The Common Good or An Age of Selfishness?

September 29, 2011

Government & Politics, Religion

How and whether American society can work toward the common good in an “age of selfishness” will be the core theme of the 2012 election, a leader of the progressive Christian movement told a Houston audience Thursday.

Jim Wallis, president and CEO of the nonprofit group and magazine “Sojourners,” gave a talk called “Forging a More Civil Democracy: A Discussion of Faith, Value and Politics” before a more-than-capacity audience at the James B. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

“These are the taboo subjects,” Wallis acknowledged. “Religion and politics are the things you don’t discuss at the dinner table. They’re very scary.”

But Wallis, who has made several appearances on John Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” said he is heartened by his interactions with younger people who are beginning to “clear up the confusion about what it means to be a person of faith.”

After his first Stewart appearance, Wallis said, he received e-mails from members of its young audience who had turned away from the church because of “bad television preachers, pedophile priests, and White House theology,” and told him, “I didn’t know you could be a Christian and care about poverty or the war in Iraq.”

Wallis traced a mini-history of religious leaders’ involvement in social and political movements — from the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, led by William Wilberforce, to the Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign for Indian independence to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership of the civil rights movement and his later “People’s Campaign” on behalf of the poor.

Wallis said religious folks — including evangelical Christians, among whom he counts himself — need to think about how their faith calls them to examine how society is structured to prevent the poor from pulling themselves out of poverty, and how that must be addressed in the political arena.

“The Bible reveals a God of justice, not just a God of charity,” Wallis said. The Biblical prophets, he said, challenged “those who were in charge of things” over such issues as land, labor, capital, wages, and institutional relationships. “This is the stuff of politics.”

Wallis said that he’s most interested in “post-candidate politics” — that is, the politics take place before and after elections.

“Change never originates in places like Washington,” he said. “Decisions are finally impacted by the conversation (among citizens).”

When you go to the U.S. Capitol, he said, it’s easy to pick out members of Congress. “They’re the ones with their fingers in the air. And every once in a while, they wet their fingers to find out which direction the wind is blowing.”

“Your job is to change the wind,” Wallis told the audience, made up of people of all ages.

Wallis, among whose recent books is God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets is Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, said people on both sides of the political spectrum have misconceptions about the proper role of faith in American society, and about each other.

Referring to one of his own recent articles on the Huffington Post, Wallis said many in the media and other quarters are too quick to label evangelicals as “intellectually flawed” and “antithetical to democracy.” He noted that there is a movement among evangelicals, like himself, toward addressing such topics as climate change, immigration reform, and war and peace.

Too often, he said, people on the religious right think that being a Christian means being “pro-rich, pro-war and pro-America, always.” People on the left, on the other hand, wrongly think that “any conversation (about faith) is a violation of the separation of church and state.”

Wallis said that the overriding fact in America is the recent Census Bureau figures showing that 46 million people live below the poverty line, which is pegged at $22,000 a year for a family of four. “And three quarters of them have jobs — part-time jobs, or half-time jobs,” he said.

Wallis said (with some amount of pride) he’d been featured on “Glenn Beck’s blackboard for a year” for asking “the Why question”:  why a country as rich as the United States has such disparity of income.

“Is there such a thing as the Common Good anymore?” Wallis asked, noting that many in the religious right revere former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who once said “There is no society, there are only individuals,” and writer/philosopher Ayn Rand, famous for her theory of “rational egoism.”

“That will be the issue in this election,” he said. “What is the nature of the Social Compact, or is there one at all?”

A video of the event, including a conversation between Wallis and Rice emeritus sociology professor William Martin and questions from the audience, can be seen here.

 RELATED: Santorum takes on JFK, a half-century later

Copyright © 2011 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.

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About Ken Fountain

I'm a journalist and writer in Houston, Texas. My areas of specialty include law and courts, local government and energy and environmental issues. You can follow me on Twitter at and email me at kenfountain1 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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