Columnists > Voices

Whose politics?

Liberals and conservatives alike need more gospel than social gospel

Issue: "Curt Schilling: Never hide," March 19, 2005

God is not a Republican, we are told in a bestselling book. He is more like a pro-life Democrat.

That is essentially the message of Jim Wallis in God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It (HarperCollins). The book last month reached No. 5 on the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover nonfiction. Mr. Wallis is the founder of Sojourners, an evangelical "social justice" ministry, and the editor of Sojourners magazine.

Mr. Wallis argues that moral issues go beyond abortion, sex, and "family values." War, poverty, and social justice are also moral issues that the Bible calls Christians to address. He says that Christians need to attend both to personal morality and social morality.

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Mr. Wallis criticizes Democrats for excluding religion and for driving away Christians into the Republican camp. He is even more critical of Republicans-and the Christian right-for policies that he says neglect the poor and promote war.

Trying to apply lessons from the last national election, Mr. Wallis offers a manifesto for an alternative political movement. Currently, American politics offers three options: conservative on all issues; liberal on all issues; libertarian-liberal morally, but conservative fiscally. He calls for a fourth way: conservative morally and liberal fiscally. He makes the case that a pro-life, pro-family, pro-poor, pro-environment, anti-war candidate would be hard to beat.

This would be more persuasive if so much of the book did not read like talking points for the Democratic Party. The book mainly adds religious sanction to liberal political ideology. Conservatives come across as morally wrong. Liberals are morally right, but they need to stop fearing Christianity and use it instead to justify their policies.

One section of the book is "When Did Jesus Become Pro-War?" It gives the usual leftist condemnation of the war in Iraq, including the outdated complaint that we failed to bring democracy and that now it is even harder to bring peace between the Palestinians and Israel. Mr. Wallis, who even opposed the war in Afghanistan, offers naïve proposals to combat terrorism in nonviolent ways (diplomatic pressure, an international police force, and solving the problems of global poverty).

Though offering a treatise on "God's politics," Mr. Wallis says nothing about the biblical text that addresses the role of government most directly: Romans 13, which describes how God works through secular, even pagan governments to restrain evil in a fallen world. While Romans 12 tells Christians not to take revenge because God will punish evildoers, the next chapter tells how God punishes them: He works through established earthly rulers who "do not bear the sword in vain." This is a reference to military force and the death penalty, both of which Mr. Wallis opposes.

The section "When Did Jesus Become Pro-Rich?" is built around the many Bible passages about helping the poor. Mr. Wallis calls for pursuing both faith-based and government solutions. But he begs the question of what policies actually work. He says nothing about the evidence that liberal social programs do not actually help the poor but rather keep them in poverty, and that the poor fare better in the economic growth and social mobility of a free economy.

The section "When Did Jesus Become a Selective Moralist" advances the "consistent life ethic," currently advanced in Roman Catholic circles. According to it, to oppose abortion we also must oppose war and capital punishment, as if there were no difference between the life of an innocent child and that of a guilty murderer or terrorist.

Mr. Wallis does make some good points. The reason most religious people are allied with conservatives is that the secular left pushed them to it. Liberals and conservatives recognize that parenting now has to be "a countercultural activity." In comparing two religious political movements, he says that the civil rights movement succeeded because it changed cultural attitudes first, and then used political action. The Religious Right went for political success first while the culture continued to deteriorate.

The most glaring omission in this book is any talk of evangelism, conversion, and the need for sinners to be saved. Both liberal and conservative Christians need to beware of allowing either version of a "social gospel" to displace the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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