Martyn Whittock advocates the value of Christians learning about politics and believes it’s a topic that should interest us all
’All truth is God’s truth’ St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) Premier NexGen celebrates all that children learn at school as well as being aware that subjects are taught in a way that leaves God out of the equation. In this series looking at key subjects in the curriculum, Martyn Whittock outlines how we can study and appreciate politics.
Politics is people
I read Politics at university and have a particular interest in how people strive to live constructively in communities, negotiate with each other, manage resources, and arbitrate and take action when things go wrong in society.
There are many reasons why I find Politics so interesting and why I recommend Politics, or Government and Politics, at A-Level and at university. At GCSE, political topics can be studied through Citizenship Studies. It should be noted that, at university level, it may be termed ‘Political science.’ I have a BSc, not a BA, because I graduated from a social science faculty.
While an undergraduate, I remember seeing a poster with the slogan: “Politics is people.” And indeed, it is. Our modern word ‘politics’ is derived from the name of Aristotle’s book, Politika (fourth century BC). This literally means ‘the affairs of cities.’ This term comes from the Greek word polis, ‘a city’ (plural poleis). To cut a very long story short, the Greek city-states, which formed the background to Aristotle’s writings, were (ideally at least) political entities ruled by their bodies of citizens. Now, to be blunt, these were very circumscribed political communities: women, slaves, and foreigners were excluded from participation in the decision making. But the idea was that people are political beings; we cooperate to make communities work; we manage power; we make decisions; we form and articulate ideologies, in order to define what are the ideas we think should guide our community behaviour.
The same idea underpins another of our modern words: ‘civilisation.’ This is derived from the Latin word civitas (plural civitates), which was the social body of the cives (citizens), united by law. This law-based governing arrangement was a balance of rights and responsibilities. In fact, civitas also meant ‘citizenhood,’ because it involved ideas of who you were and your involvement in community.
In time, the idea came to be applied to more than just the individual city or town where people came together to organise, legislate, and govern their lives in cooperation. It came to mean the ‘state,’ and was applied to the larger network that made up a recognisable political community. In this way, what had started as the face-to-face interaction of those (men) living in a fairly small society (by our standards), expanded to include larger polities, and in time (rather a lot of time actually!) all those living within it, regardless of gender and ethnicity. This is Politics – and it is rather important!
So, that poster I saw in the Student Union all those years ago was correct: “Politics is people.” When people say to me “I am not interested in politics,” I tend to answer: “So, you are not interested in law and order, how we do taxation and healthcare, individual rights, whether your hospital or library is being expanded or shut down, how we define each other, whether we should go to war or not. Not interested in any of that?” This is because, while you might not be interested in Politics, Politics is very interested in you!
Politics and careers
When I was an undergraduate reading Politics, people would sometimes ask if I intended to go into Politics. Instead, I became a teacher of History in secondary schools. Others on my course became journalists, worked in finance, entered the legal profession, went into management (commercial as well as public sector), became involved in public policy, etc. This is because the skills of critical analysis of complex texts and ideas, reaching substantiated conclusions, understanding political ideologies and government structures and processes, evaluating public policy decisions were – and are – transferrable skills. Some who study Politics go into a political career. Most don’t.
Faith and the challenges posed by studying Politics
Studying Politics involves a fascinating range of different topics and areas of life: political ideologies, comparable government institutions, policies, processes. Students of Politics explore questions regarding how countries are governed, how leaders are chosen, who shapes political policy, how resources are distributed, why wars occur.
Just to give a flavour of the variety of topics that might be covered at university, I studied units on: the political ideas of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle; British constitutional history; public policy making; Marxism; the government and politics of the USA and France; the development of the Soviet state 1917–1941; religion and politics. My degree special exam subject was in Soviet politics and history, but my dissertation was on Christian radicals of the British Civil Wars (with a particular interest in those whose radicalism was based on their end-times beliefs). That is quite a varied intellectual diet.
For young Christians (and older ones too!) this can sometimes be challenging. It means studying ideologies that, at times, are far removed from one’s own outlook. But this does not mean you have to sign up to them! I studied Marxism in some depth – but I am not a Marxist! We need to be rather more robust at times. Christians can sometimes treat examining alien ideas as if they are some kind of contagion, which they fear catching (a product, perhaps, of some rather anxious attitudes expressed at home churches). There will, at times, be difficult questions raised, but we need to encourage young people not to fear this – and to support them when they are doing this, not shut down the debate. As part of this, we need (in our churches) to teach young people how the Christian faith meets the challenges they will come across. Too often a shielded faith is a fragile one. Studying Politics is challenging at times – but so is life when lived in the heat and dust of the world!
A Christian perspective? The study of Politics informed by faith
Christians should be interested in Politics. In the New Testament, the word that we translate into modern English as ‘Church,’ is ecclesia – and this is a community, not a building. In fact, in its origins, it is not even a specifically Christian term. It refers to any group of people who come together for a common purpose. It is rather shocking to discover that, in Acts 19:23–41 (when a crowd are gathered to persecute Paul and other Christians in Ephesus), the description of the angry crowd as “the assembly” in verses 32 and 41, and “a legal assembly” in verse 39 (NIV), translates the Greek word ecclesia.
The bottom line is that, in some form or another, people come together in communities to function as societies. These communities can be run well or badly. They can be based on ideas that are good or bad. As Christians, we take this idea of ‘living in community’ seriously; it is hard-wired into the Bible. Consequently, we should be interested in the study of how communities work, how power is organised, how people are treated. We bring values and attitudes to this study which will inform us as we explore and evaluate systems and ideologies. Since “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14 NIV), discussion concerning what it means to live in the world, and among other people, should actively engage us. Through faith in Christ – and the implications for behaviour lived according to this – we bring something very special to the study of Politics.
The following may stimulate useful reflection on Christian engagement with the study of Politics (without necessarily endorsing all found within them):
Not geared to Christians, but offering an introduction to the study of Politics generally:
Marcus A. Stadelmann, Political Science For Dummies, For Dummies, 2020.
Chad Pecknold, Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History: 12 (Cascade Companions), Cascade Books, 2010.
Alan Storkey, Jesus and Politics, Baker Publishing, 2005.
Studying Politics does not mean that what follows will be a career in politics, but these thoughts – from the UCCF Politics Network Team – may be helpful when thinking about the interaction between Christians and active political involvement: https://politicsnetwork.uk/think/should-christians-engage-in-politics