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Religion & Liberty: Volume 30, Number 4

Be civilization! Citizenship is more than voting

Do you want to be a good citizen? You really ought to vote.

Of course, you don’t need to read this article to know that. Everybody is saying this in a major election year for the United States. Organizations dedicated to getting people registered and voting are ubiquitous, the most famous of which is perhaps the MTV-affiliated nonprofit, Rock the Vote. Since its beginnings in 1990, it has been joined by a great many other groups, several of which are affiliated with social media companies. Facebook has been advertising that it has helped 2.5 million people register to vote in this election cycle.

Voting is an important act in any democratic republic, and the current elections are extraordinarily important. But is simply rocking the vote enough to qualify as good citizenship? For many people, the right and duty to vote is a kind of end-all and be-all of citizenship, but even that point of view ought to have some qualifications. More important than voting is voting intelligently. Good citizens do the research to find out which parties and candidates will do the most good – or the least harm – in any given race. Good citizens determine the answers to questions on any referendum issues before stepping into the voting booth. Further, they do their best to communicate their views to others about how they will vote and why.

Good citizens will indeed “rock the vote” intelligently, and help educate and inform others about the issues of the day. But voting and the acts around it cannot be the end of the matter: Citizenship goes on after the election cycle and extends throughout the year, because the elections are themselves about representatives who will legislate, judges who will judge, and administrators who will administer the law throughout the year. The Roman Catholic Church’s Compendium of Social Doctrine observes that participation in the life of a community, especially in a democratic community, should be about much more than simply the every-few-years electoral process. Instead, participation means that the citizens should be involved in decision-making and also the execution of the acts of government and society: “The different subjects of civil community at every level must be informed, listened to and involved in the exercise of the carried-out functions” (paragraph 190). For good citizens, this involves staying informed about civic life year-round, making sure that they make their views known to their representatives, comment on administrative procedures when there is the opportunity to do so, and do their best to shape public opinion on important issues.

Lest it sound as if good citizenship is really about making politics and administration a full-time job, it is important to observe that while citizenship involves our interactions with government, it is really about much more than that.

Citizenship is perhaps best captured in a story about the great English writer G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) during World War I. Chesterton was accosted on the street by a woman who asked him why he was not “out at the front defending civilization.” On other occasions when he was asked why he was not “out at the front,” the 300-pound journalist turned sideways and said it would become obvious that he really was out at the front. On this occasion, however, he gave a deeper answer. He responded simply, “Madam, I am civilization.”

The good citizen’s task is to “be civilization,” to foster the good of our earthly city in every way. Good citizenship involves our actions in and toward the entire society in which we live. Clearly, that will involve voting, and it might involve taking up arms to defend one’s country, as Chesterton’s accuser implied. But it is about much more. It is about using one’s authority in every sphere of life to help build up each facet of society, so that justice and human flourishing can occur.

Good citizens cultivate family life. They raise and educate their children, and they care for the elderly. Good citizens establish various kinds of associations to do charitable, social, and cultural work in a community. First and foremost among these associations are the religious groups that bring not just culture and service, but the essential work of worship and meaning to a society. Finally, good citizens encourage and participate in economic initiative, which provides jobs, products, and services for our neighbors.

We might say this broader understanding was first taught in the sixth century B.C., when residents of the old Jerusalem were captive in Babylon. They were no longer in their own country; they could not vote at all, much less rock the vote. Jeremiah’s prophetic words to the people of Judah in exile encouraged them not to give up simply because they lacked their own country and autonomy. Instead, he told them the Lord’s message was this: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). What he meant by seeking the welfare of the city clearly involves the first step of praying for it. The two verses preceding this one fill out the idea even more and match up with this broader understanding of citizenship. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease” (vv. 5-6).

Be civilization!

This broader understanding of good citizenship is not only true, but it is especially helpful for those who do not get the impression that they are rocking the vote, that their political influence is not making much of a difference in our governmental and public life. It is tempting to despair and give up when one thinks one’s vote does not count for much and the whole world’s going to Hell. There were no doubt some Judeans in Babylon who were tempted to think this way. Indeed, all Christians and Jews will ultimately feel both a sense of alienation and a temptation to despair because of our knowledge that our final destiny and the final healing of the world is beyond history in a new city, a new civilization, a New Jerusalem that only God can finally bring about.

The word of the Lord is clear, however: We are to seek the welfare of the earthly city, whether we have any control over the levers of power or not. We are to pray, to be fruitful, and multiply. We are to worship, work, and create culture. How successful our earthly city will be is ultimately out of our control. But how faithful we are as citizens, in this full sense of the word, is not.

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David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas. He is the 2013 winner of the Novak Prize.