After John Kerry’s presidential loss and their discovery of “values” voters, Democrats have tried to find religion. But unless the Democrats can engage people of religious faith who worry about cultural decline, they will continue to lose elections — even in the midst of an increasingly unpopular Bush-led war.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, at least, most of them simply don’t “get it,” as Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourner’s Magazine, puts it. Wallis is both an orthodox evangelical and a political liberal, an abortion opponent who lives among the poor in Washington, D.C. He demonizes neither Bush, whom he likes personally, nor religious conservatives. People may join the latter, he writes, “less to do with wanting to take over the country than being desperate to protect their kids from the crass trash and degrading banality” produced by America’s media conglomerates. God’s Politics is his worthwhile but not entirely successful attempt to get beyond a politics that pits faithless left against faithful right.
Wallis understandably takes aim at those on the religious right who see themselves as the Republican Party at prayer. And the target is huge. Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson, in between defending Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and advocating the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, early last year said of President George W. Bush: “I think George Bush is going to win in a walk. I really believe I’m hearing from the Lord it’s going to be a blowout election in 2004. The Lord has just blessed him…. It doesn’t make any difference what he does, good or bad.”
Robertson has long been an embarrassment to anyone who takes his Christian faith seriously. Little more positive is the political record of Jerry Falwell and many other leaders of the Religious Right. The problem is neither their theology nor their politics (though I would disagree with both in important areas). It is how they mix the two.
Wallis advocates a nonpartisan God and desires to retake a faith that has been “co-opted by the right” and “dismissed by the left.” He particularly derides the assumption that the alternative to the Religious Right is the Religious Left. Rather, he correctly contends, “the best public contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable or a loyal partisan.” Instead, raising moral issues “will challenge both left- and right-wing governments that put power above principles.”
IT’S AN AMBITIOUS undertaking. But Wallis finds it difficult to surmount two serious obstacles. His first assumption is that there is an obvious third way between today’s Republicans and Democrats. For instance, in 2003 he offered his nonviolent solution to Iraq: the Security Council should establish an international tribunal to indict Hussein and his top officials for war crimes and crimes against humanity. This would send a clear signal to the world that he has no future. It would set into motion both internal and external forces that might remove him from power. It would make clear that no solution to this conflict will include Hussein or his supporters staying in power. Sure.
Two disastrous wars (Iran, U.S.), two violent oppositions (Kurds, Shiites), years of U.S. support for coups and dissidents, a decade of devastating economic sanctions, and persistent diplomatic isolation could not oust Saddam from power. But an international criminal indictment would do the job. In fact, I joined Wallis in opposing the war and believe that the bloody aftermath has vindicated my arguments. But there really was no third way. One either had to forcibly eject Hussein or contain him. Neither choice was necessarily correct or incorrect in Biblical terms. Certainly the Gospel would seem to contradict the bloodlust and enthusiasm for war evident in some circles. But it would not foreclose a judgment that the existing evils and potential dangers posed by Hussein’s regime warranted war.
Wallis’s second problem is that he politicizes the Gospel message, just in a different way from Robertson, Falwell, and others. For instance, Wallis offers “the political problem of Jesus.” In his view, Jesus’ sermons rule out much of the conservative agenda.
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