Eminentoes

A Shifty Sojourner

Is an Evangelical Left icon preparing for life after Obama?

By 9.27.12

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The Evangelical Left has mostly been low profile this election season. Many liberal evangelicals were quite ecstatic for Barack Obama in 2008. A handful were previously George W. Bush supporters. John McCain still got an overwhelming majority of white evangelicals, about 70 percent, though down from Bush's full throttle 75 percent in 2004, which fueled fears of theocracy on the far Left. In 2008 Obama did do better among young evangelicals, inspiring expectations that evangelicals were slowly shifting left.

An open question now is whether Romney gets the same overall 2008 level of 70 percent of white evangelicals or closer to Bush's 75 percent. A recent poll from the Pew Research Center has Romney getting 75 percent. This statistic is fairly remarkable, as Romney, unlike Bush, is not himself evangelical, does not routinely speak of his own faith, and has not focused on hot button social issues that energize many evangelicals. It's been widely assumed that many evangelicals are uncomfortable with Romney's Mormonism. Any discomfort evidently is not affecting many votes.

The 2010 mid-term election saw evangelicals, including younger ones, returning strongly to conservative voting habits. Heavy Democratic emphasis on abortion rights, same sex nuptials, and forcing church groups to comply with the Obamacare contraceptive/abortifacient mandate has to have dampened whatever opening there had been among moderate evangelicals. Maybe the Evangelical Left, sensing its opportunities for a major shift are minimal, is avoiding intense engagement that would only stoke a mostly negative reaction from its own potential constituency.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners is the chief icon for the Evangelical Left. In 2008 he was prominently supportive of Obama, about whom he rhapsodized in nearly messianic terms. He is commonly described as a spiritual advisor to the Obama White House. During last summer's debt ceiling crisis, he helped organize the "Circle of Protection" church coalition that effectively sided with Obama against congressional Republicans. 

In the 1970s and 1980s Wallis was openly hard left, trumpeting the Sandinistas and global revolution. In recent years he's successfully developed a more left-of-center identity that's made him a player in mainstream Democratic Party politics while also allowing him to appeal at least to non-conservative evangelicals. Several weeks ago Wallis had an interesting opinion piece that was very nearly reasonable. 

This Wallis column of course targeted the "radically anti-government ideology of the current right wing Tea Party ideology." But much of what he wrote did not contradict what most Tea Partiers and conservative evangelicals (the two demographics are intertwined) actually believe about the role of government. Wallis almost sounded like a traditional Constitutionalist.

Surprisingly, Wallis quoted St. Paul in Romans 13, where the Apostle famously declared that God armed civil authorities with the "sword" to avenge injustice. Wallis has long been a pacifist, although in recent years he has avoided directly admitting it to remain politically viable. The Religious Left does not typically like Romans 13 or, for that matter, St. Paul. But Wallis accurately noted that St. Paul, in what is "perhaps the most extensive teaching in the New Testament about the role and purposes of government," defined the state's two main purposes as to "restrain evil by punishing evildoers and to serve peace and orderly conduct by rewarding good behavior." True enough!

As government is designed to "protect from the evil and promote the good," Wallis recalls the biblical admonition to pay taxes. He also criticizes critics who "disparage government per se -- to see government as the central problem in society," which is "simply not a biblical position." But few conservatives, even Tea Partiers, much less most evangelicals, dispute this Pauline view of government. There is no disagreement that government must provide police, courts, military, and to provide other essential services for which civil society is not equipped. 

The Tea Party, with wide evangelical support, specifically arose when the current administration increased the federal government's share of GNP from 20 to 25 percent, while effectively seizing control of health care. Their objection is not to government, as they are not anarchists, but uncontrolled government growth that usurps civil society and threatens liberty. The Obamacare mandate on religious groups is only one example of the state's oppressive overreach against religious freedom, which is central to American democracy.

Wallis said "government is supposed to protect its people," which "certainly means protecting its citizens' safety and security," as "crime and violence will always be real in this world, and that's why we have the police, who are meant to keep our streets, neighborhoods, and homes safe." A very pleasantly surprising admission from Wallis the pacifist, who now seems to cede that lawful force and violence are key to government. He likewise admits that governments "also need to protect their people judicially, and make sure our legal and court systems are procedurally just and fair." Again, very true, and nearly every Tea Partier and conservative evangelical would agree.

Then Wallis declares that the "Scriptures say that governmental authority is to protect the poor in particular." He cites Old Testament prophets and Psalms, as he largely must, since St. Paul and the New Testament do not really specifically assign this responsibility to government, though it is arguably implied. The prophets were speaking of the Hebrew theocracy, while St. Paul was mostly speaking of pagan Rome. Wallis advocates a "vision of 'righteous' prosperity for all the people, with special attention to the poor." 

Again, conservative evangelicals and other religious Americans likewise affirm a "righteous prosperity" but dispute that an engorged and constantly expanding centralized federal welfare and regulatory state truly benefits the poor or anybody else not in government employment. To what extent the civil state regulates the private economy or administers social welfare is a prudential question to which Scripture and Christian tradition give no dogmatic guidance, and about which believers of good will can disagree. Conservative religious people would argue Big Government's overreach of recent years has perpetuated dependency and poverty while minimizing options for escaping poverty.

Wallis somewhat commendably advocates "fair outcomes" and not "equal outcomes." Much more exceptionally, he derides the "historical attempts by many Marxist governments to create equal outcomes have dramatically shown the great dangers of how the concentration of power in a few government hands has led to totalitarian results." Wow, so is the Wallis of 2012 now admitting that the Wallis of the 1980s was wrong to praise Marxist revolution? "The theological reason for that is the presence and power of sin, and the inability of such fallible human creatures to create social utopias on earth," he now explains, almost sounding Reaganesque.

So today's Jim Wallis admits there are proper limits to government, which, if violated, threaten liberty. Kudos to Wallis! He even cites the "reality of evil and sin in the concentration of power -- both political and economic -- and the need to hold that power accountable to justice, especially in the protection of the poor." Government should "put a check on powerful people, institutions, and interests in the society that, if left unchecked, might run over their fellow citizens, the economy, and certainly the poor." And he concludes by warning against the "sinfulness of too much concentrated power in either the government or the market." 

Wallis's warning against too much power in the private market of course is not new but his ready admission that government can be too powerful seems like a stunning admission. Although apparently intended as a rebuke to Tea Partiers, he actually comes somewhat close to embracing their perspective on the dangers of too much state power.

Over the years Wallis has been masterful at reinventing himself to remain relevant for new audiences. Is Wallis, perhaps unconsciously, preparing for the eventual end to the Age of Obama and its celebration of unsustainable Big Government? If so, his preparation is prescient and encouraging.

Whatever the final presidential election result, the vast majority of evangelicals will vote against Obama. Ever the survivor, Wallis will try to appeal to them and speak for them, as he potentially evolves into possibly a more truly post-ideological religious activist.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.