Common Ground

On God’s Side: For the Common Good

Jim Wallis at the Lincoln Memorial. Photo by Brandon Hook / Sojourners
Jim Wallis at the Lincoln Memorial. Photo by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

A revealing thing happens when you remove yourself from the daily drum of politics and become a mere observer. I did just that last year, during some of the most divisive moments of the presidential election. Sitting back and watching the deluge of insults and accusations that feeds our political system, I witnessed the worst of us as a nation. And I came to the conclusion that it’s time to reframe our priorities.

When did we trade the idea of public servants for the false idols of power and privilege? When did we trade governing for campaigning? And when did we trade valuing those with the best ideas for rewarding those with the most money?

We’ve lost something as a nation when we can no longer look at one another as people, as Americans, and — for people of faith  — as brothers and sisters.  Differing opinions have become worst enemies and political parties have devolved into nothing more than petty games of blame.

During a three-month sabbatical, observing this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, I prayed, meditated, read — and then I put pen to paper. The resulting book gets to the root of what I believe is the answer to our current state of unrest. It is not about right and left — or merely about partisan politics — but rather about the quality of our life together. It's about moving beyond the political ideologies that have both polarized and paralyzed us, by regaining a moral compass for both our public and personal lives — by reclaiming an ancient yet urgently timely idea: the common good.

Crossing the Belief Divide

IT WAS AS if the poison of the rancorous 2012 campaign had seeped into our social groundwater, tainting family gatherings, Facebook feeds, church coffee hours, and workplace lunch rooms. In my lowest moments I pictured an election-result map rendered with myriad fractures, like windshield glass—a nation of particles and fragments, held together, barely, by begrudging surface tension.

How do those of good will find productive and respectful ways to talk about important civic and moral issues when a significant number of people view their fellow citizens as enemies?

Two recent books, by radically different authors, explore how to stay committed to your principles while reaching out and even finding common cause with those who live and believe differently.

ReFocus: Living a Life that Reflects God's Heart, is by Jim Daly, president since 2005 of Focus on the Family. Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious is by Chris Stedman, the assistant Humanist chaplain at Harvard University and an activist in atheist-interfaith engagement. Daly leads a conservative evangelical institution that has been a major player on the Right in the culture wars of the past three decades (including around what Focus would term the "homosexual lifestyle"). Stedman is a young gay atheist who was once attacked by thugs who shouted Bible verses as they tried to shove him and a friend in front of an oncoming train. And yet both men argue, from both pragmatic and ethical grounds, for actively and respectfully engaging those who hold different beliefs.

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It's Time to End the Death Penalty

I AM AGAINST the death penalty in principle. The deliberate killing of prisoners does not demonstrate our society's respect for life, which we are trying to teach—especially to those who violate it. We simply should not kill to show we are against killing. It's also easy to make a, yes, fatal mistake, as alarming DNA testing has demonstrated, revealing some death row inmates to be innocent. In addition, the death penalty is clearly biased against poorer people, who cannot afford adequate legal representation, and is outrageously disproportionate along racial lines. The facts are that few white-collar killers sit on death row, and fewer are ever executed. And there is no evidence that capital punishment deters murder; the data just doesn't show that.

At a retreat I attended a couple of years ago, conservative activist Richard Viguerie approached me and said, "Jim, let's do something together to really shake up politics." Viguerie had become a friend, so I asked him what that might be. "I am a Catholic," Viguerie said. "I am against the death penalty, and I think it's time for conservatives and liberals who agree on that to begin to work together." I was fascinated at the thought of unlikely partners helping to accomplish that together. So we have had several dinner meetings over the last two years with both conservative and liberal leaders—mostly people of faith—to discuss the issue.

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A Commitment to Find Common Ground

Thomas P. O’Neill III, son of Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, reminds us of the relationship between his father and former President Ronald Reagan. After describing some of the bruising political battles between the two, he writes:

 “Historic tax reforms, seven tax increases, a strong united front that brought down the Soviet Union — all came of a commitment to find common ground. While neither man embraced the other’s worldview, each respected the other’s right to hold it. Each respected the other as a man.

“President Reagan knew my father treasured Boston College, so he was the centerpiece of a dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel that raised $1 million to build the O’Neill Library there. When Reagan was shot at that same hotel, my father went to his hospital room to pray by his bed.

“No, my father and Reagan weren’t close friends. Famously, after 6 p.m. on quite a few work days, they would sit down for drinks at the White House. But it wasn’t the drinks or the conversation that allowed American government to work. Instead, it was a stubborn refusal not to allow fund-raisers, activists, party platforms or ideological chasms to stand between them and actions — tempered and improved by compromise — that kept this country moving.”

A Response to the American Enterprise Institute's Ad in Politico

Today, "Values and Capitalism," a project of the American Enterprise Institute, sponsored a full-page ad in Politico (see page 13) in response to the Circle of Protection. While it is encouraging to see another full-page ad urging our nation's legislators to be concerned about the poor, it is unfortunate that the critique of the Circle of Protection and Sojourners work is based on an error.

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