Common Good: Can we still find common ground?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series The Common Good
Jim Wallis, author photo courtesy of the publisher.

Jim Wallis, author photo courtesy of the publisher.

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.

Please leave a comment below:

Lincoln Legacy: A model of ‘the greatest heroism’?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Lincoln's Legacy IS THIS MYSTERY MAN? This daguerreotype is believed to be the earliest photo of Abraham Lincoln, shown here at age 37 in 1846. (Lincoln was only 56 when he was killed, but looked much older by 1865.) The original now resides in the Library of Congress, but various versions of this image circulate widely.

THIS WEEK, welcome Duncan Newcomer for a series on enduring values in the life of Abraham Lincoln. Regular readers will recall Duncan’s contribution to my own January series on Lincoln. This year marks the 150th anniversary for major Lincoln contributions, including his Second Inaugural Address and our first Thanksgiving.
HERE IS Duncan’s first column …

BIG AND STRONG as was—he’d been wielding an ax for years—13-year-old Abe Lincoln told himself that he would do something about this soon!

Summer produce was necessary for winter survival. Melons in this new state, Indiana, were fine big ones, and he knew who’d been stealing them. There were only nine families within a mile of each other, about fifty young folk. He might have mused: I could beat them up. I’m the big buck of this lick and they know it. But mostly, he thought: We are friends.

Something he had read in his Webster “Speller” might stick in his mind like a seed in a crow’s bill:
Q. Is this justifiable?
A. Never, in any possible case.”

Then the next preachment in the “Speller”:
Q. Is it always easy to know what is just?
A. Where there is any difficulty in determining, consult the Golden Rule.”

Murray’s “Reader” said:
Revenge dwells in little minds.”

If young Lincoln knew anything, he knew that his mind was big and free and full of “yonder”—like the new country. Lincoln must have wondered: How to do what is right, keep the melons, and also keep these boys as friends? As Time magazine recently asked …

What would Lincoln do?

One of Aesop’s Fables, which young Lincoln had read, concludes thus:
Nothing is more necessary towards completing and continuing the well-being of mankind than their entering into and preserving friendships and alliances. The safety of government depends chiefly upon this….A kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation…

Many years later, one of those melon-stealing boys told William Herndon, Lincoln’s Springfield law partner, how the story ended. Joseph C. Richardson said, “We got the melons, went through the corn to the fence, got over. All at once, to our surprise and mortification, Lincoln came among us, on us, good naturedly said, ‘Boys, now I’ve got you.’ Sat down with us, cracked jokes, told stories, helped eat the melons.”

Lincoln would have known another lesson from Murray’s “Reader”:
To have your enemy in your power and yet to do him good is the greatest heroism.

What Lincoln stories seem important to you in this sesquicentennial year?

What do you think of these educational materials from Lincoln’s era?

The Rev. Dr. Duncan Newcomer is a Lincoln historian, a psychotherapist and a minister with experiences including service in the Presbyterian church, a denomination once attended by Lincoln. Newcomer’s latest book is Desperately Seeking Mary. His earlier writing has appeared in magazines and journals including The Christian Century.

Please, leave a Comment below.

Originally published at, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.

Almosting It: Hey, it worked for Little Walter! (and me)’S NEW YEARS DAY and I know a bunch of you are struggling already to keep those resolutions.

Here’s my advice: Be happy if you’re “almosting it,” which I explained in Monday’s column. For me, adopting that strategy has meant that I have tackled some new things that I wouldn’t have otherwise, without worrying about being perfect.

For example, all my life, I’ve been pretty helpless musically. Whenever I go to church, the hymnal seems to fall open to “How Can I Keep From Singing.” But when my son was a Cub Scout, one of their projects was to learn a song on a musical instrument, and that happened to be the month I chose to help with the program. I’ve always loved the idea of the harmonica, and resolved that I would learn how to play something like Red River Valley so I could help the Cubs earn their badge that month.

At the time, I had a long daily commute and a broken radio in the car, so I was able to practice every day. (Hey, it couldn’t be any more dangerous than texting!) And before long, I was tooting out some recognizable tunes, good enough for fun around the campfire.

My real goal, truth be told, is to play the blues like Little Walter.

Here’s a true story: Marion “Little” Walter Jacobs (1930-1968) dropped out of school at age 12 and roamed through the country dreaming of becoming a guitarist. Today, we would call him homeless—a street kid. He wasn’t that good with a guitar but he kept trying. He focused on his harmonica—but that instrument didn’t have a chance against the big amps at R&B shows. As he kept experimenting, he hit on one innovation: cupping a microphone and playing right into it. But, he still wasn’t the standout we celebrate today. He kept almosting it. Finally, he hit on his second innovation: maxing out his amp—even beyond the normal settings—until he was blowing sounds no one had heard before.

Want to see Little Walter? Click here to visit YouTube and watch his short Hall of Fame clip.

Of course I know that I’ll never rival such a giant—and that’s my point. I don’t need to reach Little Walter’s fame. I’m satisfied with my own versions of Shenandoah and Danny Boy. And this week, maybe I’ll see if I can pick out Auld Lang Syne.

That would be good enough for me.

How about you? How are you almosting it?

Please, leave a Comment below.

Originally published at, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.

Critical Patriotism: OK to insult the President? The VP? protests against our government are a longstanding tradition. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, public rage against the Bush adminisration literally spilled over the flood-damaged walls and fences of New Orleans.QUICK: What’s your impression of Joe Biden?
In a single word, what describes your impression of him?

The most frequently used word is “good,” according to a Research Center survey. “Idiot” is the second most frequent. Other negative names include “incompetent” and “clown.” Overall, 38% of people used negative words to describe Biden, about 23% used positive words, and 39% used neutral terms.

Is it OK to call our nation’s vice president, president—or any elected official—by derogatory terms like “idiot”? Of course, it’s an exercise of free speech, so it is permissible under that rationale. And, in this situation, the name-calling respondents were hidden behind the survey’s cloak of anonymity, so there was no accountability.

But I’m sure some Americans wouldn’t hesitate to call Biden an idiot—to his face. And there would be no reprisal for doing so (aside from possible hurt feelings). That’s because Americans are free to criticize their government and officials. Many do so not out of malice but out of love of country and the desire to have them live up to our ideals.

This is called critical patriotism, a kind of tough love of country.

What do Americans say—in a single word—about President Obama? “Good” and “trying” are the most frequently cited words. “Failure” and “incompetent” are the most frequently cited negative words. The numbers of Americans who use positive versus negative words to describe Obama are evenly split—there are few who use neutral descriptors.

Romney and Ryan haven’t escaped Pew’s one-word test. The most commonly used words for Romney are “honest,” “businessman,” and “rich”—but overall, more negative terms are used than positive. The most frequently used words for Ryan are “conservative,” “intelligent,” “good,” “unknown,” and “young.”

What’s your one-word description of Biden—or Obama, Romney, or Ryan?

It is OK to use derogatory terms like “idiot?”

What are the boundaries for criticizing our government?

Please, leave a Comment below.

Originally published at, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.

Answer to Ayn Rand? How about Creedence? Clearwater Revival in 1968, from left: Tom Fogerty, Doug Clifford, Stu Cook and John FogertyDr. Wayne Baker welcomes back popular guest columnist Terry Gallagher.
This is his fourth column this week …

In the presidential campaign, we’ve been hearing about the influence of certain books and authors among American conservatives, and wondering which books might have had the same impact on the other side of the aisle. Or as historian Barbara Gage wrote in Slate: “Why isn’t there a liberal Ayn Rand?”

Here’s a suggestion you might not expect, not a book but a song.

While there’s certainly nothing highbrow about it, John Fogerty’s song “Fortunate Son” has never been equaled for its concise and powerful expression of class consciousness in American popular culture.

It ain’t me, it ain’t me; I ain’t no millionaire’s son, no.
It ain’t me, it ain’t me; I ain’t no fortunate one, no.

The original recording by Creedence Clearwater Revival rose to #3 on the Billboard charts in 1969, and has been in heavy radio rotation ever since. It’s been covered by dozens of bands and singers since, and is a mainstay of movie and television soundtracks.

Fogerty has said the song was inspired by the knowledge that sons of powerful men weren’t likely to face combat in Vietnam. But the song’s continuing popularity might reflect our awareness that access and privilege are still key factors helping the rich get richer in America today.

The song also has a killer guitar lick.

So let the Republicans drowse over their well-thumbed copies of The Fountainhead.

I’ll be listening to Creedence.

How about music? What music inspires liberals?

What are timeless conservative hits?

Add your Comment below.

Originally published at, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.

Pay It Forward: When a stranger came to our rescue

Dr. Wayne Baker is back! And in one piece! You’ll enjoy this Great Lakes story …

Did a stranger ever come to your rescue?
It happened to my family just two weeks ago. Part of the story took place around Little Current Swing Bridge in Canada, a historic span that marks its centennial in 2013. (Note on photos: The Swing Bridge is closed, at right, for cars and trucks—and is open, above, for marine traffic.)

Here’s our true story …

My family and I sailed our Mariner 36 to a remote wilderness anchorage in Canada’s North Channel. It took us four days to get there and lots of tricky navigation. It was worth it. The anchorage was isolated and beautiful, the fish plentiful. (If you want see where we were, here’s the position: N 46 4.513, W 81 32.296. You can find it in Google Earth.)

We stayed one day too many. When I tried to start our auxiliary diesel engine, I got the dreaded sound: click. Dead batteries. Sailing out wasn’t an option due to the narrow and convoluted channels we had to navigate and all the underwater hazards.

I worried about my family. What were we doing to do? Then I remembered Roy and his Cruisers Net broadcasts. Roy is a ham radio operator in Little Current, a small town in the North Channel. Every morning at 9AM he broadcasts an hour-long program that mariners listen to on the boat’s marine radio. I had listened to a few shows and I recalled that he starts each one by asking if there are any emergencies, medical situations, or urgent matters.

Well, we had one! My batteries had enough energy to operate the marine radio so I called in. My signal was weak and another ham radio operator picked it up and relayed it to Roy. Roy put the announcement on the air and gave our location.

We didn’t hear any replies. But later that morning, Serenade—another sailboat—came to our rescue. Serenade had anchored the night before in a location several miles south of ours. The skipper had a spare battery. He brought it to our boat, wired it into my system, and got the engine started. He stayed with us until my engine re-charged the batteries. We were so grateful and we expressed it to him. Then, he was off and we motored all the way back to Little Current.

Now, I haven’t told you the best part of the story. The morning after arriving in Little Current, we introduced ourselves to Roy as the family his broadcast had helped to rescue. He was delighted to see us because he didn’t know how things had worked out for us. I asked to be on his show and broadcast our thanks to Serenade. He was happy to let us do it.

Then another boater called in with a medical crisis. One of the crew was severely allergic to bees and had forgotten his Epi-Pen. One bee sting could mean anaphylactic shock and death. (An Epi-Pen is a handheld autoinjector that contains adrenaline, which is used to treat or prevent anaphylaxis.) Roy made the announcement on the air and asked if any boaters had a spare one. He looked up and our hands were in the air. Our son has a severe peanut allergy and we always have a spare Epi-Pen. We left it with Roy, who gave it to the boater when he arrived in Little Current.

So, every day, Roy is out there connecting helpful people …
Serenade went out of their way to rescue us …
And, we were able to pay it forward and possibly prevent a death.

Here’s what I’d really like to hear from you today:

Why do you think Serenade came to our rescue?

Why did we feel especially motivated to help someone else?

What’s YOUR story about the kindness of strangers?

Please, take a moment to leave a Comment below.

Originally published at, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.

Our Daily Bread: What’s the simplest food you love? is Mezzogiorno (or simply Mezzo), the simple, rustic dish that many people love. Photo courtesy of Kathy Macdonald.All this week, we’re talking about Our Daily Bread, the foods that define us as people and as communities.
Today, let’s stop and think of the simplicity of that phrase, “Our Daily Bread”—just bread, so simple. Sometimes, the simplest foods are the ones we love best.

For more than 20 years, my husband had a restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor. It was called the Bella Ciao. It was nestled in an old brick storefront on East Liberty. Although the menu changed monthly to take advantage of seasonal products, there was one menu item that the patrons refused to let him remove. When he occasionally did, they ordered it anyway.

Its name on the menu was Mezzogiorno. It was better known as Mezzo. It was a simple rustic dish from south of Rome made of penne pasta, homemade sausage, and fresh rapini (broccolini will do) tossed in a dish with a bit of olive oil and hot peppers. The dish was simple. The dish was delicious. Former wait staff and Michigan alumni who had moved across country to get on with their lives would return and order a Mezzo. There is a beauty in a dish that has so few ingredients. Perhaps that was its secret. It was authentic. Real. Wonderful.

Today there is a lot of talk about foods that are simple, local and natural. Families like the Goodwins in Washington state have become national advocates for exploring the values and the spirituality behind this one idea. Millions of other families are seeking out their local Farmer’s Markets.

So, what’s the simplest food you love?

If you know, describe how your favorite food is made.

What do you love about it? Aroma? Taste? Texture?

Please, take a moment to leave a Comment below.

Originally published at, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.