The Moral Priority of the Common Good
Conservative Americans seem to love candidates who speak about values. Unfortunately most of that discourse has been the monopoly of the religious right which focuses on personal or so-called family values. But biblical tradition reminds us that ignoring the social conditions that perpetuate poverty and injustice ultimately undermines the realization of family values while destroying the bonds of mutual responsibility that constitute a good society.
In his book The Obama Question, Gary Dorrien warns us that any retreat into hopelessness regarding our current situation is a nonstarter for “any moral perspective that maintains a connection to biblical teaching about wealth, poverty, and the good society.” It is the biblical narrative grounding that moral perspective that President Obama should embrace without apology.
At the core of a good society is the moral priority of the common good. In America there have been two overarching narratives, one religious and one secular, that, while conceptually distinct, converge around a mutually reinforcing notion of the common or public good as having a primary claim upon our moral sensitivities.
The religious narrative is that of God’s call for the good of the community that, especially in times of crisis, requires the sacrifice of private interests to the needs of that community as a whole. The secular narrative, drawn from the philosophies of the founders of the American republic, also puts the public good above the private good but without explicit reference to biblical teachings. This narrative may prove to be more appealing to those who are afraid of too much religiously inflected values talk in the political realm. Obama should embrace both narratives because of their mutual emphasis on the public good.
Spiritual progressives should encourage Obama to own the language of the Hebrew prophets who declaimed against those who would sell the poor for a pair of shoes or would write oppression into their laws. Obama should recall the practices of the early Christian communities in which each gave what he had to the common pool which was distributed to each as he had need. They can recall Thomas Aquinas’ teaching that when the neighbor is in need it is the obligation of those with resources to give up all their ‘superfluities’ in order to meet that need. (While they might not appreciate it, given their current dispute with the Obama administration, even the US Roman Catholic bishops might be reminded that the Catholic commitment to the common good led them in 1986 to endorse a moral principle for evaluating public policy known as the preferential option for the poor).
The moral priority of the common good was also echoed by the founders of the commonwealth of Massachusetts who became forerunners of today’s evangelicals: John Winthrop extolled his fellow Puritans to remember that in times of peril the public good must “oversway” the private good.
Perhaps even Mitt Romney might be asked to comment on the current relevance of one of Joseph Smith’s social policies: the Law of Consecration and Stewardship, which said that “there shall be no rich and no poor among the Latter-day Saints; when every man and woman will labor for the good of all as much as for self.”
And if this biblical language is not appropriate for the more secular minded, perhaps they should be reminded that some of the founders of the republic also put the interests of the common good above the interests of the private. As historian Gordon Wood has said, “The sacrifice of individual interests to the greater good of whole formed the essence of republicanism … and the great deficiency of existing governments was precisely the sacrificing of the public good to the private greed of small ruling groups.”
If Obama can re-establish the fundamental moral priority for the nation of the public or common good to what the founders originally held dear and what the biblical tradition teaches, he might have a fulcrum by which to pry the American moral spirit free from the prison into which the Tea Party and severely conservative Republicans have confined it.
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