God's Politics

I was in the audience at Monday night’s presidential candidates forum and have been reading and reflecting on the blog entries and press coverage of the event.
I heard one important point that has so far escaped comment by bloggers and journalists alike. Each of the candidates clearly articulated the idea that living a faith-centered, faith-informed life involves both personal and collective, or corporate, responsibility.
This chord was first struck when Senator Edwards answered a question about the government response to Katrina. He talked both about what he did on a personal level, as a man of faith, using his own hands and feet, “for faith without works is dead . . .” but he went on to describe the corporate responsibility that lies with the entire country, and the moral obligation vested in the president to ensure – daily if needed – that this corporate responsibility is being faithfully carried out.
Next, in response to Jim Wallis’ question, “If you were the president, what kind of moral and political imagination would you bring to finding some real solutions (to issues of poverty)?” Senator Obama’s reply was based, in part, on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King:

[W]e have to get beyond what Dr. King called the “either/or mentality” and embrace “the both/and mentality.” And our politics have exacerbated this notion of either/or. So we say either people are entirely responsible for their own lot – and this tends to be expressed within Republican circles, but not entirely – pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, act responsibly, act morally, a great emphasis on private morality, or, conversely, that individuals are responsible, society is acting on them, and they are not free agents. And my attitude – and I think the attitude of every religious leader and scholar that I value and listen to – is that we have these individual responsibilities and these societal responsibilities. And those things aren’t
mutually exclusive. So what does that mean concretely?

Finally, Senator Clinton spoke of her personal responsibility “to do what is right regardless of what the world thought” while also demonstrating her understanding of the corporate responsibility embodied and led by government leaders and actions when she emphatically declared that “every vote is a moral vote.”
When it comes to taking a serious, faith-informed approach to solving significant social justice issues such as poverty, I think this understanding that faith requires one to take both personal and corporate responsibility in creating, restoring, and leading a just society was one of the most profound and significant of the evening. Yet we must take it deeper. As Obama asked, “So what does that mean concretely?” We each must ask ourselves that question. Here are a few ideas to get us started: Personal responsibility requires each of us to work hard, support ourselves and our families.
Corporate responsibility requires us to ensure that ANY person (including persons with disabilities) who is taking personal responsibility to work should be able to take home a life-sustaining paycheck, being safe and free from harassment while at work. This is where workplace regulations such as labor, industry, health and safety standards, hiring and firing laws (anti-discrimination, etc) and wage standards come in.
Personal responsibility to “do no harm” requires each of us to ensure that our actions do not harm other persons or property (including the natural environment) and that we leave other people AND the environment in a better condition than we found them.
Corporate responsibility requires us all to care for our environment and to implement standards that ensure there will continue to be safe air, water, and other natural resources for our children and future generations.
Corporate responsibility also requires us to provide care, safety, and well-being for the “least of these” among us, particularly children, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and those who are truly trying to take “personal responsibility” for their lives but are unable to due to circumstances out of their control, whether natural disasters in their communities or man-made disasters on a socio-economic scale.
This corporate responsibility for protecting and promoting the safety of all demands that we equip first and second-line responders to safety situations (from the military to police force to fireman to social workers responding to abused children to emergency medical personnel to FEMA) with the resources, tools, and supports needed to do their jobs well and efficiently and effectively. In short, a faith-informed approach to public policy demands that we embrace our corporate responsibility to ensure that the social, economic, and political environment is structured in ways that enhance and increase the likelihood that ALL participants in that society can be successful in taking personal responsibility when they sincerely try to do so. This is the approach I heard each of the candidates articulate on Monday night. This is an approach that is completely consistent with biblical Christianity, and yet respects our founding principle of religious freedom. This intelligent, thoughtful, and reflective understanding that our faith informs how we live as an individual AND how we live together in a society is refreshing and gives me hope.

Susan H. Badeau is the executive director of the Philadelphia Children’s Commission, a parent of 22 children by birth, foster care, and adoption, a life-long advocate and a Sojourners/Philadelphia volunteer.

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