[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'God's Politics': The Religious Left
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The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > 'God's Politics': The
[First chapter appended.]
By RYAN LIZZA
Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It.
by Jim Wallis.
384 pp. HarperSanFrancisco. $24.95.
FROM abolition to woman suffrage to civil rights, the leaders of
America's most successful liberal crusades have turned to the Bible to
justify their causes. But the history of the religious left seems to
stop in 1968, the endpoint of Martin Luther King's movement as well as
the starting point of a decades-long trend by which Democrats have
become the secular party and Republicans the religious party. After
three bruising national elections that can at least partly be
explained by the party's failure to connect with religious voters,
Democrats are suddenly rediscovering their past.
Their prophet is Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian who has become
almost synonymous with the religious left, a sort of Pat Robertson for
liberals. Through Sojourners, the political magazine he edits, six
previous books and countless columns and speaking appearances, he has
become the leading voice urging Democrats to embrace a politics rooted
in the Bible.
In ''God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't
Get It,'' Wallis has a simple message for Democrats: rather than
challenging the right's piety, challenge the right's theology.
''Conventional wisdom suggests that the antidote to religious
fundamentalism is more secularism,'' he says. ''But that is a very big
mistake. The best response to bad religion is better religion, not
Many liberals admonish President Bush for his use of religious
language. Wallis is one of the few on the left to question the
accuracy of Bush's biblical allusions, which he maintains ''are too
often either taken out of context or, worse yet, employed in ways
quite different from their original meaning.'' And instead of
attacking conservatives for bringing religion into the public square,
Wallis attacks conservatives for reducing the Christian policy agenda
to abortion and gay marriage. After all, the Bible has far more to say
about poverty, economics and war than it does about the right's two
favorite wedge issues.
Wallis's politics are hardly ideal for all Democrats. The party has a
religion problem and a national security problem. Wallis's instincts
on terrorism -- despite his useful rejoinder to the moral relativism
of those on the left who refuse to believe Al Qaeda is a greater
threat to the world than American foreign policy -- are dovish, when
the Democrats' trouble is that they aren't seen as hawkish enough. On
social policy, he advises the party to de-emphasize abortion rights
and gay marriage, show more tolerance toward those opposed to abortion
and reach out to religious voters who are not on the right but are
concerned about the general coarseness of American culture. On
economics, he makes a biblically based argument for a more populist
and anticorporate agenda. At a minimum, any Democrat running for
election in a red state should read this book.
And to liberals wary of any prescription that includes more religion
in politics, and to those worried that his evangelical Christianity is
not ecumenical, Wallis makes an important point rarely heard on the
religious right. ''We bring faith into the public square when our
moral convictions demand it,'' he writes. ''But to influence a
democratic society, you must win the public debate about why the
policies you advocate are better for the common good. That's the
democratic discipline religion has to be under when it brings its
faith to the public square.'' It is a reminder that Martin Luther King
may have had a Bible in one hand, but he had the Constitution in the
Ryan Lizza is a senior editor at The New Republic.
First Chapter: 'God's Politics'
By JIM WALLIS
Take Back the Faith
Co-opted by the Right, Dismissed by the Left
Many of us feel that our faith has been stolen, and it's time to take
it back. In particular, an enormous public misrepresentation of
Christianity has taken place. And because of an almost uniform media
misperception, many people around the world now think Christian faith
stands for political commitments that are almost the opposite of its
true meaning. How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich,
pro-war, and only pro-American? What has happened here? And how do we
get back to a historic, biblical, and genuinely evangelical faith
rescued from its contemporary distortions? That rescue operation is
even more crucial today, in the face of a deepening social crisis that
cries out for more prophetic religion.
Of course, nobody can steal your personal faith; that's between you
and God. The problem is in the political arena, where strident voices
claim to represent Christians when they clearly don't speak for most
of us. It's time to take back our faith in the public square,
especially in a time when a more authentic social witness is
The religious and political Right gets the public meaning of religion
mostly wrong - preferring to focus only on sexual and cultural issues
while ignoring the weightier matters of justice. And the secular Left
doesn't seem to get the meaning and promise of faith for politics at
all-mistakenly dismissing spirituality as irrelevant to social change.
I actually happen to be conservative on issues of personal
responsibility, the sacredness of human life, the reality of evil in
our world, and the critical importance of individual character,
parenting, and strong "family values." But the popular presentations
of religion in our time (especially in the media) almost completely
ignore the biblical vision of social justice and, even worse, dismiss
such concerns as merely "left wing."
It is indeed time to take back our faith.
Take back our faith from whom? To be honest, the confusion comes from
many sources. From religious right-wingers who claim to know God's
political views on every issue, then ignore the subjects that God
seems to care the most about. From pedophile priests and cover-up
bishops who destroy lives and shame the church. From television
preachers whose extravagant lifestyles and crass fund-raising tactics
embarrass more Christians than they know. From liberal secularists who
want to banish faith from public life and deny spiritual values to the
soul of politics. And even from liberal theologians whose cultural
conformity and creedal modernity serve to erode the foundations of
historic biblical faith. From New Age philosophers who want to make
Jesus into a nonthreatening spiritual guru. And from politicians who
love to say how religious they are but utterly fail to apply the
values of faith to their public leadership and political policies.
It's time to reassert and reclaim the gospel faith - especially in our
public life. When we do, we discover that faith challenges the powers
that be to do justice for the poor, instead of preaching a "prosperity
gospel" and supporting politicians who further enrich the wealthy We
remember that faith hates violence and tries to reduce it and exerts a
fundamental presumption against war, instead of justifying it in God's
name. We see that faith creates community from racial, class, and
gender divisions and prefers international community over nationalist
religion, and we see that "God bless America" is found nowhere in the
Bible. And we are reminded that faith regards matters such as the
sacredness of life and family bonds as so important that they should
never be used as ideological symbols or mere political pawns in
The media like to say, "Oh, then you must be the religious Left?" No,
not at all, and the very question is the problem. Just because a
religious Right has fashioned itself for political power in one
utterly predictable ideological guise does not mean that those who
question this political seduction must be their opposite political
counterpart. The best public contribution of religion is precisely not
to be ideologically predictable or a loyal partisan. To always raise
the moral issues of human rights, for example, will challenge both
left and right-wing governments that put power above principles.
Religious action is rooted in a much deeper place than "rights" - that
place being the image of God in every human being.
Similarly, when the poor are defended on moral or religious grounds,
it is certainly not "class warfare," as the rich often charge, but
rather a direct response to the overwhelming focus on the poor in the
Scriptures, which claim they are regularly neglected, exploited, and
oppressed by wealthy elites, political rulers, and indifferent
affluent populations. Those Scriptures don't simply endorse the social
programs of the liberals or the conservatives, but they make it clear
that poverty is indeed a religious issue, and the failure of political
leaders to help uplift the poor will be judged a moral failing.
It is precisely because religion takes the problem of evil so
seriously that it must always be suspicious of too much concentrated
power - politically and economically - either in totalitarian regimes
or in huge multinational corporations that now have more wealth and
power than many governments. It is indeed our theology of evil that
makes us strong proponents of both political and economic democracy -
not because people are so good, but because they often are not and
need clear safeguards and strong systems of checks and balances to
avoid the dangerous accumulations of power and wealth.
It's why we doubt the goodness of all superpowers and the
righteousness of empires in any era, especially when their claims of
inspiration and success invoke theology and the name of God. Given the
human tendencies of military and political power for self-delusion and
deception, is it any wonder that hardly a religious body in the world
regards the ethics of unilateral and preemptive war as "just"?
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