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Jim Wallis

(Photo credit: Facebook)

by Rick Plasterer

Partisanship in American political culture has reached unprecedented levels, seriously threatening the common good, according to Jim Wallis of Sojourners, who was interviewed with Michael Gerson of the Washington Post and the ONE Campaign at an event sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University on March 10. He discussed his ideas in connection with his new book On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and What Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good.

The solution, Wallis feels, is to look to more than one’s own “tribe” (whatever class, ethnic, or sexual group one identifies with) and ask what he called “the common gospel question,” i.e., “who is my neighbor.” He noted that “parts of our population do not even acknowledge the common good,” citing Ayn Rand libertarians on the right, and groups interested only in “identity politics” on the left. Against the contemporary economic reality, which he called the “uneconomy” (he believes it is “unfair, unsustainable, and makes many people unhappy”) and the political reality of gridlock (in which “checks have replaced all the balances in our public life”) he proposed a new societal maxim that “all are responsible for all.” If applied to law and public policy, it is hard to see how this is much different from the collectivist vision generally offered by the religious and secular left. While holding that in the current highly partisan environment “Washington, D.C. is not getting very much right,” Wallis did maintain that we will soon see comprehensive immigration reform pass Congress.

Gerson responded that Wallis’ book and argument is “resoundingly right in its central premise.” Saying that “social justice needn’t have negative connotations” he maintained that “Christianity is inherently communitarian.” Against what he feels are common errors of our day, Gerson said that against libertarians, the common good is not the triumph of market economics, against the left, it is not to be understood as “choice,’ and against secularism, the common good is not a strictly secular public square.

A major challenge to be dealt with by American society is how we deal with the new demographic which is now coming into being, Wallis said, to which Gerson responded that there is now a “deep ambivalence” about American identity, now evolving toward “a more universal view.” This tension has now come to a head due to “differential development,” and Gerson spoke approvingly of the “Circle of Protection” concept, in which entitlement programs for low income persons are held immune from budget cuts in the ongoing fiscal crisis.

In response to a question from Galen Carey of the National Association of Evangelicals regarding the “intergenerational” nature of the common good, Wallis said that “value driven choices and decisions are needed,” and noted approvingly the maxim of some native American peoples that we should “make a decision today based on the seventh generation out.” How a modern society or its planners can project more than a century into the future would seem dubious in the extreme, however. Perhaps a future unconstrained by market economics is anticipated. Gerson did point out at this juncture that the level of “discretionary spending” (non-entitlement spending) has been almost completely stable in recent years; what is driving the skyrocketing deficit is the aging population and its entitlements.

In advancing a renewed interest the common good as a way to advance social and political life, Gerson noted the danger that it might become a new buzz word, with everyone claiming to believe in it. This is what has happened with the concept of “national interest,” it was claimed. “The common good” must involve specifics, but Wallis said that people on Capitol Hill are reluctant to be specific because they are “afraid of being pilloried by the pundits,” whose job is “not about solving, but about blaming.” To be substantial, the common good must involve the provision that we must all be willing to make sacrifices. Evidently, however, this can’t be literally meant; the “Circle of Protection” concept holds that sacrifices should not come from everyone. The middle class, however, cannot be exempted from sacrifice, as any workable effort to alleviate deficit spending cannot rely only on increased burdens for the wealthy.

The general nature of the discussion was perhaps understandable due to the broad view of the polarized political landscape today. Most people would approve of a less polarized environment, but is it possible unless people seriously believe their adversaries in the political and cultural wars of recent years have significant merit in the specific positions they take (not necessarily a correct assumption)? Or that hard fought issues don’t matter after all? It is doubtful that many people of the American right or left do think that. Wallis and the Sojourners ministry continue to passionately advance the favored leftist issues of the hour (immigration reform and gun control), and the call for “civility” is hardly new (and often not practiced) from that part of the political spectrum. The ONE Campaign continues to advance initiatives against poverty, but that really doesn’t provide a model for “culture war” issues where objectives radically differ. On the issues that passionately divide America (and the West) – entitlements, marriage, right to life, religious freedom beyond church walls, and others – it is only natural that discourse will continue to finally be based on worldviews and values that are inimical to one another, and “civility” will continue to recommended especially for the other side.