What is Our Civic Obligation?

By John Winchester    10-9-2023

John Winchester HeadshotIn 1831, a French aristocrat visited the United States on official state business. He observed the condition of the American nation and noted the elements that contributed to its democratic success. There were three primary elements: the spirit of religion, local government, and local association. Alexis de ’Tocqueville believed the spirit of religion drove civic virtue, which is the key to maintaining any measure of justice in political society. I will say more of this critical point as I believe the 4Tucson community understands and believes this.

Next, Tocqueville believed the practice of local government strengthened the national spirit of governance. National and, in most cases, state government is far removed from the daily life of the citizen. It is engagement in local government that keeps the flame of self-governance alive. The security of the republic and federation of republics is kept safe by regular citizen engagement at the local level.

We find in this measure that civic engagement in Tucson is lacking. Less than one-third of registered voters turned out in the last city election. Generally speaking, there is an inverted perspective of Tocqueville’s idea here. Interest and participation in federal and state politics is much higher. Local governance is complained about but hardly engaged. If we cannot participate in local government, Tocqueville does not believe we can do so properly at national or state level. There is something to this. If we do not work in the local context of government, how are we supposed to do so with governance that is further removed from us in Phoenix and Washington D.C.?

Finally on this point, civic engagement is more, so much more than voting. Government operates daily in our lives. We have a responsibility to make the government what we want it to. We largely do not have the time to engage in all things but we can choose the areas of interest that inspire action on our part and create the discipline of acting with regularity. Jesus said to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. In America, government derives is power from the citizen, rather than the tyrant. Our system requires our involvement to work properly. Therefore, I exhort the Christian reader that we must render unto Caesar our attention and action to properly guide it.

The third and final point from Tocqueville is local association. Beyond your immediate circle of friends and family, Tocqueville believes that the strength of our form of government requires us to engage with others. We engage through churches, political parties, military organizations, school associations, YMCAs, HOAs, chambers of commerce, and many other forms. We have to actively look for these and encourage others to do so. This helps to expose us to our fellow citizens, creating sympathy between us, and an understanding of others which helps in the formation of governance and law.

There is some incredible symmetry between this point and what the scripture says regarding the fellowship of the brethren in Hebrews. We are commanded to NOT forsake the gathering together of the brethren. The epistles of the New Testament are written for the churches, with instructions on how to be “fitted together into a holy Temple to our God.” We cannot be fitted together if we alienate ourselves from one another. This is also true in civil society.

Tocqueville went on to predict the downfall of the American system. The downfall would come when individuals retreat to small circles of immediate family and close friends, turning their attention primarily to the making of their personal wealth and riches, or other matters. The individual abandons their civic involvement and relations with broader community around them for personal matters.

What I hope to leave you with is a burden for our obligation to our faith, our duty to our government, and the obligation to our fellow man. The scripture teaches us of our obligation to our fellow man. The elections of 2023 are coming upon us, and they can act as a reminder for us to renew, or begin anew, our civic obligations.