The Politics of God
A review of Jim Wallis', "The Politics of God: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It," by Dr. M. Daniel Carroll R.
Jim Wallis, The Politics of God: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005. xxvi + 384 pp. Hardback, $24.95. ISBN 0-06-055828-8.
Jim Wallis is the founder of Sojourners, a network of Christians who work for social justice and peace, and is editor of a magazine of the same name. This is an important book for at least three reasons. First, it has hit the bestseller lists—and not solely in the category of religious books or in religious bookstores. The blurbs on the back cover attest to its breadth of appeal: Bono (lead singer of the group U2), television journalist Bill Moyers, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, author E. J. Dionne Jr., and Princeton professor and well-known African-American philosopher Cornel West. In this sense, it is an interesting national phenomenon, especially in a country that in many ways is increasingly uncomfortable with religion in the public square. A second reason for its significance is that Wallis tries to present a consistent vision of Christian politics. The third reason follows on the second. The author argues for a third political way, an alternative to the simplistic left (Democratic) and right (Republican) options that have been the norm in recent elections (especially in the last Bush victory). Wallis believes that both parties have misunderstood the role and meaning of Christian faith.
The Politics of God is divided into six parts. The first two (chpts. 1-6) set forth its agenda: to offer a vision of the constructive part that Christians and their values can play in political and social life. A proper role for religion requires that it move beyond the usual dichotomies and that it combine critique with creative and workable solutions. Part Three (chpts. 7-12) argues that the present administration’s approach to terrorism and the war in Iraq are deeply flawed. What makes these policies more dangerous, Wallis believes, is that Christian theology is being co-opted to support the president and the war. Part Four (chpts. 13-17) turns to the plight of the poor, while Part Five (chpts. 18-20) addresses, in turn, abortion and the death penalty, racism, and the plight of the family and the challenge of same sex marriage. The closing section (6) and chapter (21) says that Christians must not succumb to either cynicism or despair but rather should get involved in social change with the hope for a better, healthier future for the nation and the world.
Wallis’s is a call for a “prophetic politics”—that is, an informed and firm stance which will speak from and act upon the moral values that are grounded in the biblical tradition and that are fundamental for a different kind of national ethos (chpt. 6). This is not the first publication in which he has put forward this idea. A decade ago in The Soul of Politics: A Practical and Prophetic Vision for Change (New York, NY: The New Press; Maryknoll: Orbis, 1994) Wallis also bemoaned the shortcomings of conservative religion and liberal activism and passionately wrote of an “emerging prophetic vision” that included a “prophetic” spirituality, imagination, politics, and vocation.
In both books he appeals to the Old Testament prophets for inspiration and orientation. In God’s Politics Wallis cites three eighth century prophetic books as starting points for his comments on socioeconomic and political life. “Micah’s vision” (chpt. 12) is based on Micah 4:3-4. From these verses Wallis draws the principle that peace can only come when there exists a sense of security from violence and want. The prophet, he believes, recognizes that the issues of armed conflict and poverty are inseparable and must be dealt with together. Wallis draws on Isaiah 65:20-25 to speak of “Isaiah’s Platform” (chpt. 15). By this he means that political behavior must be connected to solid religious values. He applies this concept to national budgets and public policies, which should be evaluated as “moral documents” since they reveal the priorities that truly lie at the heart of a government’s ideology. Chapter 16 has the title “Amos and Enron.” Here Wallis paraphrases Amos 8:5 and 5:11-12 to say that those in power must be held publicly accountable for their greed and corruption.
These and the rest of the chapters in the book are laced with his own personal stories and the accounts of the efforts of others, who also have tried to live out this prophetic stance. Wallis has his heroes, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gordon Brown (Chancellor of the Exchequer in Great Britain); he also has his villains: the Religious Right, George Bush, and secular fundamentalists. This is not a volume, in other words, just of theory. It is highly charged and everywhere tries to put a human face to the problems and their potential solutions.
How should one evaluate God’s Politics? In many ways it is a book that can disquiet readers. That is a good thing. It should force thoughtful Christians to think through the relationship between their belief system and their public life and political commitments. It can stimulate Christians to attempt to formulate a coherent point of view on a host of pressing issues.
In some ways, however, the book is a bit disappointing. The use of scripture is minimal and sometimes too cavalier. Wallis has the gift of sensing the moral heart of the Bible and speaking out on these forthrightly, but a more careful articulation of the biblical basis of his position would gain him a larger audience among more conservative evangelicals, a sizeable group that he does want to reach. The book also can be a bit self-serving. Readers must endure hearing about all the newspaper columns and letters that Wallis has written, the sermons he has preached, and the important figures he has met. At the same time, Wallis has been a pioneer in these areas, and this is a personal statement after his disappointment with the 2004 United States elections.
Throughout Wallis champions a third option. Yet, his personal inclinations never lie very deep under the surface. He obviously favors the Democratic Party and points out repeatedly that that party could have won the last elections if they had not been so ideologically myopic. Still, whatever his political affiliation, Wallis has done the Christian church and society a favor. He has put religion, in this case an ethically sensitive and committed Christian faith, in the public arena. This is where it needs to be. Not everyone, of course, will agree with all of his analyses and opinions. I for one, though, applaud Wallis. As one of my seminary professors said years ago, “May his tribe increase!”
M. Daniel Carroll R., Ph.D.
Earl S. Kalland Chair of Old Testament