Tag Archives: Danville UU

Remember The Common Good?

Later this morning, I will speak–via Zoom–to the Danville Unitarians on the  subject of freedom. Here’s a  lightly edited version  of that talk–a bit long, so my apologies.


There’s an inevitable tension between Americans’ love of freedom—understood as our freedom from government rules dictating our behaviors—and the obligation citizens have  to contribute appropriately to the common good. That tension has manifested itself most recently in a series of conflicts in which self-styled “freedom fighters” have challenged government mandates to wear masks and observe social distancing, but we have seen similar conflicts when government has required  us to wear seatbelts or to refrain from smoking in restaurants and bars.

That tension also motivates our continuing political arguments about tax rates and social welfare programs.

Where do we draw the line between our right to personal autonomy and the government-enforced duties we owe to others? What are those duties, who gets to prescribe them, and how important is our willingness to discharge them? What is our duty to contribute to what academics call social solidarity, and most of us would call a sense of community?

The most basic question of political philosophy is: what should government do? The U.S. Bill of Rights is our list of things that government should not do—censor speech, favor religion, search citizens without probable cause or infringe their liberty interests or property rights without due process, among other things—but America hasn’t revisited (or, really, visited) an equally fundamental question: what is government for? To put it another way, what elements of our social and physical infrastructure should we expect government in the 21st Century to provide—and what are our obligations in return?

We recognize physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, sidewalks, sewers, the national electrical grid. Even then, even with physical infrastructure, there is less recognition of the importance of other elements of the built environment: parks, libraries, public transportation, utilities, street lighting and other elements that collectively produce a community’s “quality of life.” What’s worse, despite almost universal agreement about the importance of physical infrastructure, America’s roads and bridges are in serious disrepair, our electrical grid is vulnerable to hacking, and sewer overflows continue to pollute rivers and streams. Aging pipes are contaminating drinking water in numerous cities and towns;  problems with lead in the water are not limited to the widely-publicized situation in Flint, Michigan.

The problems with America’s physical infrastructure are visible, widely acknowledged and await only a rebirth of political will to fix. The defects in our social infrastructure, however, are much less clear-cut, and because they are highly contested, they resist repair.

By “social infrastructure,” I mean programs that help citizens and build community, including access to economic security, health, education, and the right to equal participation in democratic decision-making, most definitely including the right to vote.

Aristotle thought that social infrastructure should facilitate human flourishing– create an environment within which each individual can live, grow and pursue his or her own particular telos, or life goals.

Americans currently face considerable challenges: a rapidly morphing information environment that facilitates spin, disinformation and outright propaganda, an increasingly overt tribalism, deepening economic inequality, widespread civic ignorance, and the accelerating corruption of America’s legal and political structures. All of these elements of contemporary reality, plus the existential threats posed by climate change and a global pandemic, challenge America’s future.

What comes next? Where does America go from here? Do we fix our problems, or relinquish our place on the world stage and terminate our historically uneven efforts to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?

Clearly, we’re at a turning point. We could continue the Trumpian withdrawal from global alliances and our own historic civic aspirations. We could enter a period of extreme social unrest, with escalating protests and accelerating social factionalism, leading to a very uncertain future. Or we could revisit America’s existing social contract and evaluate the current utility of our governing assumptions—reaffirming    those that have stood the test of time, and modifying those that no longer serve us.

America has always defined freedom in  the negative–as the individual’s right to be free of government constraint unless she is harming the person or property of someone else. That view of freedom has generated significant conflict: what constitutes a harm sufficient to justify government intervention? How much deference to the rights of others is required? Which others? Is the obligation of government limited to non-interference, or do citizens have the right to demand that government pursue positive actions? If so, what are those actions?

Defining liberty has become even more complicated as America’s population and diversity have increased, as equality (another contested term) has become an equally important value, and as society has become more global and more complex. At a minimum, genuine liberty, genuine freedom, requires more than enforcing limits on the reach of government, important as those limits remain. True liberty– allowing individuals to determine and pursue their individual aspirations– requires ensuring that all citizens have both the means to exercise choice, and sufficient information to inform those choices.

Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen argues that freedom is the ability to exercise individual agency, and that personal agency is inescapably limited, inescapably constrained by available social, political and economic opportunities.  Individual agency—the ability of each person to formulate and pursue his or her life goals– is dependent upon what Sen calls “social arrangements”–what I’m call ing“social infrastructure.”

I hate to argue with my libertarian friends, but in today’s complex and inter-dependent society, government’s responsibility cannot simply be to get out of the way.

Anti-government attitudes that permeate contemporary American culture have been profoundly influenced by a Protestant Ethic that exaggerated the ability of  individuals to rise above social and structural impediments, and minimized the extent to which the social infrastructure in which we are all inevitably embedded contributes to, enables—or hinders—individual achievement.

In addition to older, traditional functions, today’s governments must provide citizens with at least a basic social safety net that supports human freedom and allows citizens to reach their potential. That safety net can be constructed in ways that unify or further divide us.

Here’s an example of what I mean: Look at the widespread, negative attitudes toward welfare programs, and then consider the massive support that exists for Social Security and Medicare. Why the difference? Social Security and Medicare are universal programs; virtually everyone contributes to them and everyone who lives long enough participates in their benefits. Just as we don’t generally hear accusations about lazy poor people who are “driving on roads paid for by my taxes,” beneficiaries of programs that include everyone (or almost everyone) are much more likely to escape stigma and much less likely to arouse resentment. In addition to the usual questions of efficacy and cost-effectiveness, policymakers in a diverse polity should evaluate proposed programs and other government actions by considering whether they are likely to unify or further divide Americans. Universal policies are far more likely to create unity, an important and often overlooked argument favoring programs like single-payer health insurance or a Universal Basic Income.

A workable social contract must respect individual rights and subgroup affiliations, but must also connect citizens to an overarching community in which they have equal membership and from which they receive equal support. The challenge is to achieve a healthy balance—to create a society that genuinely respects individual autonomy within a renewed emphasis on community and the common good, a society that both rewards individual effort and talent, and nurtures the equal expression of those talents irrespective of tribal identity.

That society would have the right to expect its members to pay their dues—taxes, of course, but also a stint of military or public service, and discharge of civic duties like voting and jury service.

How do we get there?  How do we turn our cantankerous and tribal society into a cohesive community? There’s a Native American parable that I think is instructive: One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves that are inside all of us. One is evil. The other is good.” The grandson asked, “Which wolf wins?” and the grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

America needs a social and political infrastructure that feeds—encourages, promotes and rewards—prosocial, pro-democratic, humane behaviors and norms. Assuming we emerge from the angry and difficult period we are going through—assuming that we vote decisively for democracy and decency on November 3d, it will be time to come together and figure out how government can “feed” the good wolf.

It is past time to honor America’s original motto: e pluribus unum, out of the many, one.

Points Of Light

I was scrolling through Facebook Sunday afternoon, after my return from Danville, and came across a post by a longtime friend, Chris Douglas. He was commenting on a shared article detailing many truly horrifying things done to African-Americans in the period leading up to the Civil War. Chris pointed out that people inclined to minimize these truly despicable behaviors, discounting evil because it was reflective of the “culture of the times,” are simply wrong.

Good people then knew better, and they were doing more than protesting.

Let us note that at the very same time, Hoosier Levi Coffin was among leaders organizing an illegal Underground Railroad (in which the David Douglas family participated); Calvin Fletcher was providing legal defense to escaping slaves; Central Christian Church of Downtown Indianapolis (Disciples of Christ) was advocating disobedience of the Fugitive Slave Act; Hoosier Ovid Butler was providing racially integrated college education; and Hoosier Abraham Lincoln (moved on to Illinois) was speaking against slavery.

I was especially struck by the truth of this reminder, because I had just returned from giving a guest speech at the Danville Unitarian Church (posted Monday), where I had encountered precisely the sort of Hoosiers Chris was describing.

It was gratifying.

Danville, Indiana is a small town on the western outskirts of Indianapolis.(When I say small, I mean it; the town has a population of around 9800.) The church is in the middle of Danville’s small downtown, and I would estimate that somewhere between 40-45 congregants were at the service.

This was the second time I’ve spoken at this particular church, and both times I’ve been really impressed by members expressing a welcoming and decidedly non-prescriptive theology. (The core of Unitarianism is a genuine respect for each individual’s search for his or her own truth.)

This was most definitely not a collection of fundamentalist/Nationalist Christians. (I especially loved one of the songs: John Prine’s “Your flag decals won’t get you into heaven anymore..”)

The entire service emphasized inclusiveness and service to the community. (There were two offerings; one of food for those in need, and a conventional “pass the plate” to support the congregation.) At times, the small congregation felt more like a supportive family than a gathering of co-religionists.

During the question and answer session that followed my talk, it became clear that this group of people, from a very small town in a very red state, is profoundly worried about the direction of the country. Like the early Hoosiers cited by my friend Chris, they aren’t just complaining about the problems they see; the email asking me to speak specified that they wanted suggestions for actions they could take to improve civic knowledge and elevate political conversations.

After the service, one of the congregants proudly shared with me that she had been concerned a year or so ago when a proposal to resettle a Syrian refugee circulated–she’d worried about rightwing resistance and anti-immigrant attitudes. But there had been absolutely no negative response. Her pride was obvious. In small-town red Indiana, the refugee had been welcomed, just as she–a trans woman–had been welcomed by this congregation.

Chris’ point is worth underlining. The tenor of the times and/or the political environment are never an excuse for hatefulness, for bigotry, for brutality. (Ask the Germans who hid Jews from the Nazis.) Fear of social disapproval cannot serve as an excuse for keeping quiet and staying on the sidelines when our fellow human beings are being abused by people engaging in deeply immoral behaviors.

Harming people simply because they are different is always objectively wrong.

In every era, when bad people do bad things, good people stand up to them. And good people are everywhere–including churches in small towns in bright red states.

I always feel better after being with Unitarians.




What We Can Do

Yesterday, I spoke to the Danville Unitarians about–surprise!–the importance of civic knowledge, and what each of us can do to encourage its acquisition…Here’s what I said. Apologies for the length.


I was asked to talk today about the importance of what I call Civic Literacy—and to suggest what your congregation and each of you individually might do to encourage other people to acquire the knowledge necessary to properly discharge their citizenship responsibilities.

Let me share some background. In late 2010, I was teaching my undergraduate class in Law and Public Policy. I approach this subject-matter through a constitutional lens, because—after all—in order to be legally enforceable, policies have to be constitutional, and it helps when policymakers have some idea of what the Constitution requires. I begin with a brief description of the Enlightenment (which few of my undergraduate students have ever heard of), proceed to the “architecture” of our constitutional system, and then consider what people mean when they talk about “original intent.”

I often introduce that discussion by asking what James Madison thought about porn on the Internet.

Usually, the students to whom I direct that question laugh and say something to the effect that Madison could never have imagined something like the Internet. But of course, Madison did have opinions about the importance of free expression and the need to protect such expression from government censorship, so we proceed to discuss how the courts have applied the Founders’ intent – protection of the principleof freedom of speech—to a variety of communication mechanisms Madison could never have contemplated.

On this particular day, however, the student to whom I directed the question (a college junior) looked puzzled, and asked “Who is James Madison?”

It was my introduction to America’s civic literacy deficit.

That incident triggered a question I went on to explore: how widespread is such civic ignorance? What don’t Americans know about our country’s history, philosophy and legal system? The answer, according to the data then available, was: a lot. At the time, for example, only 36% of Americans could name the three branches of government. By last year, that same national survey found the number had slipped to 26%.

Overall, a huge amount of data confirms that most Americans know little or nothing about the Constitution, or about government, economics or science. Most cannot define the terms they routinely employ to embrace or dismiss different systems, like capitalism, socialism and fascism.

Why do I think that informed civic engagement is so important?

Civic literacy (or lack thereof) affects the whole of society. Reasonable levels are especially critical to the maintenance of democratic norms.

We are currently seeing the results when people elected to high office don’t respect those norms, or know anything about the Constitution, or the way government works—or for that matter, what science is or the most basic principles of economics. Such individuals are elected by voters who don’t understand those things, either– who don’t understand what skills governing requires and who are unable to evaluate the performance of the people they elect.

If that isn’t bad enough, over the past quarter century or so, we’ve seen the growth of yet another problem that is largely attributable to low levels of civic literacy: susceptibility to spin, propaganda and so-called “fake news.” When you don’t know what the rules really are, it’s easy to believe hysterical accusations. Did a Court say a cross on government property violated the Establishment Clause? That means Satanists have won, and we’ll have to remove the crosses from our churches! (True story.)

We know that the American public is ignorant—not stupid, just ignorant– but there’s a lot we don’t know about the causes and consequences of this very troubling deficit of civic knowledge:
·      What is the civic deficit? i.e., what is the necessary content/what are the essential skills that make a person “civically literate”?
·      How are civic literacy and civic engagement related? Which comes first? What behaviors beyond voting reflect civic engagement/civic skills?
·      Where, besides some public-school classrooms, are civic skills taught and/or civic information imparted?
·       Is there a relationship between perceived political efficacy and motivation to become civically knowledgeable? (“I can’t make a difference anyway, so why bother?”)

As an old lawyer once told me, there’s really only one legal or political question, and that’s “what do we do?” That’s the question the Center for Civic Literacy is now focusing on.

So—what can any of us do? Let me share a few ideas.

Awhile back, a graduate student and I wrote a short book we called Giving Civics a Sporting Chance. We compared America’s fascination with sports trivia to our lack of civic knowledge. Every weekend, some bar is holding a trivia contest and customers are demonstrating that they know who threw the winning pitch in the 1939 World Series.  Why not hold trivia contests focused on American history, government and the constitution?  (You might generate some local political support if you include questions like “Who’s your city councilor?” or “What does the county coroner do?”)

In Indianapolis, we worked with the public library on a project we called “Electing Our Future”—it might also serve as a template for local efforts. A couple of months before municipal elections, we had panel discussions about the issues winning candidates would face. We didn’t talk about the candidates–we didn’t even invite them– but about the problems we’d expect them to solve and the practical, legal and financial constraints they would face.

One effort that is still ongoing and has been very popular is an adult version of “We the People.” Women4Change worked with the National Center for Civic Literacy to offer one night per week, six-week versions of that very effective civics curriculum.

There is another thing that each of us can do to call attention to the superficiality of American knowledge. When we read a letter to the Editor or a post to a widely-read blog that misstates a Constitutional principle, or incorrectly defines an economic term, or confuses science with religion, we need to respond.

For example: “I noticed that Sally Smith dismissed evolution because it is “just a theory.” But “theory” in science is a technical term, not to be confused with ordinary usage. Scientific theories are supported by evidence that has been tested empirically….” You get the idea. These corrections should be as polite as we can make them, since the people who express uneducated, factually-wrong opinions are likely to resent having “smarty pants elitists” correct them. That said, I think a concerted effort to highlight misinformation and raise awareness would have a positive effect.

The problem isn’t just that Americans are deficient in knowledge about the country’s history, constitution and legal system— the problem is that, so far as I can tell, most Americans have been unconcerned about those deficiencies, and the failure of most schools to teach civics adequately.

One of the reasons our public schools don’t focus on educating future citizens is the philosophical divide among citizens about the purpose of public education. The arguments made by self-styled reformers tend to focus on education as a consumer good; a “good school” is one that imparts skills needed by children who will enter the global marketplace. In the United States, however, public education was originally conceived to be—in Benjamin Barber’s felicitous phrase—constitutive of a public. In an ever-more-diverse polity, where the Constitution and “American creed” are essential elements of our “civic religion” (and frequently the source of the only values we hold in common), a robust civics education is what allows us to “constitute” a polity. It is what makes us Americans.

Marketable skills and STEM skills are important, but so is familiarity with—and ideally, allegiance to– the history and philosophy of America’s approach to self-government. If there is one over-riding lesson we at the Center for Civic Literacy have learned it is that—despite our national fondness for flag waving and our constant, pious references to the Constitution—too few Americans know what the flag stands for, or what the Constitution says.

Ultimately, of course, we have to lobby our legislatures to require more and better history and civics instruction in our schools. When you think about it, Americans don’t pray to the same god, read the same books and newspapers, watch the same television shows, eat the same foods—a lot of us don’t even speak the same language. The only thing that all Americans have in common is a particular philosophy of government and a distinctive set of social values—and when we don’t know anything about that philosophy or those values, we aren’t Americans; we’re just a collection of separate, mutually-suspicious constituencies contending for power.

And most of us understand that encouraging distrust in a bunch of mutually hostile, know-nothing constituencies is highly unlikely to make America great again…

Thank you.