Originally published in The Federalist.
Not surprisingly, the same citizenship lessons detailed in this 73-year-old scout manual could help us out of our collective funk today.
Even amidst a global pandemic and a roiling political and cultural debate, the United States remains a land of opportunity and plenty. This is made possible largely because we are citizens of a free country. “We the people” established our Constitution, not a king, queen, or dictator. Despite our problems, we prosper because America’s government is designed to protect what is already ours – the “Blessings of Liberty” endowed to us by our Creator.
But such lavish rights as we enjoy in America are inevitably taken for granted. And so will the responsibilities that come with those liberties. I recently came across a 1948 edition of the Boy Scout Field Manual, packed with lessons on camp craft, hiking, and wildlife, as well as on duties toward others, self, and country. It was the last section that drew my attention, a set of four chapters titled Our America. Here, the manual instructed young men of the Baby Boomer generation on flag care, the uniqueness of American democracy, and their duties as citizens.
It’s 2022. Not surprisingly, the same citizenship lessons detailed in this 73-year-old scout manual could help us out of our collective funk today. Says the book: “know your country, love it, and do your part as a citizen to uphold its great traditions of liberty and democracy.” All of us—no matter what part of America’s story we represent—can earn our citizenship merit badge by mastering these three requirements of good citizenship. Here’s how to do it.
KNOW YOUR COUNTRY
The first step to doing your duty as an American citizen is to know your country. For a start, recognize the value of your liberties. History is “mostly the story of noncitizenship,” writes Victor Davis Hanson in his recent book The Dying Citizen. “In the monumental civilizations of the preindustrial world…no residents of the sovereign soil of a monarchy, theocracy, or autocracy enjoyed any inalienable rights.” Even today, a transparent, protected, and widespread right to vote, for example, is withheld from over three billion people around the world.
Knowing your country also means knowing basic things about it. A recent survey from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found just 1 in 3 Americans would pass the U.S. citizenship test. Go back and read America’s founding documents. The scout manual breaks down the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, line by line, and then encourages a thought experiment: “Look back over those rights again. Think of what they mean. Imagine what would happen if they should suddenly be taken away from you!” Get a grip on America’s history and government by educating yourself with reliable sources. Look for objectivity and respect for the Judeo-Christian values the country was founded on.
LOVE YOUR COUNTRY
The second step to becoming a better American citizen is to love your country. This involves humility, grace, and mercy. We are all part of a fragile experiment “to form a more perfect union.” The word “perfect” in the Preamble to the Constitution doesn’t mean perfect in the sense of beyond improvement. It means to bring to completion, to finish the job. And that job of securing the blessings of liberty for all is not done yet. We are still engaged in the task. As Abraham Lincoln put it at his inauguration to a second term in 1865: “…let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds…” And of course, to do it with malice toward none and charity (love) for all.
To love America is to love your fellow Americans—including those with whom you disagree. It means respecting law enforcement. Respecting the memory of those who died to establish and defend your liberty. Respecting parents as the bedrock of families. Respecting the American flag. As the scout manual reminds its young readers: “Every generation has done its part to keep those rights which, together, mean the American Way of Life.” But it’s hard to defend the American Way of Life if you don’t love America. It’s ok to get hot under the collar about an issue you’re passionate about. But don’t let that issue be the defining measure of your love for America and its people. This country has overcome great challenges before, and it can do so again so long as its citizens love their country and are willing to defend and uphold its principles.
DO YOUR PART
The third step to doing your duty as an American citizen is to do your part. “Remember that America is not a gift that is freely given us,” the scout manual urges. “Each of us must deserve it. We must work for America, live for it and, if the call should come, die for it!” Practice being a good citizen every day “through your cooperation, your work for the common good, your consideration for the opinions of others.” Do the big things, like voting, obeying laws, staying informed, and taking your place in the community. But don’t forget the small tasks of citizenship too, like jury duty, obeying traffic regulations, following game laws when hunting or fishing, and helping fellow citizens in need.
A lot can change in 70 years, but the basics of life tend to be the same for every generation of Americans. In his new book I, Citizen, Tony Woodlief says that self-governance is comprised of both freedom and virtue, defining freedom as “the absence of external constraint” and virtue as the “presence of internal restraint.” In other words, good citizenship begins and ends with us. Our good virtue enriches the community while the government protects our freedom to be virtuous. A nation is as strong as its individual citizens, concludes the scout manual. “America is as strong as you are!” As we begin a new year, the 246th year of our Republic, are you ready to earn your badge?