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God's Politics by Jim Wallis
God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It
(384 pages, $24.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Jay W. Richards
In college, I was a leftist. I was also a Christian. In fact, I thought I was a leftist because I was a Christian. My reasoning was simplicity itself: The Bible says that God is concerned about the poor and oppressed. The Left, not the Right, is concerned about the poor and the oppressed. Therefore, Christians should be leftists.
The one glitch in my syllogism was that the secular left embraced some positions, like homosexuality and the right to abortion, that were hard to reconcile with Christianity. So I found myself with no obvious place to rest on the political spectrum. Somehow I came across a quirky Christian magazine called Sojourners, edited by activist Jim Wallis. Wallis’s writings had a prophetic air, passionate and morally indignant, unlike the detached neutrality of so much moral philosophy.
Now Wallis has assembled his ideas into a bestselling book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. The book has been particularly popular with the mainstream media, which after the 2004 elections sensed that it is out of touch with religious Americans. In Wallis, they have found someone who defends pretty much everything they already believe, but on biblical grounds.
In his introduction, Wallis speaks hopefully of a “third way,” of seeking alternatives rather than mere protest, of “breaking the left/right impasse.” He informs us, as if to correct a widespread mistake, that “God is Not a Republican. Or a Democrat.” And when he complains about “religious right-wingers who claim to know God’s political views on every issue,” he implies that he has more modest aspirations.
These look like nuances, but I think they are really camouflage. God may be registered as an Independent, but Wallis is sure that any good Christian will be a left-wing Democrat. This point, despite his protests to the contrary, is obvious.
First, the book is called God’s Politics. Second, Wallis offers grotesque caricatures of conservative Christians. He describes them as “pro-war” and “pro-rich,” and claims they “ignore” biblical non-negotiables such as care for the poor. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, he asserts, are “theocrats,” full stop. Wallis even suggests that George W. Bush is a heretic and an idolater.
Third, even on issues like abortion, where one expects Wallis to agree with Republicans, he abandons his prophetic stance and offers Democrats, not a challenge to their support for abortion, but rhetorical advice for appealing to religious voters (“There are literally millions of votes at stake.”). More on this later.
And finally, he is predictably left-wing on almost every issue imaginable. Taxes? The rich need to pay far more, so that their money can be redistributed to the needy. The environment? He uncritically accepts tendentious claims from radical environmentalists. Third-World poverty? He frequently acts as if the wealth of developed countries like the United States somehow contributes to or causes the poverty of less developed countries.
Trade? He supports “fair trade” and condemns free trade, where, he says, poor countries are “at the mercy of market forces.” The cause of terrorism? Global poverty and too little foreign aid. As for pretty much every conceivable war, and especially the Iraq war? There is always a better alternative.
All these conclusions, he maintains, are based on the Bible, but his exegesis is often implausible. He tends to treat the Bible like a Bartlett’s Book of Familiar Quotations, with texts strung together to justify a barely related point. For Wallis, Mary’s Magnificat clearly means that Bush cannot succeed in rebuilding Iraq unless he shares the responsibility with other nations: “Yet if we take Mary seriously, Pax Americana [Wallis’s take on American foreign policy, according to which the United States acts without allies] not only won’t work, it won’t ultimately prevail.”
The concept of a Jubilee Year in ancient Israel requires that Western nations “forgive” all loans to developing countries (read: to oppressive governments of developing countries). The clearly eschatological prophecies of Micah, in which swords are beat into plowshares, means the federal government must dole out more foreign aid to hostile governments to narrow the gap between rich and poor.
And on and on it goes. By page 50, you quit trying to supply the missing premises.
Readers might imagine a persuasive argument for these conclusions, but from Wallis they must make do with ham-fisted exegesis yoked to economic fallacies untroubled by hindsight about the historical effects of his favored policies.
For example, he often condemns the gap between rich and poor, as if gaps in wealth were self-evident indicators of economic injustice. But economically literate readers will know that such gaps alone indicate nothing. Because the pool of wealth isn’t fixed, a healthy market economy isn’t a zero-sum game.
Wealth is created. So even huge gaps in wealth don’t prove injustice on the part of the wealthy, and would exist even if poverty disappeared. Bill Gates’s net worth is about a million times more than mine. This causes me no suffering. And even when one person (or nation) is poor, it is not at all self-evident that he is poor because someone else is rich.
The zero-sum fallacy is just one of Wallis’s many mistakes. Another of his errors is to confuse high-minded rhetoric and good intentions with real outcomes. This is to ignore the law of unintended consequences.
Since he confuses good intentions with outcomes, Wallis inevitably attributes bad motives to those who disagree with his policies. He tells of a time he encouraged President Bush to pledge to cut poverty in half by increasing federal aid to the poor. Heeding Wallis’s advice “would have brought the biblical prophets to the White House lawn.”
The President failed to heed his advice. This meant that “other priorities were just more important to the Bush administration than poverty reduction. Tax cuts that mostly benefited the wealthy . . . the war in Iraq . . . and homeland security. . . .”
Wallis does not consider that Bush might agree that Christians should try to eradicate poverty, but disagree with him on how to do so. Perhaps Bush believes that Wallis’s suggestions will harm those they are intended to help, by hindering private charity, investment, and wealth creation, and by creating perverse incentives, such as encouraging recipients of federal aid to forgo job training or to have children out of wedlock.
Although I rejected Wallis’s economics and his pop exegesis more than a decade ago, I continued to respect his willingness to swim against the leftist stream when it came to issues like abortion, homosexuality, and the traditional family. Now, even on these issues, he has almost fully capitulated to the secular left.
On homosexuality, he advises the Church to try to preserve heterosexual marriage, while encouraging the state to offer marriage substitutes—civil unions—to homosexual people.
And on abortion, he calls himself pro-life, and then urges the Democrats, not to become pro-life, but “to moderate their positions by becoming anti-abortion without criminalizing an agonizing and desperate choice.” Actually, that is the position of the Democratic party. It’s called “pro-choice.”
To further weaken the point, he compares abortion with capital punishment, accusing Christians who distinguish the issues of being “selective moralists.” Of course, he doesn’t quite equate the issues, since he calls for a legal ban on capital punishment, but not on abortion.
On issue after issue, Wallis basically endorses the policy positions of the left wing of the Democratic party. He just rejects their secular rhetoric. So when the Democratic Platform Drafting Committee asked him to testify, he didn’t challenge them on, say, abortion, but urged them to sound more biblical: “I quoted Isaiah to the Democrats and urged them not to avoid moral and religious language in expressing their concern for economic justice.”
Wallis is right to assert that the Bible and the Christian tradition have political implications and must have a voice in the public square. But the public square needs more than wooden exegesis of the Bible and caricatures of those who understand politics differently, which, regrettably, God’s Politics offers in abundance.
Jay W. Richards is vice president and senior fellow of the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He is the author most recently of The Untamed God (InterVarsity, 2003) and co-author with astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez of The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery (Regnery, 2004).