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I'm not sure when I started hearing more about "the common good" from fellow Christians. But I'm pretty sure Christianity Today had something to do with it. This magazine spent 2005 exploring pastor Tim Keller's proposal that Christians be "a counterculture for the common good." Now we're in the midst of This Is Our City: two years' worth of articles, documentary films, and events for leaders in cities around North America. Our team has realized that what we're really looking for are what we are calling "common-good decisions"—times when Christians make choices, some small and relatively easy (say, volunteering in a neighborhood school), others major and costly (say, moving into a tough school district), to seek the good of their neighborhoods.

The phrase also comes up in the perennial but newly vigorous conversation about the role Christians should play in American culture. Gordon College president Michael Lindsay titled his 2011 inaugural address "Faithful Leadership for the Common Good." Gabe Lyons, who convenes diverse church and civic leaders every year at the Q conference, describes its mission as "ideas for the common good." (Full disclosure: Lindsay and Lyons are friends, and their organizations have been the recipients of my family's financial support and have paid me for speaking engagements.) The phrase appears three times in the National Association of Evangelicals' (NAE) 2001 "call to civic responsibility" titled "For the Health of the Nation," which CT editor in chief David Neff helped draft. After longtime vice president Richard Cizik left the NAE, he founded a new group called the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.

But a slogan isn't the same thing as a vision. And the more I've thought about and vigorously promoted the phrase "the common good," the less I'm sure we know what we mean by it.

The Common What?

All by itself, "the common good" is as vague as fine-sounding phrases tend to be. And being fine-sounding and vague, it easily becomes political pabulum to promote whatever policies the speaker wants to advance. Not surprisingly, it arises at times when politicians want to justify imposing costs on some part of society, as when Hillary Rodham Clinton told a group of donors in 2004, "We're going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good." To some ears, "the common good" echoes communism's demands that all lesser goods yield to the construction of a people's paradise. At the least, when we hear that some sacrifice will serve "the common good," it's reasonable to ask, "Sez who?"

It's also reasonable to ask how far Christians can pursue a common good alongside people who believe in very different goods from us, or who question whether we can call anything "good" at all. It's not just Christians who wonder about this: Secular thinkers have pushed back against the phrase on the grounds that no pluralistic society has the right to dictate a vision of the good for all its members. That was fine for European societies in the Dark Ages, they imply. But in the diverse and doubting 21st century, we have to settle for something thinner, something we can all agree on without stepping on one another's metaphysical toes—allowing everyone "the pursuit of happiness" and calling it a day.

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What's So Great About 'The Common Good'?