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The Religious Politics of Jim Wallis

If only he subjected the Democrats' public policies to the same scrutiny he gives their cultural proclivities.

By 10.31.05

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God's Politics: A New Vision for Faith and Politics in America
By Jim Wallis
(HarperSanFrancisco, 384 pages, $24.95)

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.

How could a savior who lifted up the poor support tax cuts for the rich? Moreover, writes Wallis, "Jesus says, 'Be not afraid,' an attitude that could undermine the entire basis of our current foreign policy." In Wallis's view, "most of the important movements for social change in America have been fueled by religion -- progressive religion."

Thus, the political vision that he advances is largely indistinguishable from that of the average Democrat. Not entirely, since Wallis opposes abortion, worries about preserving family values, and does not endorse homosexuality. But most of his policy positions, ranging from Iraq to foreign aid to welfare, conflict very little with Democratic Party orthodoxy. That does not mean Wallis is inherently wrong. But it suggests that he has not developed a new, nonpartisan vision for people of faith in politics. Whether he is right or not in his politics, Christian theology no more demands that result than a conservative result.

WALLIS PRESENTS HIS VISION as a fourth option to conservatives, liberals, and libertarians. In his view it "follows from the prophetic religious tradition." In sum, "it is traditional or conservative on issues of family values, sexual integrity, and personal responsibility, while being very progressive, populist, or even radical on issues like poverty and racial justice. It affirms good stewardship of the earth and its resources, supports gender equality, and is more internationally minded than nationalist."

One can make good prudential policy arguments on behalf of all of these positions. But while God says much about people's relationship to him and each other, he says very little about when people should coerce each other -- that is, what government should do. And this failure to distinguish personal moral imperatives from prudential political concerns places him squarely where he does not want to be: standing between Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Perhaps no where is this more evident than Wallis's reflexive rejection of "tax cuts for the rich." However, the money is not a "public good" to be spent either on government projects or gifts for the wealthy. Rather, the money has been collected from the very people to whom it is being returned. In fact, the rich pay the vast majority of income taxes: for instance, the top one percent pay more than a third of revenues. So any fair tax cut means that the rich will receive more than will the poor. One can justify progressive taxation and social spending, but one must make the argument, rather than simply denounce "tax cuts for the rich."

Similarly flawed is Wallis's discussion of poverty, both domestic and international. No faithful Christian can ignore the enormity of the problem of poverty. But a requirement that one help the poor does not authorize one to force others to help the poor. You will search Scripture long and hard to find such an authorization.

That doesn't prevent government from creating some form of welfare. But experience has demonstrated that good intentions are not enough. The perverse incentives of government programs did much to destroy families and ultimately communities. Rules such as the minimum wage and licensing destroyed jobs. Indeed, so many of the problems that Wallis seeks to address ultimately grow out of misguided government policies. Wallis worries, for good reason, about inadequate affordable housing. But state and local regulations, through zoning and building codes, have done more than anything else to raise housing costs. He recognizes that "perhaps the greatest scandal of all is the absolutely inferior education that poor children in America are subject to." Sadly true. Yet there is no mystery on what is necessary to help poor children of color learn -- that's why so many black Baptists end up in inner-city parochial schools. The evidence is overwhelming that the fundamental problem of education is a lack of competition and local accountability, not money.

HE PUSHES HARD FOR foreign aid, debt relief, and "fair" trade. Yet over the last five decades foreign aid has devastated poor nations, strengthening recipient governments that themselves posed the primary barrier to economic growth. There is a logic to debt relief, but only if the beneficiaries adopt necessary reforms and borrow no more money. Moreover, applying first world environmental and labor standards to Third World nations actually protects industries in the former, ensuring that the latter will never grow and ultimately prosper to where they can adopt such standards voluntarily.

Still, Wallis deserves praise for his effort. Today's political debate is impoverished since Christianity does not mandate conservatism. And a truly prophetic stance by the church would confront all citizens and politicians in their behaviors, attitudes, and policies.

But Wallis is better at issuing a challenge than providing an answer. He closes God's Politics by arguing that "we are the ones we are waiting for." The leaders are here. Yes we are. But the right religious-political synthesis has not yet arrived, at least in God's Politics. Unfortunately, neither the Religious Right nor the Religious Left understands that God is nonpolitical as well as nonpartisan. Instead of giving us policies, he gives us wisdom so we can work together to develop good policies. Using that wisdom is our responsibility.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).