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In Body Politic, but Not in Spirit

Reverend Jim Wallis, editor of the idiosyncratically Christian journal Sojourners, has spent the past 30-plus years advocating what he calls “a progressive and prophetic vision of faith and politics.” His latest book, “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong,” has struck a chord, spending 11 weeks so far on The New York Times’s bestseller list. Since John Kerry’s presidential candidacy suffered from the Massachusetts senator’s inability to speak in a convincing way about the relevance of faith to his leadership goals, the idea has been floated that Wallis could be the one to illuminate for Democrats a spiritually influenced path to the White House in 2008.

Is that notion remotely realistic?

To be sure, Wallis emphasizes that God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and he even blasts “liberal secularists who want to banish faith from public life and deny spiritual values to the soul of politics.” As he asserts in “God’s Politics,” the agenda truest to the authentic politics of the Bible would include both liberal and conservative solutions to domestic and foreign-policy problems.

On the topic of war, for example, Wallis adduces the support of Micah, his “favorite prophet of national security.” Micah looked forward to a time when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” From the passage — which, incidentally, describes the messianic era not our own — Wallis learns that the key to reducing the threat to peace from Islamic terrorists lies in giving everyone his own vine and fig tree: “If the tremendous gaps on our planet [between rich and poor] could be leveled out just a little, nobody would have to be so afraid.”

The most scripturally supported case he presents is on the subject of poverty. Wallis counts 3,000 biblical references to the plight of the poor, many of dubious relevance, such as Amos’s “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteous like an ever-flowing stream.” He praises an outfit called Bread for the World, “the Christian hunger organization, [which] does some of the best work on Capitol Hill, focusing the energy of faith communities on budget priorities for hungry people around the world.” True, it is clear that the Bible wants us to care for the unfortunate.

When he comes to abortion, the practical political purpose behind his book is made explicit. As Wallis points out, “A respect of conscience on abortion and a less dismissive approach to conscientious dissenters to Democratic orthodoxy would allow many pro-life and progressive Christians the ‘permission’ they need to vote Democratic.”

On the wider topic of sexuality, he quotes with approval the view of a Duke Divinity School professor: “Let us stop fighting one another, for a season, about issues of sexuality” and instead “call the church to fasting and prayer in repentance for the destruction our nation has inflicted upon the people of Iraq.”

If Democrats follow Wallis’s lead, the tone of their next national convention will certainly differ from this past year’s. Often, his rhetoric sounds like an exaggeration of the Bible-thumping style associated in the red-state imagination with hardcore fundamentalist preaching. Thus “when the government offers to take away our vulnerability” by claiming that terrorism can be defeated, this “borders on idolatry.” When President Bush pledges to “rid the world of evil,” a task reserved for God, this “borders on idolatry or blasphemy.” Taking “unilateral” action against Saddam Hussein was an act “bordering on the idolatrous and blasphemous.”

Padded with sermonizing, the book is weighted heavily toward such extreme off-putting rhetoric. When it comes to interpreting the Bible, Wallis is ineffective in other ways.

On the question of poverty, none of his scriptural quotations indicates who God wants as the party primarily responsible for that care. Can it really be that God is most pleased when, instead of digging into our own pockets to help the needy, we use the power of taxation to force other people to dig into their pockets? Jewish tradition, at any rate, emphasizes the importance of each individual voluntarily giving away 10% of his after-tax income to private charities.

As the national-security argument from Micah suggests — the one where the definition of a just war excludes even a struggle against an admitted peril “to the entire world” — Wallis’s purported left-right fusionism dissolves into a wholesale conceding of philosophical and political ground to the hard left.

On abortion, his idea of being “anti-abortion,” as he puts it, would oppose “criminalizing an agonizing and desperate” decision — the classic position of pro-choice advocates. On same-sex marriage, conventionally thought of as a family-values issue, he would grant civil unions — gay marriage under a different name. For the churches, or the country, to “stop fighting” over sex would mean institutionalizing the gains the left has already made in normalizing behaviors once considered corrosive of society’s moral health.

His political outlook, in short, is straightforward left-wingery dressed up in phrases — “national security,” “anti-abortion,” “family values” — associated with conservatism.

One could imagine an aggressive politician like Senator Hillary Clinton taking a lesson from “God’s Politics.” Yet there is little reason to think that Democrats will rescue their electoral prospects by disguising familiar arch-liberal policies in Christian-flavored language. Liberals may figure conservative Christians for fools, probably because they have met few if any live specimens.

The truth is that conservative evangelicals are plenty smart enough to see through a charade of piety. Even Kerry, who could have adopted the full Wallis stance if he’d wished to do so, was shrewd enough to intuit that.

David Klinghoffer is author of “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).


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