10 minutes with Steve Monsma

Steve Monsma is senior research fellow at the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College and professor emeritus of political science at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., where he was on the political science faculty from 1987 to 2004. His book, “Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy,” was published earlier this year (Crossway Books). Recently Outlook editor Jack Haberer sat down to talk with Steve about Christian faith and politics.

JH: What drove you to write Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy?

SM: It grew out of my being both encouraged and discouraged when it came to Christian citizens being involved in politics. The encouraging part was that I saw more and more Christians, especially of the more theologically conservative stripe, becoming involved in and taking an interest in public policy issues. But the discouraging part was that I saw many of them, from my perspective at least, approaching issues in a bit too simplistic a manner without really thinking through some basic Biblical guidelines or principles and then trying to apply them thoughtfully to the public policy issues of the day.

So I wrote this book trying to suggest what some of those guidelines or Biblical principles are and to illustrate how they can be applied, or should be applied to some of the public policy issues today.

JH: Tell me more about those Biblical principles.

SM: Well, take the idea of solidarity. The whole idea that we are indeed to love our neighbor as ourselves, that we are to have a concern for others, especially those others in need. There is the idea of justice, one of those terms that is hard to define precisely.  St. Augustine spoke about justice being assuring that all persons receive their due. As we think through something like this, it has a lot of political implications for today.

There is the whole realm of civil society, these institutions and structures that are between the individual on the one hand and the national government on the other hand. There are churches and families, of course, but there are also non-profit organizations, service clubs, and on and on. I see these as part of God’s rule for society: that as we craft public policy, we should take into account justice, solidarity, civil society.

JH: John Calvin has been credited by us in the Reformed tradition as launching much thought on church and society. Can you reflect on that with regard to your work?

SM: I think Calvin thought, and I certainly accept the idea, that government is not simply a creation of human society or the human mind. Rather it has been established or ordained by God. It argues in favor of us as Christians really taking seriously the role of government in society and seeing it as a gift of God to limit the effects of disorder that is in society. I think that Calvin taught that government is to be taken seriously. This is one of the principles I try to develop in my book.

JH: Your book also seems to be influenced by Abraham Kuyper.

SM: Especially when it comes to civil society. … [along with] Pope Leo XIII when he talked about subsidiarity. I see some of their ideas, Kuyper and Leo XIII, who actually were contemporaries, their ideas as having importance for us today. Political liberals, when they see a certain need or problem, very quickly turn to government for the solution, and conservatives, when they see a need, say, “Well, we have to allow the individual to deal with that.”

They both are missing the fact that in between the individual and the government are all these civil societal institutions and structures that Kuyper and the Catholic tradition of subsidiarity talk about. When we as Christians see a need or problem out there, first we should ask what we as individuals do, what can our families do to meet that need, what can our churches, faith-based organizations, and our non-profits do to meet the need, and only then, when these organizations, and our families and churches are unable to meet the needs, only then should we turn to government and its public policies.

JH: Shifting a bit, one big issue being talked about so much these days is the collapse of the religious right, and the rise of the left-right, socially engaged conservatives who say that their faith engagement calls for care of the environment and the needy and the poor. Speak to me about that.

SM: I think you’re right. The old religious right probably was never as monolithic as the secular media pictured it, but I do think something really significant is going on, especially among younger evangelicals who are raising questions about what they see as an overly narrow agenda of the religious right, focusing only on issues such as abortion and same sex marriages. My book attempts to give more structure and strength to that movement. It’s not that these young evangelicals or I are saying that abortion isn’t an unimportant issue, but we do say there is a host of other issues that are also very important. We also are trying to say, when we start thinking about these other issues, whether it’s AIDS in Africa or creation care, we need to do so in a thoughtful manner, a manner that is guided by Biblical principles, not just jumping in and lurching from being tied to the political right to being tied to the political left. I think that would also be wrong.

JH: You are lifting up the notion of mediating organizations and communities, clubs, churches and the like. … At the bottom line we have on the one hand the challenge to be civil, on the other hand to be prophetic. Can you speak to that?

SM: I think we can be passionate about the issues we believe in and still do so in a civil manner. To me the key to this is that we take a thoughtful approach to the positions we adopt, but also when we as Christian citizens take positions on public policies, that we not simply act as another interest group that’s out to protect our own advantages, or our interests. This is a difficult special interest system. Everyone is out there trying to protect their own interests. I have often said that as Christians we ought to be interested in our own religious freedom, but we should equally be concerned about the religious freedom and rights of our Jewish and Muslim neighbors. If we take that sort of approach that emphasizes the common good, rather than our own special interests, out of that really flows respect of others, even those that might disagree with us. There would be a greater level of respect, and we would be treated with a greater civility.