The Snowpocalypse and the Golden Rule

04/13/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I'm still at home here in the D.C. area winter wonderland. Our street did get plowed this morning, which I'm very thankful for, but with the Metro system not running here and everything in D.C. pretty much ground to a halt, I'll take another day at home. I can do some work from here, or course, but like the last few days, won't mind hanging out in front of the fireplace reading good books either. Some of my reading is more work-oriented, like Simon Johnson and James Kawk's really important book, 13 Bankers, a great look at the history and potential future of American financial crises. But I have to admit, I am taking the time at home to read some terrific novels as well.

Being a Midwesterner, I love snow storms and being snowed in. These last few days bring back the joy of being a kid snowed in on school days (although since the Midwest actually knows how to deal with snow, we were never snowed in this long). But I also love how these events bring out the best in everyone. Everyone is helping with the "dig out." The folks with big 4-wheel drive trucks and SUVs are driving around asking people if they need anything from the grocery store. We have a section of the neighborhood that lost power for a while; word quickly spread and neighbors invited folks without electric to stay at their houses.

It's the Golden Rule, neighborhood-wide. And I know it's happened in neighborhood after neighborhood over the last week. These kinds of crises tend to bring out the best in people, as everyone treats their neighbors as they would want to be treated.

The Golden Rule philosophy shouldn't just apply to each person individually, and it isn't only about individual salvation, as religious conservatives insist. The Golden Rule works best when it is neighborhood-wide, society-wide, country-wide: our underlying value in structuring our government should be to foster this sense of mutual aid and respect - to have everyone treat others as they would want to be treated.

From all my debates over the years with family, friends, and those in public life who are religious conservatives, our most fundamental disagreement is this: they see the moral teachings in scripture as relating to individuals alone, each one seeking their own salvation, while progressives from the same faith traditions see those teachings as about what kind of society we want to build. The debate goes beyond religion: as I describe in my book, The Progressive Revolution, this debate goes to the heart of the entire history of American political debate. The question is: will America be a community, all helping each other in times of need, or will we just be a nation of individuals whose selfishness serves the greater good because of some "invisible hand" of the marketplace?

Progressives have always embraced the idea of America as a community that rises or falls together. The Golden Rule works not only for individuals interacting with each other on a daily basis, but as the way our society ought to work. The Biblical admonitions to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, help the least of these, and love mercy and kindness apply to our society, not just to us as individuals. The instinct to shovel the drive of the 85-year-old neighbor in a snowstorm should apply to making sure she is taken care of in terms of her Social Security and Medicare as well. The willingness to take in people without electricity and get groceries for the people who can't get out of their drives should apply to people in this economic crisis with so many Americans out of work.

That sense of community, of treating others as we would want to be treated, of helping those less lucky or healthy than ourselves, should apply to our country as well as to our neighbors in a snow storm. None of us are an island: America rises and falls as a people together. One of my neighbors, when anyone thanks him for lending a hand, likes to say, "That's what neighbors do. We help each other." That should be America's motto as well: "That's what Americans do. We help each other."