February 10, 2005
A vocal and influential group is pushing for an evangelical Christian hegemony in American life, and I, for one, have absolutely no problem with that idea. That's right, bring on the evangelicals -- as long as they are all like Jim Wallis.
If you don't know Jim Wallis, you'll have a wonderful opportunity to do so by hearing him speak in Beverly Hills on Feb. 20, or by buying his new book, "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It" (Harper San Francisco).
I met Wallis once, 23 years ago. I was writing a book on community land trusts with an old friend of his, Chuck Matthei. Matthei told me that no single person in America had a more perceptive take on faith and social policy than Wallis, the founder of Sojourners magazine. As a young, prejudiced Jew, I couldn't imagine an evangelical Christian who wasn't a glassy-eyed born again or a fire-and-brimstone abortion doctor-slayer. But here was Wallis: pragmatic, incisive, willing to walk the walk -- he was living and working in inner-city Washington, D.C., then, and still is -- but firmly grounded in the realities of politics and governance. A federal budget, he explained to me at the height of Reaganonomics, is a profoundly spiritual document. It reveals a nation's priorities on all the issues the biblical prophets and Jesus considered of crucial importance to our souls: how we treat the less fortunate, how we apportion wealth, how we care for the sick and needy, how we treat God's green earth. Take scissors to the Bible and the Gospels and cut out every exhortation on these matters, Wallis said, you'd end up with confetti.
Throughout the '80s and '90s, Wallis' voice was drowned out, on the one hand by the political triumphalism of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed, and on the other hand by the knee-jerk secularism of the left. But the 2004 election gave Wallis a tad more leverage.
The bruised and beaten left now realizes that grace before meals doesn't mean watching Debra Messing in syndication. The Christian right -- well, a small number of them, anyway -- now realize that just because there's a God-fearing Christian in the Oval Office, and participants at the National Prayer Breakfast are told, as they were this past week, that "Jesus transcends all religions," and that nearly half the U.S. Congress before the recent election are backed by the religious right -- doesn't mean the Lord's will is being done here on earth.
If some people are bound and determined to preach Gospel from Washington, Wallis wants to make clear he has a very different idea of "What Would Jesus Do?" The problem with the economic and political agenda of the religious right, he writes in "God's Politics," is that most people know what the Bible says about wealth and poverty, "and the conformity of many conservative evangelical leaders to the political right and its agenda that favors the wealthy over the poor and middle class just doesn't make any sense to them."
Wallis' voice is a challenge to the right and left -- and a salve to those of us caught watching the two sides thwack the ideological ball back and forth.
"In politics," he writes, "the best interest of the country is served when the prophetic voice of religion is heard -- challenging both left and right from consistent moral ground."
In other words, religion must have a voice, but not a veto.
"The best response to bad religion," he writes, "is better religion, not secularism."
The words of the biblical prophets ring loudly in the pages of "God's Politics." "When there is no prophecy," Wallis quotes Habbakuk, "the people cast off restraint."
Societies need a moral, ethical vision to infuse their policies, "a guiding moral compass that steers our public life." But that compass is too often hijacked by a Christian right that prefers power to prophets. Evangelicals like Wallis put forth their arguments and let the political marketplace decide. Fundamentalists -- from the Taliban to Falwell to some of our own rabbis -- look to the state to enforce their religious beliefs.
This distinction is of critical importance to Jews. On the one hand, many Jews have embraced Christian fundamentalists as friends of Israel and proponents of good values in what they see as a godless age. Other Jews have rejected alliances with evangelicals outright. Wallis provides a third and less simple-minded way -- he calls it "prophetic politics" -- an evangelical voice that is as critical of secularism as it is of fundamentalism.
"Most simply put," he writes, "the two traditional options in America have failed to capture the imagination, commitment and trust of a clear majority of people in this country. Neither has found ways to solve our deepest and most entrenched social problems."
I realize there is something patronizing about asking evangelicals to all be like Wallis; I can already read the letters to the editor saying, fine, then why can't you Jews all be like Michael Medved? But unless we want an American future in which every debate devolves into an either/or shouting match, we need people on all sides who, Wallis-like, can demonstrate that faith and reason are not oil and water.
Jim Wallis will speak and sign copies of "God's Politics" at All Saints' Episcopal Church, 504 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills at 7 p.m. on Feb. 20. For more information, call (310) 858-4524 or visit www.allsaintsbh.org.