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Excerpt from David C. Innes' JCS Article

Below is an excerpt of the forthcoming article, "Christian Civic Duty and the Idea of Citizenship," by David C. Innes, set for publication in JCS II/2. It's not yet too late to subscribe and receive this issue!

"Christian Civic duty and the Idea of Citizenship"

Should a Christian “engage” with earthly politics or “get involved” with the contentious questions of public policy? This question was once the occupation of small, peripheral, separatist, Protestant denominations, like the Amish and the Covenanters, or even larger pietistic groups like the fundamental Baptists, with their emphasis on “preachin’, prayin’, and singin’.” Dissent from Christian political involvement often assumes a strict dichotomy between the concerns of this world and the next, between occupation with the things that are passing away and eternal matters. According to this view, Christians should be saving souls, not changing laws. Our calling centers on spiritual redemption, not political reform. Jesus assured Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judaea who was the embodiment of bad politics, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Thus, Jesus claims not to rival any earthly prince. And yet, he is the King of kings (Rev 19:16).

Today this dissent from such civic engagement has become mainstream, largely in reaction to the culture wars of the latter twentieth century. These began in the 1970s in response to the insurgency culture war led by the aggressive secular left, especially emerging out of the post-war sexual revolution. As this cultural revolution became the cultural mainstream, dominating all major institutions and supplying our new moral assumptions, some evangelistically minded Christians became in turn unsettled over how off-putting the Christian stand against these social and political innovations was perceived by our apostate and unchurched neighbors. Thus, for this past generation there has been a call to set aside saving the kingdoms of men for Christ so as better to advance the kingdom of Christ among men.[1]

To settle this dispute, the conscientious and thoughtful Christian must ask what a Christian’s civic duty is, not in this or that political order, but in political life as such, political life as it ought to be. The nature of shared human life within the structure of creation informs our Christian moral obligations, as it does everyone’s. An element of this political givenness-of-the-world, regardless of one’s place and time, is citizenship, the moral bond of obligation that unites people who share a civic community. Aristotle, the great classical Greek philosopher, by his rare logical, observational, and analytical abilities, had extraordinary insight into what things are, and thus how they are distinguished from other things. His works are neither inerrant nor authoritative, but the sober and serious have often found him a superlatively helpful aid for thinking about the world. It was the rediscovery of Aristotle in the twelfth century that launched the Latin West into a more careful and tremendously fruitful examination, under Scripture, of all things earthly and divine. In Book III of The Politics, Aristotle investigates “the citizen in an unqualified sense.”[2] His account of what a citizen is, properly speaking, helps the conscientious Christian think more clearly about our moral obligations to contribute as citizens to the common good, contributions we are especially equipped to make by virtue of both the scriptural source of our understanding and the regenerate affections of our hearts, our wisdom and our love.

City, Citizen, and Civic Obligation

Everyone lives in some country, state, nation, or another. We may refer to it most generally as a political community. Aristotle uses the Greek term polis, or city, meaning a self-sufficient political community. By self-sufficient he does not mean economically without need of trading with other peoples. He means self-sufficient in the sense that the people’s sustainable well-being in its fullest sense does not require any larger political body for its attainment—insofar as it depends on civic community—the way the life of a modern metropolis depends on the government and protection of a broader nation of which it is a part. In this way, the polis is “complete.” It does the job for us, whatever exactly that is.

Neither Aristotle nor the Christian understands civic life as capable of delivering the highest human good. Aristotle would point to the pleasures of friendship and the satisfactions of philosophic understanding as goods which, though they require the benefits of civic association, are not themselves among those benefits. The Christian, while certainly valuing friendship and perhaps seeking philosophic understanding, sees the greatest human good as being what Aristotle could not have seen: “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever,” as the biblical teaching has been nicely summarized.[3]

[1] David C. Innes, “A New Generation of Christian Citizenship,” in The Christian Citizen: Faith Engaging Political Life (Lindenhurst, NY: Great Christian Books, 2020), 40. [2] Aristotle, The Politics, trans. Carnes Lord, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 1275a20. All further citations shall appear in-text by standard Bekker number. [3] Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1.


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