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Devine – What Should It Mean To Be An American Citizen?

J. Devine
Bellevue University

Should It Mean To Be An American Citizen?

National Meeting of The Philadelphia Society
What Is An American?
May 1, 2005
Miami, Florida


It is pretty rich when the voice of modern U.S.
progressivism senses "foreboding" in the land because a new
conservative leader proclaims the need for society to "recover the capacity
for nonconformism." Rich, for it was progressivism that metastasized from a
newly radicalized late 19th Century Europe to successfully challenge traditional
American beliefs and institutions in a way not achieved by any other foreign
ideology or movement.

Progressivism replaced the traditional Judeo-Christian
morality at the center of a diverse American social life with a new vision of
scientific progress, cultural relativism and material prosperity that now
dominates public morality. It transformed a vigorous local community-oriented
society into one driven by abstract rules set by gigantic and remote
metro-county, state and national bureaucracies. Its ideal of citizen
representation was replaced by rule by government experts. This revolution that
to a great degree successfully overrode the entire earlier consensus is now
demanding conformity?

In the 1980s, E.J. Dionne, Jr.–the man Bill Clinton
acknowledged as the intellectual force behind his New Democrat, progressive
ideal–interviewed Joseph Ratzinger and asked him how a Christian leader like
him could insist upon a traditionalist stance when so many of his own professed
adherents will react negatively because they hold more liberal positions on
moral issues? Ratzinger replied: "If it is true that a Christian faith
taken seriously means nonconformity with a not inconsiderable number of
contemporary social standards, then a more or less negative image is
unavoidable. Nonconformists, after all, who enjoy great applause are somewhat
ridiculous figures, or at least unconvincing." It was in this context that
he concluded that the obligation of a Christian today is to recover the capacity
for nonconformity.

Many Americans still adhering to the old standards who are
concerned about the trend to relativism and bureaucracy in American mass culture
today might agree with him at first blush. Yet, even many conservatives might
find the idea of nonconformity troubling. Does not sound citizenship require a
certain conformity in beliefs, patriotism, a love of certain common national
values and symbols? Progressivism, which gave us the ideal of the melting pot
and a common national citizenship, certainly must be upset, as the reaction

Upon Ratzinger’s selection as pope, Dionne wrote that
"liberal Catholics around the world were filled with anxiety and
foreboding," wondering whether his vision of a "pure, hard and, if
necessary, smaller core of believers [would] leave them out," especially
given his earlier crackdown on liberals like the American theologian Charles
Curran and the South American Marxist liberation theologians. The fact that
Benedict XVI at age 78 was clearly only going to be a "transitional
figure" did not override for Dionne the greater concern about the
continuing "slow erosion of the progressive hopes created by the Second
Vatican Council" in the Christian community nor "how urgent it is to
revive" that earlier progressive vision for the future.

In the speech to his fellow electors just before voting,
which many say led the participants to choose him, Cardinal Ratzinger saw the
situation quite differently. He called for an "adult faith," one that
does not follow "the trends of fashion and the latest novelty" but is
rooted in a "friendship in Christ" that "gives us a criterion by
which to distinguish the true from the false," a standard "fulfilled
in love" for the "only thing that lasts," the "human person
created by God for eternity." Yet, "today, having a clear faith based
on the creed of the church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas
relativism, that is, letting oneself be √ętossed here and there, carried about
by every wind of doctrine,’ seems the only attitude that can cope with modern
times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize
anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego
and desires."

So, Ratzinger was not calling for nonconformity for the
sake of nonconformity in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s sense of simply following ones
"own heart," but one "conformed and united with the divine
will" but also in a context where values cannot be imposed and where it is
essential to reach out to other faiths. This is a different sense of
citizenship, one that is tolerant of other values and even acceptant that
relativism might be dominant in the modern mass culture but one that is ready to
confront it in rational debate over what is true. In fact, locked out of power,
this confrontation inevitably is one based in voluntary associations, locally,
and particularly in churches.

Alexis de Tocqueville found a similar citizenship in the
early U.S. He discovered an America dominated by voluntary associations and
local governments and only united in a general religious sense of Bible-based
morality and obligation. Unlike in Europe, he was dumbfounded that he could find
no evidence of the national government in everyday life. Even state governments
were nearly invisible beyond the remote courthouse. The only place outside the
capitol where the national government was evident was in the hearts of its
people. Indeed, because the national government did little for or to citizens,
each person could view it differently in his own heart to represent what was
noble and moral about it for each. This resulted in greater love for country and
more active citizenship than in any of the more prosperous nations of the Old

A recent study of eighth and twelfth grade students by John
Chiodo and Leisa Martin and reported in the Journal of Social Studies Research
asked what citizenship meant to them. First of all, almost all of the students
had an answer. The specific results were interesting too. A majority said
citizenship was helping people in the community and through their churches.
Another fifth said citizenship was obeying the rules of community, church and
school. The rest said patriotism (undefined) and loyalty, respect for others,
and work and being employed. Interestingly, as with the Americans in de
Tocqueville’s time, national government and even its symbols were missing
although, also following him, more aggressive probing finds that when the
national government and its symbols are raised, they are viewed positively.

Of course, the students were only in the early stage of
social indoctrination from the outside world, today primarily from progressive
cultural elites in the media and arts, and a supportive bureaucracy controlling
a massive welfare state. Citizenship apparently begins locally but is gradually
"liberated" from the concrete ways of home, community, church and
local school. A more abstract nationalized culture delivered through a mass
media starting in infancy with television, and then teen music, art and
entertainment, and finally an "adult" culture mired in cultural
relativism, all kept in order by a score of government regulators cumulating in
the Supreme Court as final arbitrator of national morality. While it might
accept a multiculturalism of views, it all must ultimately be resolved by the
supreme experts at the top.

Progressivism might be relativistic in its citizenship
symbolism and imagery but it is not anarchic. Former Harvard president, Derek
Bok made its case well. The national welfare state is essential to public life
today, he says, and its leaders must lead and make decisions for society in the
public interest. While some public participation is important in a progressive
democracy, most forms of popular involvement such as referenda and local
activism do not necessarily lead to sound results as understood by the best
experts. Moreover, public opinion data demonstrate, he argues, that people
really do not want to give more time to active citizenship. Only half even
bother to vote. So the public can only be more involved through citizen
education and deference to expert decision-making.

Right at the beginning, the major theorists of the
progressive welfare state recognized the paradox. As Gunnar Myrdal noted, for
the experts to improve social welfare they must be free to plan more
comprehensively. But progressivism also taught that democracy required people to
participate in the government to give it the necessary legitimacy. Yet, that
very participation could create pressures against the best expert programs.
Unfortunately, people were reluctant to grant the necessary power to do what the
experts knew was required. Therefore, welfare state participation must be mainly
symbolic rather than active. Power must be centralized and moved to experts in
obscure bureaus and in courts less susceptible to popular pressure. To a great
extent, those experts have been remarkably successful in bringing the
progressive program to the United States and even more so in the Europe from
which the doctrine sprung.

So, Ratzinger is correct. The only recourse for those who
support the old citizenship based in Judeo-Christian morality and freely
represented in local communities, civic associations and churches is
nonconformity against the ruling progressive morality to which it cannot
delegate the definition of virtue. Moreover, unlike for the progressives, from
the very beginning of Western civilization, Aristotle required that true
citizenship must involve active, local participation. The Americans of de
Tocqueville’s day did not wait for orders from experts, they organized
associations, schools, churches, enterprises and local governments, acting in
accordance with the public morality that surrounded their everyday lives.
American and Western society worked not because of an expert plan and a supreme
national power but from its diversity, the preservation of which James Madison
dedicated his new national government.

If unity of citizenship is the goal, Islam is the solution.
Christianity at its heart has a trinity. As Fareed Zakaria has noted, it was the
Christian Church that was the first institution in history to challenge the
undivided unity of national power. At the height of Christian unity, the
dominant form of social life and power was plural, decentralized. There was a
common belief in the principles of Judeo-Christian virtue but often
disagreements on how they should be applied and it mostly could not be enforced
universally except by moral suasion. De Tocqueville noticed this too when he saw
a similar more-or-less common moral culture in the U.S. but that the national
institutions did not force nor require a uniformity locally. It only needed a
few common ideals living in individual hearts.

Progressivism may seek a unitary vision and a unitary power
for its view of citizenship. Christians and conservative supporters of the
Tocquevillian vision cannot. True conformity cannot exist in a civilization of
decentralized power, of church and state, of state and society, except as
Ratzinger noted, in the hearts of individual persons. A certain nonconformity is
an essential aspect of the old American citizenship. On the other hand, it is
not surprising that others might look upon the reinvigoration of this vision
with some anxiety and foreboding.

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