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The Common Good

By Deacon Keith A Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC

A Brief History:

During the latter part of the last century, in most major Christian traditions, sincere efforts were underway to both come to understand and act upon, the mandate, inherent within the call of the Gospel, to influence and transform the culture within which we live - and into which we are called as Christian citizens. This inquiry has sometimes been referred to as the "social question".

These efforts had mixed results.

Some helped to move our cultures forward in some very important human and civil rights struggles. Others got co-opted by political agendas. The reasons for the beginnings of these movements are multiple, but the mandate that all of these differing Christian communities sought to address, in their own way, is still an integral part of a complete understanding of the Christian mission in the world.

The Christian faith is profoundly personal but it is not "private." It invites all Christians into the ongoing redemptive work of Jesus Christ which is being accomplished through His Church. That work, because of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, is radically public. It is meant to reach and affect all men and women. It is also intercultural and intergenerational.

It therefore has social implications and obligations. We are never fully human persons in isolation. We are, by both nature and grace, social. We also have obligations in solidarity to the entire human community. We simply are our brother's keeper. We have a special obligation to the poor (See, for example, the Gospel of St. Matthew chapter 25) and a particular vocational call with a vital social dimension. We are continuing the influence of the Lord in the world that He still loves because as members of His Church we are members of His body.

For years preceding the last ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church, Vatican II, seeds of renewal were sprouting throughout Europe among Catholic Christians. These seeds included the flourishing of an entire model of lay apostolate geared toward what we might call the "Evangelization of Culture."

I use the term "evangelize the culture" in this article to refer to an understanding of our baptismal mission as Christians that both recognizes that we all have a "vocation" to participate in the mission of the whole Christian Church (according to our state in life and calling) and also compels us to be faithful to that call. This two pronged understanding would later be referred to by the Second Vatican Council as the "universal call to holiness" and the "lay apostolate."

In other Christian communions the understanding of a call to "evangelize the culture" evolved as well. Different communities used various terms to express its essence within the varied confessional communities, their doctrinal emphasis and their linguistic expressions. Most touched upon similar understandings emphasizing that all Christians were called to holiness and that all believers, not just the clergy, were called to participate in the one ministry of the Church.

They also emphasized the unique competence of the lay members of the Christian church to affect the world for good within their daily lives. It is beyond the scope of this article to offer a "glossary" concerning these various efforts; however, I hope to soon undertake that very task. As one who has worked my entire life in ecumenical circles, I know both the potential and the problem of "words".

These two notions, that all baptized Christians are called to holiness and that holiness has a social obligation, are simply a recovery of two foundational insights of what we will call "Classical Christianity" in this discussion.

The Christian Social Mission:

Inherent in this entire discussion is the recognition of the essential need for all Christians, at every time and in every culture, to understand a fundamental truth; every area of human life, personal and social, and therefore every area of human culture, is meant to be affected and changed by its contact with the ongoing redemptive mission of the Church. The Church has a social mission and social justice is a vital part of the gospel message and mission.

All Christians are called to live and act in a manner consistent with that recognition. In fact, because of their participation in the Church, they are the ones through whom that mission unfolds in "the world." That mission, which participates in the continuing redemptive missionary work of Jesus Christ, is accomplished primarily through the lives, words and actions of the lay sons and daughters of the Church that He founded. They are called to live their lives redemptively in every segment of human society.

In other words, the Christian faith is meant to inform our entire life, both personally and socially. It is not reserved for simply informing our "religious" acts, as important as they may be. Nor is the Christian faith like a coat that we remove when we step outside of our Church buildings into the halls of Congress, the factories, Boardrooms, the courtrooms or the public squares of human participation and life.

Great movements were growing among the Catholic Christian faithful in the European continent during the time before the Second Vatican Council in the Catholic Church. Among them was one called "Catholic Action" In English-speaking countries, the terms" Catholic Action" and "Lay Apostolate" were used interchangeably among Catholic Christians in the latter part of the twentieth century. Catholic Action had been defined by Pope Pius XI as "the participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy."

However, as the development of directive pastoral counsel toward the participation of the lay faithful in the full ministry of the Church unfolded, the role of the lay faithful in "the world" became much more clearly articulated.

That early definition with its emphasis on participation in the apostolate of the hierarchy was soon rightly seen as limiting and partial. The "lay faithful" (later the term of preference, emphasized by John Paul II in his apostolic letter addressed to "The Lay members of Christ's Faithful") were instead to be recognized as having their own unique task in the evangelization of human culture. After all, they were the ones who are "in the world", in the sense of the vast fields of commerce, politics, academia, the arts... these "fields" are truly "ripe for harvest."

A great merit of this "Catholic Action" movement and the understanding that developed from this reflection on the "social question" was that a dialogue of prayer and pastoral consideration ensued concerning the "lay" apostolate, with a specific focus not only on their personal call to holiness (the "universal call" to holiness) but on the unique and indispensable role the lay faithful play in bringing Christian influence to bear on every segment of human society and culture.

Similarly, in other Christian communities, the continued reflection on the "social question" led to efforts at directing, properly grounding, and protecting the Christian content of their own efforts in a biblical and Christian framework. We can refer to the understanding of this social obligation and this fuller dimension of the Christian vocation as the work of "cultural conversion."

Great social efforts in the communities of the Protestant reformation were growing in both numbers and influence. Within a segment of Protestant Christianity that would later come to be known as "evangelicalism", the efforts of William Wilberforce and John Wesley are examples of authentic vibrant, faithful, fruitful social action, rooted in and flowing from a sound theological understanding of the "social mission" of the Christian church and its application and obligation to the lives of every baptized Christian.

These movements spread beyond Europe and took root in the fertile American soil. Many great social justice movements were birthed from their inspiration and this classical understanding of this cultural mandate, including the Civil Rights movement and the early women's movement. Both of these movements were inspired and led by people of faith who understood these social implications of the Gospel challenge and Christian vocation.

Unfortunately, some segments of these earlier movements became "co-opted" by the influences within the various social justice efforts and political movements of their age. In some, their interaction with the great emerging social action movements of the latter part of the twentieth century, led to them becoming more influenced by emerging leftist ideologies than by classical Christian theology and thought.

In the Catholic Christian community this was most overtly manifested in some errant streams of what came to be called "liberation theology". Similarly, in other Christian efforts, the emerging "religious left", began to look more "left" than religious.

This almost "counter-evangelism" by the political "left" back then is not unlike what has happened in certain segments of the emerging social and political movements attributed to the influence of the so-called "religious right" movement of the very last decade of the last century, in reference to their influence on movements geared toward engaging Christians in political action.

Unfortunately, though much good was accomplished by the movement referred to as "the religious right" (all too often in a pejorative manner), it has too often been co-opted by libertarian philosophy and "conservative" political ideologies, resulting in a loss of its rooting in classical Christian social thought and redemptive mission.

The Hour and the need:

The "hour" in which we live is different than the times in which many of those models emerged. However, like them, this hour cries out for and is oriented toward the undeniable truth that there must be a social dimension to the mission of the Christian Church if there is going to be a recovery of any authentic Christian and truly human influence in every segment of American society and culture.

The difficulty then, and now, has been to properly root any such efforts, particularly when they involve political participation, in a solid understanding of the Christian mission to the whole of human culture. Any apologetic for the social mission must have a solid, classical theological foundation. It requires "faith seeking understanding", a good theology. It must be grounded in the "ologies", as I will call them in this discussion.

For example; "soteriology" (an understanding of the nature of salvation), anthropology (an understanding of the nature of the human person), ecclesiology (an understanding of the nature of the Church), missiology (an understanding of the nature of the mission of the Christian church), eschatology (an understanding of the "final things" and the destiny of not only man and woman but the coming of new heaven and new earth), ...and the list goes on.

Social action efforts seem to grow mostly out of "enthusiastic" movements of Christians. Perhaps this is understandable. The very enthusiastic encounter becomes the impetus for missionary action. Unfortunately, some of these movements have almost an animus against "theology", believing that it results in stultifying rather than enhancing both authentic faith and action. Let's be honest, poor theology can actually do just that.

However, good theology gives life, content and protection from error to the people and the movements. The problem with the "anti-theology" approach is that these kinds of movements work on one of the most precarious "fields" of Christian action and therefore desperately need what good theology brings!

For a social movement to remain faithful it must be rooted in solid prayer and classical Christian thought. A movement in this hour would do well to stop looking to the novelty of new ideologies and instead go "back to the future" - rooting itself in the best of classical Christian thought. That is our challenge at the beginning of the Third Christian Millennium and the twenty first century.

Christian MUST Be the Noun

Through decades of political action and policy work, my personal experience has all too often involved working with people who act as though "Christian" is an adjective. In other words, they are "Christian" conservatives. Or they are "Christian"------, fill in the blank. Christian becomes the adjective. This is a mistake.

To understand the mistake so as to avoid the error, we must discuss another "ology", ontology, which is the philosophical inquiry into the nature or essence of a thing. Christianity is fundamentally relational. Only human persons can be Christians, because to be a Christian is to be in relationship with Jesus Christ and through Him with the Trinity and with one another and the entire human race in a new way.

A Christian is never fully a Christian in isolation. Christianity is fundamentally relational. That is the heart of truly understanding Baptism. It is an initiation into the Body of Christ and a participation in the Communion of the Trinity, through living "in" the Son and in His body on earth, which is the Church.

Sometimes, Christians who "rediscover" their call to the evangelization of culture (particularly in its subset of political participation) come out of a privatized piety or vertical experience of Christianity. A kind of "me and Jesus" experience with little understanding of the mystery and wonder of the social dimension of living in the Church for the world. For these folks, Church is often experienced (and in some communities taught to be) a "congregation" more than a "communion".

When these Christians consider their social responsibility, they do not always do so from an understanding of being a 'son" or a "daughter" of the Church and participating in the continuing work of redemption in Jesus Christ. Instead, they sometimes come out of a privatized piety and a view of the "world" as almost entirely hostile. Their first motivation can be to perhaps protect themselves from the "pollution" of the world, or in a nobler gesture, because they have genuine compassion on others stuck in its grasp.

It is understandable that they then engage in a sort of "outside in" activism, using "proof texts" from the Bible to support their political positions.

Some Catholic Christian activists added to this approach of using biblical quotes with a similar use of quotes from Papal encyclicals or Vatican II or other Council documents as their proof texts. Interestingly, some seem to like the Latin names---I guess they hope it sounds more "catholic."

Whether by using the Bible or Church Documents as "proof texts", the result can be to produce principles of cultural engagement lacking in integrity of purpose and theological faithfulness. Rather than INFORM political positions by the scripture or tradition, people can end up (knowingly or unknowingly) trying to justify their own political positions by reference to authority.

For example, as a Catholic Christian I know that you simply cannot "fit" faithful Catholics (and I would argue faithful Christians of any confession or communion) in the contemporary political categories of "left" or "right", "liberal" or "conservative." Nor should either major party ever have a "lock" on our support. Yet, too many efforts at calling Catholic Christians to political participation have ended up being co-opted by partisanship.

At the latter end of the twentieth century, though the movement called the "religious right" tried to include both Catholic Christians and evangelical Protestant Christians in their movements -most Catholic Christians were never at home there. Those Catholics who tried to fit into the culture of the "religious right" often learned they had about as much of a place therein as their immigrant ancestors did in some of the original colonies.

Though we often shared what has been called the "socially conservative" agenda, the 'religious right" (even though mostly well intended) was built upon --and thrived within --a "persecuted minority" model of activism. The term was used to marginalize and denigrate many well intended Christians who engaged in political activism out of good motives.

Some of the efforts that emerged out of the "religious right" movement were premised upon an "anti-" approach to effecting social, political and judicial change. The emphasis was often on opposing the current problems and not on proposing alternatives. It spoke more often of what was wrong with the culture rather than proposing solutions or a better way and how to build a truly just social order with the principles derived from the social teaching of the Christian Church.

The "principles of engagement" that motivated some of these efforts were limited at best and terribly flawed at worst. Perhaps it was because some of the efforts associated with that movement were built upon on a model of engagement with the "world" that was, at root, at odds with a classical Christian worldview and founded on flawed principles of engagement.

Some of these efforts were first "conservative" movements, which figuratively wrapped Christian language around their polemic. In other words leaders (perhaps even well intended) sometimes put biblical proof texts on their own political ideas or adopted a model of cultural participation that actually, at its deepest level, was actually antithetical to a Christian worldview, founded upon a notion of freedom that was infected with the individualism of the age. Yet the Christian faith asserts that we are not fully human, not fully the "Imago Dei" in isolation. We were made for family and made for community.

Perhaps some of this is why so many in the movement often called "the religious right" are now discouraged and looking for direction. They did not start out to become "conservative" or "right wing" (or worse "libertarian") when they entered the world of social and political participation, they started out trying to be faithful to the Lord!

Some now understandably feel, as I do, that we "woke up one morning" being called a 'conservative" or being "charged" with being members of a "religious right"

However, we are even less at home in what is left of the "left" in America. That is, of course, if we actually understand what the Christian Church teaches and has taught for two thousand years and not what some "agenda-izer" on the contemporary political "left" tries to tell us that the Christian Church teaches.

The contemporary American "left" or "liberal" movement, left faithful Christians behind (on many issues that even once attracted some of us) when it ceased speaking of a "living" or "family" wage and catered more to the elites in the current Hollywood establishment and the crowd who define "choice" as unimpeded abortion, along with the bizarre collection of "liberals" who have co-opted a once decent label and now populate and control much of the Democratic Party. This party that built its influence among many socially concerned American Christians on an alleged commitment to the "poor", now champions as a "right" the killing of children in the first home of their mothers womb. That is NOT compassion. It fails to hear the cry of the poorest of the poor, those who have no voice of their own.

We need to rediscover that we are not first Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals - we are Christians. Christian is the Noun.

Principles of engagement

Informed, faithful and engaged Christian citizens need to rediscover the connection between the "social teaching" of classical Christian thought (which is true for all persons and not just those "who believe") and their politics. They can gather around what I call four pillars of political and social participation; the dignity of life, the primacy of family, authentic human freedom and solidarity with the poor.

Many of the approaches to political participation, both on the "right" and on the "left", were "outside in" rather than "inside out" in their dynamic. For some Catholic Christians who got involved, they sometimes ended up in the conundrum of trying to support political positions with the social teachings of the Catholic Church, as though Catholic faith was a coat that you put on, rather than the very core of our identity from which we inform all of our participation in the social arena, including politics.

Similarly, Christians of other traditions reached into their own "social traditions" and tried to "christianize" the conservative agenda. This was not unlike what some in the "left" had done a generation earlier. There really is no "Christian left" or "Christian right" there is only the Cross.

These efforts often worked off of limited principles of engagement to explain and "justify" as well as motivate social action. In some instances, a limited theology gave little basis for leaving the safety of religious subcultures and even engaging the culture at all. They often proceeded from a notion of the "world" as so corrupted that it was to be abandoned or, at most, protected against.

For example, the concept of "defending our rights" was a motivation for social action that permeated some of the efforts of certain politically conservative, evangelical Protestant Christians in both political and legal activism. Unfortunately, though it accomplished (and continues to accomplish) some good, it missed a deeper truth -we ultimately are called to give our rights away if it means bringing others to the Lord whom we serve.

Then there was the call to secure a "place at the table" that operated (and still operates) as a mobilizing principle for some grass roots political efforts led by politically conservative evangelical Protestant Christians in the last decade. This is still the prevailing model of political action that mobilized many Christians associated with the "religious right."

Many involved in beginning or leading these movements came from a conservative evangelical community that had been almost "apolitical" in its cultural approach. They moved into a cultural engagement model that ended by making a potentially even worse mistake then what they opposed. They initially arose out of their apolitical complacency to "protect themselves." That may be understandable as a starting place given their "worldview"... perhaps. However, it was -as a principle of cultural engagement, limited and consequently very ineffective.

Many Christians, across the confessional spectrum, have come to see the same limiting value of these models and are now searching for a deeper response to the cultural mission and social task, one that is first, last and always, subordinated to their Christian vocation to carry on the redemptive mission of the Lord whom they follow.

Called to be the "Soul of the World"

Christians are not simply one more "interest group" in America or in any other nation. We are called, in the words of an ancient second century Christian manuscript entitled "A Letter to Diognetus", to become the "soul of the world." Or, to use the Biblical imagery, they we are to become "leaven" and "salt", transforming the "loaf" of the culture from within in whatever country they live in.

Examining the words of the early Christian is helpful. They are as extraordinarily relevant in the first century of the Third Christian millennium as they were in the early centuries of the First Millennium:


"For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life".

Nor again do they possess any invention discovered by any intelligence or study of ingenious men, nor are they masters of any human dogma as some are. But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvelous, and confessedly contradicts expectation.

They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign.

They marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their wives. They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh.

Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives. They love all men, and they are persecuted by all. They are ignored, and yet they are condemned.

They are put to death, and yet they are endued with life. They are in beggary, and yet they make many rich. They are in want of all things, and yet they abound in all things. They are dishonored, and yet they are glorified in their dishonor.

They are evil spoken of, and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they respect Doing good they are punished as evildoers; being punished they rejoice, as if they were thereby quickened by life. The Jews wage war against them as aliens, and the Greeks carry on persecution against them, and yet those that hate them cannot tell the reason of their hostility.

In a word, what the soul is in a body, the Christians are in the world.

The soul is spread through all the members of the body, and Christians through the diverse cities of the world. The soul hath its abode in the body, and yet it is not of the body. So Christians have their abode in the world, and yet they are not of the world.

The soul, which is invisible, is guarded in the body, which is visible: so Christians are recognized as being in the world, and yet their religion remains invisible.

The flesh hates the soul and wages war with it, though it receives no wrong, because it is forbidden to indulge in pleasures; so the world hates Christians, though it receives no wrong from them, because they set themselves against its pleasures.

The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and the members: so Christians love those that hate them. The soul is enclosed in the body, and yet itself holds the body together; so Christians are kept in the world as in a prison-house, and yet they themselves hold the world together.

The soul though itself immortal dwells in a mortal tabernacle- so Christians sojourn amidst perishable things, while they look for the imperishability which is in the heavens.

The soul when hardly treated in the matter of meats and drinks is improved; and so Christians when punished increase more and more daily. So great is the office for which God has appointed them, and which it is not lawful for them to decline."


"Go into all the world"

Christians still "go into all the world" (John 3:16), because the Lord still goes into the world through them. The Christian mission to the world has social implications because the Incarnation, life, death, Resurrection, Ascension and coming return of the Lord Jesus Christ, has social implications and obligations.

Christians are called to carry on the redemptive work of the Lord by humanizing, transforming and elevating all of human society. Their first obligation is to give to all men and women the "Gospel" (good news) of Jesus Christ and lead them to a relationship with God in and through Him. Christians will always have that as our first and primary mission.

However, they also are called to demonstrate the compassion and love of the God whom they serve and represent. That is done by also proclaiming the gospel through their lives and through their service to the broader human community. A great Christian, Francis of Assisi once said: "I preach the gospel at all times and sometimes I use words" The two are one.

The Common Good

The primary purpose for the evangelization of culture and the social mission and effort is not to "protect" Christians against the "world" or even to "advance" the "power" of Christians within human society, but rather to promote and to serve the common good.

Perhaps one of the oldest references in the Christian tradition to this concept is found in the "Epistle of Barnabus", an early Christian Church document dating back to 130 A.D.

"Do not live entirely isolated, having retreated into yourselves, as if you were already justified, but gather instead to seek the common good together"

The concept requires the embrace of a vital Christian social "hermeneutic", a lens through which Christians are to view the very meaning of human existence and all of their efforts in human society. Christians should, if they understand the classical Christian faith, know that we were made for family, for community, and for social participation. They were made to give themselves away in service. This service of the common good should be the mobilizing principle of a new alliance.

Though it is derived from Christian social teaching, this concept of "the Common Good" is also one of the foundation stones of the political philosophy and patrimony of Western civilization as well. Lying at the foundation of our understanding of the nature of freedom, both personally and as a nation, is an understanding of an idea that helped forge the very existence of the American experiment, this concept called the "Common Good"

Contrary to the individualism and atomism of the age, the individual is not the measure of all things. Freedom is not found in solitude. Nor is it found in retreating into our little enclaves and fighting to protect "us" against them. This entire approach, no matter what the political label or feigned justification, is a recipe for division and despair. This is especially true when such an approach is followed by Christians- who of all people should follow in the footsteps of the one who gave Himself up for all!

Christian anthropology (the understanding of the nature of human person) introduced the very concept of "person" to our civilized discourse. It is classical Christian thought that insists that we cannot be fully human without living together in family and community. We are social by nature and design.

We are also bound to one another by an obligation of solidarity (we simply are our "brothers' keeper") and we have a duty to one another, and most especially to the poor. We have a duty to participate in the social order and find a way to build a just society with all men and women, even those who are different then us or with whom we do not agree.

To not only understand all this but to live it and help foster an authentically just and human society wherein others can live freely-- is what it means to promote the "Common Good."

Our nation is desperately in need of an authentically Christian social outreach. Past efforts at organizing and engaging Christian citizens have accomplished much, but have also failed to accomplish all that was hoped. We believe that is partially because they had a faulty foundation.

We need a new "work", a movement that understands and embodies the classical Christian view of social, political, cultural and economic participation. In short, that those who bear the name "Christian" carry on the redemptive mission of the Lord. That is our "apologetic" for authentic social and political action and public service. We are to be "in the world" to transform it.

We are called to serve the "Common Good".

The values we proclaim- and seek to both live and work into genuinely "good" public policy and discourse- are good for all men and women. They are not "religious" in the sense that they are to be held only by those who hold to a distinct religious tradition. They are a part of our common human vocation. They are the glue of civilization.

These values that "religious" people hold so dear are actually not really to be held at all-in the sense of clinging. Rather, they are to be given away and worked into the leaven of the whole society so that we may share the bread with every man, woman and child in America. In that way we will promote the "common good"

These values are founded upon a respect for the dignity of all human life, from conception to natural death. They require that a special esteem, protection and honor be given to the first cell of society, the family. They are founded upon a love and respect for authentic freedom, which includes the first freedom, religious freedom. This love for freedom recognizes that freedom isn't free! It was birthed in the sacrifice and the bloodshed of those who have gone before us. It still obligates us to one another in bonds of solidarity. We are our brothers' keeper!

We need to band together now.

While many ask about the dwindling influence of some efforts that seemed so vibrant only ten years ago, we choose to look forward. Not limited by the labels that all too often marginalize and trivialize our convictions and our sense of duty, we have chosen our name carefully.

It is time to build a new alliance for the Common Good; a new public philosophy that re-discovers and re-presents the Common Good as the hinge and the hope of our future freedom and flourishing as a nation -- and our path to authentic peace. This philosophy must inform a movement committed to true social justice, human rights, authentic human freedom and solidarity.

America is a nation that can still have its date with destiny. A unique nation, whose people, institutions, guiding philosophy and history, though imperfect; still hold out a promise for both its own people and for the entire world.

In an age when many are asking what will become of the Christian political and social activism that characterized the efforts of some Christians in the last years of the second millennium, we come together now, dedicated to promoting the common good.

In the early days of some of the movements from which we have emerged a phrase was often used: "We may not have it all together, but together we have it all" We know that this is true because what we have together is the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe that together we can better represent His love and saving mission for every human person and culture, both in our words and in our deeds, as we pursue and promote the "Common Good."

(This material is excerpted from a book being written by Deacon Fournier called "The Common Good"; all rights are reserved by the author in "Third Millennium, LLC)


Deacon Keith Fournier is a married Roman Catholic Deacon, who also serves the Melkite Greek Catholic Church with approval. He is a human rights lawyer and a graduate of the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University, Franciscan University of Steubenville and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law. He is a co-founder of the "Your Catholic Voice Movement" and the founder and President of Common Good.


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