Author sets out to find the ‘common good’ between faith and politics

Richard Harris

By A Contributor

This is the third recent book by Christian social activist and writer Jim Wallis. His earlier books “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It” and “The Great Awakening” helped to reframe the use of faith talk in political campaigns in the first decade of the 21st century.

No longer is Christianity seen only as a province of the political right and no longer are “moral issues” limited to divisive social controversies like abortion and gay marriage, as they were often seen during the late 20th century.

Jim Wallis is familiar to many as president and CEO of Sojourners and editor-in-chief of “Sojourners” magazine.

He is hard to pin down in traditional religious categories, in that he identifies himself as both an Evangelical Christian and a political progressive.  He is one of the strongest current voices for social justice from a Christian perspective. Those who have read his previous books will find much familiar material here.

The basic quest of this book for both religion and politics is finding the common good. For Christians the source of the idea comes from Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbor, including the “least of these,” though Wallis says that a commitment to the common good is important in all faith traditions.

In terms of politics, he suggests that a recommitment to the common good by both the right and the left might be the desperately needed way out of the polarizing stalemate that seems to characterize the current political climate in the U.S.

Wallis says that the “central purpose of this book is to challenge the hateful ideological warfare between the conservative and liberal sides in our ongoing political battles, as well as their inability to listen to or learn anything from each other.” 

He goes on to argue that each side has something worthwhile to offer.

The best idea from the conservative side is the call to personal responsibility, moral behavior, relationships, individual ethics, making good choices, while the best idea from the liberal side is the call to social responsibility, commitment to helping others, fairness and justice in society.

He calls us to bring these ideas together to work for the common good, which must involve both personal responsibility and social justice.  Neither the traditional conservative nor the traditional liberal political position by itself is adequate to serve the common good, nor is it adequate to fulfill the teachings of Jesus, and most likely other faiths as well.

Thus, we as individuals and collectively as our government, should promote policies to strengthen the family and personal character, while at the same time reducing poverty and providing for those unable to help themselves. According to Wallis, when religion neglects either the personal or social responsibility side of the common good, it is not true to the gospel.

When political discourse affirms only one type of responsibility, it is not truly serving the public good. We must go beyond ideological warfare to civil discourse. The book is divided into two major sections: “Inspiring the common good” and “Practices for the common good.”

The first section lays out his basic arguments, especially how they stem philosophically from the Christian New Testament.

The second section is a more “how-to” section about how individuals, societies and governments can put concern for the common good into action.

Wallis also deals with some structural problems that become barriers to promoting the common good.

Voter suppression discourages participation in the electoral process by requiring more and more extensive identification in order to vote, credentials that the poorest and most disenfranchised are least likely to possess.

The greatest structural barrier to democracy today is the runaway costs of running for office, over $1 million for a House election and $7.5 for the Senate.

With this situation, legislators do not stay in Washington socializing with their opponents over the weekend; they all head back home to raise more money in their home districts for the next election. 

Moreover, the financial system that brought the economy to the verge of collapse in 2008 is still highly unfair, unstable and unsustainable, leaving people unhappy. 

Because wages are so low for many people, they have to spend way too much time at work and away from their families. In return they must leave their children to develop personal responsibility (or not) on their own.

Thus, the “fix” involves listening to both the conservative and the liberal critics, something few in the current political world seem to be willing to do.

Richard Harris is a professor of psychology at K-State and a Manhattan resident.

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