April 19, 2010 by

Democracy and Citizenship


Categories: food for thought, Meanderings (look it up), politics? oh puh-leeze., Rantings

This post has been on the burner for several months, and I haven’t really made mention of anything political since the last presidential election (mainly because that’s not what this blog is about). But in just watching the unfolding of current events (including the health care debate), and continuing to ponder what the church’s role should be in such things…I think it’s time to write.

A few years ago, I was browsing through an antique store with The Wild One. I’m not too interested in old rickety furniture or antique porcelain; in those stores I gravitate to the old books and records and advertisements–cultural stuff from yester-year. And on this day I happened across an old grade-school textbook from the 1930s. It was about citizenship–all about how to be a good citizen, thinking in the best interests of your country, your neighbor, your fellow man, and being an asset to the community around you.

I nearly wept as I thumbed through the pages. We don’t teach this stuff in schools anymore, I thought. This sort of instruction was fading even as I became a student.

I lived in a “red state” for many years, but in the past few years my journey has expanded my circle of friends to include many folks with different views than I hold, including Christian liberals (which I once considered to be an oxymoron). I know Christians who think Obama is “da bomb”; I also know lots of Christians who think he is a bomb in a much more literal sense. I know Christians on both sides of the healthcare reform issue. And you know something? I see the point on both sides. I definitely understand why some people see Jesus as acting more like a political liberal than a conservative when He walked the earth, and why they vote Democrat because they see the need for social responsibility. I see why they support nationalized health care reform as a socially responsible thing to do. I do get that.

I am a political conservative–which, by the way, does not mean that I am a homophobe, an abortion clinic protestor, or an uncompassionate materialist. It simply means I believe in limited government as a best option. I recognize the need for social responsibility, for caring for the poor, and so on–and I even see these things as part of our responsibility as Christ-followers. It’s just that I differ with political liberals on how that should be done, and who should do it. I believe that a free private sector can do these things much more efficiently than any government, and that when a government forces all its citizens or subjects to pay taxes to support such efforts, it takes away part of our free will. (And history shows that when governments take over these things, they do it very inefficiently, both in cost and in service–just look at Social Security.)

I know I’m not the only conservative who feels social responsibility is important. I challenge you to test this out: this election year, when the charitable giving records of political candidates are released, look at the overall giving of conservatives versus liberals. You will usually see a marked difference overall between what conservatives give and what liberals give. Jesus said where a man’s treasure is, there his heart is also. Put another way, watch what people do with their own money, and you will know what is important to them. Conservatives can actually be very compassionate people; they just want the freedom to choose it, not have it forced on them. (And by the way…while Jesus practiced the principles of social responsibility and acted more like a liberal in some ways, He was not a political figure, even when people tried to make Him so. He practiced these things on a personal level.)

So I can feel the liberals ruffling up. “If that’s all true, how come the health care situation is in such a mess without government intervention? What about all the corruption on Wall Street, all the greed, all the big business executives taking huge bonuses while the unemployment rate blah blah blah?” 🙂

I’m getting to that. Be patient.

I said I believe free people can do it better than the government. I didn’t say they will. Conservatives, unfortunately, have been much too quiet about addressing social issues. And there is a reason why greed and corruption have run amuck, and why we definitely need some kind of reform in health care. I believe it’s because over the past several generations, we’ve been losing a key ingredient in what makes democracy and personal liberty work for us.

Citizenship. We don’t teach it anymore. Many of us don’t even know what it is.

Here’s the crux of the matter. I still believe limited government and personal liberty (i.e., conservatism) and democracy itself are the best way for humans to govern themselves. But the key is, for self-government to work, people have to govern themselves. There has to be some sense of self-restraint, and social responsibility, within the hearts of a nation’s citizens. But when the moral compass of a culture goes bye-bye, and when its citizens become selfish and greedy and tend to look more to their own interests than those of their fellow man, government has to intervene, to keep things from devolving into anarchy. Government naturally gets bigger when people won’t look after themselves and each other. As much as I personally hate that fact–I believe it is true. Even the Bible supports this; it says that law (i.e., government) is not for the righteous, but for the unrighteous. The more we live right (not just in moral issues but in social ones), the less we need government telling us what to do.

There is no denying that while Americans still have a strong humanitarian streak (as shown in times of crisis), our concept of citizenship and personal responsibility has been on the wane for some time. I think that’s what motivates the corruption and greed in big business–not big business itself.

My point is this: if we as a culture were practicing citizenship and social responsbility on our own, I don’t think health care reform would even be a topic on the table. There would have been no need for economic stimulus, or government takeover of GM, or increased government spending. What problems we had would have eventually been resolved through our own sense of self-restraint. Before my fellow conservatives simply decry all this, we need to ask ourselves a question: are we practicing the kind of citizenship that makes this sort of thing truly unnecessary? Are we governing ourselves, and teaching our children to do the same? We have no real grounds on which to speak out against big government if we aren’t doing the things that make limited government work.

I’ll take this even one step further. Because I do believe Jesus taught and modeled social responsibility (or, put another way, good citizenship), let me make another bold statement: I believe if the church in America had been doing her job all this time, modeling Christ’s love and mercy to real people instead of trumpeting intangible moral and theological statements, perhaps questions about healthcare reform and government social programs wouldn’t even have come up, either. We would have been on the forefront of social solutions before the problems even became big enough for the government to address. In fact, who knows where we would be on questions like abortion and homosexuality? If we had been known for our love and compassion more than our platitudes, is it possible these issues would have found a completely different path?

One can only wonder–because the truth is we haven’t been good citizens, either. As the church, we haven’t thoroughly practiced the teachings of Christ–instead, we just pretty much analyzed the crap out of them. In so doing, we’ve sold our birthright to the government, and reinforced it with our votes. Perhaps if we’d been modeling Christ the way the Scriptures truly present Him, the government would have no need to intervene.

I’m still a political conservative, and I still believe limited government is the best way. But I also recognize that realistically, we can’t just vote that kind of change into existence. The change is far more foundational than that. As long as citizenship and personal responsibility stay on the back burner in our culture, there will be a need for increased government involvement in the personal lives of our people. As the early church could attest, practicing that kind of social responsibility doesn’t guarantee freedom. But I do believe it is a key factor in a free people remaining free. May we (especially Christ followers) recover that sense of social responsibility that Christ taught, and that is so necessary for the freedom we value. May it start with you and me.

As the early church could attest, practicing that kind of social responsibility doesn’t guarantee freedom. But I do believe it is a key factor in a free people remaining free.

Musician. Composer. Recovering perfectionist. Minister-in-transition. Lover of puns. Hijacker of rock song references. Questioner of the status quo. I'm not really a rebel. Just a sincere Christ-follower with a thirst for significance that gets me into trouble. My quest has taken me over the fence of institutional Christianity. Here are some of my random thoughts along the way. Read along, join in the conversation. Just be nice.

2 Responses to Democracy and Citizenship

  1. Sarah

    Thanks for sharing your perspectives. Really well stated. I think you hint at the crux of the problem in your paragraph surrounding the statement:

    "But the key is, for self-government to work, people have to govern themselves."

    Yes! And for people to govern themselves effectively, the Kingdom of God must reign in their hearts/lives. (Since God is love, and love is not selfish).

    When I was a staunch conservative, I used to think things were getting worse. A lot of people in the liberal camp think things are getting better. I now believe neither perspective is accurate, as both are linear. And the world doesn't seem to work that way. Some things get better, while others get worse – and up and down, and back and forth.

    Humankind has fallen prey to selfishness and disregard for the well-being of others as long histories have been recorded. I would say that's true of both world history and American history.

    I look back at when the church did have a lot of clout in society, and things weren't that great then either (again, referring to both world history and church history).

    I do think that those following Jesus should be caring for the weaker, more vulnerable members of their communities and societies. But another question I have about that is: do these Jesus-followers have the resources and institutional infrastructure to accomplish this on a mass-scale? Perhaps if we all pitched in to build local clinics and staff them on a more local scale… But then that's just like taxation, only voluntary.

    What sucks about taxes is that you don't always get to choose how it's spent. (You just choose the people spending it). I regret choosing the people who spent trillions on the war. So I know that feeling sucks.

    What surprises me is the number of Christians that support excessive defence spending and oppose health care spending. Especially since the latter is such a higher amount than the former. I just can't reconcile that with Jesus and the cross. But, then again, I can't reconcile nationalism (us vs. them) with Jesus and the cross either… but that's just me.

    (Sorry for the novel)

  2. Kari

    loved the post, you put many of my thoughts into words. I think about these things often but I get frustrated when people decide what Christ would do is just the same thing that THEy would do.

    I go back and forth on making a difference and what that constitutes…big,small, insignificant? is there such a thing as making an insignificant difference?

    Thanks for the post, sorry for the typo's my keyboard is wonky. sigh.

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