- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2005


By Jim Wallis

Harper, SanFrancisco, $24.95, 384 pages

Democrats have discovered religion. Unless they can engage people of religious faith who worry about cultural decline, the Democrats will continue to lose elections — even in the midst of an increasingly unpopular Bush-led war. Unfortunately for the Democrats most of them simply don’t “get it,” as Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourner’s Magazine, puts it. Mr. Wallis is both an orthodox evangelical and a political liberal.

Although he takes aim at those on the religious right who see themselves as the Republican Party at prayer, he demonizes neither President Bush, whom he likes personally, nor religious conservatives.

The fact people may join the latter, he writes, has “less to do with wanting to take over the country than being desperate to protect their kids from the crass trash and degrading banality” produced by America’s mediaconglomerates. “God’s Politics” is his worthwhile but not entirely successful attempt to get beyond a politics that pits the faithless left against the faithful right. Mr. Wallis advocates a nonpartisan God and desires to retake a faith that has been “co-opted by the right” and “dismissed by the left.” He contends that “the best public contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable or a loyal partisan.” Instead, raising moral issues “will challenge both left- and right-wing governments that put power above principles.”

It’s an ambitious undertaking. But Mr. Wallis fails to surmount two serious obstacles. His first assumption is that there is an obvious third way. For instance, his solution to Iraq was to indict “Hussein and his top officials for war crimes and crimes against humanity,” setting “into motion both internal and external forces that might remove him from power.” This for a regime that survived war, insurgency, sanctions and more. In fact, I joined Mr. Wallis in opposing the war and believe that the bloody aftermath has vindicated my arguments. But there really was no third way. One either had to forcibly eject Saddam or contain him. Neither choice was necessarily correct in biblical terms.

Mr. Wallis’ second problem is that he also politicizes the Gospel message. In his view, Jesus’ sermons rule out much of the conservative agenda. How could a savior who lifted up the poor support tax cuts for the rich? Thus, the political vision that he advances is largely indistinguishable from that of the average Democrat. Not entirely, since Mr. Wallis opposes abortion, worries about preserving family values, and does not endorse homosexuality. But most of his policy positions conflict very little with Democratic Party orthodoxy.

That does not mean Mr. Wallis is inherently wrong. But it suggests that he has not developed a nonpartisan political vision for people of faith. One can make prudential policy arguments on behalf of all of his positions. But while God says much about people’s relationship to Him and each other, He says very little about when people should coerce each other — that is, what government should do. This failure to distinguish personal moral imperatives from prudential political concerns places him squarely where he does not want to be: standing between Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than Mr. Wallis’ rejection of “tax cuts for the rich.” However, the money is not a “public good” to be spent either on government projects or gifts for the wealthy. In fact, the rich pay the vast majority of income taxes: The top 1 percent account for more than one-third of revenues. One can justify progressive taxation and social spending, but one must make the argument.

Similarly flawed is Mr. Wallis’ discussion of poverty. No faithful Christian can ignore the challenge of poverty. A requirement that one help the poor does not authorize one to force others to help the poor. But experience demonstrates that good intentions are not enough. The perverse incentives of government programs did much to destroy families and communities. Indeed, many of the problems that Mr. Wallis addresses grow out of misguided government policies. He worries about inadequate affordable housing, but zoning and building codes have done more than anything else to raise housing costs. He pushes hard for foreign aid. Yet foreign aid has devastated poor nations, strengthening governments that themselves pose the primary barrier to economic growth.

Still, the author deserves praise for his effort. Christianity does not mandate conservatism. Neither the religious right nor the religious left understands that God is nonpolitical as well as nonpartisan. Instead of giving us policies, He gives us wisdom so we can work together to develop good policies. Using that wisdom is our responsibility.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of “Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics.”

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