Commentary

The common good makes for uncommon politics

Updated: 2013-05-11T22:40:19Z

By MICHAEL GERSON

The Washington Post

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. It is the set of social circumstances that allows everyone to flourish.

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.

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.

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.

To reach Michael Gerson, send email to michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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