Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Citizenship test

Without an obligation to God, citizens stand naked before those in power

Issue: "Inside Election 2012," Oct. 20, 2012

Many years ago in a foreign land, the people decided to overthrow their government. They were inspired by people in another land who had done the same thing—It was possible! It could be done! But they left out some vital elements, such as “firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence,” before pledging themselves to the great cause. Some of those people believed that Divine Providence had helped to forge their chains. Therefore, they would rely instead on an abstract concept: Reason.

But Reason turned out to be a fickle guide—or rather, Reason turned out to be whatever the men in power said it was. In the name of Reason, accompanied by Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood, men in power confiscated property and publicly executed hundreds of enemies of the state, including their former king and queen.

Revolutionary ideals degenerated into a time of squalor and chaos called “the Terror.” The situation became so intolerable that when an obscure military officer from an Italian island showed the leadership skills necessary to seize control, they let him. And during the next several years they sacrificed the best of their youth to this man’s ambition.

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They addressed each other as “Citizen.” It was a title meant to break down social status and personal distinction, but it became a trap.

“Can an Atheist Be a Good Citizen?” asked the late Richard John Neuhaus, in a provocatively titled lecture delivered in September 2004. The drivers of the French Revolution would have said “Of course!” and we in our secular, tolerant age are inclined to agree. We know atheists who are moral and upright—what else does a good citizen need to be? Neuhaus’ conclusion surprises us: “A good citizen is able to give an account, a morally compelling account, of the regime—of the constitutional order of which he is a part. He is able to justify its defense against its enemies and to convincingly recommend its virtues to citizens of the next generation so that they, in turn, can transmit that regime to citizens yet unborn.”

But in order to “give account,” a citizen must be able to reference a higher order than himself or his government. Neuhaus quoted James Madison: “Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe.” Otherwise, Neuhaus explained, he has no governor, and “can a person who does not acknowledge that he is accountable to a truth higher than the self—a truth that is not dependent upon the self—really be trusted?”

President Obama, in his acceptance speech before the Democratic convention last month, appealed to “citizenship” as a reason for his reelection: “the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.” Critics immediately rolled their eyes. By “certain obligations,” he meant Big Government, right?

Judging by the last four years, yes—but that’s not the point. Any appeal to citizenship as a virtue in itself is flawed because, like “Reason” during the French Revolution, its definition depends on the powers that be. Citizenship implies obligation, as Obama rightly notes—but to what? “To one another,” he says, with the added implication, through the medium of the state.

Ever since their colonial days, Americans were famous for voluntary associations: to feed the poor, reform prisons, abolish slavery, even establish a nation conceived in liberty. But over the last hundred years, government has undermined voluntary associations, and churches, and families, eroding social structures until each “citizen” will eventually stand naked before the unfeeling mechanism of the state.

None of this implies that Obama is an atheist, or that we’re bound for the guillotine. But, as demonstrated earlier that week, when raucous voices tried to shout down a motion to return a passing reference to God to the Democrats’ platform, the idea of higher accountability is not one his party enthusiastically embraces. “We have no king but Caesar!” they cry. And when Caesar takes the stage, they have no protection either.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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