This past year I was hired to write a series of lessons called Faithful Citizen: Living Responsibly in a Global Society, which is part of a forthcoming DVD-based curriculum from the Center for the Congregation in Public Life, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. The Center created the lesson formats, outline, and basic approach, and I built upon that foundation, with terrific input from the Center. The following website explains the overall curriculum: http://www.congregationinpubliclife.org/DVDCurriculum.htm.
A few weeks ago I explained the curriculum to an interfaith dialogue group in St. Louis, which sparked interesting discussion about ways religious believers approach citizenship and public issues.
As stated at the website above, the Faithful Citizen designers and writers hope to offer a corrective to the individualism that often characterizes both our religious faith and political opinions. Robert Bellah and his fellow authors of the book Habits of the Heart note that Americans tend to think of religion, not only in terms of institutional religion but also as a private, individual concern. A personal approach to God and faith reveals the “freedom, openness, and pluralism of American religious life” but neglects the fact that our relationship with God “is mediated by a whole pattern of community life.”(1)
Individualism also flavors American’s politics. Bellah et al. argue that both welfare liberalism and neocapitalism tend to focus upon individual good as the way toward the common good. “The purpose of government is to give individuals the means to pursue their private ends,” the first by allowing periodic government intervention into the economy “to balance the operations of the market in the interests of economic growth and social harmony,” and the other by a free-market approach with less government involvement.(2)
Bellah and his fellow authors hope that “the biblical impetus to see religion as involved in the whole of life” can give a broader political vision, as well as a less personalistic religious faith, which in turn renews our sense of civic virtue. (3)
Eric Mount of Centre College, in his book Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, echoes Bellah in stressing that Americans have always had a twofold drive: personal success and a desire for the common good (4). Although we Americans are indebted to the tradition of John Locke that affirms the rights of people to life, liberty, and economic and personal well-being, we are also indebted to a more covenantal and community-oriented concern for the common good.(5)
The Faithful Citizen lessons will highlight some of the ways by which we can broaden our religious and political visions to have a greater concern for the common good and for responsible civic participation. For instance, among other ideas based upon Mount’s research, we can think of religious faith as “audacious openness.” Mount writes, “openness is not simply tolerant of the other, or receptive to encounter by difference; it is audacious. Its hospitality is daring. it is not docile obedience; it is courageous engagement” with other people and their needs.(6)
Another approach to civic virtue and the common good is through “better stories.” Mount cites Robert Reich who in turn identifies four “stories” woven into American political discourse: the “mob at the gates” which is often about foreigners or any “dark force” portrayed as a real or perceived threat to American well being, “the triumphant individual” about workers and entrepreneurs which often pits economic discourage in terms of winners and losers, the “benevolent community” which lauds efforts to help the poor but which still portrays the poor as “them” who are helped by “us,” and “the rot at the top” about big government and big business. (7)
Approaching public issues from a faith perspective can be very challenging. On one hand, many religious people tend to keep their religious faith and their politics in two mental “zones,” so they feel warm in the love of God while other times spouting angry, uncaring political convictions that they picked up from the media. There is also the challenge of ongoing public discussion about what is the common good, and what is the proper role of government in enhancing the common good.
Mounts offers this challenge: “Social conflict is not going away, and sometimes we may fear “the other” for good reasons. Our fears, however, become self-fulfilling prophecies if we are always acting on our worst suspicions of “the other” instead of seeking areas of overlap between our problems, our interests, and even our hopes. Trying to tell stories that move us beyond the counter-productive antagonisms of ‘us’ against ‘them’ will not make all of our differences go away, but better stories could restore a sense of community membership in our land and even beyond our borders that has characterized us in our best moments as a people. In a world of increasingly inescapable interdependence and mutual vulnerability, the need has never been greater.”(8)
1. Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkley: University of California Press, 1985), 227.
2. Ibid., 262-266.
3. Ibid., 248.
4. Eric Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1999), 11.
5. Eric Mount, “Covenant, Community, and The Common Good: A Tale of Two Americas,” Church & Society, May/June 2005, 43-45.
6. Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good, 136-137. For this insight Mount cites Peter Hodgson’s Winds of the Spirit: A Constructive Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 204-8, and also the thought of Darrell J. Fasching, Narrative Theology after Auschwitz: From Alienation to Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 6, 15-16, 73, 123, 126, 187-88.
7. Mount, “A Tale of Two Americas,” 47-48.
8. Eric Mount, “Storytelling and Political Leadership,” The Progressive Christian, 182:5 (Sept.-Oct. 2008), 19.
The material above is based on a short talk I gave recently, which in turn derived from my research for the Center for the Congregation in Public Life’s forthcoming curriculum Faithful Citizen. I’m still thinking about the interesting aspects of the Center’s project.
For instance, the theme of “better stories” is very rich, and the more you think about our social and political life as embodying “stories,” the more you start to see that theme in other sources. The four stories that Reich frames can be seen in contemporary fears about Muslims, anxieties about multiculturalism, fears that American has lost its way and needs to be “taken back” or “placed in a new direction,” and the anxities of groups that feel disempowered (for instance, the white working-class that has alternately voted Republican and Democrat during recent years).
The recent issue of Mother Jones magazine contains an article (November-December 2010) about the erosion of the American middle class. The article traces middle class decline back to New York City’s financial crisis in the 1970s, as well as California’s Proposition 13 and the resulting decline in public services. Then came a recession and anti-union politics which hurt automobile workers. Manufacturing jobs have been declining, pensions have been declining, and more recently the housing market has hurt the middle class. Unfortunately some long-standing safety nets, notably Social Security and Medicare, have been under attack, for instance by GOP senator Alan Simpson and others who characterize Social Security as a form of welfare, rather than a fund to which we’ve paid for many years (1).
This article dovetails well with a book I read for the Center project, The Great Risk Shift by Jacob Hacker, who argues, “Over the last generation, we have witnessed a massive transfer of economic risk from broad structures of insurance, including those sponsored by the corporate sector as well as government, onto the fragile balance sheets of American families.”(2) That is, while the upper levels of society have become more secure, the lower and middle classes have had to shoulder more burden and more economic insecurity. This has come about in part because of free-market philosophies that are still popular among voters.
Where does “story” come in? Another Mother Jones article argues that President Obama needed and still needs to tell a story that helped people understand and connect economic problems in a way that made his policies seem an alternative in the wake of “the failure of free-market conservatism” and which gives confidence to working voters. This is what President Reagan did. The article quotes Democratic consultant Paul Begala: Reagan “didn’t blame President Carter or the Democrats. He indicted liberalism: too much government, too much taxation. To fix this mess, he said, we have to stay the course. That was his narrative. it was ideology; it was philosophical. It had sides. He had a story.” (3)
Another good “story teller” was Reagan’s antipode, Franklin Roosevelt. Robert Reich notes that FDR was overhwlemingly reelected in 1936 even though the economy had been in depression for the four years of his term, and eight years altogether. According to Reich: “FDR shifted the debate from what he failed to accomplish to the irresponsibility of his opponets. Again and again he let the public know whose side he was on, and whose side they were on. Republicans stood for ‘business and financial monopoly, speculation, and reckless banking.” FDR framed the “story” in a way that let voters know he was on their side. (4)
I do have to immediately say that, although us vs. them storytelling may be politically effective, I agree with Mount (taking the cue from Reich’s own writing) that “us vs. them” is an inferior story to one which sees us working within the same crisis together to address the common good. In our discussions of politics and public policy we will likely never reach unanimity concerning the common good, especially not in our current political climate. But “covenant, community, and the common good” is a better source of a national story than, for instance, the Tea Party’s angry individualism, not to mention the political voices who traffic in innuendo and mockery.
Another “story” which, in our current time, likely has a snowball’s chance as well, is the story that government is not the problem, though certain government policies may be. A recent article in Christian Century notes that “No one should have to die of hunger–not in the 21st century.” Churches and charities can do well, but so can government. For instance, the article notes that President Bush and Congress approved a $15 billion initiative for providing AIDS drugs to disease-ravaged Africa. (5) Yet another article, in a different issue of that magazine, noted that “our government could do much more to fight hunger if more citizens took part in the political process.” Maybe the problem is not only misdirected government policies but also the fact that some of us do not practice our citizenship more vigorously, e.g., by writing our political leaders (6)
Although I’m being idealistic, I think there is room for productive discussion on whether the federal, state, or local governments should shoulder the most responsibility. A friend and I chatted on Facebook about this topic recently. Speaking personally I trust and distrust different levels of government about equally. An interesting book that I used for the Center project argued that, for instance, effective local application for and use of state and/or federal funds to provide low-income housing should not be neglected by people who appreciate volunteer and charitable efforts like Habitat.(7)
Another issue is what Evan Thomas called our “society of safety nets, a lawyer-constructed web where no one really has to take responsibility, where there’s always someone else to blame…” We may have a society of safety nets, but as safety nets are taken away, people who have, indeed, taken responsibility in their lives but for the time being need extra help, are made to suffer while those less at economic risk avoid responsibility, as Hackler’s book argues. One of Obama’s challenges is to tell a story–Thomas even calls it “an ancient and honorable morality tale”—about the necessity for all Americans to sacrifice together for the long-term well-being of the country. As Thomas also says, “broadly speaking, American popular culture is not very amendable to sacrifice, to choosing the harder right over the easier wrong, as our sterner parents and grandparents might have said.” (8) Somehow this must be done in a way that we don’t continue to sacrifice (in the sense of discarding) the people about whom Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her book Nickel and Dimed. (9)
But those people are, unfortunately, too rarely the top priority, but what if we began to hear and read more public leaders speaking, Facebooking, or tweeting on the side of the working poor, the underfed school children, or the seniors who have paid into Social Security and pensions for many years? What if any of the leaders of either party began to say things like: “We need to focus partisan debates upon the the working poor and the struggling middle class. We may disagree on the role of the federal government, but nevertheless, we need to debate and act. My opponents, X Y and Z, are not taking seriously the struggles of the needy: why not? What are our priorities?” If that happens, our American stories would become all the more commensurate with an overwhelming Bible story: God’s tender concern for the poor and needy.
Mount’s words, quoted above, are worth saying again: “Social conflict is not going away, and sometimes we may fear “the other” for good reasons. Our fears, however, become self-fulfilling prophecies if we are always acting on our worst suspicions of ‘the other’ instead of seeking areas of overlap between our problems, our interests, and even our hopes. Trying to tell stories that move us beyond the counter-productive antagonisms of ‘us’ against ‘them’ will not make all of our differences go away, but better stories could restore a sense of community membership in our land and even beyond our borders that has characterized us in our best moments as a people. In a world of increasingly inescapable interdependence and mutual vulnerability, the need has never been greater.”
1. James K. Galbraith, “Attack on the Middle class,” Mother Jones, Nov/Dec 2010, 27-29.
2. Jacob S. Hacker, The Great Risk Shift (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 5-6.
3. David Corn, “Will Obama Put Up a Fight?” Mother Jones, Nov/Dec 2010, 30.
4. Robert Reich’s blog, “Why Obama Should Learn the Lesson of 1936, Not 1996,” http://www.robertreich.org/, Nov. 1, 2010.
5. Roger Thurow, “Criminal Negligence: the Scourge of World Hunger,” Christian Century, Aug. 24, 2010, 22-23, 26.
6. David Beckmann, “Hunger is Political: Food Banks Can’t Do It All,” Christian Century, Sept. 21, 2010, 11-13.
7. Warren R. Copeland, Doing Justice in Our Cities: Lessons in Public Policy from America’s Heartland (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 124.
8. Evan Thomas, “Truth or Consequences,” Newsweek, Nov. 22, 2010, 35-37 (quotes on p. 37).
9. Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2001), 25-27.