02/01/2012 07:43 am ET | Updated Apr 02, 2012

Searching for the Common Good in Political Discourse

In a political campaign among contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, it is striking that one central Christian religious theme seems absent: the theme of the common good. Gingrich, Romney, and Santorum, have each invoked some religious ideas from their respective traditions. Gingrich, who has multiple traditions from which to draw (he was originally a Lutheran, later an evangelical Southern Baptist, and more recently a Roman Catholic), Romney, from Mormonism, and Santorum from a kind of hybrid evangelical Roman Catholicism. Gingrich has played the "personal confession of transgressions leads to forgiveness" card rather effectively so far. Santorum has played to conservative evangelicals who want a more public display of their religious beliefs. But Romney is a bit of mystery: he does not in any way disown his Mormon heritage but he seems to want to run away from the theme of the common good which goes all the way back to Joseph Smith.

For all of these candidates the legacy of the notion of the common good seems somewhat embarrassing. Why? Because it is a notion that trumps the current rhetoric of radical individualism and minimal government. It is an uncomfortable notion that does not sit easily with the call to free people from the burdens of having to care for others especially when such care may well entail a tax on one's resources. As numerous commentators have noted this upcoming presidential election may well turn out to be a referendum on two competing visions of American society or community. In the one vision, represented by the conservative wing of the Republican party, government's role in helping meet the needs of the most disadvantaged should be minimal if not entirely non-existent. Individuals are expected to make it on their own and they should not be subject to any limitations on their right to be free from any socially imposed obligations to help those who haven't made it. At its most extreme this view can be found in Ron Paul's embrace of Ayn Rand's philosophy. Personal charity, it is argued, is the only remedy for dealing with the casualties of a free market, and charity comes from the heart, not from coercively imposed taxes or mandated social policies). In the other vision, not nearly as well articulated by politicians as the conservative one, society is a community of persons who do have moral obligations to care for the good of the whole, not just the economic advancement of individual persons with the means to become wealthy and successful.

The irony in the ideas of the Republican candidates is that the traditional teachings of Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, and even evangelical Protestantism give a moral priority to the common good over the private good. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the good of the whole was always morally superior to individual good since the good of the individual could only be realized in community. The early Christian church practiced a community (some would say a communism) of goods. The Roman Catholic bishops in the United States in their 1985 "Economic Justice for All" called for the preferential option for the poor in economic policy. One hears little of that in the speeches of Gingrich and Santorum. The first Protestant settlers in New England also understood that the needs of the community took priority over the wants of the individual. As John Winthrop said in his "Model of Christian Charity", we are a community knit together in such bonds of love, affection and justice that we must be willing to give up what we possess if our neighbor's need demands it. And this must be, he insists, a matter of public policy, not private charity. "The care of the publique must oversway all private interests, for it is a true rule that perticuler estates cannot subsist in the ruinue of the publique." {sic} It's very difficult to hear the arguments against taxing the inordinately wealthy as reflecting anything of that evangelical sentiment and social imperative.

Mitt Romney might have an even more difficult time squaring his Mormon heritage with his platform of freeing the business world to pursue its interests without any kind of social regulations or restraints. Joseph Smith's original "Law of Consecration and Stewardship," drawing on the communism of the earliest Christian churches, required all members of the community to consecrate or deed all personal property to the bishop of the church for distribution to "the poor and needy." And the Republicans call Obama a socialist? The Mormon community was not, having reached Utah, a withdrawn separatist body eschewing all political or governmental connections. Romney's tax returns are clear evidence that he actually acknowledges the imperative to give of one's wealth (at least 10 percent) to help the poor and needy in the Mormon community. Why would he acknowledge the moral imperative of communal obligation within his church but refuse to acknowledge it within the nation he wants to lead as President? Perhaps this refusal is of a piece with his support of an individual mandate to purchase health insurance in Massachusetts and his rejection of the same mandate for the nation as a whole.

Why is it that ostensibly Christian candidates want to run away from one of the most enduring and categorical moral imperatives of the Christian faith? There is nothing in the Christian faith that weds it necessarily to a free-market quasi-libertarian economic and political philosophy. Christian moral teaching has always expected Christians in political and economic power to use their power to address the needs of those who have fallen by the wayside. Christian theology insists that God gave, by grace, his only Son in order to meet the needs of a sinful people who couldn't earn their way to salvation. Christianity has no notion that the only way for people to get what they need for a humane and fulfilling life is by earning it on their own. Christianity knows that persons are made for community and that just as their advantages come from their inheritance of common wealth, so they are obligated to contribute to that common wealth.