President Obama and the Public Good

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President Obama and the Public Good

February 17, 2012 -

I write a column each week for The Dallas Morning News as part of their “Texas Faith” panel.  This recent question especially intrigued me.

Our editor states, “President Obama made the case for the common good, as he saw it, in his State of the Union address. Jackie Calmes of the New York Times summarized his theme this way: ‘Government and citizens are responsible together for the common good, even as they celebrate individualism and free markets.’  Of course, you might say.  Shared responsibilities and creating room for the individual to flourish are major elements of our national creed.

“But how do we build a common good today?  We hear plenty about how political bodies can shape it, but I’d especially like to hear what other institutions could play a role.  And how they could shape the common good, or perhaps are shaping it.”

Here’s my response.

Woodrow Wilson was one of the our most religious presidents.  The son of a Presbyterian minister, his faith motivated all he did.  Yet he claimed that “there is no higher religion than human service.  To work for the common good is the greatest creed.”

Jesus agreed: “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

How did he love us?  Sacrificially (1 John 3:16) and unconditionally (Romans 8:35-39).  Imagine a society in which we imitated his altruistic commitment to each other.  The Founders did: our Constitution exists to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, and promote the general Welfare.”  The government it formed can and must work to fulfill this vision.

What other institutions can help promote this common good?

Our schools should teach and reinforce the ethic of public service that motivated the founding of our republic.  Service organizations, many in numeric decline today, should find ways to engage a new generation.  But communities of faith have an especially crucial role to play.

Judaism (Micah 6:8), Christianity (Matthew 25:40) and Islam (Qur’an 3:110) challenge their adherents to public service.  Mormonism (Mosiah 2:17), Hinduism (Bhagavad Gita 3:10-26) and Buddhism (Bodhicharyavatara 8:126-128) agree.  Unfortunately, it is tempting for religious leaders to focus more on building our organizations than on serving our community.  All the while, a skeptical public wonders how our beliefs are relevant to their lives.

Ken Medema, the Christian singer and composer, once wrote a line that challenges me every time I hear it: “Don’t tell me I have a friend in Jesus until you show me I have a friend in you.”

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