Miller's 'new moral vision' for America
Review by James O. Chatham, Special to the, September 30, 2006

Many of us Americans have convinced ourselves that the only way for us "to win" is to trash and vilify our adversaries. It happens in the marketplace, in courtrooms, in athletic contests, in religious organizations and most emphatically in political campaigns: We believe we have to show how rotten and evil the adversary is for us to prevail.

We may win temporary victories this way -- especially elections. But the great loser is human community, which gets battered, undermined and destroyed. We create a society that does not respect or trust its leaders and feels deeply cynical about its own prospects.

Jonathan Miller has set out to find a better way. Are there fundamental values people of differing religious and political persuasions can find in common, values that will bring us together and upbuild community? Is there an escape from our current adversarial suicide?

Miller, the state treasurer of Kentucky and a devout Jew, wants us to focus on values he finds in several religious traditions, including his own. The greatest is compassion. "There is no value more celebrated in the human experience than compassion. ... Nearly every world religion ... has accepted God's revelation of compassion for others." The central theme of The Compassionate Community is, "Love your neighbor as yourself." This is where religious ethics begin.

Building on compassion, Miller develops "10 essential American values that emanate from this core theme:" opportunity, responsibility, work, family, freedom, faith, justice, peace, respect and life. He associates each with a biblical character (Noah, Moses, Esther, etc.). With stories from his political and family life, he discusses each, naming specific programs across the country that act on that value. And he bids us, his readers, to join the effort. A section at the end provides organization names and e-mail addresses.

The book gives a new moral vision for America, a vision to replace the "politics of self-interest" that currently ravages us. It also issues a strong call to commitment, connecting the vision with specific commitments we can make.

The question the book leaves us with is: How are we, and our leaders, going to abandon our current path and replace it with another? Miller writes, "All it takes is a recommitment by all Americans to show compassion for others and to demand that our elected representatives, civic activists and religious leaders join in ... this journey." Miller provides for more information.

Miller is a deeply devout man. He also has broad knowledge of governmental and private human help programs. In this book, he brings the two together to show us, his people, a better way. The book seems idealistic. It is hard to imagine how great numbers of people will follow its call. But with the innate compassion that resides in the hearts of millions of Americans, is it not possible that effective national leadership can ignite the flame. Many of us live in that hope.

[James O. Chatham is pastor emeritus of Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville.]