Weeks before the attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, four Americans gathered at a diner in Harrisburg, Pa., only 40 miles from the site of Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address."
They gathered to ponder the rising levels of incivility in America's public square.
And as they dealt with that question, they pondered as well the issue that had troubled President Abraham Lincoln some 150 years earlier - -the potential loss of that great experiment that the world, for almost 225 years, has called "America."
The shooting of Giffords and of 19 others lends urgency to the question, "Can America survive the level of incivility we have witnessed in recent years?"
I was among that group at the Harrisburg diner, a group that also included a black journalist, a black Pentecostal pastor and another white professor.
As we reflected together, we did so in full awareness of our proximity to the Gettysburg battlefield where Lincoln had voiced his deep concern that the Civil War could utterly destroy the great American experiment. He therefore urged the American people to "take increased devotion" from "these honored dead" and to "highly resolve ... that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
That is good counsel today as well.
A year earlier, in his State of the Union Address of 1862, Lincoln had warned the Congress of the United States of something that body already knew: that the nation was in danger of complete dissolution and that the government and the people alike would "nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth."
We four who met at that diner recognized, of course, that our circumstances differed vastly from those of Lincoln's time. While in Lincoln's day the nation faced a devastating Civil War, the nation today faces a very different kind of crisis.
Standing at the heart of the crisis today is a dearth of concern for the common good and a rigidly polarized population, both reinforced by a crass incivility that is crippling America's public square.
To put it bluntly, by placing their individual interests ahead of the common good, the American people -- Democrats, Republicans and Tea Partiers; conservatives, liberals and moderates; Christians, Jews and those of a wide variety of other religious traditions -- have betrayed the American dream.
John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, defined that dream in 1630 when he told the Puritans -- America's earliest "founders" -- that concern for the common good was crucial for their survival. "We must love brotherly without dissimulation," he said. "We must love one another with a pure heart fervently; we must bear one another's burdens, we must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren..."
For Winthrop, concern for the common good stood at the heart of the American dream.
Some 160 years later, in 1789, in his First Inaugural Address, George Washington echoed that same conviction. He hoped, for example, that "no local prejudices or attachments, no separate views nor party animosities, will misdirect the comprehensive and equal eye which ought to watch over this great assemblage of communities and interests."
He hammered on the theme of the common good since, like Lincoln so many years later, he also viewed the American experiment as "the last, best hope of earth." In his view, "the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."
By the dawn of the 21st century, however, and even long before, the vision of the common good which both Winthrop and Washington exalted had dissipated almost entirely. The metaphor, "the American dream," now pointed, not to the common good, but to the rights of the individual to pursue one's own self interests.
For many, "the American dream" -- now epitomized by home ownership! -- even suggested that since individual interests were so far superior to the good of the larger community, the community essentially be damned.
America's Third Time of Trial
The fact of the matter is that by 2011, the American nation was deeply entrenched in the third and the longest lasting of the "three times of trial" that the eminent social critic, Robert N. Bellah, described in his landmark book, The Broken Covenant, published in 1975.
The first "time of trial," Bellah explained, was the Revolutionary period when it was by no means clear that the nation would survive at all.
The second was the period of America's Civil War when the nation threatened to disintegrate entirely -- the possibility that weighed so heavily on Abraham Lincoln.
The third began with the deeply divisive period of the 1960s and 1970s, a period defined by deep fissures in the nation over two great issues, the Vietnam War abroad and racial inequality at home.
The crises of that period were so deep and so profound that they set in motion reactionary movements that are with us still. These movements typically exhibit little concern for the common good, entrench themselves around their special issues, and then defend those issues with venomous contempt for those who might disagree. They operate with the assumption that they are right and everyone else is simply wrong. There is no room for compromise, no room for negotiation and, indeed, no room for voices that differ from one's own.
In a word, incivility now defines our public square, and concern for the common good is in very short supply.
In the second post of this three-part series of articles, we'll hear the voices of two of those four Americans who gathered at the Harrisburg diner. And we'll pay special attention to how these two -- both African American -- have experienced the loss of civility and the collapse of the common good in America's public square.
Richard T. Hughes is Director of the Sider Institute at Messiah College and author of Christian America and the Kingdom of God (University of Illinois Press, 2009).
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