An Election Year Resolution

Each Wednesday we feature an article from Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit http://www.capitalcommentary.org. 

In his recent article “Ethics for Caesar?” David Koyzis writes that in a democracy, citizens “bear an authoritative office whose responsibilities we must discharge as servants of God and of our neighbors.” 

So what does it mean for citizens to bear our authoritative office in an election year? As Christians who understand our role as citizens, we must not abdicate our calling to serve God and our neighbors by not voting, or by voting while uninformed. Just like any responsibility we bear before God, it takes time and understanding to prepare. On Election Day, will we be ready to fulfill this responsibility as servants of God and of our neighbors?

Here is what is on the table: serving God and our neighbors as citizens in an election year means that we elect fellow citizens to public office who will best uphold public justice at every level of government. To do this, we must begin by understanding this fundamental guiding principle for government itself.

Public Justice as the Guiding Principle

The vision for government outlined in scripture can be summarized fairly succinctly: government is to uphold public justice. Two interrelated components are at work here. First, public justice is upheld when government rightly recognizes that much of what contributes to human flourishing is government’s task. Government is authorized by God to promote what is good for human flourishing. This is often referred to as securing the common good –promoting the well-being of an entire society in right relationship with the larger world that God made through promoting justice. As part of this, government is also the institution authorized to restrain sin through law and provide lawful retribution for injustice.

Second, public justice is upheld when government recognizes that much of what contributes to human flourishing is not government’s task. This recognition limits the scope of government’s work to promoting public policies and lawful practices that uphold the ability of other institutions and human associations to make their full contributions to human flourishing. This includes a commitment from government to protecting the space for a diversity of motivations and beliefs by which humans live. It also includes specific recognition that restorative justice is compatible with the government’s work of retributive justice.

When it comes to the considerations Christians must make in an election year, these two components of public justice help us evaluate how a candidate understands government as an institution.

Examining Our Candidates

So how can we know whether candidates understand that the guiding principle for government is public justice? How might we discern if the candidates see government as an institution to promote the common good as well as one that must recognize the full diversity of human associations that are beyond its scope? This isn't about the civility of the rhetoric of candidates per se. However, campaign rhetoric can be a very clear indicator of a candidate's perspective.

Examining the perspective of candidates for public office on authority, utility, and autonomy can clarify quickly what guiding principles undergird their vision of government. Using these three concepts provides us with a helpful comparative framework for how the perspective of a given candidate does or does not line up with the guiding principle of public justice.

First, we must examine the candidates’ perspective on authority. In “Ethics for Caesar?”, David Koyzis explores the task of those who hold political authority. Holding authority is not an evil in itself, and Koyzis argues that the right exercise of authority is expressed by those in public office who act as servants of all. To uphold public justice is to rightly exercise authority. In contrast, Jesus characterizes those in leadership who wrongfully use their authority as those who “lord it over” those they are in fact called to serve.

Visions of government which embody the wrong use of authority seek to use the government's power to suppress human beings and the groups in which humans live their lives, often forcibly. Consequently, candidates who describe the purpose of government in authoritarian terms are looking to aggressively shape political community so government is freed from the responsibility to uphold public justice for its citizens, or in relationship to other nations. There are many examples of authoritarian governments throughout history, best exemplified by dictators who rule at the expense of their citizens’ basic well-being, or fascist regimes that harness populist sentiments at home for their gain, ultimately justifying their aggression towards other nations.

As citizens, our examination of the candidates’ view of the use of authority helps clarify their perspective on public justice. While authoritarianism is often rhetorically expressed as “being strong” or “getting tough on…,” the opposite of authoritarian forms of government is not passivity or weakness, but rather government which upholds public justice at home and abroad.

Second, we must examine the candidates’ perspectives on utility, which defines useful or right actions as those that ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Practically speaking, utility as a guiding principle for government reduces the common good to what should be done to make the most people the most happy, rather than policy making that considers the flourishing of every human being. This means those who are in the minority are not considered, and as a result, they either continue to be or become marginalized, and their ability to flourish diminishes.

Consider examples in modern history of political communities that equate usefulness with a person's ability to contribute to the GDP. Utilitarian systems which equate usefulness with making a positive economic contribution to society detract from the flourishing of the disabled. Utilitarian thinking sees those who can't make such contributions as a net drain on society, and ultimately sees no need for such persons to exist in the first place. Utilitarian thinking is incompatible with upholding public justice, which considers what laws or policies are needed to lead to the flourishing of all human beings, not only those in the majority.

Lastly, we must examine the candidates’ perspectives on autonomy. Rightly understood, autonomy is the freedom of a person from unjust oppression and the freedom for that person to be responsible to others. Wrongly understood, autonomy is only about freedom from. Candidates who promote a vision of government that maximizes the ability of individuals to exercise their rights to do as they wish without the interference of others are promoting a wrong understanding of autonomy. In examining candidates, listen for ideas built on the ethic that “People should be free to do what they want”-- which is sometimes accompanied by “as long as it isn't hurting anyone else.” A wrong understanding of autonomy says that what must be protected is the ability of individuals to set the terms for their own existence, explicitly not limited by or in relation to others.

A Christian perspective on autonomy says that all human beings are created in God's image for freedom from oppression and freedom to be responsible in relationship to God and to one another. Moreover, all of human life is lived in relationship to others in the context of formal and informal associations, whether families, political communities, economic enterprises, neighborhoods, or friendships, to name a very few. Upholding public justice requires recognition of human freedom in the context of human responsibilities. Consequently, candidates who promote individual autonomy at the expense of responsibilities to others are not in step with the guiding principle of public justice.

An Election Year Resolution

The ballot proves definitive in an election year. Whether on paper or a screen, in a booth, carrel, or in the comfort of our own homes, let’s reflect for a moment on the conditions that surround us and our ballots. The setting is arranged to ensure our privacy and security. This is a good thing because we are protected from coercion, and our ballots are protected from being tampered with after we have cast them. Yet in providing these protections, voting appears at first glance to be a solitary exercise of authority.

But in voting, we are not alone. We are participating in what is required to exercise a responsibility to uphold public justice that is shared by all citizens in a political community. As citizens, we do this knowing that we must be informed about the candidates and the issues in our political community, from the most local to those of national importance – as our responsibility before God and to our neighbors.

In the coming months, we will become disheartened by the examination of candidates for office. We will be disgusted by their rhetoric, and we will be disappointed by political parties or an electoral system in need of reform. Yet we must vote, knowing that the conditions in which we do so are far from the way they are supposed to be. This experience can hopefully inspire us to work to change the conditions themselves.

As we move towards Election Day, let us resolve in the months ahead to gather with our neighbors to reflect and discuss candidates’ perspectives on public justice. Let us divide up the effort to become informed about the challenges that office-holders will need to address both locally and nationally. Let us examine the solutions that candidates propose in light of how they uphold (or fail to uphold) public justice. In this election year, let us resolve to arrive at Election Day equipped, inspired, and ready to exercise one of the central responsibilities of our office. 

- Stephanie Summers is the Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Public Justice