Citizenship: Individual Rights or the Common Good?

I wrote a piece about citizenship some months ago and have been thinking more about it since then.  Who is a citizen and what does that mean has become a question of serious contention. Political parties are going in separate directions, with white supremacists and so called Christian nationalists pushing hard in the direction of authoritarian rule. That contention makes any kind of national consensus hard to agree on.  

On the one hand, citizenship is a legal status. One is a citizen of a nation according to its laws: one is either a citizen or not.  What does that mean?  In part it means the legal right to certain privileges that non-citizens don’t have, and in another it means the obligation of a citizen to support and work for the greater good. Therein lies one source of contention. America’s founders, however imperfectly, understood that for individual rights to be secured, citizens had an obligation to support the nation and its greater good.  If that lead to one’s own success in life so much the better, but the higher priority was the common good of all.  The idea of what the common good included was limited, but the bequeathed principles made room for generous expansion of what all citizens could be included in.

Another source of today’s atmosphere of unyielding contention is the assumed right to guaranteed privileges without one’s strong sense of the obligation of citizenship to support the national government, and the greater good, if through nothing else than informed voting. In today’s society, for a great many people, including state and national leaders, it seems to go the other way round. It is a State that bears the obligation to serve the rights of individuals, especially the right to be left alone by the national government. It seems the citizen’s interest is only an obligation to see that his or her individual rights and privileges are defended against government intrusion or the unwanted social values of others imposed on them.  The greater good is suspect, a harbinger of dreaded socialism, or worse, soviet style communism.  

There is some validity in both arguments, and it should be obvious that a balance could and should be struck that inspires citizen commitment to the greater good while protecting the rights and privileges of individuals.   What is more obvious is that it’s not happening.The argument for the burden to be on the state to serve the individual has become so entrenched that negotiating in good faith toward a balance is seen as surrender. An unyielding commitment to individualism does not deliver more freedom.  Rather it has opened the door to those who believe it would be better to limit who can be a citizen, and strengthen the coercive power of government to enforce a unified definition of citizenship that makes it difficult for “unwanted” classes of persons to become citizens and unwanted values and beliefs.  Curiously, all in the name of democratic liberty.

As an Episcopal priest, it’s heretically offensive that some claim to be defending Christian values which they define as mid 20th century social values that have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus and the prophets.  Added is the hubris that the United States should be a Christian nation according to their definition of Christianity – a definition at extreme odds with orthodox Christian faith. They believe they have the moral right and God’s approval to impose “their’ religious beliefs and values, excluding all others as sinful and criminal..

We’ve seen the results when states have used ideology or religion to impose strict rules of behavior and belief on an entire population.  It never ends well.  Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany are the most frequently cited examples, but they are dated.  Of more recent vintage are Orban’s Hungary, Putin’s Russia, the Taliban and ISIS.  In every case the move to focus on the exclusionary privileges of a certain race, faith or way of life ended protecting only those in power, driving the rest into  poverty and oppression.  Liberal democracy is chosen and defended by citizens exercising their citizenship.  It is not fated to be the natural evolution of the economy or politics.

The future for America looks questionable.   If we are not to slide in the direction of the worst examples, we must recover a stronger sense of national identity that values  citizen obligations to work for the greater good.  It has to be  an identity of American that is without barriers of race, ethnicity or religion.  I’m not sure how that can be done.  The usual menu of options like improved civics education for youth and adults, and a more honest telling of American history is necessary but not sufficient. Late in life I have come to think some kind of  mandatory national service should be considered for youth approaching the age of majority –  not a military draft, though military service could be a part of it.  There have been a number of voluntary programs that would serve as templates. In any case, the national service needs to intentionally expose participants to a full range of other persons, places and conditions. 

3 thoughts on “Citizenship: Individual Rights or the Common Good?”

  1. So well said. Should be required reading for everyone, especially all members of Congress.

  2. How important to make the connections you make, Steve, to modern manifestations of fascist and religious hegemonies: We’ve indeed seen the results when states have used ideology or religion to impose strict rules of behavior and belief on an entire population. I agree that national service should be required of all, with military service being but one option. We are so ghettoized now by race, income, and political affinities. Naitonal service would bring together disparate groups of citizens with a common goal and shared experience of service to a greater good. I imagine CCC and WPA, to a certain extent (they were still segregated by race), did that for an earlier generation, and we all benefited.

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