Political Hay

Pentecost of Big Government

Democrats like Hillary, Barack Obama, and Howie Dean gather to pray at the altar of no tax cuts for the rich.

By 7.10.06

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WASHINGTON -- Religious left activist Jim Wallis (author of the best-selling Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It) threw a party in Washington, D.C. and many liberal politicians came. Hillary Clinton was there, as were Howard Dean and Barack Obama. Marian Wright Edelman waxed poetic about "the children."

"Pentecost 2006" was the Wallis convocation, a joint affair last month of his Sojourners magazine and "Call to Renewal" political organizing arm. Pentecost, of course, is when the Holy Ghost fell upon the New Testament church in Jerusalem.

But there was no speaking in tongues at Wallis's Pentecost. Instead there was a lot of tongue wagging, mostly at Republicans. "Poverty is NOT a Family Value" was the theme.

Like most religious left outfits, Wallis's groups want to disengage churchgoers from concerns about abortion and homosexuality and refocus them on poverty and the environment. Wallis, the old Students for a Democratic Society hell-raiser from the 1960s, has tempered his rhetoric. But he still looks to the federal welfare and regulatory state as the source of secular salvation.

Wallis's soul must have been stirred by Howard Dean's nostalgic call for a return to the 1960s. "We're about to enter into the '60s again," Dean enthused, "Into the age of enlightenment, led by religious figures who want to greet Americans with a moral, uplifting vision."

Unfortunately, the Bush regime, like the old Eisenhower dictatorship, is blocking the immediate path.

"We're here [today], back in the '50s in the McCarthy era," Dean complained, "In the time when there wasn't [sic] civil rights, at a time when there was an authoritarian government that felt they deserved everything and that nobody needed to know anything."

Dean was savvy enough to issue some words of warning about reliving his generation's golden days "The problem is, when we hit that '60s spot again, which I'm optimistic we're about to hit, we have to make sure we don't make the same mistakes." He evidently was referring to some of the failed dreams of the "Great Society."

"When I heard the hallelujahs," Dean told the liberal religious activists, "I know I am at home, finally, [with] a group of people that want to praise the Lord and help their brothers and sisters." It is doubtful that Dean ever heard any such shouts at his stodgy Vermont Congregationalist church.

Dean shared hope for America as a "moral nation," with national health care, an increased minimum wage, and a protected estate tax. "The folks in this church are ones who live their faith through works -- that is the mark of a real Christian," he assured his audience.

DEAN, AS FAMOUSLY REPORTED DURING his 2004 presidential bid, switched from his Episcopal to a Congregationalist Church in a dispute over a bike trail. Hillary Clinton, the lifelong Methodist, seems to take her denominational commitment more seriously. Jim Wallis enthusiastically introduced her as "someone who quotes Matthew 25 often, and she quotes it right!" By this reference, of course, Wallis meant that Clinton rightly understands Christ's supposed commands about enlarging federal welfare programs.

"I missed the Sunday school lesson about how we help the poor by giving tax cuts to the rich," Clinton observed sarcastically. "The budget is a moral document!" Clinton insisted, repeating an old religious left refrain. "Behind those numbers are decisions. How are we going to give a boost up the economic ladder when too many tools have been removed to make that happen."

Like others at the Wallis event, Clinton warned against the seductive allure of the religious right. "Don't let people get away with nice words," she implored. "Don't let them quote scripture to you."

Clinton's colleague Barack Obama also warned the sheep to be wary of the false shepherds. "We are tired of seeing faith used as a tactic," the senator from Illinois lamented. But Obama also expressed more comfort with religion as a guiding moral force than many on the left.

"More people believe in angels than evolution," Obama admitted about Americans. "Not every mention of God in public is a violation of church and state," he asserted, citing the appropriateness of voluntary school prayer and the "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. "We need Christians, Jews, and Muslims on Capitol Hill to make objections for morality," Obama enthused, citing the faith that guided Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. They recognized that "law is a codification of morality."

But Obama also warned, "Whatever we once were, we are not a Christian nation." He wondered, "Besides, even if we expelled all non-Christians from America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools?" Likewise, Obama worried about religionists who make political arguments based exclusively on their faith rather than reason. "This is difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible as many Evangelicals do," Obama said. "To base our policy on such commitments would be dangerous."

JIM WALLIS GAVE OBAMA the "Joseph Award," named after the biblical patriarch. But the "Amos Award" was reserved for Marian Wright Edelman, for her Old Testament style prophetic witness as the matriarch of the Children's Defense Fund, which sees the federal government as the only reliable parent for children everywhere.

With her usual gusto, Edelman ploughed into Republicans for perpetuating war at the expense of "the children." "You see how quickly they [Congress] can go to war," she complained. "They [Congress] can find billions to give tax cuts to millionaires." Edelman demanded: "No more budget cuts for the poor and tax cuts for the rich." She called for prompt action by Congress in expanding the federal programs she favors: "We need to do this NOW!"

Supposedly quoting anti-Nazi martyr Diedrich Bonhoeffer, Edelman declared: "You can judge a nation by its treatment of children." (The actual quote from Bonhoeffer appears to have been: "The moral test of a nation is how it educates its children.") America under the Republicans, of course, is failing that test. She wants socialized medicine, more gun control, and a "National Disaster Policy" to care for all affected by hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.

More bizarrely, Edelman adopted the persona of abolitionist Sojourner Truth and began to speak in an attempted slave accent. Ostensibly the old escaped slave woman spoke of social problems as "weasels." Channeling the spirit of the Underground Railroad's most celebrated conductor, Edelman named today's "big weasels" that are, she believes, embedded in the U.S. Constitution. These constitutional weasels include the "Special Interest Weasel," the "Greedy Military Weasel," the "Robin Hood in Reverse Weasel," and the "Only Right Way to God Weasel."

As Edelman explained, the "Special Interest Weasel" robs poor children of government funding. The "Greedy Military Weasel" steals from the hungry by demanding money for arms. The "Robin Hood in Reverse Weasel" justifies taking from the poor to give to the rich.

In her description of the "Only Right Way to God Weasel," Edelman claimed, without further explanation, that the Constitution has permitted religious conservatives to control American religion.

"God sent the angel to Mary, Joseph, and Muhammad," Edelman declared as a rebuttal to these religious exclusionists. "We are all God's children."

Edelman did not explain how the Constitution should prohibit conservative Christians and others from making exclusive truth claims about their religion. Nor did she explain which schizophrenic "angel" was visiting both the parents of Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad.

But Edelman was an appropriate icon for Jim Wallis' "Pentecost 2006," in which it is not the Holy Ghost but big government who visits the church of liberal religion, for which politics and not religious dogma are the most important guideposts.

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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.