The Common Good

Michael Gerson: Elevated by the common good

Date: May 7, 2013

The Rev. Jim Wallis is a man of the left — perhaps the defining figure of the evangelical left. So it is not surprising that I should find some of the policy views expressed in his new book, “On God’s Side,” badly mistaken. But this does not prevent Wallis from being resoundingly right in his central premise: that American politics would be elevated by a renewed commitment to the common good.

The phrase “the common good” is traditionally identified with Catholic thought. Its use by Wallis and other Protestants is further evidence of the intellectual advance of Catholic social teaching across Christian confessions. Pope John Paul II defined it as the “good of all and of each individual, because we are really responsible for all.” It is the set of social circumstances that allows everyone to flourish.

Wallis’ appeal to the common good is frankly faith-oriented. At one level, Christianity is deeply individualistic — promising a personal relationship to the Creator and imposing a set of individual moral responsibilities. But, as Wallis points out, Christianity is also inherently communitarian — the “call to a relationship that changes all our other relationships.” The Golden Rule and the mandate to “love your neighbor” challenge social systems based on tribe, class or race. Christian ethics has been the halting, inconsistent but continuing struggle to draw out the full implications of God’s image in every life.