The Neglected Craft

Prudence in Reformed political thought

Adam Carrington
Adam M. Carrington is Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. His writing and research interests include Constitutional law, American political institutions, and Reformed political theology.

Craftsmen. Some elicit our wonder with their artistry. Others go unnoticed, their work blending seamlessly into the landscape of our lives. We need both, of course. While the former add beauty to our world, those latter, ignored artisans make living possible, forming many of the structures and items we depend on daily.

Aristotle described politics as involving art or craft (techne). It, too, requires skill. It, too, could produce excellent, even wondrous edifices: regimes. It, too aids in living and living well. Once upon a time, the Reformed tradition saw politics in the same manner. Althusius, for example, spoke of “the art of governing.” Joseph Caryl, a Westminster Divine, described rulers as engaging in an “art” or a “craft.”  These thinkers, moreover, developed this artistry, doing so consciously within a Reformed framework.

However, by the twentieth century, political craftsmanship had descended into the dilettantish. Twentieth-century Protestants certainly participated in politics; the Social Gospel movement and the Religious Right bookended the period, each involved in electioneering and policy advocacy. Yet, for much of this period, American Protestantism largely ignored the foundations its efforts either violated or presupposed. We might passionately call for “family values” legislation. We might go door-to-door for candidates. But we read precious little Plato or NietzscheWe thought and wrote sparingly on the fundamental questions of nature, law, and justice that ground, consciously or unconsciously, all political deeds. We failed even to acknowledge, much less to cultivate, our craft.

One could fill a book investigating why twentieth-century Protestantism took this route. It would tell familiar tales, tracing the rise of Modernism and the reactions to it in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. It would discuss the American Mainline’s cultural dominance and the implications of that hegemony’s decline.

Instead of telling that story, this essay explores recovery from it.

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