Jim Wallis requests that he not be called a leader of the "religious left." When I first read this plea, I figured that Wallis -- who is religious and on the left -- was making a tactical decision: The term "religious right" has become pejorative and he doesn't want the same thing to happen to his team.
As it happens, Wallis has a more interesting explanation for why he doesn't like the term. He has lots of problems with his fellow liberals. He rails against "secular fundamentalists" and New Age gurus, hard-line pro-choicers and lefties who pursue "innocuous spiritualities" while attending "Zen/Christian retreats."
It's Wallis's critique of the secular left as well as the religious right that makes this such an important book. After toiling as an anti-poverty crusader and magazine editor for many years, Wallis hit his stride in the 2004 campaign by challenging the religious conservative monopoly on political God-talk. Now there is a debate over the nature and role of the religious left, and "God's Politics" is a seminal contribution to the timely discussion.
The most thrilling parts of the book for Democrats will be Wallis's attacks on Bush and conservatives -- because his sound bites come from the Bible. Instead of quoting Paul Krugman or the Children's Defense Fund, he quotes Jesus and the Old Testament prophets. The problem with religious conservatives is not that they invoke religion too much, but that they practice "bad theology," he argues. He notes that although religious conservatives focus on homosexuality and abstinence, Jesus and Isaiah and Micah had much more to say about poverty and economic justice than sexual impropriety. Therefore, he writes, the Bush administration's tax policies reflect a "religious failure." And also: "An enormous public misrepresentation of Christianity has taken place. . . . [M]any 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?"
His attack on the Iraq war goes beyond making the obvious but often forgotten point that Jesus preached nonviolence. Reflecting on prison torture, Wallis challenges religious conservatives to view Abu Ghraib through the lens of their own views about the sinful nature of man: "The Christian view of human nature and of sin suggests that we are fallible creatures and thus not good at empire. We cannot be trusted with domination, becoming too easily corrupted by its power and too often succumbing to repression in defending it." In other words, good Christians should be wary not only of war but of imperialism as well.
But those liberals expecting to find Al Franken with a clerical collar may be disappointed -- or challenged -- by Wallis's critique of the left. He firmly rejects the idea that Bush invokes religion too much. "From the Anti-Defamation League, to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, to the ACLU and some of the political Left's most religion-fearing publications, a cry of alarm has gone up in response to anyone who has the audacity to be religious in public. These secular skeptics often display an amazing lapse of historical memory when they suggest that religious language in politics is contrary to the 'American ideal.' The truth is just the opposite. . . . [M]any of the most progressive social movements in American history -- anti-slavery, women's suffrage, the fight for child labor laws and the civil rights movement -- had overt religious roots and motivations."
He also criticizes the antiwar activists for not showing enough concern about evil tyranny, Democratic Party officials for excluding anti-abortion views, anti-poverty activists for denying the ruinous role of family breakdown and civil libertarians for remaining mum about cultural pollution.
There are some serious divisions on the liberal side over social issues. White liberal Protestants, for example, tend to be for abortion rights and gay rights, while African Americans and Hispanics are more conservative on abortion and generally oppose gay marriage. Wallis, who personally opposes abortion and the gay marriage ban, seeks to bridge these gaps; for example, he suggests that both groups could support efforts to reduce the number of abortions not by legal restrictions but by policies aimed at preventing teen pregnancies -- a proposal that seems obvious and yet never quite happens because of the polarizing politics of abortion.
The chief disappointment of this book is that although Wallis pledges to be a "prophetic voice" willing to criticize friends and enemies alike, he fails to honestly grapple with why the religious left has been so impotent.
He deals effectively with the left's failures on two of the defining moral issues of our time -- war and cultural decline. "It must be admitted that the peace movement sometimes does underestimate the problem of evil,'' he writes, "and in doing so weakens its authority and message." And his angry attacks on Hollywood for the sex and violence on TV would make William Bennett beam.
But on an equally important issue -- poverty -- he fails to tell an important part of the story. He has a nice "third way" riff about how liberals have been too lax and conservatives too strict, but he writes as if this were a new concept -- rather than one at the heart of the 1990s battle over welfare reform. A Republican Congress and a Democratic president in fact agreed to put aside that false choice between compassion and toughness and pass welfare reform -- and Wallis and most of the religious left opposed it.
I don't particularly blame him for being wrong about welfare. Lots of people were, and he and others had a legitimate concern about the plight of the neediest. But he doesn't even mention the fight or show any self-awareness about the misguided approach of religious progressives.
Despite that flaw, "God's Politics" is an important political book and an important spiritual book. Religious conservatives love doing battle with a comparatively easy mark like the ACLU or some atheist who's trying to take "under God" out of the pledge of allegiance. Wallis poses a more substantial threat -- a battle not between religion and secularism but between two different visions of faith.