Americans again buy into Obama's promotion of the common good
So Americans knew what they were getting when they voted for the Obama ticket, twice and convincingly". Photo: Reuters
The culture of individualism suffered a major setback this week in the home of the mythic rugged individual. As Barack Obama accepted victory in the US presidential election on Wednesday morning, he was also quick to claim a mandate for the communitarian ethos - a faith in the common good over strictly private interest - that was central to his campaign.
"The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations," he intoned, in language that reflects the theology of the social gospel.
Whatever the style of Obama's oratory, be it Ivy League-educated professor or radical community organiser from the south side of Chicago, there has been a recurring theme to his thinking. We heard it first when he was a Senate candidate for Illinois addressing the 2004 Democratic conference. "It is the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper."
That phrase might not be strictly biblical but the tone and the intent are: that we are all in this together; part of "the one body", language that certainly is biblical.
It has become the leitmotif of a reborn, if occasionally halting, progressive movement in the US that is trying to reconnect with its roots in religion, in faith-in-action. A Catholic nun, Sister Simone Campbell, became the surprise star of this year's Democratic convention when she gave a barn-burning speech very much in the vein of being the keeper of my brethren.
As Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, a Baptist minister in Boston and sociologist at the prestigious Colby College in Maine, points out, Obama is very much in tune with the core of African-American theology. The teaching in Matthew's gospel about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and sheltering the stranger - of "whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me" - is, says Gilkes, "the canon within the canon".
It is a canon long shared by liberal Protestants and evangelicals, with a proud history in the anti-slavery and women's suffrage movements. It is a canon common to Catholics who have imbibed their church's teaching on the preferential option for the poor. This election in particular was distinguished by having two vice-presidential candidates who represented starkly different understandings of Catholic doctrine.
Democrat Joe Biden is a classic "social justice" Catholic - union hall and Irish tavern, "Joey from [hardscrabble] Scranton", to his core. Republican Paul Ryan was on the record naming the radical individualist philosopher Ayn Rand as the "one thinker, one person" he would credit with his decision to enter politics.
So Americans knew what they were getting when they voted for the Obama ticket, twice and convincingly. They knew what they were getting in 2008, after he said he wanted to "spread the wealth around". And they knew in 2012, when he told business executives, whose companies had benefited from a publicly educated workforce and publicly provided roads and bridges, "you didn't build that".
Voters in three populous and electorally important states - Massachusetts, Ohio and Wisconsin - also knew what they were getting when they voted for Senate candidates Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown and Tammy Baldwin. They all stood on unambiguously communitarian platforms that demanded sacrifices from the economic elite to match the sacrifices of America's poor and middle class.
But none of this should be surprising because, as one of America's leading public intellectuals, E.J. Dionne, argues in his new book, Our Divided Political Heart, the history of the US is one of tension between its communitarian and individualist impulses.
If the US election result is a swing to the left, it is only by default. Just as progressives forsook their religious antecedents and, unwittingly, helped create the now waning "religious right" in the US, as Dionne illustrates, communitarianism also has a rich heritage among conservatives. For a time, they defined themselves, with their language of family, neighbourhood and nation, by their opposition to self-centredness and hedonism.
If you take the word Republican, strip it of its capital letter, and turn it on its head, you get an idea of this important, if forgotten, strain in American history. The small ''r'' republicans believed in a civic patriotism of the common good. But in the past 30 years, US conservatives have veered into an individualism that looks more like the mantra of the ''me generation'' than the philosophy of Edmund Burke - the original conservative.
And for the second presidential election in a row, they have been rejected by their fellow citizens.
Andrew West presents the Religion and Ethics Report on ABC Radio National.