Whatever Happened to the “Common Good”?

Recommitting ourselves to the general welfare could solve the deepest problems this country and the world now face

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There is an ancient idea that we have lost, but can and should find again. It’s called simply the common good. It goes back many centuries, but the need for a new dialogue about what it means and what its practice would require of us has never seemed more critical. Our politics have become so polarized and increasingly volatile; and our political institutions have lost the public trust. Few Americans today would suggest their political leaders are serving the common good.

The common good has origins in the beginings of Chrisitanity. An early church father, John Chrysostom (c. 347–407), once wrote: This is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good . . . for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.” Of course, all our religious traditions say that we are indeed our neighbor’s keeper, but today people of every faith don’t often actually say and do the things that their faith says and stands for.

(MORE: The Limitations of Being “Spiritual But Not Religious”)

The notion of the common good has both religious and secular roots going back to Catholic social teaching, the Protestant social gospel, Judaism, Islam, and in the American Constitution itself, which says that government should promote “the general welfare.” It is our fundamental political inclination: don’t go right, don’t go left; go deeper. But we’ve lost touch with that moral compass in Washington D.C., where it has been replaced by both ideology and money.

A commitment to the common good could bring us together and solve the deepest problems this country and the world now face: How do we work together? How do we treat each other, especially the poorest and most vulnerable? How do we take care of not just ourselves but also one another?

The common good is also the best way to find common ground with other people—even with those who don’t agree with us or share our politics.  Both liberals and conservatives could affirm the moral standard of the common good. And that commitment is especially attractive to young people, who are among the fastest-growing group in surveys who eschew specific religious affiliation.

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The common good should impact all the decisions we  make in our personal, family, vocational, financial, congregational, communal, and yes, public lives. It is those individual and communal choices—from how we raise our own children, to how we engage with our local communities, to what we are willing to bring to our elected officials—that will ultimately create the cultural shifts and social movements that really do change politics in the long run. The nation will soon be deciding on immigration reform, new efforts to prevent gun violence, and how to find a path to fiscal sustainability that reflects our nation’s soul. Only by inspiring a spiritual and practical commitment to the common good can we help make our common life better.