Whatever happened to the common good?

By Donald Schell

Was Jesus a socialist? Is there a Christian position on taxation? How about this – how can Christians renew a vision of the Common Good? If we can’t live up to the Sermon on the Mount, might we at least take Adam Smith seriously: “To feel much for others and little for ourselves, to restrain our selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitute the perfection of human nature.”

Consider the erosion of California public school system. When I started kindergarten in 1952, we were living in a small house in a not particularly prosperous neighborhood. Nonetheless our class was small. That was true through elementary and middle school. In my high school most of our teachers were very, very good. We had art and shop and music classes; sophisticated teaching of high school math extended all the way through calculus; we were offered up to five years study of French, German, and Spanish, learning conversationally with satisfying class discussions of current events and great literature, and well-designed, effective language labs helped our aural learning and accent development; physical education and arts learning encouraged broad participation in well-funded theater and sports programs.

Looking back, I understand now that before California’s Proposition 13 began a wave of ‘tax-payer revolt,’ we had the best-funded public schools in the country. When I left home and went out of state to a challenging private college and got my first taste of classes with peers from East Coast prep schools, I had no sense whatever that they’d gotten a better education than we had.

In 1978, Proposition 13’s tax protest rhetoric was that it ‘wasn’t fair’ for seniors to pay property taxes to support schools when they didn’t have children in school. The proposition passed by a 65% majority and within five years, half of the fifty states had passed similar limits on property taxes.

Today California leads the nation in another way. Factoring in a cost of living correction, California schools today are among the nation’s worst funded and it’s projected to get worse as the state faces severe budget cuts from the state legislators attempts shrink a $25.4 billion budget deficit without raising taxes. Again California’s chapter is getting retold across the country, and school cuts were and are just the beginning.

We’ve seen the same reversal nationally on health care. Our mid-century health outcomes (measured by low infant mortality and long life expectancy) were with the best in the developed world. Now U.S. health care outcomes are the worst in the developed world – where we’re decisively behind Japan, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Canada, France, Ireland, Italy, Australia, Greece, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, places with higher taxes than ours and one form or another of “socialized medicine.”

Politicians (both parties) who tell us we just haven’t got the money for a social welfare, ‘nanny government,’ and that we’ve got to balance the budget simply won’t talk about the cost of social inequality in a stagnating economy, massive unemployment of our youth (including college graduates), and collapse of our educational base for industrial innovation and human growth in the arts. Our politicians (both parties) clamber to claim a high ground of fiscal responsibility (claiming moral justification for cutting programs) without challenging our exaggerated investment in prisons and war, both of which are vastly greater (proportionately and absolutely) than any developed country’s.

What’s this got to do with church? How about this – no one seems willing to talk about rendering the Caesar the things that are Caesar’s (paying appropriate taxes for a complex, developed society). What’s going on?

Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land and a Saturday walk put numbers and suffering human faces to this. Judt’s book puts statistics and historical context on our thirty-year national drift toward me-ism. Judt offers numerical comparisons, those I’ve summarized above and more, concluding with the startling observation that in the last thirty years, we’ve seen the wealth disparity in the U.S. (how few hold what percent of capital and receive what percent of income) grow and grow until the 1% of our population that controls 25% of the nation’s wealth is a disparity greater than any in the developed world – and matches that of China.

The last thirty years, as Judt describes them reversed a hundred and thirty years progress from de Toqueville’s grim 1835 observation of money’s importance in the American character: “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”

Particularly with Roosevelt’s response to the depression and the ways we shaped recovery after World War II, with Johnson’s Civil Rights Act and War on Poverty, we were beginning to tax ourselves in ways that made it possible to educate, organize, inoculate, and guide us by services and programs away from inequity. It was a bumpy road but it was working. And the church – mainstream Protestantism, public progressive Catholicism, and yes, we should beyond the church, progressive Judaism – was a committed participant in that change. As a young adult, a college student and at the end of that era as a seminarian, I remember the church’s vocal and bodily presence in demonstrations for Civil Rights, actions to end the War in Vietnam. Our seminary student body and faculty marched together on Wall Street in protest of the bombing of Cambodia. Our seminary chaplain presided in the hall of the Pentagon at a mass protesting the war.

But a shift was beginning in 1970’s after 60’s activism broke our comfortable 1950’s religious consensus apart. Clearly it was a shift toward a more secular society. Some of us welcomed that. With a number of clergy colleagues, I quit wearing a collar, rejecting it as a symbol of the church’s habitual deference to clergy privilege and an implicit assertion of the religious or spiritual special status for clergy.

While we were struggling through Prayer Book change, and struggling to accept women and LGBT folk into ministry (and give them explicit voice in our whole life together), almost without noticing it we were also stumbling into a society in which our church’s voice, the recent mainstream consensus for justice was quiet. It began quietly enough that we hardly noticed it. Time and Newsweek closed down their Religion sections. Newspapers didn’t replace their religion writers. When National Public Radio asked for the ‘Christian response’ to heavily conflicted issues like abortion, right to die, and increasingly to LGBT rights and eventually marriage, even NPR gave this defining voice of ‘Christianity’ to lobbyists and speakers from an individualistic and libertarian religious right. We began to lose our language.

As ‘liberal’ became a dirty word, the self-designated ‘orthodox’ claimed they were the old-time religion (a claim that’s historically pretty shaky). The religious right claimed the word ‘Christian’ for themselves and routinely explained why many who claimed they were Christian actually weren’t. As the Religious Right claimed the name, “Christian,” by the 1990’s, I was hearing more and more new, previously un-churched and de-churched participants in our growing mission congregation say that they considered themselves “followers of Jesus,” but preferred not to call themselves “Christian.”

In a weird alliance between religious fundamentalism and social Darwinism, ‘The Market’ became the hand of God that would guide us toward the good. Hardly noticing it had happened, our national discourse fell into the kind of assessment of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ poor that the church had been party to in the early 19th century. Vigilant pursuers of ‘welfare cheats’ and ‘government waste’ vehemently defended people’s unequivocal right to spend everything they’d received from their work or their social position and inherited wealth. We were making it clear that we’d finally decided our worth was determined by what was in our wallet.

And my Saturday walk?

I’ve been training for a rim-to-rim Grand Canyon hike in May. That means I’m discovering I can walk to familiar destinations in our city, so Saturday morning, I was walking down the steep hill from our house, across the Mission District and up the long, steep hill to Diamond Heights on my way to an early morning diocesan meeting at St. Aidan’s, San Francisco’s highest (by altitude) Episcopal Church.

It was early morning and at age 63, I wasn’t surprised that I needed a restroom before I’d reached my destination.

Like most American cities, San Francisco has almost no public restrooms. Those we have are downtown and in the areas tourists frequent. I was forty minutes into an hour walk, beginning my climb to Diamond Heights, and worrying about the distance I still had to go, when I passed a Whole Foods grocery and remembered the Whole Foods back on our hill had a restroom, so went in to this one and found a neat sign over the locked restroom door – “Ask in cheese department for door code.”

I asked and got the code, as I knew I would because I look like someone who’d be shopping there. I felt grateful for the clean restroom and continued my walk. But as I walked on, I recalled homeless men waking in doorways that I’d passed in the Mission District. The code on the Whole Foods restroom door was to deny men like that access to the restroom. The colorful Latino cafes and new gentrifying coffee and pastry places had all had signs, ‘Restroom for customers only,’

No public restrooms and citations for peeing in an alley make a clear equation: full humanity and ‘membership in society’ demand a credit card in a wallet and the will to use it. When had our society decided citizenship was bought with our purchasing power?

So I’m back to my opening questions: Was Jesus a socialist? Is there a Christian position on taxation? And how can Christians renew a vision of the Common Good?

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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