The Common Good

The Huffington Post

The Huffington Post Press Items
There are endless comparisons made between Obama, Clinton and Reagan -- how badly each did in their first midterm elections, and how to recover and not be a one-term president like Jimmy Carter. But in the case of Obama, the better historical models are FDR and the JFK/Johnson period. It was the robust activism of those independent progressive movements of the past that created the space for major reforms and made other presidencies memorable. That's because social change does not ultimately rest on who is in the White House, but a movement outside of Washington, D.C., that makes fundamental reforms possible. What we need to re-learn now is the choreography of the "outside/inside dance" that real social change always requires.
Scriptures say, "Without a vision the people perish," and soon after he was elected, the president let the vision perish and the people soon followed. Without it, a vacuum formed and allowed the growth of a different sort of movement. Most unexpectedly, after the new "progressive" moment in January 2009, the "new populism" in America is now decidedly on the Tea Party Right; sparking an anti-Obama, anti-Democrat and anti-government movement; questioning the president's religion, patriotism and even his birth place; and tinged clearly by some with an ugly racial edge. The "movement" is now on the other side of the political aisle. A campaign of "Hope and Change," and "Yes We Can" was slowly replaced with the governance of diminishing expectations and "They Won't Let Us." But people who feel that they are perishing can be both afraid and angry.
Inauguration Day was highlighted for our family by a visit from Dr. Vincent Harding, the eminent African-American historian, and a member of Martin Luther King Jr's inner circle during the Southern freedom movement. Despite health concerns and the dangerous weather, "Uncle Vincent," as my two young boys call him, traveled across the country to witness this moment of a history in which he had been so deeply involved. As we stood on the mall clutching our inauguration tickets in our mittens, Harding said, "It was a movement that started all this."
It is almost certainly the case that Democrats did not adequately address the moral and religious components of voters' economic concerns. But it's also true, as Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners astutely observed, that the election reflected the judgment of voters that Democrats had fundamentally not put forward a compelling vision with concrete policies that directly addressed the underlying economic problems.
We can be sure that there will be dissonant spokespersons like Jim Wallis and his allies in his Sojourners community who will march to the beat of another drum. Also, there will be countervailing movements such as the Emergent church, led by the likes of Tony Jones and Brian McLaren; along with those radical countercultural advocates who relate to "the Simple Way" messages of Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, as well as several others. But such voices increasingly will be marginalized and referred to as irritating malcontents by those Religious Right Evangelicals who will dominate both the image and practices representing Christianity to the general public for the next 50 years.
This election, some good people were elected and other good people lost. Some of these officials, newly elected and reelected, will try to find solutions to some of the great challenges facing our country today. Others will deepen the poisonous partisanship that has defined much of the past two years in politics. The polling showed, chillingly, that most voters came out to cast their ballots against candidates and policies rather than for anybody or anything.
Jim Wallis said, "There are Democrats and Republicans who in the past have said they supported comprehensive immigration reform, and so there ought now to be bipartisan support for such a bill. But in the ultra-partisan and poisoned atmosphere of the U.S. Congress now, bipartisan spirit has fled the halls of power. In Washington, politics is now just a game of win and lose, and it's only about the next election; it's no longer about solving problems. But the problem is that there are children and families in the balance, and the politicians are now playing politics with the lives of vulnerable people. Those people are our brothers and sisters, they are our parishioners, and they are children of God. And the faith community has come together to say the time for politics over compassion is over."
We live in a culture that is obsessed with the new, the different and the cutting edge. Countless hours are consumed with discussing what was painted on Lindsay Lohan's fingernails during her most recent court appearance and countless more spent on the virtues and vices displayed by Lebron James' choice to leave Cleveland. Special praise is given to those commentators who can tie these celebrity happenings into commentary on the Democrats' chances in the 2010 elections. But by next week, these stories are all but forgotten and we are on to the next celebrity mishap or moral shortcomings of professional athletes.
The captain was the first to smell it. He told us that the ocean didn't use to smell this way. Then we all smelled it. As we traveled further out over the choppy waters, it finally came into view: oil coating the grasses and clinging to the edges of the water and land. I asked what all the oil would do to this place. "Kill everything that lived here before," was the solemn answer.
From David Korten to Jim Wallis to Bill McKibben to many others, more and more of our most thoughtful leaders are challenging us to imagine, create, and participate in this new kind of economy -- and a different way of life. In that pursuit, moviegoers and churchgoers can become unlikely colleagues. May it be so.