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Citizen University Founder Eric Liu Preaches the Good Word of Civic Engagement

"Democracy works only when enough of us believe democracy works. That’s it!”

By Allison Williams May 29, 2019 Published in the June/July 2019 issue of Seattle Met

Eric Liu in the Pioneer Square offices of Citizen University, his civic-minded nonprofit.

Before a packed congregation in the basement of Elliott Bay Book Company, four days after the 2016 presidential election, Eric Liu stood to deliver a sermon. But he didn’t talk about God; Liu preached the gospel of democracy. The first-ever Civic Saturday, a secular fellowship with songs and readings, urged a jaded citizenry to reengage with public and political life. Since then Liu’s Citizen University has held such gatherings across the country. The child of Chinese immigrants, Liu served as a Clinton White House speechwriter and policy advisor before relocating to Seattle, where he spent 10 years on the Seattle Public Library board. His collected Civic Saturday sermons are now the book Become America, in which our local evangelist of community action reminds us that Donald Trump is no Hitler (the former lacks the latter’s conviction and discipline, he writes) and that democracy demands belief: “Faith not in some savior figure but in each other, in one another. And I am hopeful.” AW

When you’re the child of immigrants, you’re raised with a sense that every opportunity comes with an obligation. It was an unspoken expectation that it is a blessing to be here, so be useful.

When I was working for President Clinton, I came to Seattle with him on a trip and it was just visceral how immediately I loved this place. The entrepreneurial spirit, the physical beauty of it, the Asia-facing of it.

This was a town where things weren’t yet written. Where you could raise your hand and say, “I’ve got an idea, I think we should try this,” and people would say, “No one is standing in your way; try it.”

In the White House, a great proportion of what you do is kabuki theater. It is posturing to appear that you have a certain stance to send a message to followers—but you’re not actually doing anything.

I’ve worked twice for the White House, at the highest precinct of American government. The best education I got in democracy was on the Seattle Public Library board. It’s not even close.

In this town still, compared to lots of other places, people believe that if you show up at meetings, you will get heard and you will get respected.

Civic Saturday deliberately follows the arc of a faith gathering because we believe that there is meaning in this kind of shared ritual.

Faith traditions have figured something out about how you sacralize beliefs, about how you create a sense of common purpose and community, how you stitch yourself again to a sense of history.

Slavery abolitionists didn’t just say, “Hey, we are outright betraying the Declaration of Independence. What a joke, I’m out of here.” They said, “We must get ourselves in alignment with it.”

You can’t reckon with the past, reckon with your own feelings, or reckon with our feelings as a country just sitting by yourself looking at a screen. You’ve got to do it in fellowship with other people.

I’m not looking for fake consensus; I’m not looking for people to come together and hold hands. I don’t think we need fewer arguments in American civic life, I just think we need less stupid ones.

True patriotism isn’t jingoism or chest-thumping nationalism. True patriotism is recognizing that there’s a creed of ideas and trying to push your country to live up to that creed.

Democracy works only when enough of us believe democracy works. That’s it! And that miracle and that gamble are both very fragile.

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