Jim Wallis’ latest book calls for a Christianized progressive politics. But WWFFD—What Would the Founding Fathers Do?
Can a dose of Christianity stiffen the Democrats' spine, win back Kansas and bring people power to the anemic left? In the wake of the 2004 election, quite a few powerful liberals are wondering if they can frame their politics as "faith" the way the right has so effectively done. One of the people the Democrats have invited to tell them how to go about this is the evangelical Protestant activist Jim Wallis, a founder of the antipoverty group Call to Renewal and editor of the magazine Sojourners. Wallis, an early supporter of Bush's faith-based initiative, is on a roll. In late November he appeared with Al Sharpton, Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Richard Land on the notorious all-male "values" debate on “Meet the Press.” His new book, God's Politics, currently hovers at the top of the Amazon list.
I admit I approached the book with a bit of an edge, having just seen the new film version of “The Merchant of Venice,” in which the callous anti-Semitism of the Venetian smart set is rendered with unusual vividness. This led me to further gloomy instances, from the Crusades and the Salem witch trials to the Magdalene laundries and the anti-evolution policies of the Dover, Penn., school board. After all, the case for Christianizing progressive politics is not just about quoting the Bible more, or framing healthcare as a religious value. It's about lowering the wall between church and state, giving churches more power, more rights and more taxpayer money. The argument in favor often boils down to majority rule—most Americans claim to be devout Christians—but that's actually the argument against it. Look what Christians did when they had the chance! Preventing religious wars and godly tyranny was the original purpose behind the Founding Fathers' ban on the establishment of religion, and subsequent history has hardly outmoded their wisdom.
Wallis draws a sharp line between the God-on-our-side Christianity responsible for countless evils and the social-justice kind he favors. Yet the triumphalism and self-righteousness he condemns in the former crops up throughout God's Politics: "religion" and "faith" are usually synonyms for Christianity, and Christianity mostly means evangelical Protestantism. Evangelicals get most of the credit for everything good in US history, from women's suffrage to the civil rights movement. This would surprise skeptics like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who spent her life battling scriptural arguments for male supremacy, and the secular Jews and leftists who made up so much of the civil rights movement's white base. And what about the opponents of women's rights and racial integration? Weren't a lot of them evangelicals too? At times Wallis seems to be in a kind of denial: If it's wrong, it isn't truly evangelical, therefore evangelicalism is purely good. Today's robust evangelical right is the fault of—wait for it—"secular fundamentalists"! Blame it on the ACLU.
Wallis' God calls on Christians to fight racism, poverty, war and violence—what's wrong with mustering support for these worthy goals by presenting them in the language spoken by so many Americans? The trouble is, the other side does that too. You can find anything you want in the Bible—well, almost anything. Thus, the more insistently people bring Christianity into politics, the more political argument becomes a matter of Christian hermeneutics. Does God say gays should be executed or married? "Spare the rod" or "suffer the little children"? I don't see how we benefit as a society from translating politics into theology. We are left with the same debates, and a diminished range of ways in which to think about them. And, of course, a diminished number of voices—because if you're not a believer, you're out of the discussion. In this sense, Wallis' evangelicalism is as much a power play as Pat Robertson's.
And Wallis is as much a power player. By a remarkable act of providence, God's politics turn out to be curiously tailored to the current crisis of the Democratic Party. God, like many of the black, Hispanic, Catholic and working-class voters who voted for Bush in 2004, is an economic progressive and a family-values conservative. He doesn't like "pornography," divorce, abortion or gay marriage (civil unions are OK). It's interesting that in his earlier book The Soul of Politics Wallis cited numerous women theologians, while God's Politics mentions not one. Perhaps this is because the liberationist theologians he wrote about in The Soul of Politics are mostly very strong feminists who think women are capable of making moral decisions about childbearing and that abortion can be one such decision. Wallis constantly accuses "the left" of resisting "moral" arguments. I would say it is he who resists fully engaging moral arguments that differ from his own.
The fact is, "seamless garment" Catholicism aside, the denominations that share his liberal views are prochoice—most of the mainline Protestant churches, to say nothing of reform and conservative Judaism. (Just recently, more than 2,250 religious leaders from more than thirty-five faith traditions endorsed a strongly worded prochoice statement from the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing.) No wonder Wallis would rather talk about something else. Fortunately, God shares his priorities: Wallis often points out that the Bible mentions poverty thousands of times and abortion only a few. I'm not sure what this tells us--first we eradicate poverty and then we force women to have babies against their will? But in any case, Wallis is wrong: The Bible doesn't mention abortion even once. Wallis cites the text antichoicers commonly use to justify their position: "For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb" (Psalm 139:13). Say what? Nothing about abortion there, pro or con. Nobody who wasn't sure that somewhere in the Bible there must be a proof text against terminating a pregnancy would read that meaning into these words.
That so many Christians are firmly persuaded that the Bible condemns abortion suggests that God's politics tend to be the politics of the people who claim to speak for him. Since these men, and now women, have been arguing for centuries without reaching agreement on even the simplest matters, the rest of us are entitled to wonder if perhaps they are reading the wrong book.
Katha Pollitt has written for The Nation since 1980. Her writing has appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Ms. and the New York Times. In 2001, her Nation essays were published as a collection, Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture.
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