Immanent Common Good, Revolutionary Funk, and the Democratic Virtues of Liberty University

Paul Harvey

Over at The Immanent Frame, a new discussion about the common good and civic virtue ("These Things Are Old," taken from a phrase in Obama's inaugural address) in our age has attracted some thoughtful contrasting responses. David Kim introduces the series of posts, from a variety of contributors, this way:

We have invited an august group of scholars and public intellectuals to respond to Obama’s invocation of a tradition of common good and virtues. Asking our contributors to step back from the words, “these things are old…these things are true,” we have asked them consider the values Obama names— “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism”—and to situate these values within moral, philosophical, religious, and secular traditions. Further, we ask: Is it possible to parse these virtues and values into distinct categories of “the religious” and “the secular”? What intellectual genealogies serve as the moral sources for these virtues and values? What historical processes have led to their incorporation into the American political lexicon and possibly rendered them the bulwarks of “the American ethic”? While the inspiration for the series begins with Obama, we have encouraged our contributors to look beyond Obama’s words and to examine the traditions themselves as an opportunity to think through the meaning of this moment in American civic life.

The last two responses, from Todd Gitlin and Jon Shields, frame the discussion nicely. Gitlin's invocation of recapturing some American virtues rejects any sacred/secular distinction:

Is it possible to parse American virtues and values into distinct categories of “the religious” and “the secular”? I think not, and am not particularly interested in trying. Were Emerson, Whitman, and William James “religious” or “secular”? Or, for that matter, Norman Thomas and Martin Luther King?

Gitlin goes on to defend the notion of "common" in "common good":

The virtues Obama went on to mention—”honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism”—are both individual and collective. They must be cultivated both in personal character and in institutions. There is a crazy notion abroad that stand-alone individuals can do all this work on their own, that Americans are currently justly rewarded for their “hard work,” that society ought to stand aside and let the failures wither, that the janitor who comes up short of health insurance must not have worked hard enough. When Obama beats the drums for national service, he reminds us that there are social and personal gains that matter more than capital gains, and deserve energy and reward. He invites honest conservatives to recognize that infrastructure is not just a four-syllable word, but also an American tradition. He invites honest liberals to claim patriotism, not renounce it, in the spirit of Mark Twain: “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”

In "Obama's Service Problem," Jon Shields expresses his skepticism about whether such calls, removed from specific contexts of faith commitments, can inspire devotion or sacrifice:

Where might such a noble spirit come from? Obama does not say, and for good reason. Any serious reflection on what might sustain such courage and solidarity would compel Obama to rethink the role of religion in American politics. . . . . . For Obama, the transformative power of religion lies in a certain sort of culture or community or tradition. Social progress does not depend on dogmatic conviction.

It has long been the great hope of liberals that somehow a deracinated and disenchanted Christianity could still give life to the sort of sacrificial spirit that Obama wants to summon. Liberals, however, have not always been so sanguine about the death of religious zealotry. John Dewey, in particular, appreciated the power of traditional faith to inspire sacrifice. Dewey insisted that liberal progress had to be driven by something like religious ardor. In
A Common Faith, Dewey speculated, “Were men and women to be actuated…with the faith and ardor that have at times marked historic religions the consequences would be incalculable.” Dewey further identified the absence of such crusading faith as the “crisis of liberalism.”

Drawing from David Chappell's Stone of Hope, Shields argues that "It is sometimes forgotten that civil rights activists tended to be precisely the sort of “fundamentalists” that Obama regards as dangerous."

There's truth there (especially if you're talking about some of the ordinary folk in the movement, whose language of activism was heavily evangelical), but some oversimplification as well. Unlike Gitlin, I don't have any problem filing King under the category "religious," and indeed it's impossible to make sense of him otherwise. That does not make King's religious inspirations and beliefs "fundamentalist," however; far from it. The passage just quoted comes from Bayard Rustin's take on King. Rustin, Glenn Smiley, and a whole coterie of King advisors were anything but fundamentalist; the same could be said of course for Niebuhr and Benjamin Mays, and many other of King's mentors and influences. Glenda Gilmore's Defying Dixie, moreover, follows a radical secular narrative of the origins of civil rights, from remarkable (if relatively unknown) people in the black Left earlier in the twentieth century. For some of them at least, a radical atheism inspired self-sacrifice on behalf of making a better America, at a time when such a thing seemed impossible.

King's genius, one might argue, was in infusing liberalism with religious transcendence. Leaders of SNCC did much the same thing in their original manifesto (one of the great documents in American history, I think) -- and those leaders ranged from black Baptists such as John Lewis, to existentialists such as Robert Moses, to a number of southern liberals and Jewish radicals and idealistic atheists.

Regardless of the empirical/historical quarrel, Shields (and others) invoke a healthy skepticism about whether there is anything of substance behind the cliches of sacrifice and common good. What inspires uncommon altruism and a transcendent devotion? Shields cites the statistics showing the disproportionate philanthropic altruism of believers; skeptics could just as easily cite the disproportionate lust among evangelicals for torture as national policy in dealing with alleged enemy combatants. But there's room for argument here, and I appreciate Shields's probing essay.

Cornel West offers a career in interpreting and transcending some of the divides noted here. Jeff Sharlet's fun piece "The Supreme Love and Revolutionary Funk of Dr. Cornel West, Philosopher of the Blues, from the online magazine Killing the Buddha (reprinted from its original in The Rolling Stone) catches us up with Brother West's career since the blowup with Brother Larry Summers at Harvard (they've both since moved on!). I've just discovered Killing the Buddha, and commend it here for your perusal. Its manifesto reads:

It is for people who somehow want to be religious, who want to know what it means to know the divine, but for good reasons are not and do not. If the religious have come to own religious discourse it is because they alone have had places where religious language could be spoken and understood. Now there is a forum for the supposedly non-religious to think and talk about what religion is, is not and might be. Killing the Buddha is it.

And finally, I have tried to resist blogging this, but it's just too much low-hanging fruit for easy parody: "Liberty University Drops Campus Democrats." John Fea discusses the move here, while the president of Liberty defends his actions here.

What would Jesus do? Laugh hysterically, I'd guess, and then kick the theocrats' respective asses from the temple. That would certainly help our common good.