Skip to Navigation | Skip to Content

About: Faith and Learning

Faith and Learning in Political Science

Introduction

The process of integration is much more complex, subtle and open-ended than often assumed. More than a defense of the Christian faith or an attempt to prove the value of this faith against attacks from secular perspectives, our scholarship and teaching should be focused on understanding the human condition in our time, especially as it concerns the realm of the political, the hard work of forging a common life in a world that is increasingly diverse and interconnected.

Political science should hold a place of prominence at Calvin College. It is an important discipline in any educational context, for government and politics affect the individual, family, work, education, and worship dimensions of life, perhaps—given the superficiality of much American public debate—more today than ever before. Responsible citizenship and effective living require one to understand, and potentially to influence, government decision makers and processes. Yet because Reformed Christianity moves beyond mere individualism in emphasizing elemental societal structures as well, it follows that the social sciences generally and political science in particular should play an even more prominent role in Reformed Christian liberal arts colleges. Studying politics from a Reformed Christian perspective helps one more fully to understand the role of governmental institutions in promoting justice throughout society.

At Calvin College the influence of the Dutch thinker and statesman Abraham Kuyper is particularly strong, a fact that also argues for the prominence of political science here. Kuyperianism defines the role of government as the particular sphere called to protect and encourage other societal institutions in the fulfillment of their specific functions, thus requiring government not only to recognize its limits in relation to such institutions, but also to police the proper boundaries among such institutions, and between them and all individuals. Partly as a result of its special heritage, then, the alumni and faculty of Calvin College have played and continue to play prominent roles in government service and in public life more generally. The political science department applauds these contributions and seeks to model them before, and encourage them among, our students.

Challenges of Integrating Christianity and Political Science

Too often people view the study of politics as either, on the one hand, a defense of particular positions or policy options, or, on the other, merely a description of policy or partisan choices. One might therefore think that integration of faith and learning requires nothing more than either an “injecting” of “Christian values” into our political perspective, or a detached observation of political trends of apparent interest to Christian people. We find both of these approaches to be unsatisfactory.

On the one hand, the idea of a monolithic body of “Christian values” is not only uncorroborated by history, but also normatively undesirable. While there is a core of confessional creeds that most Christians share, the translation of these creeds into social policies, political allegiances and moral attitudes moves Christians beyond simple biblical exegesis into the area of political and social prudence. And exercises in such prudence will inevitably reflect a diversity of views. Christian students of politics thus have a duty to resist the desire of many students—and colleagues—to move quickly toward clear "Christian" positions on specific political issues, political parties, or candidates.

On the other hand, our job as Christian students of politics must take us beyond mere description of issues, or positions, or policy alternatives. We must work to bring our students and our larger constituency into deeper reflection on, and fuller engagement with, the God-ordained role of government to do justice to all who stand under its temporal authority. Such a calling requires both awareness of the work of particular political institutions and engagement with that work. It requires attentive and critical Christian citizenship.

The Content of Integration: What Political Science and the Christian faith can learn from each other

Political science asks how we understand political interaction, how we should study it, what institutions guide it, and what principles regulate it. The Christian faith can contribute in unique ways to all of these areas of investigation. Rather than coming up with “the” Christian perspective on particular institutions or issues, Christian scholarship is faith-filled when it provides an honest, thoughtful, critical and constructive view of a particular theoretical or practical issue, a view which is also compatible with the fundamental core of faith, the revealed truth of a loving creator who works to redeem his fallen creatures. This view can be appealing not only to Christians but also to many who do not share the Christian faith. Moreover, this view can and must be stated in universalistic terms, recognizing that political insight is not unique or exclusive to Christians.

Yet there are indeed times when our Christian perspective allows us insights into the human condition which are not available to all. While the intent of Christian scholarship in politics is not to prove that the Christian tradition is true or has all the answers, Christians can provide important insight to the dimensions of sin and grace that confront all political interaction and decision-making. Thus while Christ is the truth and is offered to all humankind, Christians in particular can detail not only the insistent and manifold ways in which sin corrupts both our individual and our common lives, but also the multifarious and surprising ways in which God’s grace operates to redeem God’s world. After all, all propositions about political or governmental institutions or arrangements rest on particular understandings of who human beings are and what they seek. These foundational propositions can and must be examined carefully not only to comprehend the larger frameworks of ideas and institutions, but also to muster any sustainable critique of such frameworks.

At the same time, Christians must be open to insight regarding political institutions and processes that comes from a keen-eyed view of politics itself, a view that often comes from non-Christian sources. Christians must understand, in other words, that politics operates as a realm with its own patterns, laws and expectations. As Christians, for example, we cannot claim any special insight into most electoral or policy choices, or even into deliberations over the best or most effective forms of government. Our scriptural grounding must recognize its dependence here on practical, even secular, wisdom, and such wisdom comes from many sources. Faith does indeed affect scholarship in the topics on which Christian students of politics choose to focus. Yet precisely in those topic areas faith-infused scholarship must credit non-Christian contributions where such credit is due.

To do our work effectively, then, Christian political scientists must engage in a two-fold process: a rigorous examination of the tradition of Christian political reflection as it interacts with competing traditions, and a careful analysis of the processes and institutions that make up the actual world of politics. This effort ranges from solid political-theological thinking, to rigorous philosophical inquiry into the nature of non-Christian political alternatives, to the hard nuts-and-bolts analysis of the workings of political systems. As the former two require that we be somewhat conversant with issues that touch on the disciplines of theology and philosophy, the last requires that we develop some facility with the basic tools of empirical research and investigation of the social sciences. This more technical aspect of the discipline is thus vitally important, for though we must avoid a naïve positivist approach to the study of politics, political science as such must not be seen as a mere sub-discipline of theology or philosophy. In a properly fashioned science of politics, normative and empirical methodologies should reinforce rather than undercut one another. Needless to say, this is a task which requires a communal effort.

Pedagogical Value of Integrative Efforts

In our teaching we try to communicate and to model this understanding of the relationship between Christianity and politics. We make clear to students that Christians have disagreed and continue to disagree on any number of political issues, and that this disagreement is not a sign that some Christians are truly faithful and some are not. The diversity and often incompatibility of understandings within the Christian community is a reflection of the fragmented and provisional nature of all knowledge one can acquire in a fallen world. We all see “through a glass darkly,” and the distortions of our vision take different shapes for different people. If our students expect us to provide them with ready-made answers to questions concerning what particular things Christians should do or say in the political realm, they will not find such answers in our courses. What they will find is serious engagement with political issues—from Supreme Court decisions, to weapons treaties, to conceptions of freedom—an engagement that questions all such issues from the perspective of Christian faith. Just-war theories, campaign-finance reforms and conceptions of citizenship all must be confronted with what we hold to be the principles that flow from our faith and with the model of a Christ-like life.

Among students there will be a variety of opinions about political matters, and our challenge is not to their opinions as such, but to how those opinions link to their Christian understanding. Our challenge is directed not at their faith, but at the casual smugness they often bring to political reflection and articulation. We aim to enrich, deepen or even change their relationship with God and God’s creatures. We want our students to leave our courses with a sense that the world is a tangled knot of sin and grace, that we live in hope amidst despair, that we must always take care to remove the beam in our own eye, before we pick out the speck in the eye of our neighbor, and that untangling the human condition is a never-ending task which only the light of Christ can make possible. The development of a disposition that questions finite human explanations and explores ever new ways to understand our fallen condition in light of the Gospel is the best gift a Christian college can bestow upon its graduates. It is only when we recognize the majesty of God and the finitude of all human pursuits that we begin to know Christ.

Needless to say, our faith also affects our interactions with students. First, it tells us to view our students as made in the image of God, worthy of individual, and respectful, attention. Our faith encourages us to attend to each student especially as they sort out their particular calls or vocations as these relate specifically to politics and public life. Second, it encourages us to employ more active learning techniques in the classroom, such as simulations and academically based service-learning projects, because such activities place more opportunities, responsibilities, and expectations on students. Finally, our Reformed Christian faith encourages us to set high goals for student outcomes, helping all students to take part in becoming co-sustainers of creation in their civic actions, and helping some students discern and perhaps begin a vocation in politics.

Our faith also affects what we teach and how we teach it. We focus our students’ attention not only on issues and trends most relevant to our Christian witness, but also on normative evaluation of issues and trends more generally. Politics and government should be marked by the quest for public justice, that is, the proximate balance between the often-conflicting goals of public order and equitable distribution of honors and opportunities.

There are any number of rewards in our seeking better to integrate Christianity and political science in our teaching. Such integration sharpens our thinking on the subject, and spurs us to write about integration, especially in preparing materials for class use. It is also exciting to see how well many students grasp both the complexity and the necessity of integrating Christianity and politics, and to see at least a few of these work to carry through with that integration in politically-related vocations after graduation.

Conclusion

Given the challenges facing the integration project in political science; given the necessity of such a project in our—as in any—time; given the value of such a project not only to ourselves but to our students and our wider constituency; and given the readiness—both professional and spiritual—of members of the political science department at Calvin College to engage in this work, the Department commits to continuing and deepening this work in the years ahead.

Adopted by the Department of Political Science, February, 2005