We live in exciting and perilous times. That’s what Lawrence C. Walters, of the Romney Institute of Public Management, told students and faculty at Tuesday’s Brigham Young University devotional as he invited them to become engaged citizens.
“As a student of public decision processes,” Walters said, “I can tell you that conditions have not improved in the years since Professor [Jean] Elshtain [from the University of Chicago] spoke here.” In 1996, Elshtain said we live in a political age of resentment and withdrawal from civic life.
“The ability of democratic societies to bring together diverse views, critically examine arguments, and take action continues to erode,” he said.
Walters explained that this weakening of democratic civil society “is a problem for us because we need governments and civil society to work reasonably well if we are to effectively build the Kingdom and spread the Gospel.”
Walters described two ways to think about citizenship. The first sees citizens as no more than customers of government.
“Efforts by government to improve their operations by focusing on citizens as customers are certainly valuable,” he said. “My concern is with the way weactwhen we think of ourselves as customers of government. If there’s a problem in the community, we expect the government to deal with it. Most of the time, though, we just want to be left alone. Some view their citizenship in the church this way as well.”
He explained another view of citizenship, quoting Peter Block. In this view, “a citizen is one who is willing to be accountable for and committed to the well-being of the whole. A citizen is one who produces the future, someone who does not wait, beg, or dream for the future.
“This view of citizens as doers of deeds, as active builders, seems more consistent with what our Heavenly Father expects of us as fellow citizens in his Kingdom. He blessed us with agency, the ability and the responsibility to act in ways that make a difference in what happens. He expects us to use our agency to be anxiously engaged in building his Kingdom,” Walters said.
He spoke of five essential attributes of active citizens in The Church and in society: “Active citizens accept responsibility, do their homework, engage with others, take action, and finally they learn from their experiences.”
First, active citizens accept responsibility, Walters said. “We believe that not only are we accountable for our individual actions, we are individually accountable for the actions taken by our governments.” In the church, “these citizens take seriously the covenants they have made to bless the lives of God’s children and to build the Kingdom of God. They are ‘willing to be accountable for and committed to the well-being of the whole.’”
Second, “active citizens do their homework.’ Walters said that preparation and education are essential to citizenship. “Active citizens, both in the Kingdom and in society, must prioritize and focus their attention on the most significant issues. They then do their research, critically evaluate information, and analyze carefully. They cultivate the ability to examine problems from the multiple perspectives that may be relevant. They seek to learn and understand all they can on any given issue.”
Third, “active citizens engage with others.” Walters said, “Because of our shared responsibility, and because we are so much more effective together than we are individually, as active citizens, we must actively engage with others.”
He explained that “serious deliberation with people we don’t agree with can be slow and frustrating,” so it’s important to put aside negative thoughts and “focus instead on what we have in common.”
Walters continued with his fourth point, “Active citizens make decisions and take action. Active citizens realize that obtaining knowledge, understanding and wisdom is not enough; that discussion is essential but insufficient. Deliberation must result in action. Agency implies both the ability and the responsibility to act for the accomplishment of our purposes. Active citizens produce the future, they do not simply wait for it or dream about it.”
Finally, “active citizens learn from experience.” Walters said, “In the Kingdom, we learn through this process to become more Christ-like. In society, we learn from our experience to exemplify Christ-like attitudes that will strengthen our communities.”
He concluded. “If you live your life as an active citizen, youwillhave an impact on the ultimate course of the globe. The Lord will use you to hasten the work in ways unimaginable to you today. These are exciting times. The Lord has such confidence in us. May we as active citizens be willing to accept responsibility, do our homework, actively engage with others, take action, and always learn from our experiences.”
Writer: Stephanie Bahr Bentley