protect the environment, for example, government should put restrictions fairly on all companies and not allow some to escape the restraints. Or when government offers support for the education of children it should not give special advantage to one racial or religious group over others.

At the same time, equity requires positive discrimination when meaningful differences exist. For example, government ought to treat profit-making companies differently than it treats nonprofit companies in the tax code. And government should, for constructive reasons, distinguish between those who are, and those who are not, handicapped when it allocates educational resources to students.

The Contemporary Budget Debate

To make these general points more concrete, let's step into the contemporary debate over balancing the federal budget. The current Republican majority in Congress certainly deserves credit for pushing vigorously for deficit reductions over the next seven years. The equity and fairness argument behind budget reductions appears almost self-evident when we recognize the degree to which recent generations have been passing on an ever-growing debt to future generations. That is unfair.

I will say more in a moment about the inadequacies of these new budget proposals. But before doing that we need to consider the deeper crisis of government that lies behind the budget predicament. The unusual achievement of the Gingrich-led Republicans during the first half of 1995 has been the high degree of party discipline they have managed to maintain around a multi-part legislative agenda. Opponents may not like all parts of that agenda, but it is becoming clearer each day that the only constructive way to oppose those parts will have to be by proposing an equally disciplined and comprehensive alternative program. Those who criticize one item or another on the Republican agenda, complaining that someone will suffer a loss due to cutbacks, do little to enhance the debate. The status quo is simply unfair and unacceptable. If something is not done now to correct government's perpetual overspending, many more people will suffer in the future.

The deeper question concerns the very possibility of healthy governance over time. The predicament in which we find ourselves today is due to the fact that for the past 25 years no disciplined majority controlling Congress and/or the presidency has existed to pursue an integrated legislative agenda built on a balance of income and expenditures. That is why we have had booming budget deficits. Shifting majorities on single legislative issues have been making piece-by-piece spending decisions, but a disciplined majority has not existed to put all the pieces together within the framework of a balanced budget.

While the Republicans' current budget-balancing proposal is not adequate in many respects, as judged by the standards of fairness and equity, it may be the only way to begin to get the public behind a step-by-step program that can become more just each year over the next 5-10 years. After all, a disciplined, governing majority cannot exist without winning and maintaining popular support. Criticism that merely picks on one item or another in the budget proposal, implying that such a cut need not be made, is of no help whatever unless the critics can show how their preferred expenditure can fit into a different balanced budget.

If the Republican cuts are not the right ones, then what is a better, fairer budget? If in each of the next seven years the Republicans can improve on their programs and budget, winning more and more public support to achieve greater fairness and equity, then they will deserve the praise they will receive for their political leadership. If the Republican program as a whole is unfair and inadequate, then the opposition simply must offer a better total package that sufficient evidence that the Democratic party can discipline itself to reach that better goal over the long term.

The point is that after decades of undisciplined, interest-group politics, the well-being of the country cannot be achieved one issue at a time. Fairness and equity depend on comprehensive, coherent governance, and such governance depends on party discipline that builds up and sustains public confidence.


Having raised the issue of the larger governing crisis and having noted the positive potential of newly disciplined parties pursuing comprehensive legislative programs, let's now take a brief look at the House and Senate Republicans' newly proposed budgets; (the two budget proposals have not been reconciled at the time of writing).

Questions about fairness and equity must, of course, come to grips with more than simply the need for a balanced budget. Within a seven-year plan for achieving balance, how fair does the relationship among budgeted items look? The plan to slow up projected increases in Medicare spending, for example, may be essential from a cost-cutting perspective, but if so, why cut only Medicare and not Social Security, which entails even larger expenditures? Moreover, if Medicare spending is to be held in check, why put forward a plan in which the most serious cuts will not come until 2000 and 2001, rather than sooner? By that time, a new Congress might not be able to carry through with such heavy cuts and it may do what the current Congress is doing, namely, putting the heaviest cuts off till later.

We must ask, therefore, whether the Republicans are serious or are merely trying to make themselves look good while leaving the pain for later? That's what President Reagan did; that's what recent Democrats have done. What's fair and equitable about that?

Beyond the timing question, we should also ask what sense it makes to propose cut-backs in Medicare expenditures without reforming the health-care system itself, Here again, equity and fairness should lead to a concern with much more than budget numbers in the abstract. A great deal of Medicare's uncontrolled growth has been caused by a poorly designed insurance system. A better system could help make Medicare both fairer and less expensive. By not addressing the underlying causes of the huge growth in medical costs, the majority in Congress gives the impression that it is making great progress in the fight against budget deficits. But if the cuts in Medicare expenditures don't address the underlying health-care crisis, then elderly sick people may simply be forced to suffer more and more in the years ahead. What is fair about that?

The motivation behind my criticism is not to imply that Medicare expenditures should not be cut, but only that a disciplined Republican (or Democratic) Party will soon have to produce a plan to reform health care. If that is not done long before 2002, then the growing injustices associated with the country's health-care crisis may outdistance the less significant injustice of an unbalanced budget.


Consider also the proposed cuts in welfare expenditures. It is certainly legitimate, even urgent, for the federal government to reform its failing welfare system. Programs that keep the poor dependent on bureaucracies and fail to make a dent in the worst kinds of poverty ought to be ended. That kind of argument, however, should be made as a matter of principle with regard to bad policies whether or not the budget is in balance. By contrast, to argue that welfare programs should be cut to help overcome the budget deficit makes no sense at all if the savings is relatively small (as it is) and if, at the same time, Congress plans to continue spending huge amounts on other unfair programs without reforming them.

Huge government subsidies, for example, go to the middle and upper classes through mortgage-interest deductions and through large Social Security benefits to some who do not pay a fair tax on their incomes as a whole. If welfare programs need to be reformed because they are bad programs, then many other programs should also be reformed. If government spending should to be cut, then it should be cut fairly and equitably everywhere and not only where the majority can get away with it because the poor do not have a strong enough voice to contend for more responsible programs.

Federalism vs. the Empowerment of Non-Government Organizations

Take yet another important area of controversy. The Republican majority repeats again and again that it wants to put power back in the hands of the people and overcome Washington's bureaucratic overreach. But what do they mean by this?

One of the House proposals is to grant a larger income-tax deduction to families for their dependents ($500 per dependent). The principle of fairness that supports this is that families with dependents need more of their income to hold themselves together and to rear their children. Those without dependents do not have a similar burden. Better to let parents keep more money as long as they have dependents. This is, in fact, a healthy way for government to uphold families, and perhaps the deduction should be even larger.

But this is something quite different from the federal government relinquishing responsibility for certain programs by simply sending money in block grants to state governments. If governmental responsibility entails the expenditure of money, why will state bureaucracies be able to do that better than the federal government? Is this really returning power to the people or merely giving more burdens and control to a lower level of government?

With respect to levels of government, if the states really are better able to handle certain governing responsibilities, then why have the federal government collect any taxes for those responsibilities only to send the funds back to the states? Why not let the states take care of themselves by raising their own taxes? Clearly, Congress is not going to follow this line of argument to its logical conclusion. So that makes the question about the federal government's proper responsibility all the more urgent? Unfortunately, this question has not been answered in the Republican budget proposals. When it suits them, they decry Washington's hold on power and argue that they are returning power to the people; when it suits them, they also decide to let Washington keep power to use for purposes that may appear quite incompatible with decentralization. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have yet offered a clear and comprehensive rationale for a fair and equitable federalism.

The challenge that the Center for Public Justice wants to help address is that of developing both comprehensive legislative programs and long-term governance strategies able to meet the requirements of justice for all.


6. Government and the Responsible Society

May-June 1996

By James W. Skillen

[This is the sixth part in a series of articles elucidating the basic principles and the approach to politics of the Center for Public Justicewritten by Dr. Skillen.]

On the day I began to write this article the newspapers announced a decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down a University of Texas law school admissions policy that incorporated a form of affirmative action. The court ruled in Hopwood v. Texas that it is not legitimate to allow racial minority students to enter the law school with lower grade-point averages and admission-test scores than would be required of white students.

This decision comes at a time when Americans are struggling to build a new consensus about what constitutes legitimate unity and diversity in the United States. What may government and the courts do to try to achieve greater social and economic equality? What is government's proper responsibility in relation to universities, business corporations, families, churches, and other institutions?

The fifth of six basic principles that govern the Center for Public justice touches on questions such as these. It reads: "The policies of government should display the recognition that the ongoing development of human culture can thrive only in responsible freedom. Government therefore has no authority to try to direct the whole of society by attempting to gain direct control of the internal life of non-political communities, institutions, organizations, and human relationships. Rather, it should restrict itself, in accord with the principles of public justice, to the protection and balanced treatment of the social and cultural life of its citizens." What are the implications of this statement for some of the difficult social and economic issues of our day?

This principle clearly argues in favor of government protecting the lives and livelihoods of all citizens in a fair and balanced way. It begins, however, by recognizing that people are always more than individual citizens in rela

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