Sunday, November 21, 2010

"Faithful Citizen"

This past year I was hired to write a series of lessons called Faithful Citizen: Living Responsibly in a Global Society, which is part of a forthcoming DVD-based curriculum from the Center for the Congregation in Public Life, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. The Center created the lesson formats, outline, and basic approach, and I built upon that foundation, with terrific input from the Center. The following website explains the overall curriculum:

A few weeks ago I explained the curriculum to an interfaith dialogue group in St. Louis, which sparked interesting discussion about ways religious believers approach citizenship and public issues.

As stated at the website above, the Faithful Citizen designers and writers hope to offer a corrective to the individualism that often characterizes both our religious faith and political opinions. Robert Bellah and his fellow authors of the book Habits of the Heart note that Americans tend to think of religion, not only in terms of institutional religion but also as a private, individual concern. A personal approach to God and faith reveals the "freedom, openness, and pluralism of American religious life" but neglects the fact that our relationship with God "is mediated by a whole pattern of community life."(1)

Individualism also flavors American's politics. Bellah et al. argue that both welfare liberalism and neocapitalism tend to focus upon individual good as the way toward the common good. “The purpose of government is to give individuals the means to pursue their private ends,” the first by allowing periodic government intervention into the economy "to balance the operations of the market in the interests of economic growth and social harmony," and the other by a free-market approach with less government involvement.(2)

Bellah and his fellow authors hope that "the biblical impetus to see religion as involved in the whole of life" can give a broader political vision, as well as a less personalistic religious faith, which in turn renews our sense of civic virtue. (3)

Eric Mount of Centre College, in his book Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, echoes Bellah in stressing that Americans have always had a twofold drive: personal success and a desire for the common good (4). Although we Americans are indebted to the tradition of John Locke that affirms the rights of people to life, liberty, and economic and personal well-being, we are also indebted to a more covenantal and community-oriented concern for the common good.(5)

The Faithful Citizen lessons will highlight some of the ways by which we can broaden our religious and political visions to have a greater concern for the common good and for responsible civic participation. For instance, among other ideas based upon Mount's research, we can think of religious faith as "audacious openness." Mount writes, "openness is not simply tolerant of the other, or receptive to encounter by difference; it is audacious. Its hospitality is daring. it is not docile obedience; it is courageous engagement" with other people and their needs.(6)

Another approach to civic virtue and the common good is through "better stories." Mount cites Robert Reich who in turn identifies four "stories" woven into American political discourse: the "mob at the gates" which is often about foreigners or any "dark force" portrayed as a real or perceived threat to American well being, "the triumphant individual" about workers and entrepreneurs which often pits economic discourage in terms of winners and losers, the "benevolent community" which lauds efforts to help the poor but which still portrays the poor as "them" who are helped by "us," and "the rot at the top" about big government and big business. (7)

Approaching public issues from a faith perspective can be very challenging. On one hand, many religious people tend to keep their religious faith and their politics in two mental "zones," so they feel warm in the love of God while other times spouting angry, uncaring political convictions that they picked up from the media. There is also the challenge of ongoing public discussion about what is the common good, and what is the proper role of government in enhancing the common good.

Mounts offers this challenge: "Social conflict is not going away, and sometimes we may fear 'the other' for good reasons. Our fears, however, become self-fulfilling prophecies if we are always acting on our worst suspicions of 'the other' instead of seeking areas of overlap between our problems, our interests, and even our hopes. Trying to tell stories that move us beyond the counter-productive antagonisms of 'us' against 'them' will not make all of our differences go away, but better stories could restore a sense of community membership in our land and even beyond our borders that has characterized us in our best moments as a people. In a world of increasingly inescapable interdependence and mutual vulnerability, the need has never been greater."(8)

1. Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkley: University of California Press, 1985), 227.

2. Ibid., 262-266.

3. Ibid., 248.

4. Eric Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1999), 11.

5. Eric Mount, “Covenant, Community, and The Common Good: A Tale of Two Americas,” Church & Society, May/June 2005, 43-45.

6. Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good, 136-137. For this insight Mount cites Peter Hodgson’s Winds of the Spirit: A Constructive Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 204-8, and also the thought of Darrell J. Fasching, Narrative Theology after Auschwitz: From Alienation to Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 6, 15-16, 73, 123, 126, 187-88.

7. Mount, "A Tale of Two Americas," 47-48.

8. Eric Mount, “Storytelling and Political Leadership,” The Progressive Christian, 182:5 (Sept.-Oct. 2008), 19.

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