The Common Good

The Prerequisite of the Common Good

Sojomail - November 8, 2012

Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

The Prerequisite of the Common Good

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The day after the 2012 election brought a great feeling of relief. Most of us, whether our candidates won or lost, were so weary of what elections have become that we were just glad the process was over. Many were disappointed that dysfunctional and bitterly partisan politics in Washington, D.C., had undermined their deep desires for “hope” and “change.” Politics have severely constrained those possibilities by focusing on blame instead of solutions, and winning instead of governing. And, as the most expensive election in American history just showed, the checks have replaced all the balances. 

But the election results produced neither the salvation nor the damnation of the country, as some of the pundits on both sides seemed to suggest. 

The results of the presidential election showed how dramatically a very diverse America is changing; people are longing for a vision of the common good that includes everyone. As one commentator put it, “the demographic time bomb” has now been set off in American politics — and getting mostly white, male, and older voters is no longer enough to win elections, as the Romney campaign learned on Tuesday. The common good welcomes all “the tribes” into God’s beloved community, and our social behavior and public policies must show that. Even after such a discouraging election campaign, many still hope that we are not as divided and cynical a people as our politics would lead us to believe, as President Barack Obama passionately said on election night to the diverse American coalition that had just re-elected him. 

As for religious voters, it appears a strategy of citing a “war on religion” — and doubling down on the long-failed strategy of citing abortion and traditional marriage as the two “non-negotiable” religious issues — once again failed. But at a deeper level, the meaning of “evangelical” in American politics is changing to now include African-American and Latino Christians whose theology is clearly “evangelical” and who overwhelmingly voted for the president this week. And despite the opposition of many Catholic bishops, Obama also won the Catholic vote, again, because of the influence of Latino Catholics and Catholic women voters.

But people of faith aren’t going to be entirely happy with any political leader, and they shouldn’t be. Many of them feel politically homeless in the raging battles between ideological extremes. But they could find their home in a new call for the common good — a vision drawn from the heart of our religious traditions that allows us to make our faith public, but not narrowly partisan. That requires a political engagement that emphasizes issues and people above personalities and partisanship. 

For example, fiscal responsibility is indeed a moral issue, but how we achieve it, and at whose expense, is also a moral choice. As the debates about the “fiscal cliff” now begin, expect the community of faith to be visibly and actively involved in pressing both Republicans and Democrats to protect the poorest and most vulnerable. An even deeper unity has grown across the faith community about the need to “welcome the stranger” by fixing a broken system with comprehensive immigration reform.

Trust has been lost in the fairness and opportunity of our economic system, and must be restored by asking what a “moral economy” would look like. More people think everyone deserves a “fair shot” and believe both our economic and political systems have been rigged on behalf of the wealthy and powerful. New senate voices like Elizabeth Warren are promising to be champions on those issues. 

Whether government is serving its biblical purpose of protecting from evil and promoting good is more important than ideological debates about its size. How can we move from an ethic of endless growth to an ethic of sustainability, from short-term profits to longer term human flourishing, from the use and consumption of the earth to stewardship and creation care? 

The need to restore the health of households, to strengthen marriage and prioritize the raising of children, is essential now, and can go even deeper than equal protection under the law for same sex couples — which also gained ground on Tuesday. Protecting “life” can no longer be restricted to a few issues, but must be consistently applied to wherever human life and dignity are threatened.  The failure of strident and partisan efforts by people like Franklin Graham and Ralph Reed to narrow those issues in the final stages of this election was very evident and significant. More and more Christians, especially younger ones, now believe our congregations will be finally evaluated not merely by their correct doctrines, but by whether their missions are serving the “parishes” of this whole world; here and now, not just for the hereafter. 

The prerequisite for solving the deepest problems this country and the world now face is a commitment to a very ancient idea whose time has urgently come: the common good. How do we work together, even with people we don’t agree with? How do we treat each other, especially the poorest and most vulnerable? How do we take care of not just ourselves, but also one another? Only by inspiring a spiritual and practical commitment to the common good can we rescue and redeem our politics.

Many of us believe that to be on God’s side, and not merely claim that God is on ours (to paraphrase Lincoln), means to live out the prayer Jesus taught us, “Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” 

(That’s why every politician in Washington, D.C., needs to see Sojourners’ new documentary The Line and understand what it’s like to be poor in America today. If you chip in $15 today, we will hand-deliver a copy of The Line to your members of Congress. To show our appreciation, we’ll send you a copy, too.)

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. His forthcoming book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, is set to release in early 2013. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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