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Posted on Mon, May 20, 2013 : 6 a.m.

Common good: Can we still find common ground?

By Wayne Baker


Jim Wallis, author photo courtesy of the publisher.

Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week Dr. Baker is discussing the common good.

Restoring America’s Common Good sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it?

This week, I am inviting you to discuss the conclusions of best-selling author Jim Wallis in his new book: On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good. Also this week, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Jim Wallis about the first half of his new book in which Wallis describes his spiritual inspiration. In OurValues, we’re looking at the second half of the Wallis book, called Practices for the Common Good, in which he outlines nuts-and-bolts ideas for reaching this goal.

HERE is the problem Wallis sees: “We’ve lost our civility, the ability to have public discussion that isn’t harsh or dismissive.” What we need, he argues, is a commitment to an ancient idea: the Common Good. It is “the best way to find common ground with other people — even with those who don’t agree with us or share our faith commitments.”

Wallis is a public theologian and overall editor of Sojourners magazine. The title of his new book comes from Lincoln’s famous remark, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”

I hope you’ll add a comment today on our first question this week: Can we still find common ground so that we can begin to talk? Consider these responses.

FIRST, Jim Wallis offers this insight: Neither liberals nor conservatives have all the answers; in fact, they each have half an answer. The Common Good requires what he calls “the two best big ideas of conservatism and liberalism.” These are personal responsibility, a defining theme among conservatives, and social responsibility, a rallying cry among liberals.

We are responsible for ourselves and our families — and we are responsible for others broadly defined. “I believe that both conservative and liberal insights and commitments are necessary for it to exist,” Wallis writes.

SECOND, my own research over many years shows that Americans share a surprising number of core values. These are values agreed upon by large majorities of Americans over a long period of time.

Later this year I will be releasing a book-length exploration of these core values for small-group discussion. Think about the refreshing power of this idea. Rather than endlessly arguing about hot-button issues, discussion groups could start by discussing core values on which Americans agree.

Among the 10 core values in my own upcoming book are: Equal Opportunities, which I summarized in an earlier column; Freedom to fully participate in political decisions; and Respect for people of different racial and ethnic groups.

Could these ideas help us find a common ground to start talking?

How do you define the "common good"?

Please, read along with us all this week as we discuss more of Jim Wallis’s ideas for reviving the common good. And, please, add a thoughtful comment, below. We will ask Jim Wallis to stop by and look over our discussion mid-week.

Wayne Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at or on Facebook.


John Hritz

Mon, May 20, 2013 : 2:52 p.m.

I think a fundamental problem with reinvigorating social responsibility is that it has a normative element and establishing norms seem to have a bad name right now. Voluntary cooperation to benefit a common good comes with strings attached. Contributors want to know that there efforts will not be debased, ignored, taken for granted or subverted for political ends. There needs to be space made for people to set rules for basic discourse and participation that don't get met with charges of political correctness or elitism. People ought to be able to work on shared objectives without have shared reasons for doing so.