May 10, 2012
By William McKenzie
Here's a follow-up to our ongoing dialogue about defining the common good. This
question comes out of the discussion we had at our first Texas Faith public forum last
And the question is this:
How far should churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions go in helping define the common good?
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. certainly acted upon his religious convictions
and led many other people of faith in protesting the nation's civil rights laws. He believed
his faith was drawing him into the public arena, and his work changed America's course
for the better.
And he hardly is the only person of faith who has acted upon his beliefs about the public
good. You can find examples from peace movements to the religious right.
Yet it also is true that there is a greater weariness today about the mixing of religion and
politics. Polling data from the Pew Center for Religion & Public Life has shown that. In
fact, a recent Pew poll that showed Americans are growing tired of so much religion in
politics formed the basis of one of our questions back in March.
But I'm not talking here simply about religion and politics. Instead, I'm interested in
hearing your thoughts about the role institutional religion should play in helping shape
the common good, which is not always about politics. The civil rights debate, after all,
was as much about changing the culture and the way Americans live as it was about
WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
Whether by intentional strategy or accidental practicality, all religious institutions are actively involved in shaping what constitutes the common good. For several decades, from the late 19th century until the early 1930's, Methodists were aggressively involved in defining the common good by saying that it requires abstinence from the consumption of alcohol. After a decade and a half, Americans found Prohibition to be a failed experiment and ended it. But we will never know if the spotlight that they had focused on the problems caused by alcohol abuse -- diseases, domestic violence, degrading behaviors, and desperate poverty -- at least partially alleviated some problems that affected the public good.
Religious institutions have two basic mechanisms for making contributions to the social order. One is to design and impose disciplines on the adherents of their faiths. The second is to advocate for public changes in systems of law. Some religious organizations pursue one or the other. Some pursue both.
In the case of slavery during the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, Methodists adopted strong anti-slavery positions but did so primarily as a matter of individual discipline. That is, for Methodists, slavery was a practice in which individual members should not engage. There certainly were advocacy groups within the Methodist Church who tried to overturn the existence of slavery, but it was not as aggressive a political posture by the denomination as the anti-alcohol movement was.
Recently, a United Methodist bishop reported a visit that two bishops made to the governor of a state, seeking to discuss a gentler approach to the treatment of undocumented immigrants in that state. The governor reminded the bishops that they brought two votes with them when they sat with him. If, however, they could show that they had twenty thousand votes, the governor would be more likely to listen, he said.
The efforts of religious organizations to foster the common good are not only those of private, personal discipline. They also should involve public advocacy and action.