Progressive Religion…Is Not an Oxymoron: The Common Good versus Common Greed

Progressive Religion…Is Not an Oxymoron: The Common Good versus Common Greed
David Roy

By David E. Roy

David Roy

Probably the most religious statement I could make today (shortly after the election) is, “Thank God it’s over!” Agnostics and atheists are free to substitute “goodness” if they wish. (Equanimous Buddhists will remain at peace.)

Election Fatigue

In the case of the election, of course, some of the goodness arises simply because it is over, much like at the end of an overnight with 500 screaming tweens. Or, as four-year-old YouTube sensation Abby said while crying, “I’m tired of Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney!” A week later, when told Obama had won, she clapped her hands and said, “Yeah!”

I imagine many of us are clapping our hands that Obama won over Romney. Hopefully, Obama can use this second term to continue pursuing at least some of the goals that matter to progressives.

However, like all Presidents, he needs to be watched for power does distort our values and our perceptions. My own concerns include the Patriot Act, which has been strengthened for use against U.S. citizens (I can’t understand why getting rid of this act is not a bipartisan cause), the use of drones (somebody is going to use them against us) and the feeding of the financial beast at the expense of nearly everyone else. Nonetheless, Obama is clearly the better choice and a reason for some measure of hope.

Common Greed—Common Good

There also is additional goodness that comes as a result of the choices we made on a state level that Tuesday. That is, assuming there is a balance between what might be called the Unqualified Pursuit of Common Greed compared to Unqualified Support for the Common Good, how did we do?

In a previous column, I shared that the ultimate importance of compassion and concern for the common good has been lifted up by the world’s major religions since at least the Axial Age (about 700 BCE). To fully embody these values in one’s mind and through one’s actions is of the highest good for these religions, the goal for the ideal human being and the ideal society.

Even without a religious frame, the idea of “enlightened self-interest” is in keeping with the aim of experiencing and expressing compassion for those in need by supporting and actively creating the conditions that further the well-being of others. (Enlightened self-interest means that I also benefit if others are helped. The needle exchange is a perfect example.*)

Are We Really Changing?

While it is hard to see evidence for large-scale examples of the establishment of a significant number of institutions promoting the common good that endure generation after generation, there are times when it may be possible to see small but definite shifts in that direction. I do see some important hints and hesitant steps in this direction in the election results—at least some of them. Whether this progress can be sustained and expanded remains to be seen. And, more important overall, it remains an open question whether we can create and maintain an entire society that promotes these values generation after generation.

Analyzing the Propositions for Reasons to be Hopeful

In California, there were several propositions that passed and others that failed where the decisions were positive for many more citizens than the reverse would have been:

  • Passing Prop 30 (temporary tax increases in support of education) not only benefits California citizens now and for the future because of its support of education, it also means the kill-all-taxes-all-the-time curse that has meant a DOA status for many good and needed programs no longer is guaranteed to work with today’s voters. Taxes are the major way in which we collectively pay for important services needed by virtually everyone in our society (education, health care, safety and so on). It would be a boon for all of us if the starting point for any discussion about the value of programs were to include the idea that everything will have value; it may be more or it may be less, but it is not zero, which is the only way that can justify the idea that all taxes are bad and anything that requires a tax should be eliminated.
  • Not Passing Prop 32 (eliminating payroll deductions as a means of political fund-raising primarily for unions). This defeat signals that a major deception did not fool the majority of voters. (In a later section, I will make a suggestion as to how to deal with these kinds of deceptions.)
  • Likewise, not passing Prop 33 means voters were not taken in by a serious, well-designed and well-funded deception by the insurance industry.
  • Passing Prop 36 was akin to touching the so-called (electrified) third rail and discovering you lived! Either the line was not working or you were wearing insulated boots. In the past, anything to do with “three strikes” was impossible to change. But this passage was by a margin better than 2:1, a definite movement away from the black-white, lock-up-everyone approach we’ve had for decades. A well-known but still shocking fact is that the U.S. prison population is one of the highest in the world—in the range of 743/100,000 compared with England (151), Japan (63), even Russia (627). Roughly one percent (1 of 100) of U.S. adults are in prison.
  • On the other hand, the failures of Prop 34 (death penalty transformation to life without parole) and Prop 37 (genetic modification food labeling) were frustrating. Still, I do not believe voters in the past have been as close as they were this year concerning anything to do with modifying the death penalty: Out of 10,847,838 votes, there were about 525,000 votes separating the two sides. This means that 265,000 voters (2.5%) choosing “yes” instead of “no” would have changed the outcome. As for Prop 37, considering the amount of money spent by the opposition, the vote for it was decent. There were a little more than half a million votes separating the two sides or about 5.1%.

We Can Be Easily Fooled; Let’s Change That!

One of the factors most frustrating for me (and I suspect I’m not alone) is how relatively easily people are fooled by clever distortions and smoothly told lies. Some of this must be deep in human nature because people continue responding to the e-mails that go to an “undisclosed” list pretending to be targeted to the individual receiving the information about $10,000,000 just waiting for them.

But even thoughtful people can be and are fooled by these ads; and worse, now those funding the promotion/attack ads can be assured of layers and layers of anonymity and obfuscation. Just witness the efforts in California by the state supreme court to track down the $11,000,000 influx of funds to attack certain propositions. It ended the day before the election like a crime show where police rush from location to location, just missing the bad guys by seconds. (“The campfire is still hot, captain. Theses varmints couldn’t have gotten far. Maybe they’re at the abandoned mine shaft up the road.”)

Black Box x 2—a Proposition

To counter this, I want to get a proposition on the next state ballot that I am calling the Black Box Around the Black Box. The second “black box” is the information about donors being kept hidden. The first black box would be something like a cigarette-style warning at the start and end of any political ad where it was not transparently clear exactly where the funds were originating and who would benefit The warning would be framed as a black box and might say, “Voters should view this ad with caution as its sponsors have chosen NOT to reveal themselves or their possible benefit from voting [for OR against] the proposition.”

Then, the entire ad would proceed within a black box framing the ad to the end. Following the ad, the voiceover would say something similar to the beginning statement: “Caution: The sponsors of the previous ad have chosen NOT to reveal themselves or their possible benefit from voting [for OR against] the proposition.” These words also would be visible in a black warning box.

I am serious about exploring the possibility of creating a proposition like this. If there are others who feel similar, please send me an e-mail ( I also know that even if the effort does not succeed or succeed easily that just the prospect will be helpful. To oppose this will make it exceedingly clear that the financial interests want one thing only, namely the freedom to do their work anonymously so no one will think ill of them or be able to stop them.

Seeking Authenticity Inside and With Others

In my professional work, one of the things I see is how hard some people work at being authentic, at being “congruent.” By this, I mean striving to be themselves under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. It also means working so that the so-called inner person and the outer person are one and the same or at least harmonized.

I see this striving, unsurprisingly, as a response to a deep, deep call that comes from the heart of the universe (what Whitehead called the Divine Eros), luring us forward to a fuller and richer life (richer in experience at least). Even if that frame is meaningless for you, or even unhelpful, most would agree that authenticity is a good thing and that many of us strive for this.

This movement naturally and inevitably leads us toward concern for the common good and supports and facilitates our ability to be compassionate. Being compassionate, in turn, supports and facilitates greater and greater concern for the common good.

Forces That Pull in the Opposite Direction

Yet, as we know all too well, there are many other forces that pull us in other directions. (No, I do not think or believe there is a single, personal source of all evil in the universe; that ain’t no devil.) Some of these forces likely start out from biological roots and have been necessary for the survival of small groups of our ancestors. The forces would include the ability to protect through physical strength, which leads to violence, and would emphasize getting as much for one’s group and oneself as possible to bridge periods where there was nothing to eat, etc. This easily becomes greed. And greed also is fed by the deep need to feel oneself as special and important (and even that attitude may have roots in survival).

When these are played out in today’s world, with the crushing burden of the many billions of humans all wanting to benefit from more and more resources, then we will have an acute disaster—or more likely, an ongoing and escalating series of disasters.

Interpersonal Influence: Strong and Multifaceted

In addition, human beings have a natural, built-in bias to be similar to those around us. When something is modeled, it becomes more easily imagined. Furthermore, we tend to conform to a certain extent to the energy (attitudes, etc.) we receive. If we are surrounded by happy people, we can feel happier; likewise, if we are around sad and depressed people, this, too, can bring us at least part way down ourselves.

If we are in a group—a mini culture—where greed and ruthlessness are the norm, then we are subject to a huge amount of social influence to conform, but we also are subject to a much more unconscious influence by means of the type of energy (moods, attitudes) being given off by our peers.

We Must Learn to Counter These Influences

This is where we have to learn (and learn every generation) to counter these tendencies, to set limits that are effective with those who are in a position to do egregious damage such as was done by a handful of people in the financial world—many of whom seem to have only benefitted from the huge misery inflicted on others.

I have despised Karl Rove for decades as one of the most intelligent and creative of the conscienceless evil geniuses ever in the American political arena, someone capable of getting marginally competent candidates elected who will support these destructive policies and approaches. However, an article in a recent issue of the New Yorker Magazine by a Harvard history professor changed my mind about Rove’s uniqueness and originality. (For details, see the sidebar story, “The Lie Factory.”)

What Can We Do?

Those of us who believe in honesty and integrity, who feel the importance and the necessity of seeking always the common good, of aiding those marginalized, of tending to and healing the many wounds inflicted on the earth need to help put an end to these insidious and destructive approaches.

So much power today resides in the major financial institutions. They must be much more closely regulated and monitored by knowledgeable outsiders than ever before. It seems at times that only the new senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, is consistently loud and clear about this. And need to get money far away from political campaigns. We need to highlight (soon and often) the importance of the values of compassion and concern for the common good.

Be Patiently Impatient

All most of us can do most of the time is to chip away at the blocks of wood and stone close at hand. Sometimes we can do more, but that is far more rare than we might like. So, we have to learn to be patiently impatient. But it is helpful and sustaining to know there are others out there chipping away as well.


Ordained in the United Church of Christ, David Roy is a pastoral counselor and a California licensed marriage and family therapist who directs the Center for Creative Transformation. He has a Ph.D. in theology and personality from the Claremont (California) School of Theology. Send comments to him at or 5475 N. Fresno St., Ste. 109, Fresno, CA 93711.

*By providing clean needles to IV drug users, the spread of infectious diseases is prevented. This saves tons of money and lessens the odds of certain infections being spread from IV drug users to the general population.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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