Theses on Civic Engagement
The Blog of Nathan D. Smith

Last autumn I spent a lot of time deconstructing voting. After doing so, I was left with the question: "what then remains of civic engagement?" Voting is heralded as the zenith of civic engagement, so demystifying it left me in a position of cynicism about community life. Consequently I have decided to construct civic engagement again in the light of Christian teaching. Thus I can move forward in my God-ordained vocation to live as salt and light without relying on the sentimentality of democratic patriotism. The following theses are tentative and embryonic.

Civic engagement flows from neighbor-love

I cannot love my neighbor as a recluse. Therefore no matter how cynical I am about the empire and its politics, I must still love and serve my neighbors in that empire. In so doing, we can stand as witnesses against the corruption of terrestrial politics. Mutual respect and love require us to engage in conversation with our neighbors in our common arena.

Civic engagement is predicated on dialogue

This, I think, is a proper inference of neighbor-love. We cannot really engage with our neighbors unless we are willing to listen and to share our own ideas in kind.

The consumption of political media is not civic engagement

The conventional wisdom is that democracy requires a properly-informed populace to function properly. The nature of the media in this country makes this a dubious principle, but that is not the main problem. The primary problem is that it makes civic engagement passive and "read-only." Listening to a few voices is not civic engagement because it is not a dialogue.

Pontification is not civic engagement

This is the complement to the above thesis. Pontification is what the pundits and bloggers do, and the result is consumed by the passively-engaged. Neither is this civic-engagement, because it is "write-only" and therefore not dialogue.

Voting barely qualifies as civic engagement

Voting is binary, monolithic, unqualified, and anonymous. It is an objective form of civic engagement. However, as noted above, civic engagement must also be subjective. Voting effaces the subject and only affirms the object. Ironically, this process is the typical means to political power. Therefore voting ought to be accompanied by others forms of civic engagement.

Civic engagement is not the pursuit of political power

Many politicians are not interested in convincing people because they believe in the power of their own ideas, but because they need more voters to share those ideas in order to obtain power and implement their policies. Civic engagement should not have as its goal hegemony (or "permanent majority"). However, civic engagement might nonetheless result in political power in democratic systems. This is not bad, since it is an opportunity to serve the community. It is the use of such power as an excuse to cut off civil dialogue which is problematic. Civic engagement should not be considered a failure if we do not get what we want. The process is (perhaps) more important than the result.

Civic engagement requires an open mind and an openness to compromise

There are some matters of faith upon which Christians will continue to make principled stands. But there are many other areas which comprise the majority of civic engagement for which there is no affirmation nor condemnation in the faith. Part of the reciprocity of neighbor-love is to be open to a change of opinion and to compromise.

In a concrete application: Christians should continue to attend school-board meetings, but not because they want to control the curriculum. Christians ought to serve as police officers and judges and firefighters and postal carriers because they are expressing neighbor-love in the process of serving their communities. Since "they will know that you are Christians by your love," and since politics is one of the principle ways by which non-believers encounter the church, we can expect that neighbor-love as expressed in civic engagement will result in the furtherance of the Gospel.

Date: 2009-03-14 04:03