Here is a review I wrote a couple of years back on evangelical social activist, Jim Wallis’ high-selling book God’s Politics. This review is a slightly expanded version of one that appeared in Cultural Encounters.
In the midst of the seemingly endless critique and debate surrounding American politics and society, somehow a book calling for “a new vision for faith and politics in America” (p. xv) by an evangelical Christian has managed to land itself on the New York Times bestseller list and thrust Jim Wallis, long time Christian social activist and editor of Sojourners magazine into the national spotlight. That a book of this kind could have generated such attention surely merits much discussion and analysis for Christians concerned with the intersection between theology, culture and the church.
Wallis is no newcomer to such discussions. His work with both the Sojourners Community in Washington DC and the imminently more successful and well-known magazine that bears that name have established Wallis’ status among Christians with an intentional and serious interest in political and social affairs in America. If God’s Politics represents anything it is the culmination of Wallis’ thought as a social critic and is likely to take a significant role in shaping the thought of many Christians who are dissatisfied with the current political situation (or perhaps, debacle) in America today.
Wallis’ book is shaped in large part as a critique of the Religious Right and the co-opting of religious (and particularly Christian) language in contemporary political happenings. Wallis claims to be equally critical of how the claims of faith are dismissed by the political left on the one hand and co-opted in the service of American imperialism by the right. Wallis seeks instead to reclaim the role of faith in the public square without jumping on board with the left or the right. Repeatedly, he emphasizes that while church and state should indeed be separated, there should be no problem with people of faith bringing “religious values” to bear on public policy for the purpose of helping to fashion a more just society. This language of “values” is essential to Wallis’ perspective. He claims to welcome the contemporary debate about “moral values” believing that “the values debate should be the future of American politics” (p. xvii). Wallis even goes so far as to claim that “values will be the most important political question of the twenty-first century” (p. 26). Whatever the viability of this belief and the theological implications of the language of “values”, Wallis sees this discussion as an opportunity for “progressive” and “prophetic” religion (two of Wallis’ favorite terms).
The bulk of the book centers on the questions of war, poverty and selective moralism (here Wallis discusses abortion, capital punishment, racism, family and community). While Wallis makes a valiant attempt to be critical of the left and the right in his criticism of contemporary American politics and society, it is the right that takes the brunt of the attack throughout. Wallis scrutinizes the moral questions surrounding terrorism, the Iraq war, economic policy and race and class divisions. The vast percentage of his critiques zero in on the current Bush administration and its moral failings. Wallis sees in the reigning neoconservative regime an immoral war-making fueled by a dangerous theology of empire, a grossly unjust economy that privileges the rich and continues to exacerbate nation and global poverty and a thoroughly inconsistent stance on matters of sexual and personal morality.
There is certainly something to commend in Wallis’ critique (or at least, I’ll try to find something). The co-opting of biblical and particularly christological imagery by the current administration in the service of American ideology and ideal should indeed be disturbing to all Christians. Just as certainly, the moral ambiguities surrounding the Iraq war should trouble Christian advocates of just war doctrine and Christians pacifists. The state of race and class division in American society (to say nothing of its churches) is indeed lamentable and merits great sorrow and repentance.
However, I fear that Wallis neglects a number of crucial theological and ecclesial points that have bearing on the issues he seeks to address. And for such reasons, the book ultimately ends up being theologically vaccuous in content and fancifully insipid in presentation. Firstly, it is often unclear what audience Wallis is seeking to address. He is explicit that he is seeking to present a vision of faith and politics that should find approval across religious lines. Wallis’ use of the language of “values” and “progressive religion” seems to be striving to make the political outlook he champions acceptable to all people in America, regardless of their religious convictions (as if something as ridiculous as that were possible or desireable). Nevertheless, this is not consistent throughout the book. Wallis’ chapter on Bush’s “theology of empire” (pp. 137-158) for example, seems much more like an inner-ecclesial theological discussion. This seems symptomatic of the book’s style as a whole. Essentially it reads far more like a quilt clumsily stitched together than a finely woven tapestry. Some of the chapters are slightly edited versions of articles by Wallis that have appeared in Sojourners. Inserted into most of the chapters are all manner of declarations, confessions, open letters and memoranda which are often quite disjointed from the chapters of which they are a part. Wallis’ haphazard writing and rather nebulous target audience gives the book a lack of direction and specificity that a work of this nature should certainly manifest.
Secondly, for a book that purports to give us the politics of God himself (if nothing else, I guess Wallis has brass balls, at least when it comes to the selections of his book titles!), I was left disappointed by the utter lack of substantial theological discussion in the book itself. In critiquing American civil religion Wallis claims that “the answer to bad theology is not secularism; it is good theology” (p. 149). This is certainly right, but the bulk of God’s Politics is woefully and utterly evacuated of substantive theological content. Jesus appears in the book almost solely as a moral exemplar in continuity with the Hebrew prophets and what he takes to be their message about “our public commitments, our common life and the social bonds we share in community” (p. 28). The Trinitarian God makes no explicit appearance nor does Wallis seem too intent on discussing how or if the worship of the Triune God is necessary for harmonious political and social life. One wonders if this stems from Wallis’ desire for his proposal to obtain a wide reading from non-religious or non-Christian persons of similar political persuasions. Whatever the case, it seems that Wallis’ call for a “good theology” to answer the problem of co-opted religion will have to be answered from somewhere else entirely.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly as far as practical matters are concerned, it was quite unsettling how little the church figured into Wallis’ account of God’s politics. To be sure, Wallis holds that churches are central crucibles of social change. Indeed he even tips his hat at points to the fact that the Christian’s commitment to the church supersedes national loyalties. Nevertheless there is little indication in this book that Wallis views the existence of the church as a social and political reality in its own right to be at all integral to God’s politics. Wallis’ vision is thoroughly centered on transforming America and I fear that churches are integral to his understanding of God’s politics only insofar as they serve that vision for a just American society. This is a far cry from Wallis’ earlier work, where he argued passionately that
The church’s most serious shortcoming stems from its failure to be what the church as been called to be, from failing to structure its life and action as that new community created by the work of Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be a new social reality, a living testimony to the presence of the kingdom of God in the world (Jim Wallis, Agenda For Biblical People [San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984], 71).
This ecclesial lacuna and boringly modern instrumentalism in Wallis’ political vision may be what most handicaps the very social change he seeks to effect. For when Christian political reflection is cut loose from its ecclesial mores, all we have left to advocate are disembodied “moral values” such as the ones Wallis champions. We are then merely left to advocate and hope that others adopt such values. However, such discussions have a propensity to end up cut off from the concrete and are then easily co-opted in the service of sundry ideologies (as the religious right in America demonstrates remarkably well).
In contrast, Christian political reflection could be undertaken in a self-consciously ecclesial context, arising out of the proclamation of the Scriptures and the church’s determinative ecclesial practices as an alternative polis, the civitate dei. For it is in the concrete forms of the Spirit’s work through the Word, proclaimed and embodied in the local congregation, the communion established in the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, and manifested in ecclesial practices of hospitality, mercy and reconciliation that God’s politics begin to take shape. As Lesslie Newbigin states eloquently,
If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, if Christians are to occupy the “high ground” which they vacated in the noonday of “modernity,” it will not be by forming a Christian political party or by aggressive propaganda campaigns…It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and expose all areas of life to the illumination of the gospel. (Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989], 232-233)
If we are indeed to embrace God’s politics, we must attend first and foremost to the Spirit’s work of cultivating an alternative form of life that the church is called to embody in community. It is as the body of Christ, constituted by the Spirit, experiencing the realities of the kingdom in our midst that that we are called to bring God’s politics to bear on the world. This is what is sadly lacking in Wallis’ account of God’s politics. Such an approach ultimately seems to bypass the centrality of the church and her calling to worship and bear witness to the Triune God. As such I have no doubt that Wallis’ vision and his book will ultimately find themselves consigned to the ever-growing ash heap of books that sought to wed God to an agenda other than his own. But it is the church, the civitas peregrina which will continue on, and through which, by God’s grace, the prophetic reminder will always be present, the message always embodied, proclaiming that the libido dominandi will ultimately fade away into the nothingness that it is and all creation will find its being realized in the sacramental life of the church of the Triune God.