Finding common ground

How are we most likely to achieve social change? Through political campaigning or by finding common ground at local level? Here, Nicholas Townsend explores two thinkers who advocate that Christians are well-placed to make a distinctive contribution at local level.

“The potential for seeing and developing common ground is particularly strong if we focus on what can be done in the ‘local’ sphere — that is, the space between the personal (i.e., the individual) and the political (i.e., the governmental).” [1] So writes Julie Hanlon Rubio in Hope for Common Ground: Mediating the Personal and the Political in a Divided Church, an award-winning book addressing the liberal-conservative divide in the United States. In this book she advocates a strikingly similar approach to tackling the challenges of our divided societies as Together for the Common Good does in the UK.

Rubio argues that Christians can be effective in bringing about “social change from below” in that space between, through many kinds of mediating institution. This is “because most Christians have more power and competence in the local realm and because relationships are so crucial to lasting social change.”[2]

A professor of Christian ethics at St. Louis University, Rubio is writing specifically for Catholic Christians and, as Travis Pickell notes in reviewing the book, she forms an argument for “the critical importance … for our time” of principles we find in Catholic Social Teaching, “such as participation, subsidiarity, and the common good”.  

Rubio seeks to show the practicability of the approach by focusing on four areas that, in the United States even more than in the UK, are especially contested: marriage promotion, poverty reduction, abortion prevention, and end-of-life care. (An equivalent book worth its salt in the UK would need a chapter on Brexit).

Pickell’s review of Hope for Common Ground is both highly sympathetic and carefully critical – helpful, therefore, for those unlikely to read the book itself. (The review in Studies in Christian Ethics is behind a paywall).

Pickell himself has been associated with the work of James Davison Hunter, whose landmark 2010 book is among a number of influences underpinning the unfolding T4CG story. Hunter’s title is worth quoting in full: To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.

While this book is of interest to Christians of all traditions, he mainly addresses activity by Protestants, especially Evangelicals, on both the right and the left in US public life. He makes an extremely telling critique of their default mode of engagement, namely, of trying to bring about social change through political power.

The “irony” of Hunter’s title is that “no group in American society has done more to politicise values … and therefore undermine their renewal, than Christians”, whereas in fact the Christian faith has great potential to generate “relatively autonomous institutions and practices that could … be a source of ideals and values capable of elevating politics to more than the quest for power.”[3]

Political campaigning can be important, but there are much more deeply Christian forms of social witness.  

As for the “tragedy”, a longer quotation is in order, its force justified by an 80-page argument – peppered with real examples – that it concludes: [I]n the name of resisting the internal deteriorations of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry. By nurturing its resentments, sustaining them through a discourse of negation towards outsiders… they become functional Nietzscheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist. [4]

When Hunter comes to the way forward, “the possibility”, his approach especially resonates with T4CG’s in the UK. He describes a “faithful presence within” every part of society. He advocates an engaged, long-term Christian presence not only in neighbourhoods but in places of work, a presence sustained by relationship-building that generates many kinds of local common goods, so enabling human flourishing. He gives practical examples in business life, in the arts, in social housing provision, among other areas.

For Hunter, as for several others who are active in this space (including Luke Bretherton and Roger Sutton), the biblical paradigm we find in the prophet Jeremiah’s words to the Jewish people in Babylon has great significance for Christians in the Western world today (Jer. 29:1-7).

In our post-Christendom context, we are, like it or not, increasingly on the margins culturally, as though in exile after centuries close to if not at the centres of power. Hunter writes of God’s people in Babylon,

Clearly it would have been justifiable for the Jews to be hostile to their captors… But God was calling them to something different – not to be defensive against, isolated from, or absorbed into the dominant culture, but to be faithfully present within it… He was calling them to maintain their distinctiveness as a community but in ways that served the common good. [5]

Hunter’s argument here encourages Christians to read Jeremiah’s guidance along these lines:

Seek the common good of the ‘city’ where I have sent you – the post-Christendom, uninterested secular ‘city’ – and pray for it to the LORD, for in its common good you will find your common good (cf. Jer. 29:7).

Hunter’s book is prophetic and has been highly influential – although not nearly influential enough, as some might think in light of Evangelicals’ role in the election of Donald Trump. As Jeremiah repeatedly found, prophetic words are hard to take.  

Hunter’s work continues and he can be heard discussing To Change the World in a podcast ‘Vocation and the Common Good’, while his thoughts just after the 2016 presidential election are shared in an article on this site.

It goes without saying that the USA and UK are very different in many ways, yet there is a shared new consciousness of severe social and cultural divisions. Julie Hanlon Rubio and James Davison Hunter are prominent US voices whose sense of how Christians can contribute and respond has much in common with T4CG in the UK, and no doubt we can learn a great deal from them.

The vision of the common good that Christian faith gives us faces a very hard time. In this vision, each person not only has immeasurable, God-given dignity, but also, crucially, finds true human fulfilment in participation in community. Ultimately, this will be in eternal, perfected communion with the Triune God – the God whose very being is community; the gospel opens this up to all.

In the here and now, it is in various overlapping contexts for life together, from church, family and locality, to nation and beyond. Each of these has, however imperfectly, its own common good, and these goods are the human good. By the grace of God, we flourish as we make and enjoy them.

This vision of humanness faces huge challenges. One is the cultural dominance of individualistic ways of seeing the world, according to which each individual’s good is separate from everyone else’s. These are barriers against the very idea of the common good.

Another is the political prominence of a version of liberal politics, one indebted especially to John Rawls, that claims the state can be neutral among visions of the good life, and therefore that it is neither necessary nor legitimate to bring questions of truth or human goodness into political discussion. This neutralist liberalism is contributing to severe threats to free speech – bizarrely undermining the hard-won liberties that constitute liberal societies. Even more seriously, it is driving people away, including to the political extremes.

A third challenge is the surprising resurgence of nationalism, the ideological stance that every nation must be a separate sovereign state. This is a modernist distortion of traditional understanding of the common good: in fact, the common good celebrates nation as one level of human community among others and by no means insists, as though arbitrarily, that final political power must be located at that level.

There are other challenges to this common good vision of humanness, too many to name.

Therefore our work for the common good needs to take many forms, not least “what can be done in the ‘local’ sphere”, as Rubio puts it. For many, this is the place to start.

In Hope for Common Ground and To Change the World, we find rich resources for inspiration, and in Rubio and Hunter, like minds and co-workers.

© Nicholas Townsend