The Common Good

Personal and Social Responsibility

Beliefnet invited Jim Wallis to participate in a "blogalogue" with David Klinghoffer, author of How Would God Vote? Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative. Here's Jim's response to David's latest post, "The Theme is Moral Responsibility."

Your post is difficult to respond to. I am not interested in trying to debunk your caricature of me and my ideas point-by-point. It appears to be mostly one-liners and sweeping generalizations about whole groups of people without much substance. For example, there are those you would call liberals who have a very strong ethic of personal responsibility and family, and those you would call conservatives who do not. And, of course, vice versa. Real life often defies easy stereotypes.

David, it is possible to call for personal moral responsibility and social responsibility at the same time, moving beyond the old paradigms of liberal and conservative.

Both are important. I believe that a common good agenda, rooted in the moral center, could unite diverse people on the really big issues. It is possible to "find common ground by moving to higher ground" and actually make some progress on the most important questions of our time.

If you know anything at all about me and my books, you know that what you're attacking is neither what I say nor what I believe. If you want to debate someone who is pro-abortion and who is willing to defend what you call a "socialist-activist role for government", find someone else. It's not me.

So, let's go back to the big picture. I'm glad that you think I've done "an amazing service in helping to legitimize the idea ... that spiritual values deserve a role in shaping political values." It's what I have been saying and writing for more than thirty-five years. I'm very happy that the idea has now become a mainstream idea, with many voices saying what we've been saying for a long time.

But you say that we should have a "litmus test for whether a candidate really feels God should have a say in the ordering of our laws." There is a very large difference between grounding political ideas in spiritual values and thinking God should write our legislation, or that we can clearly know what God would write.

I have great respect for Judaism and the witness of the Hebrew Bible. I have written that the place to begin to understand the politics of God is with the prophets, the ancient moral articulators in the Scriptures who claimed to speak in "the name of the Lord." Their topics were quite secular--land, labor, capital, wages, debt, taxes, equity, fairness, courts, prisons, immigrants, other races and peoples, economic divisions, social justice, war, and peace--the stuff of politics.

They usually spoke to rulers, kings, judges, employers, landlords, owners of property and wealth, and even religious leaders. They spoke to "the nations," and it was the powerful who were most often the prophets' target audience; those in charge of things were the ones called to greatest accountability. And whom were the prophets usually speaking for? Most often, the dispossessed, widows and orphans (read: poor single moms), the hungry, the homeless, the helpless, the least, last, and lost. Is God into class warfare? No, God wants the "common good," but speaking for the common good can get one accused of calling for class warfare--usually by the elites who control the political discussion and do not want too much conversation about what God thinks of our political priorities. But, you probably think the prophets believed in a "socialist-activist role for government."

As a Christian, my worldview is also shaped by the call of Jesus to a new order and a new community - an alternative community living a new way of life, visibly demonstrating the values of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. That is my starting point for faithful political witness. And with that as the vision, concrete political priorities and policies can be judged by whether they bring us closer to it or farther away from it.

I have written that on many of the critical issues of the day, I believe that there is common ground to be found. And I believe that the prospect of real social change can be animated by the testimony and action of faith. But I also believe that political appeals, even if rooted in religious convictions, must be argued on moral grounds rather than as religious demands--so that the people (citizens), whether religious or not, may have the capacity to hear and respond. Religion has no monopoly on morality, it must be disciplined by democracy and contribute to a better and more moral public discourse. Religious convictions must therefore be translated into moral arguments, which must win the political debate if they are to be implemented. We don't get to win just because we are religious. Like any other citizens, we have to convince our fellow citizens that what we propose is best for the common good-- for all of us and not just for the religious. We must make our appeals in moral language; secular people should not fear that such appeals will lead to theocracy.

We have to get beyond the caricature of people and groups and talk about real substance, real ideas, and real policy issues. Can you do that, David? I never did get a response to whether you think that your share of our more than 500 billion tax dollars (so far) have been well spent on the war in Iraq.

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