Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Building Up the Common Good

Michael J. Gerson


By Michael J. Gerson
April, 14, 2014

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

Recently I returned from a short visit to the Central African Republic, a country that has descended from political chaos into mass murder.  Political leaders have fed a religious conflict that has taken on a life of its own, resulting in looting, killing and endless reprisal. More than 2,000 are dead.  Perhaps 20 percent of the population is displaced. Muslims, as the targets of brutal militias, are being attacked and lynched every day.  Religious leaders – Catholic, Protestant and Muslim – are desperately trying to work together to prevent the society from being permanently torn apart.  

And all this is doubly frightening because it emerged in a country with a history of religious tolerance and even intermarriage between Christians and Muslims.  Now, as the head of one aid organization recounted to me, some of the children of mixed marriages are being evacuated from the country so they are not murdered. 

At one level, my visit to CAR made me thankful that American divisions on matters of politics and religion are relatively modest – modest compared to much of the world, and modest compared to our own history.   

But I was also reminded that a working, tolerant society is not a natural state.  It must be carefully constructed, in every generation, out of the material of sympathy, respect and a sense of shared destiny.  And given human nature, a just society is more fragile than we sometimes assume. 

There is something natural about favoring yourself, your family, your tribe or your religious group above the interests of others.  It takes effort, education and discipline to seek the welfare of the whole and to make sure the vulnerable are protected.

This is the great contribution of the idea of the common good in our common life – to push back against some of the most natural, destructive tendencies of human nature and human history.  And over the centuries, both the Reformed tradition and the Catholic tradition have been great teachers about the nature of the common good. 

The common good is the set of social circumstances that allows everyone to be valued and to flourish – whatever their background or belief.  It universalizes the idea of human dignity.  It is the reason that Christians should not be one political interest group among many, fighting for power or advantage.  They should be known for seeking the good of everyone – including those of other faiths and traditions. 

In the Central African Republic, the idea of the common good has been shattered, and religious leaders are trying to gather up the fragments.  But building the common good is a defining task for people of faith everywhere – including America.     

- Michael J. Gerson is a Visiting Fellow with the Center for Public Justice and a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post. He is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”