It is not often that Sojourners president Jim Wallis puts forth ideas that align with those of the Acton Institute. However, in a recent interview, Wallis (touting his new book, Uncommon Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided) said that he recognizes that there are three keys to ending poverty: work and economic activity, innovation, education. He also says his hometown of Detroit has a big lesson to teach us:
Detroit shows that the government isn’t enough,” said Wallis. “The book talks about how we’ve got to talk about the common good as societal ethic which means our congregations, our neighborhood organizations, our non-profits, the private sector … and government.”
What Wallis is talking about, of course, is subsidiarity: the tenet of Catholic social teaching that says the smallest and closest entity to a problem should be the one to take care of the situation. A family raises a child, not the state. A school board decides curriculum, not the national government. Wallis wants to split issues and ideas into “conservative” and “liberal” camps, but really there are only good ideas and bad ones. For instance, he says personal responsibility is a “conservative” fix for poverty, and “social responsibility: taking care of not just ourselves but taking care of each other” is a “liberal” idea. Yet both of these are part of subsidiarity: we take care of ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our communities.
Wallis says that the government is always enough, but sometimes the government is too much, and that’s the problem. Even Wallis knows this:
I’ve been fighting with the Salvation Army and the National Association of Evangelicals and the Bishops and others to defend things like food stamps, but those things don’t end poverty, they help people survive…
Does government have a role in alleviating poverty? It can, but those things that Wallis points to as ways to eliminate poverty – work, innovation, education – are not areas that government excels. These are areas where individuals, businesses and community organizations can lead and create.
Personal responsibility, caring for ourselves and our neighbors, innovation and creation: it seems like Wallis might be on to something.