Apathy in America

Have you tested your political IQ lately? Last week the Washington Post published a poll that surveyed the political knowledge of several hundred citizens. It appears that while Americans are adept at complaining about their government, many lack even a rudimentary knowledge about who and what they are criticizing. The poll revealed that, for example, 40 percent of Americans cannot name the Vice President. Nearly half did not know that Newt Gingrich is Speaker of the House. Almost half of the respondents did not know that the Supreme Court decides the constitutionality of laws. And an astounding 76 percent of Americans could not name both of their U.S. senators. The poll also showed that while Americans criticize government spending, few have any idea how that money is spent. For example, 58 percent of the respondents thought that our government spends more on foreign aid than on Medicare—when the truth is that funding for Medicare is more than six times what we spend on foreign aid. Columnist Richard Cohen, with whom I often disagree, this time has it right. Cohen notes that some have called for a revival of the concept of shame—to stigmatize what society considers inappropriate or irresponsible behavior. Why then is it, asks Cohen, "that people feel no shame about knowing nothing about their government and how it operates?" An informed public is essential to the notion of self-government. We need to be able to make educated political decisions. That means—at a minimum—knowing who our representatives are and what they stand for. The whole process of representative democracy collapses without our participation. The complaint is often heard that bureaucrats in Washington are a power-hungry elite who pay little attention to those who elected them. And that's exactly what is happening. But the reason is not so much that the politicians are ignoring us. It is because we the public are studiously ignoring them. We cannot hold our elected officials accountable if we do not know who they are or how our political system operates. It's called civic responsibility—a great American tradition. In times past civic duty—or civics—was taught to our young people as a required course in high schools across the land. These days civics is an option, often ignored. Christians ought to set an example and take a cue from the Scriptures. Government is not to be despised or ignored. Along with the family and the church, Government is one of the three institutions ordained by God. As the great reformer John Calvin once wrote: "Civil authority is a calling, not only holy and lawful before God, but also the most sacred and by far the most honorable of all callings in the whole life of mortal men." Let's remember the high calling of public service so that we do not shirk our civic responsibility. What about your political IQ? How about digging into the U.S. Constitution and the works of our founding fathers? If we fail our political IQ we fail our Lord's command.


Chuck Colson


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