America’s Need for a ‘Public Good’

America’s Christian churches have failed to provide moral leadership on behalf of a “public good,” observes Rev. Howard Bess. May 7, 2011

By the Rev. Howard Bess

Editor’s Note: On the Christian Right, it has become an article of anti-historical faith that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation,” thus making Jews, Muslims, atheists and other religious minorities second-class citizens who must accept Christian dominion over government policies.

Ironically, this insistence on a country controlled by a deformed concept of “what would Jesus do” i.e. persecute gays, repress women and stigmatize non-Christians has merged with a “free-market” extremism that sees no role for government helping the poor who were at the heart of Jesus’s ministry, a contradiction addressed by the Rev. Howard Bess in this guest essay:

The United States was never meant to be a Christian nation. Instead, the Founders envisioned a secular state in which religion would be pursued with complete freedom, but they also understood the need for the young nation to have a moral compass.

James Madison, one of the chief architects of the U.S. Constitution, wrote: “The public good, the real welfare of the great body of the people, is the supreme object to be pursued.”

Madison recognized that for America to achieve its promise, it had to maintain a public virtue, a virtue that could not be captured or insured by a written document such as the U.S. Constitution.

Religion had the power to give meaning to that public virtue. After all, the core ethical message of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures support Madison’s idea of “the public good.” They recognizd that a people’s moral well-being demands that we answer “yes” to the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The Old Testament laws of hospitality demand that a moral people provide for the vulnerable. The needs of sojourners, widows, orphans, the blind, the lame and the poor are a part of the “public good.”

And at times of national stress from the days of the nation’s founding religious people often did bring these moral values to the table.

Notable examples were the roles played by religious leaders in the Abolitionist movement to end slavery and in the last century to bring voting rights to women and civil rights to African-Americans. At such key moments, religious people demonstrated the ability to shape the conscience of the nation.

The 1960s and 1970s could have been American Christianity’s finest hour if its leaders had been up to the challenge of guiding the nation through a period of turmoil, but mostly they were not.

America was fighting a senseless war in Vietnam that produced chaotic anti-war protests at home. Racism was challenged. Women demanded their full partnership in society. Patriarchal marriage was battered. The seeds of gay rights began to sprout.

Yet, with the exception of the African-American churches under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., the social revolution that took place found little moral direction from ministers and established religions.

Many churches escaped from the public chaos into a message of personal salvation, which was enhanced by the ecstatic experiences of Pentecostalism. High-tech entertainment was added to the churches’ tool bag. Passion for the “public good” was lost in the process.

In retrospect, during the last half of the 20th century, while Billy Graham was filling the world’s largest stadiums and televangelists were dominating America’s television screens, the moral sensibilities of the nation were turned over to the pursuits of the super-rich and the rule of giant corporations.

Neither operated with the restraint of conscience. Wealth and power guided their operations.

So, today, the United States is at a crossroads in its history. We are a nation at a pinnacle of world influence, an empire with unparalleled wealth and power. Yet, as America has attained its place as the world’s dominant empire, public virtue has weakened to a point of impotence.

I recently saw a cartoon by William Haefeli that caught the essence of this dilemma. Four adults are in the midst of dinner conversation as one remarks, “I’m in the market for an easier religion.” Yet, this easy religion will never provide moral direction for the nation.

The current economic crisis is the fruit of this folly. At the center of the financial collapse were corporations that were “too big to fail.” From the perspective of a government lacking a moral compass, there was no choice but to bail out the most selfish and corrupt influences that have ever threatened the nation.

Corporations by definition have no soul and no ethic beyond the bottom line of profit. As corporations have evolved in America, people are no longer in charge of corporations; corporations are in control of people who have become nothing more than puppets on corporate strings.

During the recent financial scandal, most of America’s religious leaders and institutions have remained silent, complicit in America’s moral and ethical demise. They should have known better.

I would like to lay the blame for this failure on the large corporations and on those who have bought in to their riches. However, the real blame falls to religious institutions and leaders who have abandoned the nation’s need for public virtue.

Unless we regain our moral compass, the Founders’ dream of a nation built on the common good will be a dream that died.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is [email protected].