God’s Politics: Why the Right gets it wrong and the left doesn’t get it
by Jim Wallis
Harper San Francisco. 384 pp. $24.95
The democratic party has a religion problem. According to recent polling data, Americans who belong to churches vote for Republicans over Democrats by substantial margins; those who worship every week do so overwhelmingly. Self-described secularists, by contrast, are mostly in the Democratic camp. This religion gap—otherwise described as a morality or values gap—has set off a debate within Democratic circles.
Some argue that the party should, more or less literally, get religion. It should disavow secularism, affirm belief, and demonstrate its affinity for religious values by reconsidering its opposition to such public expressions of faith as voluntary school prayer or displays of religious symbols in public spaces. Moreover, it should, at a minimum, show more flexibility on issues that mobilize traditionalist Christians against it, abortion and same-sex marriage in particular. Only in this way, it is argued, can the party rid itself of its image as the instrument of intellectual elites dismissive of the beliefs and values of ordinary Americans.
Others, zealous of defending clear boundaries between church and state and resistant to conservative religion, argue for a redefinition of what is at issue. The party, they say, should not and need not move to the Right either theologically or politically; it should instead recast the debate over morality in terms that replace conservative values with those of the Left. “Social-justice” Christianity ought to take precedence, in moral terms, over the platform of the religious Right.
Enter Jim Wallis, a prolific writer and noted speaker who is editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine and the head of Call to Renewal, a national federation of churches and religious organizations focused on the issue of poverty. Wallis, as much as anyone can, bridges the differences among Democrats. He is an evangelical Protestant, which means he is not subject to the immediate suspicion of theological heterodoxy that attaches to politically leftist members of mainstream churches. Even if he does very little of the personal “witnessing” to his faith in Jesus that is characteristic of evangelicals, his politics can be assumed to be an expression of that faith, not a substitute for it.
At the same time, however, he is an avowed opponent of the religious Right and, for the most part, a reliable exponent of a left-wing set of policies, which he expounds in fervently moral and religious terms. Even before last November’s election he had appeared before the Democratic party’s platform committee where he was received, by his own testimony, with considerable enthusiasm. Since the party’s disaster at the polls, he has frequently been cited by Democratic leaders, and this best-selling post-election book, God’s Politics, is spoken of in highly respectful fashion.
Wallis himself expresses some uneasiness with this state of affairs. He does not deny his opposition to the religious Right, but he insists that this does not necessarily locate him on the religious Left. As his book’s subtitle indicates, he wants to place himself above and beyond ideological or partisan attachments. God’s Politics begins and ends with a plea for a rethinking of the relation between religion and public life, one that will give religion a central place in political debate. The book’s middle sections connect the “spiritual values” Wallis advocates to the full range of pressing issues of the day, from international relations to economic and social justice. In brief, he stands for a “prophetic” politics that, in his view, will challenge the standard assumptions of Right and Left alike, and lead to social change grounded in biblical truth.
There is something—though not nearly as much as he would have it—in Wallis’s denial of ideological captivity. He does reprove some on the Left for their “secular fundamentalism,” and he offers the odd jab at theological liberals for doctrinal laxity and lack of spiritual depth. He also sprinkles his leftist political agenda with occasional gestures toward conservatism: the Left, he says, sometimes underestimates the seriousness of the post 9/11 terrorist threat, while on domestic issues it is too dismissive of conservative concerns regarding abortion, family stability, individual responsibility, moral character, and cultural decadence.
But these conservative gestures are notable for their infrequency; they are footnotes and afterthoughts in an otherwise determinedly left-wing argument. The limits of Wallis’s concessions to the Right are revealed in his discussion of abortion. Chiding Democrats for their pro-choice rigidity, he urges them to be “much more respectful and welcoming” of pro-life advocates; but his handling of this issue, the only one on which he presents himself as an unequivocal conservative, is strikingly evasive.
To begin with, Wallis never mentions either Roe v. Wade or the issue of partial-birth abortions. Moreover, he makes it clear that when it comes to public policy, he opposes “criminalizing an agonizing and desperate choice.” He would require nothing further of Democrats than that they cooperate with Republicans in reducing the rate of abortion by working on “teen pregnancy, adoption reform, and real support for low-income women.” Finally, he leaves no doubt that abortion (and related issues like gay marriage) pales into insignificance next to truly imperative moral concerns like poverty and war. All told, Wallis’s challenge to the Left on abortion is more tepid than prophetic.
The disingenuous nature of Wallis’s “beyond-Left-and-Right” stance is captured even more fully in an ad initiated by his religious community that ran in some 50 newspapers during the 2004 presidential campaign. Entitled “God Is Not a Republican, or a Democrat,” the ad—reproduced in God’s Politics and elaborated on in detail—opened with an attack on leaders of the religious Right for invoking God in support of the reelection of George W. Bush. Sincere Christians, the ad’s signers proclaimed, could vote for either Bush or John Kerry, and could do so on explicitly religious grounds; the real test was how the candidates measured up on a broad range of issues, which the ad proceeded to list and describe.
These included, among others, poverty (“Do the candidates’ budget and tax policies reward the rich or show compassion for poor families?”); the environment (“Do the candidates’ policies protect the creation or serve corporate interests that damage it?”); the war in Iraq (“Do the candidates’ policies pursue ‘wars of choice’ or respect international law and cooperation in responding to real global threats?”); and terrorism (“Do the candidates adopt the dangerous language of righteous empire in the war on terrorism and confuse the roles of God, church, and nation? Do the candidates see evil only in our enemies but never in our own policies?”).
A moment’s perusal of this litany of “religious issues,” each of them framed in a similarly tendentious manner and accompanied by presumably appropriate biblical citations, would persuade any half-aware voter that God is most certainly not a Republican and that, while He might not be a registered Democrat, that is definitely the way He would be voting this time around.
In treating the Bible as a textbook in political economy, Wallis is strikingly unaware of how he mirrors his opponents on the religious Right, whose propensities in this regard he equals if he does not exceed. In almost every case, he knows with blessed assurance what God requires. “A budget based on a windfall of benefits for the wealthy and harsh cuts for poor families and children is,” he proclaims, “an un-biblical budget.” With similar confidence he asks, in righteous indignation, when it was that Jesus became “pro-war and pro-rich”? Nor is it only Jesus to whom Wallis makes biblical appeal for validation of his politics. We are informed, in extended detail, of what the prophet Amos would make of the Enron scandal, of the prophet Micah’s “vision” of national and global security, and of Isaiah’s “platform” for properly biblical federal budgets. At one remarkable point, Wallis contrasts Micah’s plan for world peace with that of Donald Rumsfeld; Rumsfeld does not come off well.
Close observers of Wallis suggest that he has, in recent years, modified the radical politics that were his from the 1960’s into the 1990’s. That may well be true on domestic issues. In his student days, after all, he was a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); the attacks one hears from him on capitalism today are more nuanced than those that were second nature to SDS, and his policy nostrums sound more mainstream-liberal than radical.
In his discussion on poverty, for example, Wallis balances his call for greatly expanded government funding and regulation with an acknowledgment of behavioral problems among the poor that contribute to their own difficulties. Significantly, though, he does not inform his readers that he strongly opposed the welfare-reform act of 1996—legislation that, more than any other effort in recent memory, represented precisely the combination of public and private initiatives he supports in theory.
But whatever moves Wallis has made toward the center on domestic issues, where foreign policy is concerned he retains much of the radicalism of his youth. Although he concedes that terrorism is a genuine threat, and that we are all better off without Saddam Hussein, that is the limit of his sympathies for U.S. interests in the world. America’s role abroad, in his view, has been one of unremitting error and folly since the 1960’s. Under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, “U.S. foreign policy has been morally flawed at its core.” In every American intervention anywhere on the globe during those years, “there was no worthy goal to be pursued, and any notion of ‘defending’ America was only cold-war propaganda.”
Wallis makes moral judgments on every hand, but it is always America and its allies that are most culpable. In the Middle East, for example, the U.S. has blocked opportunities for peace by its one-sided support of Israel. Palestinian terror is wrong, but not nearly so wrong as the disproportionate “state terrorism” practiced by the Israelis. Wallis’s favorite analogy for the Israel-Palestinian situation is South Africa before the fall of apartheid.
Such wretched political judgments are offensive enough in themselves; they are intolerable when garbed in moral and religious language. And this makes one wonder whether the Democrats are wise to anoint Jim Wallis as their favorite theologian. His modestly revised social gospel may serve some of the party’s purposes, but his habit of wrapping politics in religion is the very inclination that liberal Democrats so fervently denounce in others. And for a party already suspected of fecklessness on issues of foreign policy and national security, it would hardly seem prudent to select as its moral paladin a man who makes George McGovern look like a hard-liner.