At Work & Public Square

Toward a Richer View of Human Flourishing for All

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Flourishing is a deeply embedded desire for all human beings. Dr. Anne Bradley has said, “There is a universal longing, a desire transcending tribe, tongue, and nation that sits at the core of every human heart. It’s a desire for thriving. For blessedness. For fullness of life. For flourishing.”

I recently interviewed Dr. Rachel Ferguson, co-author of a new book, Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America. Part One of our conversation focused on how freedoms for Black Americans have been violated throughout history.

Naturally, the discussion turned to how limiting freedoms of people impact their flourishing. That is the subject of Part Two of our conversation below.

How did your Christian worldview influence how you thought about and talked about flourishing?

Dr. Ferguson: I hang out with a lot of libertarians, but one problem that libertarians can have—especially in the twenty-first century—is that they have too thin of a vision of what it takes to have a good human life. They don’t want to have strong opinions of different peoples’ ways of doing things, but the fact of the matter is that’s not the classical liberal tradition.

The classical liberal tradition has been pretty rich in its account of human flourishing, and it’s not hyper individualistic—it’s individualistic, but not hyper individualistic. We know that the individual may be the best subject for the law. For instance, it’s the right place to draw lines around criminality and things like that. We want individuals to be free, but we also know that individuals can only flourish in a good community. That’s how children are best raised. Those of us who are in business need flourishing networks full of honest people who are ethical and thoughtful. Any of us who have a heart know that much of what we will need in order to take care of people on the edges of our society goes well beyond what a check in the mail or a government policy can do. It requires personal interaction. 

We need to have a richer account of a good human life, and I think when we look at the Black community and its history in America, that is really obvious. Because in their case, not only do you not have government policies helping you, you have government policies hurting you, pretty consistently through decades and decades. 

This has created the Black “group economy”—that’s the network, the fraternal societies, the business leagues, all of these organizations that are Black people coming together to support one another in order to overcome a lot of very real obstacles that they have had to face. This is such a rich tradition of civil society institutions in Black America, especially when considered through a religious lens, particularly in the Protestant Christian tradition. 

What would be a good framework for people to use when they’re approaching these issues and navigating through the rhetoric from both sides?

Dr. Ferguson: One of the points that I make a lot, and that I think is very helpful, is to make a distinction between proximate causes and non-proximate causes. I actually think that some people on the Left and some people on the Right could bring their stories together in a helpful way. Here’s one example.

People on the Left will say that there are all these racist policies that got us to where we are today. And that’s kind of true. If you go back and look, you will see things that were being built were destroyed, and efforts that were being made were destroyed, and Black people that were lifting themselves up by their bootstraps had their towns destroyed. A lot of this is true! And the idea that there’s going to be no fallout from that is ridiculous. Of course there’s going to be an economic fallout from that. You get ahead economically by having a strong community. If you break up the community, then you undermine the economic growth. Conservatives, and especially conservative Christians, need to be able to talk intelligently about that history.

It’s also true that one of the things the destruction caused—and I’ll include the destruction caused by the welfare state here because there really is a terribly perverse set of incentives being created by the welfare state—is fatherlessness in the home. Now you have a problem and the solution is not necessarily to go back and deal with something fifty years ago that we may have already done, we may have already adjusted the laws.

The solution is to turn to our more politically progressive Christian friends, and say, “Fatherlessness is a problem that we have to address directly because it’s the proximate cause of the issues that inner-city Black people and rural white people are having today.” That’s not a stereotype, I’m talking about a particular subsection of each of our races. 

So it’s a challenge to both sides to actually be responsive to the other one’s point. Both sides can do this because one is talking about the non-proximate cause (economic fallout) and one is talking about the proximate cause (fatherlessness). 

What are some specific action items you would recommend to conservative Christians?

Dr. Ferguson: I want to turn back to my conservative Christian friends and say to them: “If you want to talk about something like fatherlessness, then I certainly hope that you’re going to be mentoring a young dad, mentoring kids, taking kids to prison to see their dads and keep up the relationships, and things like that. And that you’re not just tut-tutting someone for the situation they’re in, but rather lifting them out of it.” 

I think sometimes temperamentally, conservatives can be very good at the analysis part but not as good at the action part. Whereas temperamentally, leftists are not as good at the analysis part but they’re better at the action part. So we may need to get outside of our comfort zone when it comes to our personality types to do the right thing.

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