A third of the way through God's Politics, Jim Wallis takes aim at George W. Bush for using "religious language more than any president in U.S. history." The problem is not the mixture of religion and politics but that the president's quotations from the Bible are "either taken out of context or ... employed in ways quite different from their original meaning" (142). The result is a "we are right and they are wrong" theology that justifies the expansion of the American empire and "confuses the identity of the nation with the church, and God's purposes with the mission of the American empire" (149). The trouble is that the author of God's Politics is as guilty of these errors as the president.
Wallis's aim in this book is not entirely off. He wants to move the political debate beyond the fundamentalism of the religious right and secular left. (He also mentions a third option, libertarianism, but doesn't devote any space to the "leave me alone and don't spend my money option.") The solution to the bad theology of the right is not secularism, but rather the "good" theology of prophetic politics. This position involves being "conservative" on the family, sexual integrity, and personal responsibility, and "progressive, populist, or even radical" on race, poverty, and war. This is not a crazy outlook and although the major political parties tend to split the traditional and radical pieces of Wallis's vision for their own electoral interests, God's Politics makes some headway in suggesting that some voters prefer not to have to choose between family values and race, or between sexual restraint and tax relief for the poor. The trouble with the book is that it does not sustain an argument. Instead, Wallis patches together various statements, talks, and letters he has authored or signed, mixes them with personal stories, and overlays these elements with assertions and foot stomping. Wallis's position must be true. But if you are looking for persuasion, you will have to read another book.
Yet, the main problem is that Wallis's political blend covers only two parts of the mix, and not the substantial ones at that. The significant and most dubious assertion in God's Politics is that these political ideals are those of Jesus. In a brief reference to the question of violence, he writes, "'What would Jesus do?'-and gets quickly to the heart of the violence debate. "It's always striking to me that when I listen to the Christian fundamentalist justifications for violence I don't hear them asking the question." Wallis adds, "Perhaps the teachings of Jesus most unpopular with Christian fundamentalists ... are his statements about loving our enemies and not just seeing the 'specks' in your adversary's eye, but also the 'log' in your own" (68).
But Wallis's reading of Scripture is equally selective. He fails to mention the God-directed violence of Old Testament saints even while citing approvingly Israel's prophets about the poor. Nor does he consider the sort of "violence" that may be coming on the day of judgment when the exaltation of Christ reaches its zenith. At the same time, while citing chapter and verse on poverty and nonviolence, Wallis is unusually timid in citing Scripture when addressing the topics of gay marriage and the death penalty, which suggests that his reading of Scripture may owe more to his politics than to what Jesus did or said. In fact, the "integral link" between personal ethics (conservative) and social justice (radical) is a political outlook shared not only by Protestants and Roman Catholics, but also by Jews and Muslims who are also guided by "an active faith." When was the last time the Israelis or Saudis asked "What would Jesus do"?
In the end, Wallis's case for the "good" theology of the religious left is no better than the "bad" theology of the religious right. Neither side seems to have heard the first lecture of Hermeneutics 101, which says that clear passages of Scripture should interpret the obscure ones. In which case, when trying to figure out what Jesus would do about politics, the careful reader of Scripture may actually go to one of the few places where our Lord actually talked about the state, such as when he advised rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's. That position may not make Christ a secularist, but it is a long way from justifying either free markets or welfare on biblical teaching.
On the back of Wallis's book is the phrase that some Americans are sporting on their bumpers-"God is not a Republican ... or a Democrat." That Wallis cannot even imagine that God's politics may be Divine-Right Monarchist says a lot about his narrow reading, not only of American politics, but also the Bible.
Darryl G. Hart is Director of Fellowship Programs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (Wilmington, Delaware) and author of several books including, John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist (P&R, 2005) and A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State (Ivan R. Dee, 2006).
Issue: "The Romans Revolution" Jan./Feb. 2006 Vol. 15 No. 1 Page number(s): 22
You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. We do not allow reposting an article in its entirety on the Internet. We request that you link to this article from your website. Any exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by Modern Reformation (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: This article originally appeared in the [insert current issue date] edition of Modern Reformation and is reprinted with permission. For more information about Modern Reformation, visit www.modernreformation.org or call (800) 890-7556. All rights reserved.