Pursing the Common Good. Where Christians are Getting It Wrong and How They Can Get it Right

In the last few years I’ve noticed a shift in the language of politically engaged Christians. Increasingly rare is talk of Australia as a “Christian” nation whose heritage must be preserved and increasingly common is talk of “the common good”, with Christians asking how they can contribute to it

This is a welcome change. I don’t think it’s possible for a nation to be “Christian”, let alone that Australia ever was one. But I am concerned that the new discourse of “the common good” is often little more than a semantic shift.

The argument that is put is this: “We flourish when we live the way God designed us to, and those ways are made clear in the Christian Bible. Therefore we should ask the State to legislate Christian values, because whether people accept it or not, God’s way is the way to achieve our common good.”

This is nothing other than the Christendom project under new language.

I think a Christian contribution to the common good needs to be built on the following principles:

1. The way of Jesus must be chosen, not imposed. Jesus never forced people to live under the reign of God. Rather, he invited people into that way;

2. The common good is built on the foundation of some bedrock freedoms, such as the freedom of thought/conscience; freedom of religion; freedom of speech; freedom of movement; freedom from violence; etc. No effort to create a common good should violate these foundational freedoms;

3. The role of the State is to provide public goods (things such as roads, schools, hospitals, etc that need to be provided for on a collective rather than individual basis) and to protect the freedoms of its citizens.

These principles mean that people must be free to live by values completely different to mine, and this should be protected by the State. What they are not free to do is exploit, oppress, or mistreat others, and this should be prevented by the State. 

The Christian contribution to the common good is then threefold:

1. To embody and proclaim the way of Jesus an alternate and convincing pathway to human flourishing;

2. To engage in acts of service to others;

3. To exercise a prophetic voice to the State, calling it to secure justice for its citizens and to act as a just member of the international community.

This means we should distinguish between justice, by which I mean action to free people from exploitation, oppression, and other forms of mistreatment, and virtue, by which I mean the values a person lives by. Governments are responsible to secure justice but not virtue. We should engage politically around justice, and personally around virtue. That is, we do not pursue the common good by asking governments to legislate virtue, which in fact undermines the common good by violating people’s fundamental freedoms. Rather, we promote the common good, on the one hand, by standing with the exploited and oppressed, serving them as best we can, and calling governments to do justice and, on the other hand, by embodying Christian virtues and commending them in such a way that people freely choose them for themselves.

So when it comes to political engagement my question is simple: who is being exploited, oppressed, or unfairly treated and am I standing with then? If I can’t answer this question I am probably in the realm of virtue and politics is the wrong place to be looking to create a virtuous society.

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10 years ago

Scott, it sounds like you don’t leave any place for legislation to act as a symbolic or moral guide. What role is there for the politician to make a law or amend a constitution because it reflects an ideal which we want our country to reflect?

Put another way, you say that the state has a role in protecting freedom and correcting injustice. Doesn’t that leave the state with a negative focus? It can (or should) legislate against villification but not for multiculturalism.

10 years ago
Reply to  Richard

Hi Richard, Good question. Yes, govt probably should be seen to have a role in shaping and facilitating the type of society we collectively want to be. The trick is how to do that in a way that doesn’t see Govt become oppressive and violate people’s freedoms. Maybe my definition of public goods should be expanded to include a limited range of public/common virtues, while leaving private virtues in the areas govt should stay out of? If so, where the boundaries between public and private virtues clash I think individual freedoms must always take precedence. Alternately one could argue that… Read more »

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