National Voices

Monday, May 06 2013 11:00 PM

MICHAEL GERSON: American politics ought to serve the common good

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    Michael Gerson

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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.

So Christianity is not just a matter of personal morality; it involves a view of social justice. That phrase, "social justice" -- largely defined by the left -- has taken on negative connotations in conservative circles. Rightly understood, it shouldn't. Would religious conservatives prefer to believe that religiously informed views on human dignity are a purely private matter?

Nearly every Christian tradition of social ethics encompasses two sorts of justice. The first is procedural justice: giving people what they deserve under contracts and the law. The second is distributive justice: meeting some needs just because human beings are human beings. This is not the same thing as egalitarianism; confiscation is not compassion. But distributive justice requires a decent provision for the vulnerable and destitute. And this is not just a matter of personal charity. Social justice is more than crumbs from the table; it depends on the existence of social and economic conditions that allow people to live, work and thrive.

Where does this conception of the common good come from? One source is the Bible, when actually read rather than thumped.

During a recent lecture at the Faith Angle Forum, prominent evangelical pastor Tim Keller conceded that about 20 percent of the Bible is "not very easy to understand." Interpreting the social implications of the other 80 percent, however, isn't particularly difficult. It looks "kind of like Catholic social theory or (the African-American church's) way of reading it," he concluded.

In "On God's Side," Wallis makes the case that religion has been "the best catalyst for movements aimed at improving the human community." He cites a range of examples from John Wesley to Martin Luther King Jr. to Dorothy Day, as well as the continuing focus of religious people on issues such as the fight against HIV/AIDS.

A commitment to the common good does not automatically bring expertise in matters of public policy -- a point Wallis amply demonstrates on matters from economics to events in the Middle East. "On God's Side," for example, shows little awareness of, or sympathy for, the difficult, inherently conflicted choices involved in defending the country. The common good is only possible if someone provides for the common defense.

But the book has broader value in challenging a variety of shallow modern ideologies.

Contra libertarianism: The common good is not identical to the triumph of market forces. Constructing it is the shared duty of communities, corporations and government.

Contra modern liberalism: The common good is not identical to the triumph of autonomy and choice. Humans flourish in the context of binding moral commitments such as marriage and family. And the most vulnerable members of the human community deserve special concern and protection.

Contra secularism: The common good is not achieved by banishing religion from the public square. Religious institutions perform works of mercy, carry ideals of justice and should be sheltered by a generous interpretation of religious liberty.

Wallis' argument, offered by a man of the left, reaches well beyond the left: In a political era of rights talk and special-interest pleading, a greater emphasis on the common good would make American politics more civil, admirable and humane.

Email Michael Gerson of The Washington Post at michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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