One of the errors both Christ­ians and non-Christians make is to plunge into the midst of political debates without sufficiently reflecting on first principles. Just as we need a blueprint to build a house, people need to think through what ought to be the role and purpose of government in our lives. God willed the state, as Edmund Burke put it; but what does He want the state to achieve?

There are four categories that can help Christians think through the proper role of government in our lives.

1. Order. Order is the first responsibility of government. It is the sine qua non, the necessary precondition, for a thriving society. Without it, we can hardly expect things such as justice, prosperity, and virtue to flourish. And order cannot be achieved without government, which is itself an instrument sanctioned in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

2. Justice. “Justice is the end of government,” James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 51. Justice has been defined as the quality of being impartial and fair, the equal treatment of equals, and living in accordance with the natural law and the divine plan. What Judaism and Christianity have added to our understanding of justice — their distinctive and lasting contribution — is the importance of caring for the weak, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed. At the core of justice is the belief that everyone, no matter at what station or in what season of life, has inherent dignity and rights. This is not only a private concern but also a public one.

3. Virtue. For the ancient Greeks, happiness was defined as the soul acting in accordance with virtue. The Founders understood that the need for virtue is greatest in free societies because they depend on self-government, on citizens who govern themselves and their passions, and who lead decent, law-abiding lives. The role of government in the formation of human character tends to be indirect and limited. But from time to time, statecraft engages in soulcraft as well. Just as attitudes, mores, and manners shape laws, laws shape attitudes, mores, and manners. Beyond that, laws and government policies can affirm, or weaken, character-forming institutions like the family.

4. Prosperity. Government should champion an economic system that leads to growth, wealth creation, and human achievement. Wealth creation, after all, is a moral good; it helps ameliorate poverty, misery, and mass death. It makes charity and generosity possible.

Precisely how one applies these principles to the debates and issues of our time is not always self-evident. For example, one can believe in the importance of order — but that does not necessarily answer the question of mandatory minimum sentences. We can all agree on the importance of prosperity — but that doesn't mean we will all agree on what tax rates should be.

These are prudential matters that need to be sorted out through rigorous debate and empirical analysis. But these and other debates must be conducted within a proper framework, because politics in its best sense is not about power for its own sake; it is about the ends we hope to achieve through the use of power.

In thinking through the large, complicated topic of how Christians should view the role of the state, a caution is worth noting: Skepticism toward government is often warranted and legitimate, but contempt and outright hostility are not.

Government is not simply a necessary evil. So long as it acts within its proper boundaries and in a respectable fashion, it has a positive and constructive role to play in human affairs. Yet government at all levels often falls short of our expectations. At times of trial and failure, those who run government need constructive criticism — admittedly not always as welcome as it should be — and practical suggestions for reform. What they don't need are attacks on government's very legitimacy.

What Christians can best provide are moral categories and a moral lens through which policymakers, like the rest of us, can judge the questions before them.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is coauthor, with Michael Gerson, of “City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era,” from which this essay is excerpted.