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God’s Politics

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Jim Wallis has recently emerged as a leading voice for religious liberals, much in demand since the 2004 election, when the plurality of voters who cited “moral values” as their most important issue voted heavily Republican.

Republicans pushed their version of moral values, more notably resistance to gay marriage, throughout the campaign, while John Kerry, mostly before church audiences, cited his moral vision, rooted in the Catholic emphasis on good works. Wallis claims the Democratic moral vision was clouded in the mind of the public by a small minority of “secular fundamentalists” who fought against the use of moral language in liberal advocacy.

Wallis argues that “personal and social responsibility are both at the heart of religion.” Republicans emphasize personal responsibility, while Democrats emphasize social responsibility. In his insistence on finding a balance, Wallis is moderate and centrist.

Wallis is also pro-life, and chides the Democrats for their lack of openness to religious folk who oppose abortion but are otherwise sympathetic to liberal causes. Wallis also chides Republicans for the lack of a “consistent ethic of life” among those who oppose abortion but support the death penalty. Wallis is pro-gay, but prefers civil unions to gay marriage out of respect for those who hold firmly to religious tradition.

So much for Wallis’ centrist positions. In other respects, Wallis is to the left of most Democrats. Poverty is the issue closest to his heart. Indeed, he argues that poverty is the theme which, after idolatry, was of greatest concern to the Biblical prophets. Poverty, he argues, is much more of a biblical issue than homosexuality, which is briefly mentioned in the Bible, or abortion, which is mentioned not at all. In doing so, Wallis appeals directly to Scripture, rather than to the church traditions which have evolved over centuries as the denominations became established and made accommodation with political power and privilege.

On foreign policy issues, Wallis is on the neo-pacifist left. In addition to opposing the Iraq War, Wallis opposed the use of military force in Afghanistan because of concern over casualties to Afghan civilians caught in the crossfire. Some on the left who opposed the Afghan War seemed to be less anti-war than anti-American. Wallis, however, does not fit into that category. He is not among those who saw 9/11 as “chickens coming home to roost” and he recognizes that the attackers did not fit into the category of poor and oppressed. He admits that “the peace movement does sometimes underestimate the problem of evil.” Indeed, I find his perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict underestimates the problem of evil within the Palestinian resistance to occupation.

The easiest way to understand Wallis, who is white, is to realize that he ministers to an inner city church in Washington, DC with a heavily African-American membership. Wallis views are more in the tradition of black ministers like Dr. Martin Luther King than Rev. Billy Graham. Wallis also identifies with 19th century white evangelicals like William Jennings Bryan, a pacifist who resigned from Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet over America’s movement toward entry into World War I.

Even where Wallis is radical, he is moderate in tone. Increasingly, hear from liberals that the only way to fight against the President’s bully pulpit is to be confrontational. Wallis urges those who oppose established power to present alternatives, not just register their anger. Wallis believes in reconciliation. In framing social justice in religious terms, he believes that draw some elements of the religious right toward the center.

Wallis argues that there are three major poles in American politics: conservative, liberal, and what he calls libertarian, which he defines as “liberal on cultural/moral issues and conservative on fiscal/economic and foreign policy.” He proposes a fourth option, which he admits currently has no constituency, that would be traditional on moral issues, while being liberal on economic issues. Actually, I find what he calls libertarian to be more what I think of as centrist, and in Wallis, I may have finally discovered a “mirror-image centrist” who conservative where libertarian-centrists like William Weld are liberal, and liberal where they are conservative.

This is a very original political book. Few readers are likely to go all the way with Wallis, but many can freshen their thinking by taking in the view from his unique perspective.

About Rick Heller