"God's Politics" by Jim Wallis

Reviewed by Ning Wu

When Jim Wallis's book God's Politics first appeared, I was skeptical of a title that mixed religion and politics, and also of the subtitle's claim that "... the right gets it wrong and the left doesn't get it." After all, I have subscribed to what Wallis calls the "soulless politics of the left." After reading God's Politics, , however, I find that I not only agree with Wallis's assessment of the political left and right's relationship to religion, but I am compelled to rethink my own view of the relationship between religion and politics, and to ponder anew the fundamental questions Wallis poses. What does the separation of church and state really mean? What are the core Christian values and do we (as a society, people from all cultural and religious backgrounds) share these values? How would these common values influence and affect politics and society in the future? Though God's Politics is written for Christians who feel that their faith has been "stolen" by the political right and ignored by the political left, it is thought provoking, and provides a clear vision and new options for all Americans - religious and secular, left and right alike. It is a book worth reading.

So-called "moral values voters" played an important role in the outcome of the 2004 presidential election. According to several polls conducted before and after the election, 80 percent of "moral values voters" voted for George W. Bush. Numerous articles and books have been written about how the extreme right uses religious and moral values selectively to promote the Republican right-wing agenda, but few observers have focused on why progressives and Democrats failed to respond - or, more accurately, ignored these maneuvers for decades. Even fewer offer suggestions for countering the right's distortions, or how to present Christian moral values in their entirety. God's Politics fills this vacuum: It challenges everything about American politics. It challenges both right and left from a consistent moral perspective that reminds us about the poor, the vulnerable, and the forgotten. It challenges the narrow national, ethnic, economic, and cultural self-interest of America, and any selective morality that would choose one set of lives and issues over another.

Jim Wallis is a public theologian, a faith-based activist and the founder of Sojourners - a nationwide network of progressive Christians working for justice and peace. The central idea of his book is that our society is experiencing a spiritual crisis, the root of which, Wallis suggests, can be found in the prevalence in our times of belief in a private God. Wallis believes that God is personal but never private, and, in fact, that "The Bible reveals a very public God." As Wallis sees it, the religious right distorts Christian values in public, while the secular left restricts religion to the private sphere and is "very uncomfortable with the language of faith and values even when applied to their own agenda." He calls the latter group secular fundamentalists. Wallis argues that the principle of separation of church and state doesn't require banishing public discussions about moral and religious values. In his view, increased secularism is an ineffective antidote for religious fundamentalism. "… [T]he best response to bad religion is better religion not secularism," he writes. He also believes that the only way to take on fundamentalism is to take religion more seriously than fundamentalists do. Wallis writes that "It is faith that leads us to assert the vital religious commitments that fundamentalists often leave out, namely compassion, social justice, peacemaking, humility, tolerance, and even democracy as a religious commitment." In another words, both personal and social responsibilities should be at the heart of religious belief.

Jim Wallis experienced personal conflict concerning private versus public religion early in his life. He "was born into an evangelical Christian family, raised in the American Midwest and reared on Republican patriotism." From his parents he learned a commitment to social justice, though they never tied their moral injunctions directly to political issues. In his teenage years, Wallis went out of his "white" environment of church, neighborhood and school to volunteer in the inner city, and witnessed the poverty and racism there. When an elder from his church told him that Christianity had nothing to do with racial equality, Jim Wallis decided that he wanted nothing to do with Christianity. He left his faith behind and fully involved himself in the civil rights and student movements of his generation. In this book, Wallis doesn't elaborate on how he returned to faith, although he notes that it is described elsewhere. When he did come back to his faith, however, he founded the Sojourners magazine and community. Wallis has been the editor of the publication since its founding. Says Wallis, if God is not personal, then " there is little meaning to faith: no relationship to God, no redemption, salvation grace or forgiveness," but he asserts that "restricting God to private space was the great heresy of 20th century American Evangelicalism." "Separation of State and Church is not the same as separation of faith from the public life," he writes. For him, spirituality is important for a human being as well as for a society. Without spiritual vision, people and society perish.

Being an evangelical Christian himself, Jim Wallis believes that denying the public God is a denial of Biblical faith itself, and a rejection of Jesus himself. The exclusion of the public God makes Christianity into a narrow, merely cultural religion, whose only function is to provide assurances of righteousness for people "just like us." Because there has not been any serious sustained public discussion about the social implications of faith and belief in God, "we have become a nation of endangered souls, our society and politics are governed by values quite foreign to the heart of our religious tradition." Politicians give a lot of lip service to God, and powerful forces would keep God under control or as an endorser of ideological agendas. Wallis believes that the only way to bring a real social change in America is to bring the discussion of moral values and religion to the public space. "[With a] real set of personal morals values and a commitment social justice and peace, [we] could build many bridges to the other side."

In this deeply religious country where 60 percent of Americans pray at least once a day and 70 percent say that the president should have strong religious beliefs, Wallis's arguments make perfect sense. In his popular book Don't think of an elephant!, George Lakoff points out that voters vote their values and their identities, which might not coincide with their self-interest. Thomas Frank in his book What's the matter with Kansas further illustrates how conservatives won the heart of America with their selective moral values that ordinary people identify with, couched in a language that they understand. Wallis's idea is to capture the moral values of the Bible in their entirety, and to start a profound and sustainable public discourse that focuses on the essential ideas of Biblical teaching. After all, the Bible has more to say about poverty, war, and economics than it does about abortion and gay marriage.

In each part of God's Politics, Jim Wallis deals with one core moral value at a time. He starts his writing by asking very pointed and simple questions: When Did Jesus Become Pro-War? When Did Jesus become Pro-Rich? When Did Jesus Become a Selective Moralist? Then he dives deeply and broadly into the political realities of America, and examines recent US government policies. Reflecting upon the core values of Christianity, he challenges the selectiveness and inconsistency of the moral values that are held up and promoted by the extreme religious right. Wallis writes a moral response to Terrorism, on the mistake of Iraq and why it is not a just war, and on the theology of empire: "dangerous religion." For Wallis a key focus of his value system - and a main theme throughout the Bible and the teaching of Jesus - is the notion of economic justice and the battle against poverty. Wallis notes that in recent years, as Democrats and Republicans completed for middle class voters, the battle against poverty has been missing in action from American religion and politics. Wallis supports Bush's faith-based initiative in principle, because it promises equal access to government funding for effective programs. In reality, however, the faith-based initiative has fallen off the federal agenda because of the severe domestic budget cuts. "The federal budget is now for war and tax cuts," says Wallis, adding that it seems to have a "compassion deficit." "It is time for religious people to clearly and prophetically respond. We need a 'faith-based initiative' against budget priorities that neglect poor people," he writes. Throughout the book the reader is constantly reminded that social justice and the common good are at the core of Biblical teaching, and that the core of the Biblical teaching is in concert with the moral values of people from diverse cultural and religious background.