Some Responsibilities of Citizenship

by Elder Dallin H. Oaks. America’s Freedom Festival at Provo. Marriott Center. July 3, 1994.

My dear brothers and sisters, I welcome this opportunity to speak to a sabbath audience at America’s Freedom Festival at Provo. This evening I wish to speak about some responsibilities of citizenship. My message consists of personal opinions and is not an expression of an official position.


About two months ago my wife, June, and I traveled from Brazil to Chile. En route we stopped at Iguaçu, Brazil, to see the world’s largest waterfall.

We approached the falls first from the downstream side. We were awed by the thunderous avalanche of water spilling over the rocky precipice and cascading over 200 feet into the cataract below.

Later we walked through the state park several hundred feet above the falls. Here the wide Iguaçu River flows serenely between low forested banks, with only an occasional ripple of white to mark a few boulders in its path. Here the river appears placid and inviting. As we looked down stream toward what we knew to be the location of the mighty falls, we could see nothing to warn of their presence. From this point a boatman with no knowledge of the falls would have only a strange, distant roar to warn him of imminent disaster.

As I viewed this scene I thought of the circumstances of our nation. Prophetic voices have sounded warnings of a downfall ahead, of hazards that could deprive us of our freedom. Yet, as we look about us at this point, the flow of events seems serene, with only an occasional ripple. To see the danger we must rise above the immediate scene and tune our senses to identify changed conditions that threaten the future of our nation.


A few months ago I received a letter from an old friend whose name and work should be familiar to all of us. Dr. Kenneth D. Wells is the founder of the famous Freedom Foundation at Valley Forge. Though now 85 years of age, this respected patriot, a convert to Mormonism, continues to do all that he can for the future of our nation. His letter, sent to many of his friends, cites the obvious malignancies that afflict our nation and concludes with these words:

In my heart and mind and soul, I know only as our consciences turn us to “Responsible Personal Conduct” will the dream that is America have any chance of survival. (Kenneth D. Wells, letter of March 30, 1994.)

Some of the responsible personal conduct that is necessary to save America is the kind of conduct that is enforceable by law and legal process, but much of it can only be encouraged. In the end, many of our most important personal, family, civic, and church responsibilities are entirely voluntary. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell said in his address at this Freedom Festival last year, “Our whole society really rests on the capacity of its citizens to give ‘obedience to the unenforceable.'”

At a time when most of our public discourse concerns rights, it may seem strange to speak of responsibilities. But a democratic republic needs patriotic citizens who are fulfilling their responsibilities as well as claiming their rights. No society is so secure that it can withstand continued demands for increases in citizen rights without producing corresponding increases in the fulfillment of citizen responsibilities. Responsibilities like honesty, respect for personal and property rights, self-reliance, and willingness to sacrifice for the common good are basic to the governance and preservation of our nation.

This evening I will speak of three fundamental responsibilities of citizenship in a democratic nation. In my lifetime each of these has been significantly compromised in theory and practice, and our nation has been significantly weakened in the process. One of these responsibilities has been undercut by the political Left. One has been undercut by the political Right. The third is being undercut by both the Left and the Right. These three fundamentals are the citizen responsibilities of (1) serving in the military, (2) paying taxes, and (3) participating in democratic government.

A Special Introduction for Church Members

Before I address these three responsibilities, I will provide a short introduction that I believe is needed by some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The twelfth Article of Faith commits Latter-day Saints to “being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates,” and to “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” This belief is not unique in Christendom. The apostle Paul told the early Christians to be “subject to principalities and powers, [and] to obey magistrates” (Titus 3:1; also see Rom. 13:1). The apostle Peter taught “submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13).

This principle is embodied in the LDS Declaration of Belief in the Doctrine and Covenants, which reads:

We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments. (D&C 134:5.)

Some Church members have questioned the meaning of the last clause. Some who have written me have claimed to be excused from their scriptural obligation to “sustain and uphold” their’ government because the government has not protected them in their inalienable rights. One letter included this statement:

What about the resistance movement during the conquering of Hitler’s National Socialist war machine? I personally know of an LDS family who during World War II defied the Nazis by secretly saving lives of people (many of them were Jews) by hiding and transporting them by boat from Denmark to Sweden. Yet today they are still faithful members of the Church. Are they under condemnation for not obeying and sustaining the totalitarian government they were under?

I feel sorry for persons whose knowledge of the relative actions of Nazi Germany and modern United States of America is so incomplete that they put these two governments in the same category in depriving their citizens of inalienable rights. We should all be able to recognize the difference between abuses that are individualized, and we surely have some of these in the United States today, and those that are deliberate government policy, as in Nazi Germany. A person who cannot tell the difference between a rat and a rhinoceros will be a poor source of advice on the control of animals.

At a clear and extreme level, violations of inalienable rights by a government might excuse citizens from the performance of some obligations of citizenship. But the history of Latter-day Saints’ relations to their governments shows that any such exceptions would have to be far more extreme than anything we have experienced in this country.

Even when victimized by what they must surely have seen as very severe government oppressions and abridgments of freedom, the Mormon people and their leaders have remained loyal to their government and its laws. Think of the persecutions in Missouri, the expulsion from Nauvoo, and the repressions suffered in the Utah Territory. As long as a government provides aggrieved persons an opportunity to work to enlarge their freedoms and relieve their oppressions by legal and peaceful means, a Latter-day Saint citizen’s duty is to forego revolution and disobedience of law. Our doctrine commits us to work from within. Even an oppressive government is preferable to a state of lawlessness and anarchy in which the only ruling principle is force and every individual has a thousand oppressors. (See D&C 134:6.)

Church members who seek to use LDS doctrine as a basis for concluding that government infringements on inalienable rights have excused them from obeying the law seem to have forgotten the principle of following the prophets. Until the prophets invoke this principle, faithful members will also refrain from doing so. We remain committed to uphold our governments and to obey their laws.

Military Service and Taxes

I come now to the first two fundamental citizen responsibilities that have been compromised in my lifetime in the United States: serving in the military and paying taxes.

Modern opponents of compulsory military service and of enforced payment of taxes have this common objection. Both claim that the government compulsion to do these unpopular things interferes with freedom. The issue, they say, is freedom versus slavery.

The problem with this argument is that it proves too much. It would take us back to the toothless Articles of Confederation from which our inspired Constitution rescued us. A government that cannot compel military service or a government that cannot compel the payment of taxes is not much of a government.

At root, these objections to government compulsion are objections to the whole idea of government. Such objections are contrary to Christian doctrine. Jesus did not preach sedition. He taught his followers to “Render… unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21). His apostles taught the same, as I have already noted.

Of course, there are legitimate technical objections to laws requiring military service and to certain tax laws, but these are objections to the terms of the law, not to the idea of compulsion. Technical objections should be presented in the forums provided by law.

During the Vietnam War, when I was a professor of law at The University of Chicago Law School, I knew some young men from the political Left who had a second type of objection to military service. They said they did not object to compulsory service in the military, but they did object to serving in the war in Vietnam because they opposed that war. The law, which must give equal protection to all citizens, did not recognize that kind of objection. Citizens cannot pick and choose which wars to support or which laws to observe. But there were many young men who asserted this objection, and there were times during the Vietnam War when the extent of draft evasion on this basis posed a serious problem for our nation.

Today there is a comparable objection to the payment of taxes, but this objection comes primarily from the political Right. People who object to some of the ways the government spends its tax revenues contend that they should not be forced to pay taxes to support activities they condemn. This picking and choosing which laws to support is the same legal approach the young men of the political Left used to try to avoid military service during the war in Vietnam.

One does not have to approve of all of the uses of military power nor all of the uses of tax revenues to see that taxpayers and young men of military age cannot resist compulsion on the basis of disagreements with some of the policies of the government that seeks to compel them. A government could not survive if the enforceable responsibilities of its citizens were divisible according to their individual preferences. We cannot be expected to welcome military service or to relish the payment of taxes, but we should recognize these as essential responsibilities of citizenship, even where we disagree with some of the actions of the government we support.

I know of no better commentary on taxes and big government than the consoling observation attributed to Will Rogers: “We’re just lucky we’re not gettin’ all the government we’re payin’ for.” I also enjoy most of the good-humored jokes about the Internal Revenue Service, which definitely does not qualify as everyone’s favorite bureau. Someone said that the IRS has solved the problem of what to give to the man who already has everything: give him an audit!

So much for politics. I come now to objections based on some type of legal theory.

The first legal objection is that the basic law is unconstitutional. I do not remember such arguments being made against the draft law during the Vietnam War. However, for reasons I cannot explain, some persons are now arguing that the federal income tax is unconstitutional.

Church members involved in various forms of tax protest have sent me many legal memoranda that purport to justify their positions. For the first several years of my service as a General Authority, I did a good deal of personal research to evaluate these legal theories in view of the principles I had learned during a quarter of a century in the legal profession, including several years teaching tax law in a major law school. In not one single instance have I found any merit in the legal theories asserted as a basis for these tax protests. Yet, some good people are still being misled by them, and their mistaken reliance on false theories is wrecking havoc with their financial prospects and even their spiritual lives.

A claim often made by protesting taxpayers is that the IRS is afraid to challenge them. Some who have written me have claimed that the merit of their position is evident in the fact that they have not filed a tax return for many years and nothing has happened to them. I received one such a letter from a prominent tax protestor in Utah, and then, a few months later, read a press account of his beginning service of a long prison sentence in a federal penitentiary. The wheels of justice grind slowly, but exceedingly fine.

For many in this audience, the ultimate mortal authority on religious doctrine is the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Just last year, the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve gave this instruction:

Church members in any nation are obligated by the twelfth article of faith to obey the tax laws of that nation (see also D&C 134:5) …. A member who refuses to file a tax return, to pay required income taxes, or to comply with a final judgment in a tax case is in direct conflict with the law and with the teachings of the Church. (Bulletin, 1993-2, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; also see General Handbook of Instructions, p. 11-2.)

There is nothing inappropriate in taking political action to reduce taxes or in pursuing well-founded court challenges to a particular application of the tax laws. In their 1993 statement, the Church leaders declared:

If a member disapproves of tax laws, he may attempt to have them changed by legislation or constitutional amendment, or, if he has a well-founded legal objection, he may challenge them in the courts. (Ibid.)

However, contrary to the position of some tax protestors, this statement provides no justification for a general and persistent failure to pay taxes or to refrain from filing tax returns. The courts that our Constitution and laws have established to rule on such matters have uniformly upheld the constitutionality of the federal income tax law and have regularly rejected assertions that wages and salaries are not taxable, that federal reserve notes do not count as income, and that individuals or businesses can elect not to comply with the income tax laws. As a result, failures to obey the income tax law that are based on these and similar theories must be regarded as actions without “a well-founded legal objection” and therefore unacceptable to persons committed to uphold and sustain the law.

Theories to Free Citizens from the Authority of Governments

Other variations on the avoidance of citizen responsibilities are the recent theories that purport to allow persons to free themselves from the authority of federal, state, or local governments.

The first of these theories was espoused by the so-called Township Movement. Under this theory, a person could execute some kind of document that would excuse him or her from any compulsory government authority other than the so-called township government this person had participated in electing. This theory purported to be based on common-law precedents going back to the earliest of times. Its defect is its ignoring or denying of the authority of the federal and state constitutions and laws adopted in this nation. The proponents of the Township Movement view history through a peephole that shows nothing but the subjects they desire. Their legal claims have no merit whatever.

The second theory that purports to allow a person to free himself or herself from paying taxes or being subject to other federal or state laws is the so-called state citizenship movement, which makes prominent reference to sovereign citizenship or common-law citizenship. This theory starts with a valid principle, the sovereignty of the people, but it misapplies that principle and reaches an erroneous conclusion.

One of the most important of the great fundamentals of our inspired Constitution is the principle that the sovereign power is in the people, not in a state or nation just because it has the power that comes from force of arms. Along with many other religious people, Latter-day Saints affirm that God gave the power to the people, and the people consented to a Constitution that delegated certain powers to the federal and state governments and reserved the rest to the people.

However, it does not follow from this principle that each citizen is free to determine which laws he will obey or that one or more citizens are free to redefine the concept of sovereignty. That would result in anarchy, a system in which the only source of power is the sword. In that system, no person is free. The United States Constitution and the constitutions of the several states have defined the powers citizens have granted to their governments, the procedures for amending those grants, and the means by which controversies over the exercise of those powers can be resolved.

Now to the theory of state or sovereign or common-law citizenship. A knowledgeable proponent of this theory, whose recent, long letter to me purported to be representative of large numbers of adherents in California and across the nation, some of whom are members of my church, gave this description of the theory (letter of Mar. 15, 1994): The 1783 Treaty of Paris (which concluded the Revolutionary War) granted sovereignty to the people of the thirteen colonies. The sovereign people of these colonies (later states) had no national citizenship. There was no national citizenship in the United States until 1868. The citizenship granted by the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 gives national citizens only “subject status,” not sovereignty. As a result, there are different classes of citizenship in the United States today, depending upon whether one’s citizenship is based on the inferior status conferred by the Fourteenth Amendment or on the inherent sovereign citizenship that devolved upon residents of the various states as a result of the 1783 Treaty of Paris.

There are four major problems with this theory. First, the Treaty of Paris did not grant sovereignty to the citizens of the thirteen colonies. It is a treaty between countries,” Great Britain and the United States of America. The treaty acknowledges the independence of the thirteen “states,” as it calls them, but it refers to them collectively “the United States of America.” Moreover, the treaty was ratified by the Continental Congress, not by the legislatures of the thirteen states.

Second, the theory of state citizenship ignores the effect of the United States Constitution, which was ratified five years after the Treaty of Paris. That constitution established an entirely new relationship between the states and the national government. and the citizens of the states and the nation ratified that relationship by the procedures they had specified.

Third, the argument that there was only state citizenship prior to the Fourteenth Amendment ignores over 75 years of congressional and judicial action defining the separate incidents of federal and state citizenship. (See James H. Kettner, The Development of American Citizenship 1608-1870 [Univ. No. Carolina Press, 1978].)

Finally, the asserted theory also ignores the effect of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which defines national citizenship for all citizens of this nation and its constituent states.

Persons who believe in the so-called “state citizenship movement” are encouraged to sign and publicly file three “legal documents,” including a “Declaration of Citizenship and Status as a Common-law Citizen.” These documents are supposed to revoke the signers’ national citizenship and free them from tax and other legal obligations to the United States. Considering the care with which these meaningless documents are drafted and executed, I am reminded of a wise aphorism: “A task not worth doing at all is not worth doing well.”

One recent letter to Church headquarters even suggested that such persons have no legal need to get a marriage license, and therefore should be able to have a temple marriage without one. Persons who claim the right to pick and choose which laws of the land they will observe are not far from claiming to choose which laws of God they must observe.

I feel sad that persons can be so misled. The wise will beware of teachings on the Constitution that are based on peephole history and selective readings of historic documents. They should also beware of the related advice of persons who advocate private armies or the collection of heavy weapons or extraordinary quantities of private arms. Responsible citizenship has no shortcuts when the going gets tough–not draft avoidance, not tax evasion and not eccentric theories that purport to free us from the obligation to be subject to t constitutions and laws of our states and our nation.

Participating in Democratic Government

The solution to many of the major problems in our nation is for more citizens to participate more actively and more effectively in democratic government, by their votes and by their letters and other communications to elected representatives. This fundamental responsibility of citizenship is a prerequisite for the perpetuation of freedom.

I will cite three major national problems that I believe would yield, long-term. increased citizen participation.

1. The budget deficit. We know that our national government cannot continue indefinitely to spend more than it receives. If the citizen-voters of this nation continue to demand the current level of government expenditures that produces our deficits, then our citizen-taxpayers must accept the tax increases necessary to fund them. If we won’t raise taxes, we should accept cuts in various expenditures. We cannot continue much longer to fund our current levels of government expenditures by increased borrowings.

This problem cannot be solved by the popular but superficial action of merely opposing all tax increases. It cannot be solved by the phony solution of proposing spending cuts on every government program except our various personal favorites. This familiar approach shatters working coalitions and imposes gridlock on progress toward reducing deficits. Citizen-taxpayers have endured the resulting government paralysis on deficit reduction for years, until we are about to drift over the fiscal falls from the effects of the national debt.

Citizen-voters should demand that our elected President and lawmakers act decisively and courageously to reduce the steeply increasing debt we are leaving to our children and grandchildren and the progressively paralyzing proportion of current income our government must pay as interest on that debt.

2. The allocation of power between federal and state governments. For more than a half century, our national government has been acquiring additional powers by assuming functions previously left to state and local governments. This trend has now gone so far that the national government is beginning to direct what state and local governments must do and even how they must spend their limited revenues. This trend must be stopped and reversed, or we will cease to be the federal republic established in our inspired Constitution.

I am glad that some of our state governors are challenging this trend. I welcome their leadership in objecting to congressional action that commandeers the legislative and regulatory processes of the states to carry out federal directives not financed by the federal government. I hope many citizens will respond to such leadership and work to assure that state governments and their subsidiary local governments will continue to have a strong and effective role in our nation.

It is imperative that state governments have the power and the fiscal resources to respond to local needs and to capitalize on local strengths. That is the essence of federalism. But if federalism is to work, state governments must be willing to move against local and regional problems, such as clean air and water, and not wait for every such initiative to come from the national government. The current imbalance between the national and the state governments is just as much a product of state inaction as it is of national overreaching.

The balance I advocate between national and state powers is mandated by the Tenth Amendment, which provides:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The Tenth Amendment’s reference to powers delegated to the United States by the Constitution leads me to a third subject of concern.

3. We need to reestablish the constitutional principle that our federal government is a government of limited powers.

A government of limited powers was the central premise of constitutional law during the first century and a half of our nation’s history. Constitutional discussions of that period generally focused not on questions of individual rights but on whether the Constitution granted power to authorize the government activity that was challenged.

In the aftermath of the great depression and World War II, this traditional assumption of limited federal government powers was gradually displaced by the idea that the national government presumably possesses law-making powers except to the extent prohibited by some person’s defined constitutional right. As a result of this change, current legal and political debate over excessive or undesirable government regulation tends to focus on whether some individual constitutional rights have been invaded.

In effect …. [this] shifts the burden of proof concerning the appropriateness of an exercise of government power from the state to the rightholder. New assertions of government power are no longer suspect. Where no constitutional right is clearly available as a shield, new assertions of government authority meet passive acquiescence.

… [We] need to revitalize the old wisdom that the protection of individual freedom often requires limiting government powers in ways that go beyond merely vindicating individual rights. We must cage the lion as well as arm the spectators. (W. Cole Durham, Jr., and Dallin H. Oaks, “Constitutional Protections for Independent Higher Education: Limited Powers and Institutional Rights,” in Church and College: a Vital Partnership. Vol. 3. Accountability, pp. 71-72 [National Congress on Church-related Colleges and Universities, Austin College, Sherman, Texas, 1980].)

Because it requires changing deeply held assumptions and fundamental constitutional interpretations, this third major problem will be the most difficult to resolve. But it is also the most important. In the pantheon of ideas in our divinely-inspired constitution, the idea that the government is limited to the powers expressly and impliedly conferred by the Constitution is second only to the principle that the people are sovereign.

I have advocated greater citizen participation to resolve three major problems: (1) our massive and increasing national deficits, (2) the need for states to reacquire powers and initiatives taken away by the federal government, and (3) the need to reestablish the principle that the federal government is a government of limited powers.

A Caution on Citizen Participation in Single-Interest Groups

Even as I call for greater citizen participation to resolve national problems, I must voice one caution about citizen participation. I believe that citizen participation in single-interest groups is actually weakening representative government.

Interest groups are inevitable and desirable in a democratic government. For example, political parties are interest groups, comprised of persons with many different specific interests. Political parties blunt the extreme effects of their constituent special-interest groups as those parties compel the internal compromises necessary to mold their constituencies into a working coalition. In contrast, single-interest groups confront government directly with uncompromised demands on a narrow spectrum of issues. These groups are so specialized that they lack the perspective to move against the large problems, and they also lack the incentive to make the pragmatic compromises that are the enabling force of democratic government in a pluralistic society.

Some of the most powerful influences in the government of our nation in this last decade of the twentieth century are the multitude of single-interest groups. Whether the subject is gun control, medical care, criminal punishment, welfare reform, government aid to this or that, or whatever, these single-interest groups are a formidable force in lobbying, in fund-raising, and in citizen involvement. None of these groups is powerful enough to steer the ship of state by itself, but many have sufficient power to prevent the vessel from being steered toward the solution of more general problems. In other words, single-interest groups are not able to lead toward the solution of general problems, but they are commonly able to block such solutions. And what they block can be the solution of the large general problems that affect the entire body politic, such as deficit-spending or others I have mentioned.

Contrast the example of the founding fathers. The United States Constitution could never have been drafted or ratified if each of the delegates to the convention had focused on his own special interest and had demanded full satisfaction as the price of his support. The history of our Constitution is replete with examples of far-sighted statesmen who were willing to support a document that failed to implement many of their personal preferences. For example, influential Thomas Jefferson, who did not serve as a delegate because he was in Paris negotiating a treaty, felt strongly that a bill of rights should have been included in the original Constitution. But Jefferson still supported the Constitution because he felt it was the best available at the time. Benjamin Franklin described that same approach when he said: “The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good.” (Notes of the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Reported by James Madison, p. 653.)

In other words, we must not go into blocking tactics when a representative body fails to satisfy us fully on our favorite special interest. We should not expect all our personal preferences in government action that must represent a consensus. Americans are well advised to support the best that can be obtained in the circumstances that prevail. The conduct of the most important business of our nation must not be held hostage to the fulfillment of every preference of every powerful special interest group. In a democracy and a society committed to pluralism, we must be willing to compromise on public policies from year to year, and then apply ourselves diligently to the tiresome tasks of education and persuasion and lobbying in order to obtain our way to an increasing extent as we win agreement from our fellow citizens.

One aspect of our current single-interest politics that is a special worry to me is the fear that many Americans will have their only political activity through a particular single-interest group. If most who are politically active see the political process and the future of our country only through the keyhole of one particular special interest, where will we get the vision and perspective necessary to guide the ship of state on the largest and most important issues that confront us? Responsible citizenship requires that we see our venture in self-government in broader terms than merely through the lens of one special interest, however important and however strongly felt.

I do not suggest that anyone refrain from pressing whatever special interest is important to him or her. But I am bold enough to suggest that no person should limit his or her political activity to a single subject. For example, a person who strongly supports one special interest should also make a conscious effort to help resolve larger government problems on which that person can unite with some of the same persons who are the opposition in the area of special interest. There are plenty of areas for general citizen participation on subjects not usually classified as single interests. In addition to deficit reduction and the other topics mentioned earlier, I would include education policy, transportation policy, environmental concerns, and the necessarily broad-based activities of political parties at the local, state, and national levels.

General citizen cooperative action that transcends special interests can also be achieved through the multitude of private volunteer organizations that are unique and so important to our nation. A partial list of these will include activities familiar to everyone in this audience.

  1. The celebration of citizenship, patriotism, and national holidays and values, such as hundreds of volunteers do so well in this Freedom Festival.
  2. Volunteer work in hospitals, museums, public radio and television, and various arts organizations such as symphony, ballet, and theater.
  3. Assisting the great system of private education that is unique to the United States of America, at the elementary, secondary, and college/university level.
  4. Helping to clean up the air, water, and soil that support us, including such simple yet meaningful tasks as recycling materials and picking up trash along the highways.
  5. Working with activity and athletic programs for young people, such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Little League, and Special Olympics.
  6. Supporting and helping in the charitable projects of numerous community, social, and fraternal organizations.

Responsibilities and Heroes

I have spoken about citizenship responsibilities. I close with some observations about the relationship of responsibilities to the matter of heroes. (I use the word heroes to include both male and female.)

My friend, President George Roche of Hillsdale College, gives many important insights in his book, A World without Heroes (Hillsdale, Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 1986). Seeking to answer the important question of why our current generation seems to have no heroes, Dr. Roche observes that a hero gains that stature by courageously overcoming significant obstacles to make an extraordinary achievement that is generally recognized as a good thing. He observes that “The hero seeks not happiness but goodness” (Ibid. p.4).

The kinds of persons who are idolized in our current society, including sports figures and movie or rock stars, are substitutes for heroes, but they are not heroes. The current idols stand for a self-serving pursuit of happiness, not an unselfish sacrifice for goodness. A materialistic or self-serving world cannot produce heroes because such a world has no generally accepted measure to tell us what we should do in the service of others. The genuine hero achieves that status by accomplishments measured against a consensus of what is good and praiseworthy. We cannot have heroes without clear common ideas of what is good or right.

My nominees for heroes are the good mothers and fathers who sacrifice to bear and nurture the leaders of future generations. I wish we had a national consensus on the appropriateness of that characterization, but we live in a time when our national leaders cannot even state a consensus on the definition of family.

As I read Dr. Roche’s stimulating ideas on heroes, I found myself translating his ideas into the common terms of the law with which I am most familiar. I thought of rights and responsibilities.

As noted earlier, the last half-century of legal and public discourse has concentrated strongly on the language of rights. I suggest that there are few heroes in a world that focuses on rights. Is a person a hero for getting his or her rights? There is justice in that accomplishment, but its only service is self-service. On exceptional occasions some persons can rise to hero status by securing the rights of others, such as the civil rights volunteers of the sixties who put their lives in jeopardy in securing the voting rights of black citizens in the South. But most commonly the gladiators who fight for the rights of others are well paid by legal fees or by public office or prominence. No, the pursuit of rights is rarely the stuff of which heroes are made. And so, in a time of preoccupation with rights it should not surprise us that we live in a world with few heroes.

Heroes win that status by distinction in the fulfillment of responsibilities. If we could resurrect the prominence of responsibilities in our society, we would resurrect the framework of belief and the measures of distinction by which heroes can be recognized and honored.

The citizen responsibilities I have discussed provide such an opportunity. I therefore join my voice to the plea of Dr. George Roche:

If this tired old planet is to be healed, it will be the old-fashioned way, one by one, with each of us finding the best within us. We all have to be heroes! (Ibid., p. xviii.)

May God bless us in our efforts to fulfill our responsibilities and to rise to the best that is in us.

By , On .