Citizenship is the small cost of freedom

By Michael Ryan

“Most of us don’t understand the idea of self-government enough to be properly astonished by it.” — Eric Metaxas, author of ‘If You Can Keep It’

We absolutely need to be astonished by the idea of self-government – or we might soon lose it.

Frighteningly, the evidence points to our losing it: Roughly 75 to 80 percent of high school students fail on basic tests of civics and history. Some 70 percent of adults fail, too. Many local elections have turnouts in the low teens, if not worse. And have you seen those person-on-the-street interviews where folks can’t answer fundamental questions about America or its leaders?

What happens to a self-governed nation when so many of the “selves” have tuned out?

We need to always remember that we have two lives: a private one and a public one – the latter being the attention we pay to, and the amount of involvement we have in, the important events and issues in our communities, country and world.

Most of us are blessed with rich, full, even overindulged private lives. How’s your public life?

And shame on anyone who tries to tell you that civics and citizenship are boring.

Indeed, in the movie ‘The American President’, Michael Douglas plays a president of the U.S. who is trying to get his young daughter excited about civics class. He has her read the first few phrases of the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…”

“See?” Douglas’ character says.

“Grabs you right off the bat. It’s a page-turner!”

He’s absolutely right. This self-government thing is exciting stuff – especially when you consider the alternative: Well over 95 percent of everyone else who has ever lived on this planet has toiled under a king, dictator, junta or some other heavy-handed and absolute authority.


This is the first nation in history where the founding documents declare, in writing, that the individual is sovereign over his or her own life. We are the freest people in history. And we had darn well better be astonished by it if we want it to endure.

What can we do to keep the Statue of Liberty’s torch lit? Plenty.

First, let’s pump up our public lives.

Let’s dedicate ourselves to these three things:
• Character
• Brotherhood
• Citizenship

These are the three legs of the self-governance stool – the qualities and virtues that make self-governance possible to begin with.

It all begins with character.

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” John Adams eloquently pointed out. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

In short, to work on the country, we need to work on ourselves.

Second, get involved as much as you can – in both public and private civic endeavors: local government, political campaigns, nonprofits and more. Keep up on the news.

Write your elected leaders and newspaper editors. Run for office or support the candidate of your choice. If you’ve never experienced an election night as a campaign supporter, you don’t know what you’re missing!

A self-governed nation is only as good as the quality and attentiveness of its citizens.

“That is the wonderful, spectacular genius of it all – and the terrible, sobering danger of it all, too,” writes Eric Metaxas.

There are some things we must do as a country, too, to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Civics – the inspiring, exhilarating, page-turning kind Michael Douglas was talking about – must be taught in every school.

Our young simply must be taught to appreciate our unique and blessed history – especially as it compares to the unfortunate and desperate history of the rest of the world from the very beginning.

Our public and private leaders should lead us in a national dialogue about character, brotherhood, citizenship – and the seat of the self-governance stool: responsibility.

Houses of worship have been made to believe they must be silent on matters of governance. Poppycock. The spiritual underpinning of our founding, embodied by the “Great Awakening” is undeniable and inseparable from our destiny.

Far from prohibiting churches from participating in our national dialogue, they must understand that they are essential to it.

It would help, too, if the nation’s businesses promoted civics and good citizenship much as they advocate for the United Way. And would a more energized, active citizenry not benefit businesses as much as it does the nation?

Most important, get excited! Allow yourself to be astonished by this country and the unprecedented liberty we’ve been bequeathed.

And with a soaring sense of gratitude, but sober responsibility too, let’s “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” to keep freedom’s fire blazing.

Michael Ryan is editorial page editor of ‘The Augusta Chronicle’ in Georgia.


The National Archives and Records Administration was formed in 1934 and is charged with preserving the nation’s historical documents. America’s charters of freedom are on display in its Washington headquarters.


Some 75-80 percent of American youths fail on tests of basic civics. Adults also fail at a rate of 71 percent.
A nation of free people cannot govern themselves if they’ve lost the blueprint for that self-governance.
We have private and public lives. We’ve indulged, often over-indulged, our private lives, yet have neglected our public lives – by failing to vote faithfully, stay up on the news and newsmakers and pitch in in our communities.


Luckily, the opportunities for civic involvement are limitless. Join a civic club, volunteer for a political candidate, attend government meetings, write your leaders and newspaper editors and more.
We simply must do a better job of teaching the basics of American history, American government and civics in our schools. Our new presidential administration could lead a push for it, and the First Lady could even make it her cause.
There are myriad books and other sources of information on the unique nature of this republic we love. One of our favorites is the book ‘If You Can Keep It’, by Eric Metaxas.

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