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Byron Williams: Civics requires commitment to ideals
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Byron Williams: Civics requires commitment to ideals

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An undated engraving portrait of James Madison, the fourth president of the U.S., from 1809-1817.

In recent years, the United States has adopted a tradition that corresponds with Constitution Day (Sept. 17). It is a ritual designed to ascertain the nation’s collective civic knowledge.

According to an Annenberg Public Policy Center survey, 56% of U.S. adults correctly named all three branches of government, up from 26% in 2016, and the highest since the survey began in 2006. Many of the respondents could name most of the freedoms granted by the First Amendment, with 74% naming freedom of speech. But 61% thought Facebook must allow free expression.

If civics, generally speaking, is the study of the rights and obligations of citizens in society, the Annenberg study is informative as to how much Americans know about its democratic-republican form of government. But American citizenship requires much more than rote memorization of key dates and a lukewarm understanding of the rights embedded in the Constitution.

American citizenship begins with embracing the radical concept that its civic virtue is based on liberty and equality, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. These are the fraternal twins that have appeared reminiscent of Esau and Jacob in their historical implementation. The uneven application notwithstanding, liberty and equality are dependent clauses that cannot stand in isolation. For those pursuing liberty, their final destination must be equality. Those emphasizing equality must ultimately arrive at liberty.

Since its radical inception, for myriad reasons, there has never been a moment in the American narrative when a groundswell of the citizenry wholly embraced the articulated expectations to sustain this grand experiment.

The irony began on July 4, 1776, when the 13 colonies officially pledged “their lives, fortunes and sacred honor” to secede from British subjugation by enjoining liberty and equality while maintaining slavery, thereby adding paradox into the equation. The hackneyed response offers that slavery in the 18th century was ubiquitous. While that’s true, no other nation made equality part of its civic virtue. It reflects the burden that we must aspire to reach, not bring down to suit our level of comfort.

Paradox was fortified when slavery was granted constitutional protection in the original draft of the Constitution. It proved, based on America’s original commitment, to be a Faustian bargain that placed the nation in tension with itself.

All Americans in the 21st century, whether born or naturalized citizens, are beneficiaries of the foundational precepts of liberty and equality, along with the accompanying paradox.

Accurately articulating the three branches of government does not include the contradictory commitment to the union that may demand being in opposition to an issue that one may personally support. Citizenship is not truncating support for a political party like that of one’s favorite sports team.

The paradoxical nature of America’s democratic-republican form of government demands that the journey is as important, if not more so, than the destination. No issue can be so virtuous that it justifies undemocratic methods to be achieved.

But America has yet to evolve from the initial concerns that James Madison held for the undue influence for factions.

As Madison opined in Federalist 55:

“In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”

Madison’s 1787 concerns may be the anvil that the nation perennially carries around its neck. Factions are an organic process that becomes problematic when allegiance to it becomes superior to our civic commitments. It may represent the most effective weapon in the arsenal of paradox.

But there is a line of demarcation where factions should never be allowed to encroach. That may be the most daunting challenge presented to our civic appreciation.

Part of our collective responsibility may require that we question our preferred orthodoxy. The inability to do this reflects civic immaturity, which is increasingly pervasive. It is a reductionist methodology that can be counterintuitive to the responsibilities to the republic.

The American Revolution did not conclude in 1783 when the United States won a guerilla war of attrition against the British Empire. As Benjamin Rush offered in 1787, it was merely the “first act of the great drama” known as the American experiment that tests the hypothesis of whether the people could govern themselves.

American civics is a paradoxical, flawed, inconsistent, radical and unprecedented exercise that cannot be harnessed simply by understanding how the government functions. It is a lived commitment to the ideals of liberty and equality. Moreover, it cannot be rigidly beholden to a definition derived by a cabal of 18th century men who, though visionary and prescient, could not appreciate the advancements made by running water.

The Rev. Byron Williams (byron@publicmorality.org), a writer and the host of “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.

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