The Common Good

Progressive and Evangelical Common Ground

As the Religious Right has diminished in influence, many are searching for a new political agenda that doesn’t fit the standard right/left battles of American politics and is more consistent with their deeply held values. That new agenda would be good news for the majority of Americans who are alienated by the political extremes and are hungry - not for a soulless centrism - but for a new moral center in our public life.

To ground that new agenda, we need a better understanding of the role of faith in public life. Political appeals - even if rooted in religious convictions - must be argued on moral grounds, rather than as sectarian religious demands, so that the people (citizens), whether religious or not, may have the capacity to hear and respond. Religion must be disciplined by democracy and contribute to a better and more moral public discourse. Religious convictions must therefore be translated into moral arguments, which must win the political debate if they are to be implemented. Religious people don’t get to win just because they are religious (in a nation that is often claimed to be a Judeo-Christian country). They, like any other citizens, have to convince their fellow citizens that what they propose is best for the common good—for all of us and not just for the religious. Clearly, part of the work to be done includes teaching religious people how to make their appeals in moral language, and secular people not to fear such appeals will lead to theocracy.

The public discussion about and between evangelicals and progressives has been dominated by too many false choices and too much mutual misunderstanding. It is time to work for common ground on some of our most critical issues. We must address a compelling vision to the many Americans who are actually more “purple,” than “red” or “blue.” What could evoke their convictions, reflect their values, summon their commitments, and change America? What would a broader and deeper moral politics or values politics begin to look like?

An important step toward those goals was taken yesterday with the release of “ Come Let Us Reason Together ” by the Third Way culture program. I applaud this effort by Third Way to develop common ground.

In a section on the role of faith in public life and politics, the paper outlines three “basic principles as a first step in bridging the divide over the role of religion in American public life:"

  • Respect for religious beliefs and religious diversity is vital for a healthy society.
  • Religion plays an appropriate public, not just private, role in American life.
  • All citizens have a constitutionally protected right to articulate the religious or moral basis of their political views in the public sphere, and protecting these expressions does not conflict with a commitment to the non-establishment of religion.

The heart of the paper, “Come Let Us Reason Together” provides significant common ground with a “ Shared Vision on Five Divisive Cultural Issues” – affirming the human dignity of gay and lesbian people, reducing the need for abortion, placing responsible moral limits on the treatment of human embryos, creating safe spaces for children online, and encouraging responsible fatherhood. The authors explain:

In this section, we have taken five key cultural areas and identified common ground in order to show that it is possible to have conversations even on some of the toughest issues. Beyond promoting sound policy for the nation, our hope is to help evangelicals and progressives move beyond mutual distrust on cultural issues to respectful civic partnerships that operate on the assumption of good faith even in the midst of disagreement. This reconfiguration makes a significant contribution to a more civil democratic dialogue and serves as a foundation for progress on the toughest issues.

The paper concludes:

In order for this paper to bear more fruit, both progressives and evangelicals will need to continue the hard work of reasoning together. We do not conclude that these conversations will be easy or that the paper’s proposals in themselves will resolve all the real disagreements and tensions on cultural issues. But we believe that the gap need not be as wide and the mistrust need not run as deep.

Progressives and evangelicals are people who care deeply about the justice and health of our society, and potential alliances between us on key issues could provide a genuine convergence for the common good. This paper was endorsed by a wide range of religious leaders, and I look forward to the “hard work of reasoning together” in further conversations.

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