The Politics of Nurture

The Politics of Nurture

A couple of decades ago, as a previous national election year approached, a magazine asked several of us to describe the kind of person who should be elected as president of the United States. We were forbidden to use any names, or to say anything that would point to one of the people who would likely be running. Just give us the general characteristics, the desire skills and virtues, we were told. When my long-ish paragraph appeared in print, someone wrote to tell me that he and a group of his friends had discussed what I had written, and they wanted to congratulate me for endorsing Abraham Lincoln’s candidacy!

They were obviously meaning to tease me a bit, but actually they were not far off the mark. I would certainly vote for Lincoln if he were running this time around. He embodied what I think of as some of the noblest characteristics of a presidential leader—not the least being a willingness to speak pastorally to the nation. Lincoln spoke movingly about the need for a national healing that could only come if citizens were willing to acknowledge their need for individual and collective forgiveness.

I got to thinking about all of this the other day, when I happened to read Psalm 72. Like just about everyone else in America right now, I am politically weary. For a while I found the primary season quite exciting, but I have been getting somewhat jaded of late. The campaigning has gone on too long, and the quality of the debate has been gradually deteriorating. I was beginning to dread the rest of the process.

So I needed a word from the Lord, and Psalm 72 gave it to me. That psalm was one of John Calvin’s favorites. He saw it as a confirmation of his view that the task of what he regularly referred to as “the civil magistrate” was a very high calling. There has been a tendency to see Psalm 72 as a prophecy about Christ and his divine leadership, and there is certainly something to be said for that. But Calvin would not simply leave it on that level. It was also a description for him of what very ordinary political leadership should be about:

“Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor” (Ps. 72:1-4)

Not a bad job description for a national leader! But that is not all. The psalmist uses a striking image to describe the overall task of government: may the political leader, he says, “ be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth” (v. 6). That’s a role that many followers of John Calvin–especially those who insist on a very “limited government”–typically ignore. Government has a nurturing role, a theme that the old Scottish Presbyterian divines also emphasized, when they regularly employed Isaiah’s image of the national leader as “a nursing father” (see Isaiah 49:23).

These days we are increasingly being given choices between fathers and mothers in political leadership. That’s a good thing. Either way, though, we need a lot of nurturing in the public arena. We need to be encouraged to grow as citizens and to flourish as a people who are committed to justice and righteousness. In hoping for that, I am not entertaining any fantasies about the second coming of Abraham Lincoln. But until the real Second Coming occurs, I do pray for a season when national leadership will fall like rain on the newly mown grass.


  1. I was first drawn to this psalm by Walter Wright, in a lecture he gave on leadership, with reference to 2 Samuel 23 and this psalm. Wonderful stuff.

    Comment by Gideon Strauss — June 2, 2008 @ 4:30 am

  2. […] “Government has a nurturing role. … We need to be encouraged to grow as citizens and to flourish as a people who are committed to justice and righteousness.” (Richard Mouw) […]

    Pingback by » Blog Archive » Nurturing government — June 2, 2008 @ 4:44 am

  3. Political Punting

    Politics loomed rather large in the news this weekend, what with the news coming out of the Democratic National Party Rules Committee on Saturday and its aftermath. On one hand, I’d like to comment on that. One another, I’m just getting so tired abou…

    Trackback by Transforming Seminarian — June 2, 2008 @ 7:54 pm

  4. Vintage Mouw.

    Comment by Brandon Blake — June 4, 2008 @ 2:03 am

  5. Politically weary? I understand that, what with the usual rancor and lack of actual discussion on topics. We’re stuck with the politics of personality again. But, these are exciting times. The nomination of an African-American by a major political party in the United States marks a new era in American political life. The race between McCain and Obama ought to be exciting. Let’s hope they bring out some issues!

    Comment by James Kim — June 5, 2008 @ 10:01 am

  6. One of the things all Christians ought to do in this coming election season is to pay close attention to the process itself and insist that the candidates and media (especially) keep their focus on discussion of the issues. We should challenge all efforts by the campaigns to resort to ad hominem, personal attacks which only distract and serve to hide what is really at stake.

    Comment by Georgia Keightley — June 11, 2008 @ 3:15 am

  7. Yes, tired of politics too–but I honestly don’t understand how or why we would apply Psalm 72 which was written in the context of a theocracy to a modern day democracy?

    I prefer Psalm 72 read with the Messiah in mind–not some benevolent 21st century President.

    Comment by Dave — June 12, 2008 @ 7:16 am