Have we given up on the common good?

By Alan Bean

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War reminds us that America is as deeply divided now as it has ever been.  We can’t even agree about the basic meaning of the Civil War.  Was Robert E. Lee a hero or a villain?  

In the 1860s, and again in the 1960s, the federal government, albeit with deep misgivings, moved powerfully to defend the nation’s most vulnerable members.  Too marginalized to deserve the title “citizens,” 19th century slaves and the 20th century victims of Jim Crow segregation, were protected from the tyranny of the majority.  In the 1860s, the Republican Party controlled the process; by the 1960s, the Democrats were in charge–but the principle was the same.

As we wander aimlessly into the 21st century, the political divide is largely defined by the traumatic events of the 1860s and 1960s.  Conservatives are increasingly inclined to see the 1860s and 1960s as periods in which a tyrannical federal government crushed legitimate states’ rights.  In the liberal view, the demise of slavery and Jim Crow oppression are milestones in the long march to freedom.  To liberals, “states’ rights” is shorthand for state-sanctioned bigotry.

Tragically, neither conservatives or liberals give much thought to the ties that bind us together as a nation.  We are too fixated on the failings of our ideological opposites to examine what our side has lost.  As things stand, neither conservatives nor liberals have a narrative that all Americans, or even most Americans, can rally around.

In their groundbreaking book, Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and four associates examined the initial tremors of what has since become an ideological earthquake.  The book has its weaknesses.  White middle class folk are treated as normative Americans (the book was written a quarter century ago).  This perspective, though distressing in many respects, can be illuminating.  After all, it is white middle class Americans who have controlled the political destiny of the nation from its earliest days until this present moment.  As the white middle class goes, so goes the Republic.  This will continue to be true for another decade; after that, all bets are off. 

As they poured over in-depth interviews conducted with a sample of white middle class Americans in 1985, Bellah et al wondered if the nation, in any recognizable form, could endure much longer.  Even then, the biblical and republican narratives that had traditionally effused rugged individualism with a vision of the common good were fast eroding.  (By “republican” the authors had in mind the egalitarian, anti-monarchical principles shared by the Founding Fathers, not the political party organized in 1854.)

Bellah and friends knew that both the traditions of American republicanism and the Bible could be, and have been, used to undermine the common good.  As the sons and daughters of the Confederacy knew all too well, the Bible, for all its talk of justice, freedom and liberation, generally accepted slavery and other forms of radical inequality as unavoidable aspects of the human condition.  Similarly, our founding fathers kicked the can of human bondage down the road into the 19th century, showing in the process that they, like us, often lacked the courage of their most prized convictions.

The authors of Habits of the Heart saw the biblical and republican strands of American life as living narratives constantly in need of re-interpretation and re-application.   We change our narratives not by watering them down, they felt, but by returning to the burning bush that inspired these narratives in the first place.  Jesus didn’t go out of his way to condemn slavery; but his “first-shall-be-last” gospel was incompatible with every form of hierarchical social ordering.  The same could be said for the “let-my-people-go” thrust of the Exodus story.

Similarly, although many of the founding fathers owned slaves and had no intention of giving them up, Jefferson’s celebrated assertion that “all men are created equal” was radically inconsistent with slavery, patriarchy or any other form of official oppression. 

As we wrestle with the biblical and republican narratives we have inherited from our parents and grandparents, Bellah and friends suggested, a new and vital vision of the common good emerges to counteract the atomizing tendencies of traditional American individualism.  Like all good Americans, the authors believed passionately in the rights and freedoms of the solitary individual; but they insisted that individual rights and a vision of the common good must be held in creative tension.

Here’s the problem.  American liberalism has largely lost contact with the biblical and republican traditions that have traditionally given birth to a vision of the common good.  We need to face the simple truth: liberal morality in America emerges from the negotiation between separate selves.  We select the norms and rules that seem good to us with little reference to the shared moral principles that shaped our nation. 

American conservatism, in a panic scramble to protect the ancient verities, consistently ignores the passion for freedom and justice at the heart of both the scriptures they espouse and the republican traditions they claim to emulate.

When I entered the Ph.D program at Southern Seminary in Louisville in 1989, I spent half a year reading through the collected works of Yale church historian Jaroslav Pelikan.  In that same year, Pelikan, by then an old man, summarized his guiding philosophy for US News and World Report:

Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.

Liberals are so afraid of the “dead faith of the living” that they have largely silenced the “living faith of the dead.”  In reaction, conservatives cling to the faith of the dead with admirable tenacity, forgetting “where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide.”

Blessedly, Americans (myself included) are mostly conservative-liberal hybrids who are capable, in our better moments, of appreciating the strengths and weaknesses of the competing ideologies of our day.  Our three-decade love affair with mass incarceration demonstrates how far we have wandered from the compassionate egalitarianism that shines and shimmers through both the biblical and republican narratives.   Our insane suspicion of Latino and Islamic immigrants places us far from the liberating gospel of Moses and Jesus; or the inclusive political vision of Jefferson and Madison.  Our weak-kneed groveling in the presence of corporate America renders us incapable of rendering to God the things that are God’s.   Our craven assumption that prison bars and fighter jets can satisfy our security needs places us in the spiritual tradition of Pharaoh, Caesar, Tiglath-Pilesar and Nebuchadnezzar. 

There are no prophets among us, and precious few patriots; but the foreign country of the past beckons still. 

I leave you with an extended quotation from Habits of the Heart and the good news that the book can be purchased at Amazon.com for as little as one American penny.

If we are not entirely a mass of interchangeable fragments within an aggregate, if we are in part qualitatively distinct members of a whole, it is because there are still operating among us, with whatever difficulties, traditions that tell us about the nature of the world, about the nature of society, and about who we are as people.  Primarily biblical and republican, these traditions are important for many Americans and significant to some degree for almost all.  Somehow families, churches, a variety of cultural associations . . . do manage to communicate a form of life, a paideia, in the sense of growing up in a morally and intellectually intelligible world . . . 

In short, we have never been, and still are not, a collection of private individuals who, except for a conscious contract to create a minimal government, have nothing in common.  Our lives make sense in a thousand ways, most of which we are unaware of, because of traditions that are centuries, if not millennia, old.  It is these traditions that help us to know that it does make a difference who we are and how we treat one another . . . Indeed, we would argue that if we are ever to enter that new world that so far has been powerless to be born, it will be through reversing modernity’s tendency to obliterate all previous culture.  We need to learn again from the cultural riches of the human species and to reappropriate and revitalize those riches so that they can speak to our condition today.