The Core Practices of Citizenship: Re-enchanting Our Conception of Civic Duty

July 6, 2017
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Say no to wrong.

Learn to do good.

Work for justice.

Help the down-and-out.

Stand up for the homeless.

Go to bat for the defenseless. -Isaiah 1:17 (The Message)

More citizens than not, evangelicals included, are sick and tired of politics. They’ve had it. Exhausted by a much too long, outlandish, and often lewd race for the White House, which ended in an untenable choice between the lesser of two evils (at best), many wish to emphasize private life, if not exercise a “Benedict Option.”1 And yet, public life—a classic sense of politics that moves beyond simply winning campaigns and passing legislation—calls out to those of a Reformed theological heritage to be engaging democracy given that Jesus is Lord… in all things.2

Not surprisingly, the most common form of political participation is exercising one’s right to vote. But, is that it? Are the responsibilities of citizenship satisfied once we’ve dutifully marked the ballot box? What about an obligation to remain reasonably informed? This would involve, it seems, not only keeping up on what’s happening at the national, state, and local levels, but doing so in a way that provides one as balanced a perspective as possible. Are these realistic expectations?

To begin with, barely half of the voting age public bothers to go to the polls in the general election (not quite two-thirds of eligible voters even register).3 Turnout is even worse when it comes to off-year campaigns, primaries, or local races. Granted, with roughly half-a-million elected offices, the U.S. asks its citizens to vote more often than any other nation. In an essay on Voting Rites, written over two decades ago, Michael Schudson wonders if this failure to participate may indeed be the best metric by which to judge the health of our democracy. Instead, he claims, what may be at issue is our faulty conception of citizenship rather than an individual shortcoming.4 I’ve long thought that he’s on to something.

Indeed, Schudson asks an important question: “Can we have a democracy if most people are not paying attention most of the time?”5 Given that this reality is a central feature of U.S. democracy, we’d better hope so. Consider two key hallmarks of American public opinion: low interest in politics, and low political knowledge.6 Now, it’s not that the public doesn’t care or is completely indifferent about what is happening across the country, in their state, or even closer to home. This first point is simply an acknowledgement that in comparison to the responsibilities of a job and of family, let alone commitments to church or community, politics ranks far down on an individual’s list of priorities. As to the second point, late-night comedians conduct far too many on-the-street interviews for there to be much doubt about political knowledge. To be fair, the public knows more than they are often given credit. Survey results where a respondent must produce an answer cold turkey are much worse than when they are given a more objective multiple-choice-type option. Still, the basic observation remains the same: generally, citizens don’t know or bother to concern themselves with the details.

So, what’s to be done? Short of turning everyone into political junkies, glued to the latest story or newscast on C-SPAN, it might be wise to think of citizenship somewhat differently. This is not an attempt to excuse civic laziness or, worse, encourage self-centeredness, but I’d like to focus on activities that already/also contribute to the common good. Don’t get me wrong, voting is important and keeping informed is valuable, but not all citizens are called to the same kind or type of engagement. Stephen Monsma helpfully creates three categories—the citizen participant, the citizen activist, and the professional activist.7 Beyond voting or being informed, he believes everyone can occasionally express their opinion, sign a petition, attend a rally or protest, join an organization, etc. Citizen activists are decidedly more engaged than those who are simply participants, yet they still only do so as a volunteer, or on a part-time basis, while professional activists pursue these opportunities vocationally.

As to the typical core practices of citizenship, there is nothing wrong in using these three labels to distinguish varying levels of involvement; it seems reasonable to assume, however, that most citizens fall into one of the first two groups. Based on what we know about interest in and knowledge of politics, the lion’s share of the public are probably—at best—citizen participants, if that. As such, why not let activists, particularly professionals, play a role that Schudson calls the citizens’ trustees?8 He identifies these “trustees” as not only politicians or public servants (remember, the U.S. is a constitutional republic), but also journalists and—brace yourself—lobbyists! It goes without saying that elected leaders, media types, and special interests are held in not-very-high regard these days. Time or space, unfortunately, does not permit me to properly defend their role as our trustees (hmm, maybe the subject of another In All Things article…?); the task at hand is first and foremost the re-enchantment of citizenship.

Towards that end, there’s no need for all voters to become experts, let alone to assume the role of elites; they merely must be responsible citizens. Simply put, they need to be good neighbors. It is probably important to recall that evangelicals are citizens of God’s kingdom, too—dual citizens, of a sort. As such, we ought to be about the business of bringing heaven to Earth: to do, in keeping with the Lord’s prayer, on Earth as it is done in heaven. Borrowing from James Davison Hunter, this is known as practicing faithful presence.9

Even as our nation edges further into a post-Christian reality, the call of Jeremiah 29 remains to seek the welfare of the city.10 Living in an environment that to many evangelicals feels like one of exile makes no difference. It matters not that an increasingly pluralistic and diverse society leaves us surrounded by and living amidst pagans; as followers of Jesus, we are supposed to assist in their human flourishing, or—in a broader and more biblical sense of prosperity—in their shalom.11 As Schudson observes, “if we interpret citizenship activity to mean taking unpaid and uncoerced responsibility for the welfare of strangers or the community at large, examples of good citizenship abound.”12 Local expressions include coaching Little League or serving as a mentor with ATLAS or volunteering at Hands Around the World, and on, and on, etcetera.13 These citizenship opportunities will look different depending on the regional context, not to mention the urban, suburban, or rural setting, but they are right there, “hidden” in plain sight.

These and other examples are every day, garden-variety social activities, and they deserve (in my estimation) to be encouraged, and even counted among our core practices of citizenship. Moreover, such contributions to the common good are a perfect illustration of living out the two Great Commandments (Matthew 22)—love God, love others—and, in turn, providing a very-much-needed faithful presence in public life. It is, among other reasons, why evangelicals ought to be among some of our best citizens.

About the Author
  • Jeff VanDerWerff is Dean of the Social Sciences at Northwestern College where he has taught courses in American government and public life for nearly two decades and continues to wrestle with the political theology of engaging democracy as a faithful follower of Jesus.  A native of the Pacific Northwest, he makes his home in Orange City with Kara, their four kids—Jake, Kate, Ian & Elin—a dog, Harley, as well as a rabbit named Diamond.

  1. Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Penguin Random House, 2017).  

  2. Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson, “The Politics of the Apocalypse,” Convivium, April 24, 2017. An ongoing debate ensues over Dreher’s polemical proposal for cloistered renewal, I lean instead towards an alternative offered by Joustra and Wilkinson in their recent article based on their book—How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith & Politics at the End of the World (Eerdmans 2016). They make the case for the Old Testament figure Daniel as a preferable option to Saint Benedict, claiming: “we need new Daniels. Daniel, not Benedict, is the patron saint of our apocalyptic age.” I agree. 

  3. Drew Desilver, “U.S. Trails Most Developed Countries in Voter Turnout,” Pew Research Center (Fact Tank), May 15, 2017,  

  4. Michael Schudson, “Voting Rites: Why We Need a New Concept of Citizenship,” in American Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings, 4th edition, eds. Allan Cigler and Burdett Loomis (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 156. 

  5. Ibid, 163. 

  6. Corwin Smidt, “Religion and American Public Opinion,” in In God We Trust? Religion and American Political Life, ed. Corwin Smidt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 96. 

  7. Stephen Monsma, “Christian Commitment and Political Life,” in In God We Trust? Religion and American Political Life, ed. Corwin Smidt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 255. 

  8. Schudson, “Voting Rites,” 161. 

  9. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). 

  10. Joshua Hill, “The Real Meaning of Jeremiah 29:11,” Relevant, June 27, 2017, /article/the-real-meaning-of-jeremiah-2911?utm_campaign=coschedule&utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=RELEVANT&utm_content=The%20Real%20Meaning%20of%20Jeremiah%2029:11 

  11. Mark Sayers, interviewed by Hunter Baker, “Why the Modern World is Making Us Miserable,” Christianity Today, June 2017, Sayers correctly warns that the Jeremiah analogy is potentially a trap or temptation of “simply hunkering down and enjoying the fruits of contemporary culture uncritically.”  We are not exiles in Babylon nor can we not lose site of the perspective the New Testament provides in showing us how God became king in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. 

  12. Schudson, ‘Voting Rites,” 164. 

  13. These are but a couple examples from my own local community: ATLAS is a non-profit organization providing a way for Christians to intentionally connect with both non-Christians and other Christians through informal, Christ-centered mentoring relationships (; as a fair-trade store, Hands Around the World strives to empower underemployed and unemployed artisans from across the globe by selling their food and crafts. 

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  1. Thank you Jeff. I like the way you started. We all should be guided by these words. I think the nation is wandering aimlessly. I also agree that the two candidates were not so wonderful but the one who got into office is by far the worst. I am worried about our nation. This is a first for me.