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Citizen Empowerment, Cultural Democratism

Citizen Empowerment, Cultural Democratism

James W. Skillen


            I appreciate the spirit in which Harry Boyt responded to my first post and further clarified his own approach to “the notion of politics.” In addition, he sent me his third piece well before the deadline, so I have also been able to consider it in preparing this final response of mine.

            In all three of your pieces, Harry, you have presented a substantial introduction to citizen education and community organizing as it has developed over decades and as you are contributing to it today. I have learned a great deal from you and thank you for it. You have opened many lines of thought and avenues of action for all of us to consider.

            In continuing our conversation now I want to focus on three things: 1) what I perceive to be your misunderstanding of my argument; 2) your way of answering my basic question about “what citizens are citizens of”; and 3) the expansion of your own argument for civic work, civic ecclesiology, and civic science.

            You began your response by locating me in the camp (or using the accents) of James Madison, and I think that led you off course. Whatever Madison intended with his contributions to the Federalist Papers, you won’t find me pitting “elected officials” over against “the general citizenry” in the way you describe. My argument for a healthy polity emphasized the joint responsibility of citizens and government (or governments) that constitute any polity; never would I suggest that the “building of a just republic” is independent of “citizens’ agency.” You seem to believe that because I found fault with the Constitution’s state-centeredness (and thus was criticizing its “excessive decentralization of power”) I was unconcern with “citizens’ agency.” But it is exactly the opposite. Our current system of representation undermines an important dimension of civic responsibility at the national level by making it impossible for citizens to hold members of the House and the Senate directly accountable to the nationwide citizenry. The thrust of my argument is to promote the agency of citizens in building of a more just polity. And since I see citizens and governments as jointly responsible constituents of a polity, I would never refer to the responsibilities of government—whether legislative, executive, or judicial—as “government machinery” set over against real people functioning as citizens. My hope is that the following elaboration will further clarify what I intended to argue and help to account for why I think you might have “gotten me wrong.”

            Second, I think the way you have addressed the question of “what citizens are citizens of” is too undifferentiated. In other words, what I take from your comments is that citizens are citizens of society in general. In my view, that doesn’t sufficiently take into account the distinctions among social institutions and organizations, and it doesn’t clarify the relation of American citizens to the constitutions and governments of the states and the United States. It seems to me then, that your aim for civic work, civic ecclesiology, and civic science is a broad and general one, namely, “democratization for cultural renewal.”

            Finally, I offer some comments about your expanded account in the second and third posts. But before all of that I want to start with the American misappropriation of the Bible’s exodus story in relation to the “public work story” you drew from Nehemiah.


            AMERICA’S CIVIL-RELIGIOUS MISUSE OF THE BIBLE’S EXODUS STORY—My purpose in introducing the two influential uses of the exodus story was to show how they have functioned as the dominant myths of the American nation. They have served a different purpose than the ideology of liberalism, which has shaped our understanding of government. In fact, the myths of the nation function in considerable tension with the idea of government, as I tried to show, because the myths of the nation are not about a governed polity but about ideals of a free people, divinely chosen or blessed.

            Moreover, I did not cite the two variants of the exodus story approvingly. The case I was making is that the two stories are secularized misappropriations of one part of the biblical story of God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt. As myths that have fueled America’s conflicted civil religion they have done a disservice to biblical interpretation and inspired all-or-nothing visions—often unrealistic—of what America should be as a “new Israel” or “exceptional” in all the world. The competing myths of America’s identity have been further secularized over time into what is now the simple ideal (myth) of American “exceptionalism” that can be owned even by those who do not believe there is a god. In most respects the two tellings of the exodus story are mutually exclusive, entailing different understandings of liberation, different Pharaohs, different identities of the “chosen people,” different wilderness wanderings, and different promised lands. My compact account of this dynamic force in American political culture may have been too brief. But the description of the contrasting uses of the Bible’s exodus story was intended to say they have functioned as comprehensive ideals of America that have misshaped our political culture in a way quite different from the way liberal ideology has shaped too-narrow views of government.

            While there are many positive things we can celebrate about American culture, society, and governance, including the overturning of slavery and the movements to establish equal civil rights for all, I do not see either of the two civil-religious misappropriations of the exodus story as a normative foundation for Christian political engagement. What I was not doing in the telling of the two stories was picking out a Bible story to support my view of what should guide constructive civic agency. And since it appears to me, Harry, that you picked up the Nehemiah and wilderness stories as support for the cause you are promoting, without commenting critically or affirmatively on my analysis of America’s conflict-ridden, civil-religious myth, I am left with the impression that you might have missed the point of that part of my presentation. And since I think the point is directly related to the deepest roots of America’s political culture and sense of civic responsibility, I hope you will consider it as you continue your work.

            The connection I then made between the two interpretations of the American nation, on the one hand, and the liberal ideological tradition, on the other, was not to merge the myths of the nation with the ideology of governance. Rather, I was trying to show that the way the WASP civil-religious myth relates to the understanding of government stands in stark contrast to the way the liberation-from-oppression myth relates to the understanding of government. My attempt was to account empirically for the way American political life—political culture—actually functions. Depending on how children are raised at home, what they learn at school, what they hear from peers and the media, they have typically emerged as adults with an ideal of the nation shaped by one of the civil-religious, nationalist myths and with a view of government that is closer to one end or the other of liberal ideology. And in most cases, most citizens are unconscious of those deeply rooted forces that account in large measure for the political tensions, altercations, paralysis, and sense of power or powerlessness in American political life.


            MADISON IS NOT MY GUIDE—To whatever degree I can appreciate Madison’s ideas of federated government, the constitutional arrangement established at the founding is, in my view, now out of date in important respects. The United States today has a nationwide citizenry and is no longer merely an association of state polities. A federated governance structure, with a hierarchy of governing responsibilities, can be a good way to organize a national polity. But a federated government is something quite different from a differentiated society of families, schools, businesses, universities, hospitals, churches, and countless professional organizations and independent associations. If we are genuinely to respect and encourage citizen agency, my argument for the electoral accountability of Congress to the nationwide citizenry requires increased and broader agency of citizens not less. That is what the proposal for electoral reform is all about.

            At the same time, and in distinction from the argument for electoral and governing reforms, the case I am making for recognizing the differentiated identities and responsibilities of families, corporations, voluntary associations, and many other types of institutions and organizations is precisely to take into account important human responsibilities that are not governmental and that entail different kinds of agency. My reason for not wanting to use the word “citizen” when referring to the exercise of those other social responsibilities is that doing so hides from view or dissolves the differences among them, doing injustice to the rich diversity of human capabilities and agencies.

            Let me illustrate my point this way. When we talk about a polity of citizens and government, it is legitimate to think of different levels and institutions of government and of civic action as parts of the political whole—the polity. It is legitimate to identify local, state, and federal governments, along with civic organizations, political parties, police forces, state departments, natural resources departments, treasury departments, the military, and many other such institutions as parts of a polity. We can think in this regard of a “whole and its parts”—the whole of the republic (political community) and its many parts.

            By contrast, families, schools, businesses, churches, hospitals, the media, and many other such institutions and organizations should not, in my view, be identified as parts of the political whole. Instead, those arenas of human responsibility have their own irreducible identities and should not be thought of as parts of a polity. We can speak of parents and children as parts of a family whole. And we can speak of trustees, administrators, professors, students, and supporting staff as parts of a university whole. That’s why I believe it’s a mistake to refer to the members of any of these non-political institutions or organizations as functioning in their capacity as citizens, because that word does not get at the distinctive kind of responsibility that is exercised by parents and children or by professors and students.

            Of course, the same human beings exercise responsibilities in each of these arenas, so to distinguish among different social “wholes” does not imply a distinction among disconnected, self-contained, isolated entities. That is also why the exercise of responsibilities in each institution will have a bearing on all of the others. Healthy child rearing, good schooling, the development of entrepreneurial habits, and more can all contribute to strong citizen agency. By the same token, government laws and agencies responsible to protect public health, regulate food and drugs, maintain a healthy environment, uphold open markets, protect the innocent and overcome oppression, and much more—all of this should have a positive impact on families, schools, businesses, and so forth.

            Taking another example, I do not believe the primary goal of the church “is to strengthen public governance,” as you say of my approach. Rather, the goal of the church as a community of faith, I believe, should be to worship and glorify God and to strengthen members of the body of Christ so they can learn to practice more fully what it means to be Christ’s disciples in the service of God and their neighbors. I don’t believe the church has a primary responsibility to strengthen public governance. However, I do believe that the church and its congregations should be communities that encourage one another in following the way of the cross in the service of Christ. And that should mean the strengthening of members in the realization that they are servants of God and neighbors in all spheres and capacities of life. Members of churches are also family people, working people, consumers, artists, scientists, engineers, and more. And certainly they are also citizens. The primary responsibility for training citizens, therefore, as I see it, belongs to people, including Christians, in their capacity as citizens and public servants. And that activity requires distinctively political modes of organization and agency, not ecclesiastical, familial, or academic modes of organization and agency.

            For all of these reasons an active citizenry must be able to organize in many ways for many purposes and not only for voting in elections. Citizens must be highly informed and able to make normative judgments about the justice and injustice of policies and institutions, including judgments about taxation and health policies, criminal law and procedure, housing and transportation policies, employee and consumer protection, foreign and defense policies, and every other dimension of public governance. In these respects particularly, I believe the liberal tradition is weak and failing. Its focus on individual freedom in tension with government is too narrow and shallow. The rhetoric and controversies that rage back and forth between those calling for more government and those calling for less government are mostly content-free and inattentive to the demands of justice in law making, execution, and adjudication. And to the extent that the engagement of a nationwide citizenry is stymied in its attempts to promote the nationwide common good and hold public officials accountable, the agency of citizens is pushed into the confines of localism and/or single-issue causes.

            I couldn’t agree with you more, Harry, that the active engagement of citizens in public service is crucial at any time and especially in our time, but you have not convinced me that a push for democratic agency in schools, churches, homes, and other institutions and organizations is adequate to build up and motivate the agency of citizens (as I use the word). Nor do I see how your arguments for civic work and science go hand in hand with the strengthening of other responsibilities people exercise in schools, corporations, families, the marketplace, hospitals, friendships, churches, and many others.


            CIVIC WORK, CIVIC ECCLESIOLOGY, AND CIVIC SCIENCE—Harry, you have summarized a very wide range of developments in these areas, including work that has influenced and engaged you. All of it deserves serious discussion. That I cannot do in this final contribution, so I will make only a few closing comments.

            You remark at several points on the work of Marie Strom, including one of her contributions in Africa where she spoke of “democracy as the public work of the people in building communities.” Through that teaching and practice, you explained, the people with whom she was working began to see themselves as agents of change, developing skills, confidence, and power to unleash their own innate capacities and to work collaboratively. Taking this one instance as point of departure, what I have discerned in almost everything you have contributed to our exchange seems to reiterate this theme, namely, that civic work, civic ecclesiology, and civic science promote a process and develop attitudes of a general and undifferentiated kind. What I mean by this is that the norms and substantive content of the distinctive responsibilities exercised by families, schools, churches, political communities, and other institutions and organizations are not indicated. You appear to take the diversity institutions and organizations for granted as arenas for the democratic training of citizens (used in your sense). Insofar as you refer to a diversity of institutions and organizations, they all appear to function similarly as seedbeds and agents of cooperation, skill development, gaining new confidence, learning new habits of mind, building communities, and so forth.

            Your focus, it seems to me, is on the types of action through which people gain a sense of agency, but the norms and content-goals of diversified types of agency are left undefined and undifferentiated. The operative norms and content-goals across the board appear to be the process itself that will generate new attitudes, self-confidence, and preparedness for action of any and every kind. This is what I see as an agenda of undifferentiated democratization, which is what I also see in John Dewey’s work, which you cite approvingly. Dewey’s strategy for “democracy in education” and in society generally ends up leveling the aim of schooling and of other areas of responsibility to the promotion of democratic decision-making and action. Democracy as a process appears to be grounded in the assumption that free people should exercise the agency of deciding how to live their lives, as long as they do so in accord with the norm of democratic decision-making. The more this is developed, the more the distinct identities, distinguishable purposes, and unique responsibilities of families, schools, churches, banks, farms, political communities, and countless others dissolve into a sea of democratic action. Meanwhile, the distinctive and complex responsibilities of citizens and governments in a polity hardly come into view, and that means “citizens’ agency” does not tell us much about what that kind of citizen responsibility entails.

            I am not contradicting what I said earlier about the interdependence and mutual influence of diverse institutions and organizations. Of course, a church facility might be used for AA meetings, or for teaching English as a second language, or for tutoring children after school, or for community-organizing meetings, and many church members and clergy might participate in some or all of these activities. But any number of other facilities can be used for those purposes, and surely none of those activities is the primary reason and purpose for the church’s existence. Any lively family, good school, apprentice-nurturing business enterprise, or outward looking retirement center will develop its own distinctive “culture of agency.” All such developments can positively affect the exercise of what I would distinguish as the political agency of citizens. But if all social institutions and organizations are considered to be sites for developing the same agency, cannot be indistinguishable agents of the same agency, then we would not be able to distinguish a family from a bank, or a business enterprise from a political party.

            To whatever degree our conversation has opened space for creative reflection and ongoing conversation, Harry, I hope you might find some of my points useful, particularly the points about the differentiated structure of society and the distinctive political meaning of “citizen agency.” I also hope that in your work as educator and citizen organizer you will be able to extract some value from my assessment of the crises of America’s liberal ideology of government, its conflicted civil-religious nationalism, and its outdated Constitution. I will certainly be chewing on and digesting much of what you have presented in this conversation.

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Reader Comments (1)

Excellent post, Jim, that clarifies many points and really highlights the importance of thinking carefully about the different character and responsibilities of different spheres of life. I also much appreciated the critique of American exceptionalism.

December 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterClarke Cochran

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