Seasonal Reflection: July Fourth and Responsible Citizenship
by Stephen Lynch, OFM
On July 4, 1776, the United States claimed independence from Britain and the democratic republic was born. The United States is truly a diverse nation. Millions have left their homelands to come to the “land of the free” to begin their American Dream.
True freedom must be under the rule of law. Only when citizens act in accordance with proper moral character will democracy create a context of justice and peace. Underpinning the American concept of democracy stands the religious concept of the dignity and equality of human beings in the sight of God.
It is ironic that when people in other parts of the world embrace democratic values and struggle to participate in public life, many Americans seem increasingly disinterested or disenchanted with politics. This alienation is threatening to undermine the heart of our democratic tradition, which depends upon popular participation in government.
The Nature of Democracy
Over the centuries, types of government have had their own guiding principles. Plato, for example, ranked democracy “next to the lowest political phenomenon, tyranny, which is the lawless rule of one; oligarchy, the lawless rule of a few; and democracy, the lawless rule of the many.” Plato said that in democracy no one standard guides either the rulers or society.
Aristotle believed monarchy to be the best possible state in principle. He pointed out that democracy arises out of the questionable notion that those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects.
The founders of our Democratic republic insisted that the U.S. government be based on the rule of law and a system of checks and balances. In so doing, America could avoid the lawless rule of the many that Plato argued opened the door to self-destruction.
Lawlessness leads to chaos, which then leads to anarchy, and finally results in tyranny. As the late Sen. Robert Kennedy reminded us, “Whenever men take the law into their own hands, the loser is the law. And when the law loses, freedom languishes.”
Two fundamental principles underpin America’s Democratic republic: the ancient theory that political power emanates from the people, and from the medieval doctrine of “what touches all must be approved by all.”
The principal test of democracy is universal adult suffrage, or, the right to vote and the exercise of that voting right. A democratic government works only when citizens use freedom with responsibility and accountability.
But even in a democracy, lawlessness and violence stalk our streets. Selfishness and greed eat away at the common good of our nation. The United States needs to continue to fight poverty and joblessness, callousness toward the most vulnerable in our society, and economic inequality.
Rediscovery of the Common Good
The key to the renewal of public life is finding ways in which many competing interests can mesh with a coherent vision of the common good. Otherwise, politics becomes simply an arena for partisan posturing and the search for power for its own sake. Pope John Paul II warned that the crisis in democracies is the fact that the political order seems, at times, to have lost the ability to make decisions aimed at the common good.
Moral convictions and active commitment to American ideals need to be embraced by all citizens. Politics and political platforms should be measured by how much they advance the good of the people.
Responsible Political Involvement in Presidential Elections
Current political campaigns seem to focus on symbols and sound bites. Candidates often hide behind personal attacks. Too often, candidates seek to reduce support for their opponent by taking the low road of ridicule and character attack because they want to avoid issues of substance. The results are elections without full voter turnout, campaigns without substance, and winners without clear mandates.
We need to promote candidates with integrity and courage. Voters have a right to expect candidates to share their values and vision without resorting to empty rhetoric. Good citizenship means assessing candidates’ positions and qualifications.
Unless citizens develop an informed conscience, America faces the danger of becoming a nation of Willy Lomans. Willie, the All-American loser in Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman,” stands in literature as a tragic example of the heart-breaking destruction caused by a worldly success ethic.
Loman ends his life in suicide because he lived by the principle “be well-liked and you will never want.” A “do-whatever-it-takes-to-come-out-on-top” philosophy created an ethical void in Loman’s life. This corroded his soul and caused the breakdown of moral values that deadened his conscience and set the stage for self-destruction.
— Fr. Stephen, who lives at St. Anthony Residence in Butler, N.J., writes frequently for religious and secular publications.
Editor’s note: The HNP Communications Office welcomes essays from friars about seasonal themes — holidays, feast days and current events.