Religion and the Common Good



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The RELIGION AND AMERICAN HISTORY blog welcomes its first contribution by our first contributing editor, John Fea of Messiah College. John is an historian of early American history whose best-known work thus far is a fine piece: "The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian's Rural Enlightenment." The Journal of American History (September, 2003), 462-490. He's completing a book for the University of Pennsylania Press about Philip Vickers and the Enlightenment in rural America, and is also working on an edited volume entitled Christian Faith and the Historian's Vocation for Notre Dame University Press. John was in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts from 2000-2002; I'm an alum of the same program, 1993-95. In 2002 he joined the History Department of Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. John has also been very active in public presentations, op-ed pieces, and speaking engagements, listed here. Most recently we spent an enjoyable weekend together at the Lilly Fellows Program reunion, held in Indianapolis, where John gave a presentation about the relationship of the evangelical scholar to the academy.

John will be sending along contributions as the spirit moves--and I hope it will move often! His first post concerns an issue I took up a few days ago, and that is current discussions of religion and the common good, especially those coming from a possibly (big IF there) renascent evangelical center/left.

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7-7-07: Our lucky day!

Religion and the Common Good

I want to thank Paul H. for inviting me to contribute to his blog. I look forward to the conversation.

I have noticed of late that the “common good” seems to be making a comeback in American political discourse, especially among Democratic presidential candidates. Edwards, Obama, and Clinton are calling people to sacrifice their interests for the larger national community and they are using religious discourse to do it. This was certainly evident among all three candidates last month at the CNN/Sojourners “Presidential Forum on Faith, Values, and Poverty” and it has been a staple of the Obama campaign ever since he announced he was running.

A few weeks ago I made a modest case in an op-ed piece that the Democrats are tapping into the longstanding relationship between Christianity and civic humanism in American history. They were returning to the “small r” republicanism of the revolutionary era and doing a better job than their Republican rivals of reflecting the Founders’ understanding of the relationship between religion and the citizen’s role in public life.

This idea has been developed in Lew Daly’s excellent essay in the recent Boston Review, “In Search of the Common Good: The Catholic Roots of American Liberalism.” Daly makes a compelling case that New Deal liberalism was the product of Catholic social teaching, particularly the views of Leo XIII as channeled through the Catholic progressivism of Father John Ryan. Catholics of Ryan’s stripe, Daly reminds us, were responsible for bringing immigrant Catholics into Democratic fold, a shift in loyalty that began with the populism of William Jennings Bryan and reached its height, of course, with Franklin D. Roosevelt. His essay is worth a look.

None of the current Democratic frontrunners are Catholic, but it seems that Father Ryan’s understanding of a “common good” rooted in the dignity of workers, a critique of what John Paul II used to call “savage capitalism,” the defense of the family, and the importance of the “moral law” as a check to autonomous individualism just might resonate with values voters in 2008 and provide a much needed theological and intellectual boost to their religious rhetoric.

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