The Common Good

God and Country: Jim Wallis’s biblically based challenge to Washington.

Date: April 15, 2013

Abraham Lincoln was raised Baptist and had a powerful personal faith. But he refused to affiliate with any organized church. Emailing me this week from the road, where he is on an 18-city book tour, the Rev. Jim Wallis wrote, “Maybe Lincoln was one of the first ‘None of the Aboves’”—referring to the 60 percent of today’s young people who, he says, “have just chosen not to affiliate with any religion in large part because of the behavior of the religious.” Yet Lincoln captured perfectly the way people of faith should consider God in the public square. “My concern,” he famously said, “is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”

Wallis—an evangelical Christian minister, a political liberal, and (full disclosure) a friend—has chosen Lincoln’s observation as the starting point for an important sermon. His new book, On God’s Side, purposefully challenges both the religious right and the religious left to come together on higher ground for the common good. A political junkie, Wallis removed himself from much of the coverage of the 2012 campaign; he didn’t even know who won the New Hampshire primary for days. He went on retreat, seeking silence and solace and sanity. When he returned, he wrote On God’s Side. It is in many ways a slap in the face to politics as usual, a plea for all sides to heed the scriptural command to find a time to mend and not just to tear; to love and not just to hate; to search and not just give up.

As a practicing pundit and political consultant, as well as a practicing Catholic, I found that Wallis’s book contained a special challenge for me. He has come up with a Covenant for Civility: seven biblically based rules for political combat. One is a commitment to pray for one another—even and especially our political adversaries. Another is to follow the Epistle of James, to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” I probably violated that one before I even finished the book. Still, it is helpful and healthy that Wallis has set the bar high for us pundits. Wallis argues passionately for men and women of good will to reach across the ideological divide and join in advancing the common good. I agree wholeheartedly. But what about those whose goal is not the common good? What if, instead of dealing with goodhearted conservatives who truly want every American to succeed, President Obama is actually dealing with a different hard-core conservative cadre that denies and even denigrates the notion of the common good?