Virtual Voices

The Tea Party according to Jim Wallis

Campaign 2010

The Tea Party movement enrages and mystifies the political left in this country, from the president on down. The evangelical left is no different, and Jim Wallis gave voice to that frustration in his Huffington Post article "How Christian Is Tea Party Libertarianism?"

Wallis is a man of profound influence among a growing number of evangelicals who identify themselves on the political left. He has written 10 books, including The Soul of Politics, and Lisa Sharon Harper of New York Faith and Justice calls him a prophet along with the other grand old men of the evangelical left, Ron Sider and Tony Campolo. (For more on the politics of Jim Wallis, see Marvin Olasky's latest column, "Let's admit who we are.")

At the same time, many conservative evangelicals have become involved in the Tea Party movement, which advocates the opposite of what Wallis is trying to achieve politically, and which is the largest groundswell of popular political passion in two or three generations.

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So what is the great man's response? It's disappointing. He fires off rounds in just about every direction without addressing the Tea Party's fundamental reason for existing.

As the title of his article indicates, he takes on libertarianism, assuring us that it's the same thing as the Tea Party. The problem is that only 2 percent of Americans identify themselves as libertarians. There may be 9 percent who hold consistently libertarian views. But according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, the Tea Party movement draws support from 36 percent of the country. Nonetheless, Wallis spends most of his time tarring "Libertarian political philosophy."

Though he warns his conservative brethren to beware the influence of secular philosophy in their thinking, Wallis' own thinking is shot through with secular ideological assumptions, as we see in this statement: "Loving your neighbor is a better Christian response than telling your neighbor to leave you alone." When Wallis hears Jesus say, "Love your neighbor," he assumes Jesus is a progressive leftist, and means government love. It seems just as obvious to Wallis that any rejection of the ever-expanding welfare state means "abandonment of the most vulnerable." But, according to Arthur C. Brooks in his book Who Really Cares? conservatives give 30 percent more of their income to charity than liberals do, even though on average they make less money. People who believe that government ought to be the chief agency of compassion are, by and large, personally less compassionate and assume that everyone else is like them.

In the end, Wallis addresses the Tea Party directly, but again sets up a straw man by a raw slander, flagrantly violating the Ninth Commandment: "There is something wrong with a political movement like the Tea Party which is almost all white." With seeming generosity he concedes that it is "likely" not true that "every member of the Tea Party is racist." (In other words, it could be they are.) He sees an "undercurrent of white resentment" and asks, "would there even be a Tea Party if the president of the United States weren't the first black man to occupy that office?" The charge is baseless. A USA Today/Gallup poll shows that 23 percent of Tea Party supporters are Asian, Hispanic, and African-American.

The elephant in the room, however, the subject he completely ignores, is Tea Party alarm over stratospheric federal deficit spending, a concern that is reasonable, arguably Christian (Eighth Commandment), and fundamental to the movement.

Despite Jim Wallis' self-presentation as a man who has thought through Christian principles and found himself in prophetic stance against what most evangelicals hold to be just, his swipe at the Tea Party movement (disguised as a conversation starter) is a muddled-headed confusion of terms and a battle entirely with straw men. I was hoping to be challenged. I was not.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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