THE BLOG
07/29/2016 03:00 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2017

America Is Great... When America Is Good

Rick Wilking / Reuters

Last night, Hillary Clinton made history as the first woman to accept the presidential nomination of a major party. She also answered the important question of why she has committed her life to public service.

In her acceptance speech, Clinton spoke of the values her mother passed on to her, values that she has passed on to her daughter, Chelsea, who in turn said they are the values she seeks to pass on to her young daughter and 5-week-old son. They are the values of the young Methodist woman outside of Chicago, whose youth leader took her into the city to hear a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. That was the moment that changed the direction of her life and led her to learn and steadily embrace perhaps the best-known motto of her Methodist faith, a quote often attributed to its founder John Wesley: "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." Significantly, she quoted that in her speech last night, possibly the first time the words have been quoted in a Democratic convention. That message is what the nation needs to hear and see now if it is enough to overcome the political cynicism that now obscures our best values.

Our shared values -- it was also the best part of President Barack Obama's remarkable speech Wednesday night. When he said what it means and doesn't mean to be an American, my 17-year-old son said, "That was awesome."

From Obama's speech:

... my grandparents ... didn't respect mean-spiritedness, or folks who were always looking for shortcuts in life. Instead, what they valued were traits like honesty and hard work. Kindness. Courtesy. Humility. Responsibility. Helping each other out. That's what they believed in. True things. Things that last. The things we try to teach our kids.

And he said these were the exact same values that his wife Michelle's parents taught and raised her with on the south side of Chicago, values she talked about in her own magnificent address she gave to the nation the night before.

Political commentators from both the Democratic and Republican sides responded that these are indeed the values that make America its best -- and they are the values must always overcome our worst impulses. Despite substantial policy differences about the size of government, the strategies for economic growth, or the best paths to national security, many of the pundits in a rare moment of agreement affirmed these American values.

Many on all political sides agreed when Obama said that the previous week's Republican convention " wasn't particularly Republican - and it sure wasn't conservative. What we heard was a deeply pessimistic vision of a country where we turn against each other, and turn away from the rest of the world."

He continued:

"... anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end ... That is America. Those bonds of affection; that common creed. We don't fear the future; we shape it, we embrace it, as one people, stronger together than we are on our own.

This election will be all about values: which values are best for America, and which values most threaten it. Most Americans believe in the separation of church and state, but that doesn't mean the segregation of moral values from public life.

Last night at the convention, Rev. William Barber called for moral values to prevail over partisan politics. He expressed concern for the "heart" of America and called us to become the "moral defibrillators" that must "shock" the nation's sick heart to its best moral values of love, mercy, and justice.

That's what faith and faith communities do best in our public life -- bring their societies back to moral values for the sake of the common good. That's a mission that both conservatives and liberals who care about moral values can embrace.

It's the values Sen. Tim Kaine, a Catholic, expressed as he accepted the nomination for Clinton's vice president. Kaine has always been unafraid to put his faith forward publicly (something Democrats are sometimes hesitant to do) and consistently commit himself to social justice as a consequence of his faith. When Kaine said (in Spanish) that the priorities he learned as a missionary with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Honduras were "Faith, Family, and Work," he resonated with many people.

How faith is used and abused and what values are chosen will determine the outcome of this election, and it will shape the future of America and the world in decisive ways that we have not seen for many years.

Last week, Donald Trump said "Make America great again," without saying what time he would like to go back to -- without admitting how "great" America was for diverse people and women then. And last night, Hillary Clinton said "America is great because America is good," without honestly reminding us that America is not always so great. So I would revise the two and say, America is great, when America is good. What it means to be good will be the moral values debate in this election.

My prayer for this election season is the same as Rev. Gabriel Salguero, who used these words to close the convention Wednesday night:

Lord, help us transcend the nefarious traps of cynicism, despair, and division with the courageous work of hope and love. Teach us to continuously cherish and fervently defend the dignity of all our sisters and brothers. Help us never to tire in the work of compassion and justice. Instruct us to be ever-mindful of the most vulnerable among us: the child, the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. Dios, danos la valentia de confrontar nuestros desafíos con amor. Help us to hew the future of our Republic from the bedrock of love.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, is available now.