Conservative punditry paints issues of social justice as Obama-led, communist agendas. But America's Founding Fathers made wise provisions for "the common good" and "general welfare." We need to abandon partisan battles and start working more as the United States.
Fox News television host Glenn Beck says the idea of “collective salvation” – that our fates are linked – is “dangerous to the Constitutional republic.” He argues that related notions of social justice, redistribution, and ending oppression are fundamentally anti-American, communist creeds. American’s Founding Fathers would disagree. They embraced collective redemption and the protection of the common good.
The Constitution made clear from its first lines the collectivist intent of the American enterprise:
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
A union. For the common defense. General welfare. Justice. Though our unity has endured serious trials, America was not by accident called the United States of America. In a letter to James Madison, George Washington wrote, “We are either a united people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of general concern act as a nation, which have national objects to promote, and a national character to support. If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending to it.”
The message remains clear today. We cannot just say we are a nation and cling to an inflated sense of nationalism while, in practice, ignoring the needs and humanity of our fellow Americans. We have to act like a nation – working together as a nation for our collective best interest.
In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson said that we must "unite in common efforts for the common good.” Chief among those “common efforts” was America itself.
Yes, the colonists fled the tyranny of the British crown, but the choice they made was democracy over monarchy, not extreme individualism over statehood. Certainly, their spirit of independence still undergirds the American character today, but our history is also a testament to hard-earned lessons in cooperation.
The American Revolution and subsequent founding of the United States of America were definitive acts of collective salvation, deciding that we could be more as a nation than as individuals alone.
Within this context, the Founding Fathers saw the importance of ensuring a level playing field within the new republic – that the common good of equality could never be achieved by people on unequal footing. John Adams wrote, “Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men.”
Sure, some of our Founding Fathers had a long way to go in their day-to-day treatment of women, people of color, and minority religions – and that’s putting it mildly. But those principles of equality and insurances for common good were written into our founding documents with great purpose. And they have paved the way for every future step toward equality this country has made.
The Founders, in their wisdom, never said America was perfect. They made clear they were working to perfect the union, which subsequent generations would continue.
In the Federalist Papers, Madison elaborated that society’s unequal groupings – the landed versus those without property, creditors versus debtors, and so on – are “much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” Beck and other pundits have labeled “oppression” a bad word the left uses to play victim and blame conservatives.
But founders like Madison were acutely aware of real oppression within America’s borders – and the very real consequences of this inequality on the country as a whole. The “principle task” of government is to regulate and balance these interests toward the ideal of equality, Madison wrote.
Glenn Beck’s narrative claims working class, mostly white folks in America are being undermined by the needs of poor people and people of color – needs prioritized by an allegedly biased and socialist President Obama. In Beck’s mind, “collective salvation” isn’t collective at all but code for putting some people’s interests first. It’s an ironic critique considering that conservative economic policies have for decades put the needs of big business and the richest of the rich ahead of everyone else, whether black or white, middle class or poor.
Even more ironic is that Beck himself actually embraces “collective salvation” – the idea that none of us can be saved until all of us are saved.
He isn’t directing Americans to turn inward and solve their problems alone. Beck wants you to watch his show, come to his march in Washington, call your representatives, talk to your neighbors, agitate in your church – making clear that he knows individual problems of such magnitude can only be solved through collective action.
If only Beck and other pundits, quick to point fingers, would go a step further and see that all of our problems – falling wages for working people, rising cost of living, foreclosures, crumbling education infrastructure, racial tension, insecurity – cannot just be solved by one group binding together in a pitched partisan battle against “the other.” Instead, all of us must work in “common efforts for the common good.”
Collective salvation isn’t anathema to America; it’s essential to the Founders’ vision. It’s as American as sharing apple pie.
Sally Kohn is Founder and Chief Education Officer of the Movement Vision Lab, a grassroots popular education organization.