A Fifty Year Perspective

[A talk given by Stephen V. Monsma at the Christians in Political Science meeting at the 2011 Americans in Political Science Association conference]

MonsmaThis year marks for me personally two milestones.  One is that in two weeks—if I don’t keel over before then--I will reach the age of 75.  Even to me this sounds incredibly ancient!  The second milestone is that as of this year I have been a member of the American Political Science Association for exactly 50 years—ever since 1961, which is probably before most of you were born!  Because of these milestones the organizers of this meeting thought that perhaps I might have some worthwhile thoughts to share on both how the role of Christianity in political science has changed over the years and—more importantly—how that role can and should develop in future years.  I agreed to do so since I indeed have some thoughts on these topics—whether or not they are worthwhile I will leave for you to judge.

In the next 20 minutes or so I will first briefly outline three crucial changes I have observed in the discipline that affect the role of Christians—and of Christianity—in the discipline.  And then I will suggest three ways in which I hope we as Christian political scientists can in future years both influence our discipline and provide leadership in our churches. 

First then, the three changes: One key change I have observed is the increased role of women in the discipline.  Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, political science was almost an entirely male discipline – in my undergraduate days at Calvin College, I cannot recall one woman being in any of my upper division political science classes.  There were a few women in my graduate classes at Georgetown, but only one or two in my graduate classes at Michigan State.  In fact, a quick story can reveal how much the discipline has changed.  The one woman in several of my classes at Michigan State was a PhD student in sociology (then considered a more appropriate discipline for women). She was attracted to political science and considered transferring from the doctoral program in sociology to the one in political science.  But when she talked to one of the political science professors about doing so, he discouraged her by pointing out that they generally reserved all their financial aid for men, since women were likely to get married and abandon their political science careers!  Things have indeed changed—and for the better! 

This means that political science is now also an open field for Christian women. No longer is one-half of the church discouraged and limited from making a full contribution as academics to thinking through in what ways God intends His church to relate to and participate in the political realm.

A second key change is that we as a discipline have largely laid aside the battles that raged 50 years ago between a behavioral, empirical political science and a traditional political science.  I went to Georgetown for my master’s degree and then entered Michigan State’s doctoral program.  It was a head-snapping experience—it was as though I had switched from one discipline to an entirely different one.  I recall leaving my first graduate seminar at Michigan State thinking, “I didn’t understand two words the professor said!”  For at the time Georgetown was committed to what was called traditional political science and Michigan State to a behavioral, or empirical, theory-building political science.  At Georgetown I learned the historical methods of research and learned about natural law and the writings of John Hallowell at the feet of Heinrich Rommen; at Michigan State I was taught that political science was to be a value-free, scientific enterprise and that there was no such thing as the public interest, only clashing private interests.  Values and beliefs were for philosophers and theologians, not political scientists.  There was a deep divide at that time in the discipline, with behaviorally-oriented departments refusing to hire traditional political scientists and traditionally-oriented departments refusing to hire behavioral political scientists.  Today such distinctions sound strange, as political science is much more accepting of an eclectic variety of frameworks for study.

 This second change is also for the good.  It means the discipline is more likely to accept the appropriateness of us as Christian political scientists bringing values and perspectives that have been shaped by our faith into our teaching and research.

A third change is that there are many more serious, active Christians from the Roman Catholic tradition and especially from the evangelical Protestant tradition active as political scientists.  It is hard to overstate the extent and significance of this change.  When I received my doctorate in 1965, one had to search before being able to name another self-identified evangelical Protestant with a PhD in political science.  Roland Ebel who taught for many years at Tulane had obtained a PhD a year or two before me.  John Hallowell at Duke and Rene Williamson at Louisiana State University were Protestants who had written from a Christian perspective, but both identified with the mainline Protestant world, not the evangelical world.  But that was it.  If there were others, I am not aware of them.  Being an evangelical Christian in political science was a lonely proposition. 

In the Catholic tradition, there were some excellent scholars in political science, especially in political philosophy.  My judgment may be too harsh—and please forgive me if they are—but outside of Catholic scholars active in political philosophy Catholic political scientists generally seemed not to work to integrate their faith and their work as political scientists.    In addition, recall that the early 1960s was prior to or at the time of the Second Vatican Council. There existed a gulf of separation and suspicion between Protestants and Catholics that today is hard to comprehend—and that the Second Vatican Council helped to close.

Today, all this has changed.  It appears to me that this change has three aspects: There are many more evangelical Protestants in political science today to the point where we can no longer meet in the proverbial phone booth.  There are also many more Catholic political scientists who are exploring what it means to be a Catholic political scientist in today’s world, and evangelical Protestant and serious Catholic political scientists are recognizing their common faith and are working together in ways that was not the case 50 years ago.  This organization—Christians in Political Science—is itself a testimony to this development.

All three of these developments—the greater role for women in political science, the recognition that normative perspectives have a legitimate role to play in the discipline, and the large number of serious Christians from both the evangelical and Catholic traditions—mean that we are today now in a position to have an influence for good in both our discipline and in the church that we did not have 50 years ago. 

This leads to my second major topic.  Namely, how ought our faith to shape our teaching, scholarship, and service in order for us to have greater impact on our discipline and on the church?  Let me suggest three trends that I hope will grow and advance during the next fifty years.  As they do, I believe that we Christians active in political science may be used for even greater good than we have in the past fifty years.  The first one addresses our potential for influence in our discipline and the other two our potential for having an impact on the broader church.

First then, the way in which we can increasingly speak to the political science discipline as Christians.  This is easy to put forward as a goal, but it can take a lifetime of study and reflection to determine exactly what this means and how one ought to go about it.  This is a lifelong, continuing task.  If I really wanted to bore you I could describe the long, torturous path I have taken as I have come to understand this task and tried to follow it.  But I am convinced more than ever that our faith speaks to all fields within political science—to issues of political philosophy and thought, but also to issues of international relations, of war and peace, of legislative behavior and reform, of voting and opinion formation, of political development in the southern world, and much, much more. 

All scholars approach their research and teaching with certain values and frameworks of understanding, whether they be that of Enlightenment individualism or communatarianism, B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism or Marx’s economic determinism, or some other belief- and value-based framework.  One’s research agenda, the questions one asks, and the interpretations one gives one’s findings are all molded by the underlying values and frameworks of understanding with which one begins.  We as Christians need to make use of our Christian frameworks of beliefs and perspectives in a thoughtful, discerning manner. 

And there are rich resources in our Christian tradition on which we can call in efforts to speak to our discipline.  The Catholic tradition especially has a very strong body of social teachings in papal encyclicals, other church documents, and the writings of Catholic scholars.  Concepts such as subsidiarity, solidarity, and personalism and teachings such as the just war doctrine offer us a basis for the application of Christian perspectives to our discipline.  And on the Protestant side there are the writings of persons such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, public policy documents recently adopted by the National Association of Evangelicals and—what I have found particularly helpful—the writings of Abraham Kuyper.  [Those of you who know me, no doubt suspected I’d get around to Kuyper sooner or later!]  Kuyper was a late 19th century and early 20th century Dutch pastor, theologian, activist in many fields, and politician, serving many years in the Dutch parliament and for several years as prime minister.  If you are not acquainted with Kuyper’s life and writings check out Richard Mouw’s recently published book on him, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction.  Kuyper is an important figure who can help us as Christian scholars understand and relate to the political world as ChristiansAt least that has been the case for me.

As we tap into and develop resources such as these, we as Christian political scientists have the potential to influence our discipline.  There are three distinct ways in which we can do this.  One is to do political philosophy or normative political thought in the context of Christian concepts and values.  This is crucial to doing political science as Christians and in some important ways underlies and supports the other two ways of doing so I am going to mention. 

A second way to do political science as Christians is to give full recognition and to take into account the importance of religion in understanding many political phenomena.  Here, religion and its impact are explored as a subfield within political science.  Christians have and should continue to document and analyze the importance of religion in voting patterns, in understanding the world of nonprofit human service organizations, in the emergence of the European Union, in understanding the turbulent currents in the Middle East, and many other such political phenomena.  As persons of religious faith, we ourselves are often in a better position to recognize the importance of religion than our more secularly-inclined colleagues.

But there is a third way in which we can—and should—do political science as Christians.  Our faith is relevant to our discipline and to our teaching and research even when not directly addressing issues of normative political thought or the influence of religious beliefs and organizations on political phenomena.  Here, our Christian faith is less obviously relevant, yet it can and ought to help shape our work as political scientists.  For example, it leads us to see human beings in all their complexity, including their fallenness—their proclivity towards selfishness and evil—and their potential for selflessness and good.  I cannot go into detail because of a lack of time and—more importantly, if truth were known—my own limited insight, but I am convinced there is much for us as Christian political scientists to explore and contribute apart form normative political thought and from religion and politics as a subfield in political science.

There are two additional needs that I am hoping we as Christian political scientists will more fully meet in the coming years.  They deal less directly with our discipline and more with the influence on and the leadership we can give to the church. 

One of these two needs is to articulate in clear and persuasive fashion the importance of the political realm and the need for Christian believers to be involved in it as voters and in more active ways.  I have noted among many young Christians today and in some writings by Christian authors a reaction against the excesses of the religious right by withdrawing from politics.  I suspect that most of you have seen among your students a greater willingness to be active in programs of direct, hands-on help to those in need or in other programs to improve our communities than in political advocacy and actions.  Some writers, such as sociologist James Davison Hunter, have argued that Christians would be well-advised to take a sabbatical from political involvements. 

Direct acts of helping those in need and of seeking to improve our neighborhoods and communities are good things to do and an important way to follow Christ’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves—and certainly are an improvement over self-indulgent, uncaring lives. 

But we as political scientists realize the importance of the political dimension; we realize that if our politics are wrong many of the direct acts of help can be undone by destructive public policies—or by the absence of needed public policies.  It is hard to deny both the possibility and the importance for Christian influence in the political realm.  I believe Christian political scientists have a special obligation to speak to the church concerning the need and importance of Christian involvement in the political life of our communities and nation—and of the danger of withdrawing from such involvement.

It is important, however, that we not merely urge political involvement on our students and the broader church.  This leads to the second way in which we as Christian political scientists need to give direction to the church.  In speaking to the political world, paradoxically, it is important that we speak both with confidence—with conviction—and with modesty and tentativeness.  This paradox can be resolved by making a distinction between fundamental principles and the application of those principles.  Our Christian faith leads, I believe, to certain fundamental principles or beliefs that are firm and true.  Of these we need to speak with confidence and conviction to our students, the church, and the public.  Here I am thinking of such principles as the great worth of human life, of the importance of living loving, self-giving lives that reach out to the hurt and wounded of our world, of the fallenness of human beings, of the importance of rising above a narrow self-interest, of the existence of the hope that things can be made better when God blesses our human efforts.  Basic principles such as these lead to a Christian realism, or what I once termed progressive realism.  Change and progress in the human condition are possible, but boundless optimism is not a Christian virtue. “Yes we can!”—but only with God’s help—and sometimes our best efforts will go awry. 

But then there is the application of fundamental principles such as these to the concrete world of specific governments and events, and of terrorist attacks, business cycles, unemployment, tax rates, environment degradation, and undocumented immigrants.  Does God favor closing current budget deficits by raising taxes on the rich?  Or should we do so by shrinking the authority and reach of government?  Should we stop the loss of American lives in Afghanistan by withdrawing our military forces?  Should we create a path towards citizenship for a person who entered our country illegally, who has for 10 or even 20 years been a law-abiding, contributing member of society?  I believe it is wrong to confidently assert our answer to such questions as the Christian answer.

Here I believe we need to avoid ditches that lie on both sides of the road, and we as Christian political scientists can have a special role in helping the church to avoid those ditches.  The ditch on one side of the road is to assert clearly what God’s will is in various specific, concrete situations.  That is one danger that both the Christian right and the Christian left have not fully escaped.  But the ditch on the other side of the road is to say that our faith does not speak at all to such issues, that we have little to say as Christians to current policy debates.  The appropriate position and the one we as political scientists are equipped to help the church find is to take basic Christian principles and apply them in a prudential, fact-informed fashion to today’s contentious issues.  Here is where our conclusions ought to be tentative and put forward with a degree of modesty, yet we ought to put them forward.

At least among some of us it was popular to condemn the Moral Majority in its day, and today to roll our eyes at the Sarah Palins and Michelle Bachmans whose policy stances and prescriptions appear to many of us to be anything but rooted in thoughtful Christian reflection.  However, I firmly believe that part of the blame lies squarely with us as Christian political scientists for not speaking and writing more clearly, more frequently, and more faithfully to better ways of bringing our common faith to bear on today’s public policy issues.  I hope that the coming years will see Christian political scientists giving stronger leadership than we have in the past to the church as it seeks God’s will in the realm of contentious public policies and partisan election campaigns.

Thank you for listening to me.  I do not know how long the Lord will permit me to make a contribution in political science.  I have a book coming out at the end of this year, but I expect it will be my last academic book.  But I’m looking forward to easing out of the political science scene with the confidence that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of younger Christian political scientists able and willing to give strong leadership to the discipline and to the church.