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The Problem with the World is You?

book cover imageGod’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get it
by Jim Wallis.
New York: HarperCollins, 2005, 2006. 432 pages.

Chuck Chalberg

Nearly a century ago G. K. Chesterton asked “what’s wrong with the world?” His first and last answer was always the same: “I am.” In God’s Politics, Jim Wallis asks a similar question. In his heart of hearts Wallis may whisper a similar answer, but his focus in these pages is to tell us what’s wrong with others, especially those who have not figured out “God’s politics” as he has and who have not discovered the Jim Wallis version of a third way.

Chesterton’s third way answer to capitalism and socialism was what he called distributism. Grounded in his antipathy to the increasing bigness of big business and big government, Chestertonian distributism was consistent with the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity in that it elevated the local over the national, the family over the state, the rural over the urban. Jim Wallis, on the other hand, remains convinced that the American federal government is both the answer (to domestic poverty) and the obstacle (to achieving international peace).

A member in good standing of the religious (as opposed to secular) left, Wallis cannot resist criticizing the religious right, including the late Reverend Falwell, for believing that they have God on their side. Wallis asks his opponents on the right to refrain from presuming that God is on their side and to begin to wonder if they are on God’s side. Really now, isn’t this one of those distinctions without a difference?

If the book’s title is, how to put it, off-putting, so is the subtitle: “Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.” A more accurate subtitle might have read: “Why the Right is Wrong and Will Remain Wrong Until It Moves Left; and Why the Left Can Remain Left Once It Gets One Big Thing Right.”

That one big thing is the sticky matter of abortion. If only the Democratic party would moderate its position on abortion, laments Wallis, all would be right with the left. Well, almost all. To be fair, Wallis does resort to a few other minor lamentations over the current state of both the left in general and the Democratic party in particular. But his key disagreement with the Democrats concerns abortion, an issue on which Democrats are much more “doctrinaire” (why not “extreme?”) than Republicans.

So what must be done to return pro-life Catholics and evangelicals to what Jim Wallis (and God?) know is their proper political home? Wallis’s answer is to invoke the Clintonian call to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare,” even as he criticizes President Clinton himself for doing next to nothing on the rareness front.

So what does Wallis propose to do? Here the author is essentially silent. This is at once strange and revealing. When the matter at hand is Third World debt relief or domestic poverty Wallis has any number of numbers and specifics at hand. Writing like the policy wonk that he insists he isn’t, Jim Wallis can reel off problems and solutions with mind-numbing ease. You want a plan for eliminating Third World debt? It’s here. You want concrete proposals for creating a more equitable society here at home? They’re here, too.

Wallis claims to be a pro-life Democrat. Fair enough. He’s also convinced that to be such is not an oxymoron. Fair enough again. But the proof is in the details. And when it comes to Jim Wallis and the abortions wars, the details are missing in action.

Actually, Wallis might be right. If the Democrats could bring themselves to moderate their doctrinaire pro-choice stance, they would likely gain more votes than they would lose; it remains to be seen, for example, if the Democratic candidates for president and vice-president will follow this path. Wallis, however, is not holding his breath. The “secular fundamentalists” (his term of non-endearment) that control the Democratic party will not retreat. The party that once wanted to make the world safe for democracy is now committed beyond anything else to making abortion safe and legal—but not necessarily rare—in America. And the Jim Wallises of America are left to do little more than give the Democrats cover, all the while claiming to be on God’s side.

Convinced that he has discovered the ultimate put-down for putting down the dreaded religious right, Wallis asks his readers to wonder if they are on God’s side. Wallis, however, does more than wonder; he knows. If you happen to disagree with Wallis, you are likely to be guilty of practicing “bad theology.” Do you support the war in Iraq? Once again, the charitable explanation is bad theology. Anti-inheritance tax reform? You guessed it, bad theology. Pro defense build-up? Yup, it’s bad theology. Anti federal anti-poverty programs? What else: bad theology. And the litany goes on.

Wallis also claims to be a man of hope. Of course, he hopes that his third way will prevail. But it cannot help his case to deny hope to others—especially those to his right. Or to presume that those on the Republican right are less moral than he is. But that’s exactly what he does presume as he accuses the Bush administration of cynically pretending that they are liberating Iraq (even as they pursue “empire” in the Middle East) or cynically seeking the votes of pro-lifers (even though they have no intention of actually doing anything to end abortion).

Is Jim Wallis even-handed in his presumption of immorality? In a word, no. The religious right is immoral; the secular left is misguided. The Republican party pursues immoral policies; Democrats pursue failed policies. And so on.

Of course, those on the right are redeemable—if they convert. (Those on the left need not convert, save for abortion, where only a vague moderation and a charge of heart are necessary. After all, they’ve already got most of it right.)

In the end, God’s Politics amounts to is a defense of the welfare state that cozies up to socialism and a call for a multilateral foreign policy that is indistinguishable from pacifism. Nowhere does Jim Wallis call himself a pacifist. But his test for a just war begins and ends with a call for collective security. A nation-state that takes military matters into its own hands, preemptively or otherwise, is a nation-state that is automatically wrong, not to mention immoral. Wallis also makes outlandish claims for the success of nonviolent action. Such action allegedly drove Milosevic from power. Really? Such action even ended the Cold War. To be sure, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down without tanks rumbling in. But Wallis refuses to see that the fall of Communism had something to do with the Reagan defense build-up of the 1980s that he opposed at the time.

Wallis is forever pointing to the need for Americans, especially conservative Americans, to remember the mote in their own eye. If only he would occasionally take his own advice. Are there any second thoughts about his anti-Vietnam war activities? No. Or second thoughts about his defense of John Kerry, circa 1971. No. “What Kerry said about Vietnam was true then and is still true now; and it was John Kerry’s finest political hour.”

Wallis insists that he is very aware of the reality of evil in the world. To be fair, he is aware of the existence of evil and he’s against it. So what’s the problem here? Plenty. His commitment to even-handedness leads him to find evil all over the place, especially in George Bush’s Washington. Something about that mote in the eye. To be fair again, Wallis found a good deal of evil in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. When it comes to the deposed dictator, Jim Wallis is no Michael Moore. Wallis may not be a spirited American flag-waver, but his pre-2003 Baghdad was not overrun with blissful Iraqi kite-flyers. And yet he stops well short of conceding that one could make a moral case for Saddam’s removal.

On the domestic front, Wallis prefers to set up straw men and offer false choices, as in “we are all diminished when our social life is reduced to the survival of the fittest” (as if that is the world according to those on the right). Or the Democrats need to, there he goes again, “moderate” their position on abortion “without criminalizing an agonizing and desperate choice” (as if jailing women is at the top of the pro-life wish list). Or the GOP is “wrong” to see religious issues “solely” in terms of “individual moral choices and sexual ethics” (solely?). Or the Christian Right is led by “theocrats” with a “fatal attraction” for violent solutions.

Wallis buttresses his approach with internal subtitles. His section on “economic justice” is subtitled: “When Did Jesus Become Pro-Rich?” And his section of foreign policy is subtitled: “When Did Jesus Become Pro-War?” Well, two can play this smirking little game. Why not a subtitle for economic justice that goes something like this: “Just When Did Jesus Endorse the Modern Welfare State?”

Another Wallis foray into cuteness concerns his “holely” Bible. When a young seminarian, Wallis and his fellow students literally cut out of the Bible every reference to the poor. Clever? Perhaps. Instructive? Perhaps. But only perhaps. How many lines endorsed this or that government action? And among the excised lines was God’s call to Micah to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Hmmmm . . . Might that call be just as readily employed by those seeking to defend, say, America’s presence in Iraq?

Wallis is surely on firm biblical ground in reminding us that Christ cared deeply about the poor. But who doubts that? What is debatable is the question of who should do what for the poor. To presume that the high moral ground is reserved for advocates of government action is, well, debatable.

Whether the subject is Vietnam or the war on poverty, Jim Wallis’s call for a prophetic new vision is stuck somewhere in the 1960s. And, by the way, it’s curious indeed that the pacifically-inclined Wallis is not at all hesitant to throw around the word “war” when it comes to class warfare, urban war zones, or anti-poverty crusades. The word only seems to stick in his craw when he has to contemplate the prospect of military conflict between nation-states.

Wallis, of course, seeks to persuade us that “thoughtful” people oppose war and hold to a “consistent ethic of life.” A very thoughtful fellow himself, Wallis has yet to make up his mind about gay marriage. Which brings us back to that pesky matter of sex. In the name of achieving some sort of balance, Wallis instructs the left to “give itself permission to recognize the benefit of two-parent families.” This is gentle Jim at his gentle best, as he gives himself permission to ask the left, ever so gently, to move ever so slightly away from its full-bore assault on the traditional family. Could they, he pleads, at least be open to the possibility that a child might possibly have a good life if he happens to be stuck living with both parents? Wallis might have dared to inform his friends on the left that a child is actually better off living under the same roof with a mother and a father. But that sort of daring declaration is more than gentle Jim could summon as he nears the end of this book.

When you’re in the bridge-building business, you don’t want to get anybody too angry, especially not your friends. Wait a minute. Isn’t this the same fellow who not so gently dismissed a few of his enemies as “theocrats?” Maybe anger does have its uses after all.

Not that Wallis is permanently angry. He’s too hopeful a fellow for that. For starters, he hopes that everyone will read this book and discover that he and God are on the same page, because he is on God’s page. He hopes that the 1960s will be re-born. He hopes that the day will come when leftist solutions will be regarded as mainstream, even moderate, and certainly thoughtful.

Permit me to express a different hope. I hope that Wallis lives long enough to have a Bill Bright epiphany. Wallis ends this third-way sojourn with a conversion story of sorts. The convert is not Wallis. Instead it is Bill Bright, founding father of the Campus Crusade for Christ. A conservative California businessman, Bright turned to promoting a “far right” political agenda in the 1970s. Wallis tells us that he used his Sojourners magazine to investigate and expose Bright’s efforts to “politicize” campus evangelicals specifically and Christian prayer fellowship groups generally. The result was two decades of alienation and bitterness between the two men.

That bitterness did not end until some time in the 1990s when Wallis took the first step. The occasion was a Presidential Prayer Breakfast. He tells us that he approached Bright and apologized (although it’s unclear what exactly he apologized for other than for not trying to mend the breach sooner). That did it. Bright, then in his eighties, “melted” into Wallis’s arms as he tearfully expressed his concerns about the poor and his support for Wallis’s efforts to help them. Another nice story, although it’s not apparent that Bill Bright was ever unconcerned about the poor.

Who knows, maybe the day will come when an octogenarian by the name of Jim Wallis melts into someone’s arms and offers his own confession. And, who knows, maybe that confession will reveal a new understanding about what it means to have a social conscience. Maybe an older and wiser Wallis can grow to see that one’s social consciousness is not defined by one’s commitment to the federal government. Maybe the day will come when Wallis will discover that concerns about personal morality are also an expression of social conscience. Maybe Wallis will one day answer G.K. Chesterton’s ever-relevant question with a simple “I am.” So here’s hoping that sojourner Wallis will one day decide that any legitimate search for a third way ought to begin at home.

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) teaches American history in Minnesota.

Posted: September 6, 2008

All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendency over the minds of men by virtue of their appeal to the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided.

Russell Kirk

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