God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get Itby Jim Wallis
Harper San Francisco
416 Pages, $32.95 (Cdn)
Review by David Bolton
Jim Wallis is the founder and editor of the magazine Sojourners. He is also convener and president of Call to Renewal, an evangelical political action group created out of Wallis’s perceived need to present an alternative viewpoint to the dominant conservative political agenda in the U.S. – represented by groups such as the Christian Coalition.
Wallis’s political stance confuses the religious right in the U.S., who often stereotype American Christians as loyal Republicans. And, despite being described by Republican commentators as “leader of the faith-based left,” Wallis irritates the many Democrats who are pushing a secular-humanist agenda that seeks to deny people of faith access to the public square – something that Wallis, and many others, show was not intended by the country’s founding fathers when they wrote into the Constitution the principle of separation of church and state.
While many evangelical Christians do identify themselves with the political right, there has emerged, especially within the last 30 years, a growing evangelical coalition that is actively concerned with peace and social justice, instead of the more hawkish policies of the right. Many Christians, such as the majority of Roman Catholics, historically have voted Democrat, because of progressive policies on social issues such as welfare and health care. But, as the party distanced itself from its faith-based begininings and adopted a more secular view on family and life issues, many Christians began questioning their loyalty to the Democratic party, while still holding values consistent with the Gospel.
Wallis was raised in a Midwest evangelical family. His faith made him sensitive to the injustices in society. As a teenager, he began questioning racial segregation in his church and community, which led him into the black churches and neighbourhoods of inner-city Detroit. He became active in the peace and equal rights movements while at Michigan State University in the 1960s. As an evangelical, he became disheartened with the way many modern evangelicals had adopted the materialism of American culture.
The Call to Renewal network has, for 10 years, brought together people from African-American, evangelical, Catholic, Pentecostal, and mainline Protestant churches to work toward overcoming poverty. Under Wallis’s leadership, Call to Renewal has convened five National Roundtables on Churches and Poverty for national religious leaders and held five successful National Summit meetings with top government leaders. In February 2000, 60 national Christian leaders endorsed Call to Renewal’s “Covenant and 10-Year Campaign to Overcome Poverty.”
God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It sat on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for weeks. In the book, Wallis lays out his manifesto for social action by those faith filled voter-citizens who feel the “Christian Right” is just a one- or two-trick – read issue – pony. he concentrates on the hot-button topics of abortion and same-sex rights and “marriage.”
Wallis is hardly a newcomer to discussions of Christianity and U.S. politics, being a political and social activist since college. Describing his mission with Call to Renewal as “a Christian ministry whose mission is to proclaim and practise the biblical call to integrate spiritual renewal and social justice,” Wallis is committed to a prophetic vision of social and political transformation. God’s Politics is hard to categorize. Secular liberals and religious conservatives will find things to both comfort and alarm them. Wallis proposes a new sort of politics, the name of which serves as the title of the book, by which these disparities are reconciled and progressive causes are paired with spiritual guidance for the betterment of society, while conserving the good things of the past.
While the right in America has hijacked the language of faith to prop up what is begining to sound every day as a more imperialistic political agenda – an agenda not all people of faith support – the left hasn’t done much better. The left has largely ignored, and even denigrated, faith and has continually separated moral discourse and personal ethics from public policy. “Keeping your religion private as well personal,” as Wallis puts it. He contends that while one should keep religion personal, a person should not separate how his beliefs inform his actions, by keeping it private.
While the right argues that God’s way is its way, even if it means innocent casualties of modern warfare suffer, the left pursues an unrealistic separation of religious values from morally grounded political leadership, in the name of church-state separation. The result leads to a choice between the ideological religious right stretching the idea of a just war a little thin, or the amoral, even immoral, politics of the far left.
Wallis argues that America’s separation of church and state does not require banishing moral and religious values from the public square. In fact, he believes the very survival of America’s social fabric depends on such values and vision being put to use by the people, in order to shape the political will of leaders.
Wallis presents God’s Politics as a politically non-aligned and non-ideological third way. He advocates a Bible-based approach to social change. Such an approach would certainly undermine the reigning capitalist processes by which wealth is each year increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer. Using the examples of Martin Luther King, Ghandi and Nelson Mandela as people who led great movements based on non-violent civil and social action, Wallis calls for more than just talk.
Wallis has harsh words for the current U.S. administration. Much of his disapproval stems from wide, deep disagreement about policy decisions both foreign and domestic, war and poverty instead of war on poverty. Wallis approaches his quarrel with these policies by always going back to his reading of the Gospel to inform his view of a just society. However, his most severe condemnation is reserved for the way the right has hijacked religious language and issues to manipulate its own political ends. Wallis takes President Bush, as well as the big televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, to task for promoting a religion that confuses the Gospel with America, a religion that is more nationalist than Christian. As a brother in Christ, and as a leader in the American church, Wallis calls out President Bush for advancing a “theology of empire,” which speaks the language of the devout, but has the soul of the capitalist.
Crowds are turning out in record numbers to hear Wallis speak at churches and cathedrals, top seminaries, leading hospitals and Christian colleges. Among his most recent stops were Johns Hopkins Institute for Spirituality and Medicine, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Fort Street Presbyterian Church in Detroit, and Wheaton College, considered one of the finest evangelical seminaries, as well as Fuller Theological Seminary, the fastest-growing evangelical seminary in the U.S. He’s been seen on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and PBS.
Jim Wallis threatens political party entrenchment by challenging Americans to rethink the connection between morality, biblical teachings and government policies.
As he said in his reply to critic Chuck Colson, “My message to both liberals and conservatives is that protecting life is indeed a seamless garment. Protecting unborn life is important. Opposing unjust wars that take human life is important. And supporting anti-poverty programs is important. Neither party gets it right; each has perhaps half of the answer. My message and my challenge are to bring them together.”
The challenge ahead for liberals is to get secular Democrats to understand the importance of Jim Wallis’s words. And to get far right voters to accept that God is not just for Republicans. There are many important issues to be addressed besides abortion and same-sex “marriage,” important as these issues are.
Beneath the strong convictions felt by many Christians on abortion is something deeper than politics. The most thoughtful ones speak about, as did Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, “a consistent ethic of life” that derives from the heart of Catholic social teaching. This clearly linked the “life issues” of abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, nuclear weapons, poverty and racism as critical components. Catholic bishops themselves teach against single-issue voting, which focuses on only one concern, such as abortion, to the neglect of all the rest.
The tragedy is, in America today, one can’t vote for a consistent ethic of life. Republicans stress some life issues, Democrats others, while both violate the seamless garment of life on several vital matters. But the consistent life ethic still serves as an invaluable guideline by which to evaluate all political candidates and parties.
Although God’s Politics specifically speaks about the U.S. political scene, Wallis’s ideas are applicable across the globe. After all, its just basically Christianity in action.
“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40).