The Common Good

American Ideals

Sojomail - July 5, 2007


"We have to step out of this charity model, and as nonprofits, we have to start being involved in the political discourse. Hunger's not about food."

- Robert Egger, anti-hunger activist, founder of D.C. Central Kitchen, and recent recipient of the Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award. (Source: The Washington Post)

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American Ideals

I spent the week of the Fourth of July speaking about religion and public life at the Aspen Ideas Festival. On Independence Day, there was a panel called "What Does America Stand for Today?" Various panelists extolled the American virtues of liberty, equality, justice, and equal opportunity. Another praised the fact that we are a nation of immigrants and have been an "open society" (despite the recent defeat of immigration reform). An evening panel, which included Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, discussed how important it is to be a nation that accepts the rule of law and has a Constitution designed to always expand democracy and extend inclusion.

But when one panelist in the first discussion said that the question of "what America stands for" looks very different from inside the United States than from outside, you could see and feel people starting to bristle. From outside our borders in the rest of the world, he suggested, they don't speak of U.S. liberty and justice but rather of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Another pointed out that American inequality is now greater than any time since the Gilded Age, and everybody talked about the horrible mistake of Iraq. When the suggestion was made that perhaps pride in our ideals sometimes leads us to the sin of hubris, to preaching more than listening, and ultimately to multilateral action in the world that proves disastrous, things got tense. And when he suggested more American humility—well, let's just say we had some early Fourth of July fireworks right there on the stage.

But that reaction misses the point about American ideals. Many have pointed out how some of the most famous framers of the Constitution itself failed to live up to its ideals. And American history has been nothing less that the steady battle of a country trying to live up to its ideals. When it comes to their practice, we have certainly fallen short of the truths that we hold to be "self-evident." I thought of the genius of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who held a Bible in one hand and a Constitution in the other as he called the American people to the values of both. Because we have said that these ideals about human rights are rooted in the belief that men and women are made in the image of God, an appeal to both our religious and constitutional convictions has often been the best road to social change. Most of the great social reform movements of our history have had those ideals at their heart and have been fueled and driven in part by faith and the need for spiritual transformation to undergird social transformation.

Then I read Michael Gerson's op-ed piece in The Washington Post, which said much of what I was also feeling on this July Fourth. Mike and I disagree on some things, like the war in Iraq, but he makes some powerful points here about our history and our faith, and I thought I would pass them along to you. During your days of holiday rest and recreation, do think about our ideals and what each of us might do to more deeply put them into practice.

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Gareth Higgins: Gordon Brown's Challenges
Jim Wallis’ words last week about new U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown were an encouragement to see him as a politician with a conscience—a man genuinely committed to addressing questions of injustice. I hope that Brown is able to follow through, but there are a few challenges. Chief among them is the fact that he supported Tony Blair’s policies, including not only such noble enterprises as the Northern Ireland peace process and the introduction of the minimum wage, but also the huge mistake of the war in Iraq. He did not raise concerns publicly against it, and has even said that he would have done the same thing as Blair had he been in charge in 2003. This is a serious problem for anyone who hopes he represents a decisive break with the foreign policy errors of the previous administration.

Tim Kumfer: A Declaration of Interdependence
As many in the United States are gathering to celebrate Independence Day, an event I attended last week has me thinking a lot more about the necessity of interdependence. Last week four other Sojourners staff members and I journeyed to Atlanta for the first ever U.S. Social Forum, whose motto was "Another World is Possible. Another U.S. is Necessary!" It was a gathering of activists who commit "to challenge corporate globalization, its neoliberal policies, and the growing poverty, repression, and war that increasingly defines the dominant global capitalist economic and political systems." With somewhere between 10 and 20 thousand participants, it was a great carnival of peoples' movements, and an invitation to learn how our government's policies and the actions of corporations can disrupt and destroy the lives of those on the bottom.

Brian McLaren: Our Neighborhood Parade
Our little neighborhood has put together its own July Fourth parade for the last few years. So on the Fourth at 11 a.m., my wife and I will walk down the street with folding chairs to the parade route. We'll sit on the sidewalk under a shady oak as a few dozen kids come riding by on their bikes, decorated with streamers and such. We'll cheer and clap and laugh with our neighbors, ooo-ing and aaah-ing as if it were the Rose Bowl Parade or Macy's Thanksgiving Parade or something big and special. Because for us it is.

Gabriel Salguero: Do We Still Need Affirmative Action?
"Do We Still Need Affirmative Action?" was the cover story for the January 27, 2003, issue of Newsweek. It seems that this question will be the subject of dialogues and debates in schools, universities, places of employment, and other settings all over the U.S. in light of the recent Supreme Court decision concerning race and integration in Louisville and Seattle.

Lydia Bean: Racial Injustice in Louisiana
The Hebrew prophets warn us that when we don't hold our laws to God's standard of peace and justice, powerful people will use the law as a weapon to crush the poor and advance their own interests. I work with a faith-based organization called Friends of Justice, which organizes in poor communities across Texas and Louisiana to hold our criminal justice system accountable to our nation's highest values. This week, we brought international media attention to a dramatic trial in Jena, Louisiana, to show what happens when our criminal justice system becomes a weapon in the hands of the powerful.

Logan Laituri: A Veteran's Letter to the Candidates
Over four years, 4 billion dollars, and 3,000 lives ago, our nation was drawn into a conflict that few of our number now believe was initiated with our collective interests or values in mind. As a proud and decorated veteran of this conflict, I have suffered for and served my country with distinction and honor. However, my dreams and quiet moments have been mercilessly violated by the voices of the victims of our national terrorism. In Iraq, their liberation has cost as many as 655,000 Iraqis their lives. Their cries, and those of their families, have been uttered amidst a flood of sweat, tears, and all too much of their own blood.

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