The Common Good

Joe the Pastor

A new figure has entered the 2008 election campaign. His name is "Joe the plumber," and his concerns about his future have now entered the message of this political year. He's the guy Barack Obama met while walking a neighborhood near Toledo, Ohio. Joe asked the candidate whether his taxes might be raised under Obama's plan -- if Joe were to ever succeed in buying his own plumbing business. John McCain heard about Joe the plumber, raised his name in last week's presidential debate, and has turned him into one of his campaign's central themes. Joe is now famous.

The whole incident and the media coverage surrounding America's newest political celebrity has made me think of another figure who may also influence this presidential election: "Joe the pastor." The views of Joe the plumber and Joe the pastor provide a sharp contrast in moral and political philosophies that may be in conflict this -- or any -- election year. While most pastors I know have not followed the bad advice of some groups to endorse candidates this year, they have been talking to their congregations about the kind of values that should motivate the voting behavior of their parishioners. And while most are careful not to take partisan sides and divide their congregations -- which are made up of Republicans and Democrats -- they are preaching about the concerns that people of faith ought to bring into the voting booth.

Liberals often get very angry at working-class voters like Joe the plumber who sometimes vote against their own self-interest because they hope to get rich some day. And conservatives often try to focus those same working-class voters on "wedge issues" that might trump their economic interests. But Joe the pastor is more likely to try to focus the congregation on the values that could trump both self-interest and narrowly conceived "moral issues." While Joe the plumber seems mostly concerned about what might happen to him, Joe the pastor tries to focus the community of believers on what is going to happen to other people.

It's called the "common good," and it finds expression in pulpit preaching across the theological and political spectrum. Many pastors are asking their members to consider how their vote will affect the poor in our country and around the world, the victims of human trafficking, those suffering genocide in places like Darfur, and the threats to God's creation like climate change. They ask us to focus not just on our problems but on the plight of the most vulnerable, from unborn children to the 30,000 children who die daily around the globe from hunger and disease. Many pastors are now asking their church members to remember the increasing number of people whose homes, jobs, and security is being threatened by the growing economic crisis, or those without health care -- some sitting beside them in the pews. Many congregations have families with members in Iraq and Afghanistan, but have profound questions about the wisdom of our strategy in the war against terrorism. Many pastors care about moral issues such as torture and the moral standing of our nation in the world, not merely our political power.

Joe the plumber is mostly asking what could happen to him, but pastors have the obligation to ask their congregants to go deeper than that. In Faithful Citizenship, a helpful pamphlet published for the 2004 election, the United States Catholic Bishops wrote, "Politics in this election year and beyond should be about an old idea with new power -- the common good. The central questions should not be, 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?' It should be, 'How can "we" -- all of us, especially the weak and vulnerable -- be better off in the years ahead? How can we protect and promote human life and dignity? How can we pursue greater justice and peace?"

Asked what he is preaching about this election season to his Vineyard congregation in Columbus, Ohio, evangelical megachurch pastor Rich Nathan said something quite similar: "God is always on the side of the marginalized, the people who are the weakest and poorest. That includes the unborn and their mothers, but it also includes people who lack health insurance and folks who can't find jobs in a global economy. It includes children and women who are being trafficked into sex slavery, and it includes the people of Darfur."

Of course, every citizen has the right to ask how their vote will affect them, as Joe the plumber is doing. But we also have the moral obligation to ask how our vote will affect others, our moral responsibilities to our neighbor and our society, and our moral standing and leadership in the world. And for that, I'm glad we will have the influence in this election not only of Joe the plumber, but also Joe (and Joanna) the pastor.

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