If you’re like me, you didn’t pay much attention in high school civics class. My learning in earnest about government systems and civic life, particularly how they relate to the Christian life, began much later. But being an informed citizen requires much more than reading someone’s voter guide and watching the news. Here are a few things to help you be a more informed, voting citizen.
The Declaration of Independence & Constitution. One great feature of the United States’ foundational documents is that they are relatively short. Compared to the length of the annual Federal Register or even the Supreme Court’s ruling in a case of average significance, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are positively light reading.
If you are interested in politics and government — in other words, if you are inclined to voice an opinion about politics and government — you really should know what our fundamental civic documents actually say.
Freedom & Federalism. Although this addresses a more technical aspect of American government, it is a fundamental one, and Christians should be familiar with the concept of federalism. Federal has taken on a significance that it did not originally have, in that most mean by federal those things related to national government. Federalism, however, refers to the system of divided government in general, the division of power between national and state governments, and indirectly, of the division of state powers into further political subdivisions (counties and cities).
Divided government, in which not single ruler or group of rulers has complete control of civic life, is crucial to representative democracy and liberty. Where power tends to be consolidated, governments tend toward oligarchy, fascism and tyranny.
Liberalism: the Classical Tradition. Liberalism meant something completely different when von Mises wrote about it. Liberalism once had at its base a reference to liberty, and was applied specifically to liberty in economics, which we know now as capitalism. Von Mises demonstrates the extent to which economic policy — whether one promotes capitalism or limits it — affects every aspect of civic life: politics, nationalism, immigration, the purpose of government, travel, labor and capital, and even wars between nations.
Von Mises also addresses the common objections to capitalism and how to deal with distortions to and counterfeits of capitalism. Whether or not you reach the same conclusions as he does, Liberalism is a good primer on government, economics, and civic life.
The Federalist Papers. Writing anonymously, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison argued in favor of ratifying the U.S. Constitution. This collection of their articles addresses the benefits of a united group of States, and also deals with the fears of the anti-federalists, those who suspected that a national government would be too powerful, among other things.
The Federalist, as its commonly known, provides great insight into the intention behind various provisions of the Constitution, and serves as a good companion to the Constitution itself.
The Roots of American Order. Kirk’s is not the only perspective on the historical foundations of American government as they relate to the Judeo-Christian tradition, but his treatment here is thorough and interesting. He recognizes that the United States is not a “Christian state,” but asserts that all governments begin, at least, from a foundation of revealed religion, and that attempts to jettison the foundations is dangerous and should not be undertaken lightly.
Again, you might not agree with all Kirk’s conclusions, but you will be more informed for the better after reading this book.
There are many good and interesting resources related to government, including the Magna Charta, Lex Rex (“the law is king” by Samuel Rutherford), and the Mayflower Compact. These few will give you a good basis for thinking about and discussing government and the civic order.