The Common Good

Discovering Common Ground

Sojomail - May 21, 2009


Sometimes, for a child, losing health care for a year can have a lifetime of consequences.

- Pediatrician Irwin Redlener, co-founder of the Children's Health Fund. More than 7 million people under age 18 have no health insurance, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. (Source: USA Today)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

Discovering Common Ground

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The media coverage and analysis of President Obama's speech at Notre Dame on Sunday largely focused on the issue of abortion. And he did speak on that issue, clearly and strongly reiterating his own approach of finding the common ground of abortion reduction between the polarized options of "pro-choice" and "pro-life," and naming practical solutions that many on both sides of the divide can support.

Maybe we won't agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually; it has both moral and spiritual dimensions. So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions; let's reduce unintended pregnancies. Let's make adoption more available. Let's provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause ...

But the speech was much more than a culmination of another abortion controversy in the media. After re-reading it, I think it was likely the most significant speech Obama has made in his presidency so far in regard to many of the concerns and work of the faith community. As columnist E.J. Dionne wrote:

There were many messages sent from South Bend. Obama's opponents seek to reignite the culture wars. He doesn't. They would reduce religious faith to a narrow set of issues. He refused to join them. They often see theological arguments as leading to certainty. He opted for humility.

President Obama began by recognizing that our difficulty in finding common ground too often lies in our imperfections -- our sin -- dominating us rather than calling us to work together.

We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice. And so, for all our technology and scientific advances, we see here in this country and around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times.

But, at the same time, he emphasized the importance of civility and how we should engage in public dialogue on issues where strong, conflicting opinions can lead us to discover that common ground.

The question, then, is how do we work through these conflicts? Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without, as Father John said, demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side? When we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe -- that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.

And the new president reminded us all that the strength of faith should produce genuine humility, rather than easy certainty, in our views, and can help lead us to a commitment to social justice.

Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It's the belief in things not seen. It's beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what [God] asks of us. And those of us who believe must trust that [God's] wisdom is greater than our own.

And this doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us even as we cling to our faith to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works and charity and kindness and service that moves hearts and minds.

As I wrote on Monday, this president's willingness to confront controversy with an appeal to common values could help to change the way we address a number of divisive and controversial issues. We live in a country where we certainly know everyone will not agree on everything. In fact, it is quite an accomplishment to even get half of the country to agree on anything. Our differences, and our ability to maintain this union in spite of them, are some of our country's greatest strengths.

President Obama laid out a strong and positive vision for how people of faith, and the nation as a whole, can work together to face the most difficult moral questions of our time in both disagreement and unity. If you have not yet read the speech, I urge that you do. Sojourners has a long history of promoting this common-ground approach and does so again in the cover feature of our June 2009 issue, "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," by Julie Polter.

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