Lows and Highs of Good Citizenship

It’s a presidential election year, so Americans everywhere can look forward to being bombarded by very important messages from super serious celebrities reminding us, ad nauseam, that we have a responsibility to exercise our rights as citizens by voting.

Now, I’m not opposed to voting. Nor to good citizenship, rights, or even responsibilities. In fact, I think those are all fine and important things. I confess that I find most celebrities somewhat suspect, and my suspicion increases in direct proportion to their tendency to take themselves too seriously. If they start singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” at me, things are liable to get ugly.

But this is an election year and, perhaps even more than most election years, this one promises to expose Americans to unusually high doses of both ridiculousness and rancor. And that makes it all the more important for Catholics to think seriously, not just about voting, but about rights and responsibilities and, in particular, what it means to be a good citizen.

Of course for most of us, voting is one of the most concrete expressions of our participation in the political communities of which we are members. But the reality is that the work of citizenship begins long before any of us sets foot in a local polling place. The vast majority of the work we do to strengthen and edify – or erode and destroy – the good of our political communities happens outside the voting booth.

First and foremost, citizenship is about love, that is, about willing and acting for the good of a particular community. A good citizen loves the political community to which he belongs. He loves it well when he acts in a way that places the good of his community – the whole good, the common good – ahead of his own personal or tribal interests.

The citizen ought to love his political community because it is his, not merely in exchange for the material benefits it provides. The good citizen must love his home enough to desire to fix what is broken in it and preserve what is good in it. And citizens who love their own with a proper love will transform it into something greater.

If that sounds a bit Pollyannaish, consider Chesterton’s remarks in Orthodoxy about the London neighborhood of Pimlico:

Some readers will say that this is mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

The Fourth of July, 1916 by Childe Hassam [New York Historical Society, NYC]

Now, not every city that is loved by its citizens becomes Rome. That’s not the point. The point is that no city or country becomes great, nor persists in greatness, which is not first loved. So a good citizen must first love that to which he belongs.

No one learns to love as he ought unless he first learns to properly distinguish good things from bad things. Now this might at first seem obvious, but a cursory look around this country of ours suggests that Americans are profoundly divided about which things are good (and therefore to be pursued and loved) and which things are bad (and therefore to be avoided and despised.)

One reason for the profound divisions about the nature of good and evil in our society is the erosion of those social institutions which, in accord with reason and nature, are so vitally necessary to shaping the character of a people. I’m thinking especially of the family, but this is also true of many of our schools and universities, workplaces, social clubs, labor unions, neighborhood associations, and so on.

Think of where you learned the most important lessons of your life: what to love and how to love it well; how to forgive and ask forgiveness; how to work hard and celebrate joyfully; how to help others and rely on others; how to trust and to keep trust; how to receive wisdom and how to pass it on; how to stand up for one’s self and how to defend the weak.

My guess is you didn’t learn these lessons from the state.

These lessons are invariably learned in the midst of those “lower-level” social institutions which are most under threat in our culture today. Most of us only step into a voting booth every few years; almost all of us spend most of our time in the midst of precisely these threatened social institutions. This is where the vast bulk of our contribution as citizens is made.

So the good citizen must take special care for those institutions of a “lower order” than the state, what Catholic social thought calls Subsidiarity. Without the health of these institutions, the state would be deprived not only of good citizens, but of all those other social goods that the state exists to protect in the first place.

Finally, in addition to loving the political community to which he belongs, and caring for the “little platoons” of society on which the larger political community depends, the good citizen also loves what is higher than politics.

The good citizen worships God because that is what the creature owes his Creator in justice. In worshiping God, the good citizen also acknowledges the limits of politics and refuses to demand of the state what the state cannot give. By ordering his love to the highest good, man ensures that his other loves are ordered as well. And in acknowledging a truth above politics, man acknowledges a common standard by which our differences might be resolved and our divisions healed.

Election day is just one day. One day does not a good citizen make. Loving God first – and family and country second – is for every day.


You may also enjoy:

Pope Benedict XVI On Subsidiarity

+James V. Schall, S.J. The Present American Polity

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.