The Morals of the Story

Does Jim Wallis’ leftist, Bible-based book get it right?

If we are to take the immediate post-election analysis at face value, “moral values” trumped every other issue and concern in November. And “moral values” became code for a narrow collection of culture war issues (specifically abortion and gay rights). What is at stake in the evisceration of the notion of “the moral” in these dangerous political times? And how has the right apparently managed to corner the market on “morality” so effectively, even as it promotes policies that are on their face profoundly immoral?

Jim Wallis explores these questions in his new book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. Wallis is hardly a newcomer to discussions of Christianity and U.S. politics. As the founder and editor of the magazine Sojourners, described as “a Christian ministry whose mission is to proclaim and practice the biblical call to integrate spiritual renewal and social justice,” Wallis is an evangelical Protestant leader committed to a prophetic vision of social and political transformation. The plight of the poor and the corrosive social and spiritual effects of rapacious corporate capitalism, racism, militarism and war, and threats to the well-being of families are all on Wallis’ docket. Progressive on the economy and foreign policy, conservative on sexuality and families, Wallis criticizes both the political right and left for having not taken the visions of justice articulated by the Hebrew prophets and the gospel writers sufficiently seriously. Framing the impasse of “religion and politics” as one that pits “religious fundamentalism” against “secular fundamentalism,” Wallis presents “God’s politics” as a politically nonaligned and non-ideological third way.

Wallis’ argument is strongest when addressing specific cases of injustice and violence. His critique of the war in Iraq is exemplary in this regard. As Wallis parses it, the Bush administration’s framing of the necessity of the war embodied a “God is on our side” approach, one that is triumphalist and theocratic to its core. “To believe that your own nation is ‘the greatest force for good in history’ … and that those who oppose us are ‘evil’ is, indeed, a dangerous religion for the world,” Wallis writes.

Wallis also passionately reminds his readers that not only is “Christian” not coterminous with “right-wing Christian fundamentalist,” but more important, the Bible’s overarching justice claims demand that social and economic life be organized around the needs of the community’s weakest members. (His own lifelong commitment to living in service to and solidarity with the poor and powerless gives Wallis enormous moral authority on this topic.) Wallis challenges American Christians to examine how it is that they have managed to overlook the clear directives on poverty of their Scriptures and to embrace instead a “prosperity gospel.”

Wallis advocates a Bible-based approach to social change. Such an approach would certainly undermine the reigning capitalist processes by which wealth is each year increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer. One thinks, for example, of the efforts a few years ago of the governor of Alabama to bring that state’s highly regressive tax code more into alignment with biblical exhortations for economic justice—a move that, had it succeeded, would have introduced a far more progressive system of taxation. Moreover, the privatization of Social Security is clearly not based on biblical values, and so if pointing this out helps to undermine the current administration’s plans to do so, so much the better. And yet…

There are also good reasons for approaching Wallis’ biblical vision with caution, reasons having primarily to do with the tendency of his evangelical Protestantism to use up all the oxygen in the room. God’s Politics consistently engages in rhetorical slippages that will certainly be troubling to people outside of Wallis’ Christian frame. “Religion,” “spirituality,” and “faith” are used throughout the book generically, but also synonymously with “gospel faith,” “prophetic religion,” and “Christianity.” There are occasional token references to Jews (specifically Abraham Joshua Heschel, Sen. Joe Lieberman, and Michael Lerner), Islam (whose adherents are sometimes “Moslems” and sometimes “Muslims”), and a vague confraternity of “religious seekers.”

Meanwhile, an important foundational layer of his argument requires the acceptance of a particular evangelical Protestant theological claim about the nature and character of God. Indeed, it is in the midst of this discussion that the “evangelical” character of the book shifts from the prophetic (calling to account) to the proselytizing (calling to conversion). Moreover, it is also in the midst of this discussion that “religion” morphs into what Wallis is really talking about: “the religion,” that is, Christianity. If his intended audience is other evangelical Protestants, this elision is simply shorthand. If the audience is the rest of us, then we may have a problem.

For Wallis, religion is not one possible source among many for influential narratives of justice; the Bible is the source. (There is one place in the book where he speaks of “our biblical and other holy texts,” but he doesn’t elaborate or clarify the reference.) He does allow that the United States is a pluralist society and that it includes citizens who do not share his theology, his religious conviction, or his embrace of the Bible as Scripture. Moreover, he argues that Christians ought to engage in democratic public debate, to bring themselves under what he calls “democratic discipline,” rather than attempting simply to take over the mechanisms of the state. Yet Wallis states again and again his overarching perspective: “The real question is not whether religious faith should influence a society and its politics, but how.” Religious faith is no generic category here; it means biblical religion.

Even were one to concede that when Wallis uses the term “religion,” he means it generically, the resulting mapping of both U.S. history and the contemporary political terrain is skewed. Wallis is correct to remind us that the civil rights movement drew much of its energy and vision from the black church and that Martin Luther King Jr. carried the U.S. Constitution in one hand and the Bible in the other. But the history of African-American resistance in the United States is not reducible to a narrative of Christian activism. One need only think of other iconic figures from those struggles—Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Paul Robeson, among others—to recognize that biblical religion was only a part of a rich and much more textured and complex picture that also included deep critiques of biblical religion as well as profound commitments to radical and secular political philosophies (particularly Marxism).

In another example of epochal political change, Wallis argues that evangelical Protestantism was the moving force behind many of the great social and political reforms in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including women’s suffrage—a claim that would certainly surprise Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul, among others. Religion did play a crucial role in first-wave feminism, but neither was it decisive for that movement (which also harbored a strong critique of hegemonic Christianity), nor were the forms of religiosity (including the embrace of practices like spiritualism) likely to conform to Wallis’ definition of what counts as “true religion.”

But what is more troubling is the degree to which Wallis frames “religion” as the sole source of a legitimate political vision for social change in the United States. Throughout the book, he argues that “vision” only emerges from religious conviction and that everything else is either cynicism or complaint. One result of this framing is that he cannot describe the current regime’s program as being grounded in a “vision,” though clearly the neocons who are running the show possess quite a thoroughgoing one. (It may be a revolutionary, even fascist vision—but it is a vision.)

Moreover, people without religious convictions or affiliations are largely reduced in Wallis’ schema to complaining secularists with “no vision.” He calls nonreligious people “secular fundamentalists” with “absolutist” views on the separation of church and state, or else he describes them as “withdrawing” from “moral lessons” and “depriving” Americans of important debate about ethical issues. Wallis goes so far as to hold secularist critiques of Christianity in particular and religion in general partially responsible for Christian fundamentalism’s right-wing character. By framing forms of political expression such as protest and dissent as mere iterations of “the politics of complaint,” Wallis marginalizes and ultimately dismisses any nonreligious perspective as merely ideological or partisan, claiming for religion all of the terrain of “the politics of hope.”

Wallis is absolutely right when he attributes to religious conviction a special power to inspire action in ways that few other forms of human affect or affiliation can achieve. But such power cuts both ways. It can provide the ground for profound and even apparently reckless acts of nonviolent resistance to injustice (to which the antiwar activisms of the Berrigan brothers ably witness, as just one example). It can also become the fuel for a radicalism that expresses itself in righteous and redemptive violence. Certainly Jim Wallis’ long-standing and principled commitment to nonviolence would call him to denounce all these acts of violence. Nevertheless, certainty grounded in unbending religious conviction can (and often does) produce a remarkable rigidity that brooks no compromise. Which is precisely the place where religion and politics may not blend very well: Whereas compromise is the coin of the realm at the political negotiating table, it is often a sign of moral failure in a religious frame.

One other cautionary question raised by Wallis’ book: Where are the women? All the religious leaders named in the book are men. I am sure that they are men of deep conviction and compelling vision. But the absence from this book of any women as authors of visions for social ethics and social change is both unmistakable and unacceptable. I do not mean to suggest that “women” as a group necessarily possess a distinctive moral or political vision. Yet gender justice needs to be part of any political or ethical conversation about every issue raised in this book: international affairs, economics, the often difficult circumstances of families living under increasing pressure in U.S. culture. And gender justice, as critically important as it is to any overarching vision of social justice and transformation, is likely to be a particular stumbling block when religion and politics intersect.

Despite the various cautions I have raised about Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics, I recommend the book as a strong articulation of a compelling viewpoint in the broader political discussion in which we are all engaged at this difficult time in U.S. history. There are many points on which Jim Wallis and I will have to agree to disagree. Where we can agree is on the value of finding common ground across real political and theological differences to pursue peace and justice internationally and at home.