Jim Wallis: Polarizer or Unifier

Posted: Apr 17, 2007 11:40 AM
Jim Wallis: Polarizer or Unifier

Jim Wallis has devoted his whole career to trying to force the round peg of leftist ideology into the square hole of biblical orthodoxy. When he wrote his "vision" designed to "transcend" the ideologies of the religious left and right, he ended up further polarizing instead of unifying the two evangelical movements. He rails against the "political language" of the right as well as the tendency of conservative evangelicals, in his opinion, to claim their use of scripture as authoritative. In so doing, Wallis hoists himself on his own petard.

Nobody does leftist religious rhetoric any better than Wallis. This is a man who complains that the war in Iraq "has often been cloaked in the name and symbols of our faith." This is a man who laments any linking of "American imperial designs with God's purposes." Yet, he recently led a so-called "anti-war worship service" at the National Cathedral. His basic thesis was that the war in Iraq is not just a mistake; it is, instead, "morally wrong" and "an offense against God." Does rhetoric get any more messianic or political than that? Have you ever seen anyone who does a better job of cloaking the names and symbols of faith to his positions on contemporary issues? Don't you want to ask who made him "God" and why his pronouncements should be authoritative?

Wallis and his cohorts on the left seem to think that they invented the relationship of religion to social justice. In the late nineteenth century, however, social justice was an integral part of religious faith. For instance, the prohibition movement was grounded in Christian thought. Both Francis Willard and Carrie Nation considered themselves "agents of God" in their fight against "demon rum." Evangelicals were leaders in the abolition movement as famously noted in the life of William Wilberforce and portrayed in the movie, "Amazing Grace." Evangelicals also led prison and labor reform efforts along with building hospitals, caring for the homeless and widows, and establishing colleges.

Even the Moral Majority was formed to counter the disintegration of cultural values –– an integration of religious faith with social reform. For the people and organizations that formed the Moral Majority, their evangelical theology was the driving force behind their concern for social and political issues. Their desire to reverse cultural disintegration was based on Biblical values; there was a total integration of faith and action.

Wallis' writing, on the other hand, seems to spill over from his political ideology; his political philosophy is cloaked in the language of "radical religious roots." The language is there, but the integration of faith and action is purely rhetorical.

In their analysis of Wallis' writing*, Bohn David Lattin and Steve Underhill, point out that in Wallis' book, The Soul of Politics, the first third of the book contains a plea and rationale for reconciliation of the religious left with the religious right, but the final two thirds of the book changes to a "typical liberal polemic against the Religious Right." Their scholarly language boils down to a simple message: Wallis makes no effort to bridge the gap between the two branches of evangelicalism; instead his book consists primarily of "traditional liberal ideology."

Lattin and Underhill describe how Wallis developed a "jeremiad" (a communication structure that defines calamities as signs of God's judgment).

• A jeremiad is based on signs of a crisis or calamity. Wallis vividly describes riots and gang violence. He depicts religious and political leaders as desperate and inept. These "signs" are indication, he claims, of the cultural bankruptcy caused by America's lack of a "coherent and compelling social vision." To his liberal mind, the solution is a change of ideology rather than a need for spiritual transformation.

• The language of Wallis' jeremiad, according to the two analysts, "reveals conservative language masking liberal ideology." For instance, Wallis states that "conservatives . . .echo the mean-spirited diatribe of Pat Buchanan's us-and-them rhetoric." Further, he says, "The Right has failed to generate the moral imperative to challenge the unjust status quo."

• The language has another dimension: the left is described as "caring for the disenfranchised and insist[ing] on a society that is responsible for its people." The word, "reform," is used to mean "change" -- change from an emphasis on "salvation" to an emphasis on "racial and gender justice." Further, Wallis writes about "going beyond" or "transcending" the old ways of spirituality; instead, Evangelicals are urged to move beyond the old "spirituality" to new political involvement that is "moral" and "just."

• There is a vast chasm between the criticisms addressed to the right (13 arguments) as opposed to the left (only two arguments). Clearly, he sees the right as wrong and needing to turn to the left, which is the "moral and just" position to take. For instance, he argued that "it is time for principled conservatives to prove they are not just providing intellectual and political cover for wealth, power and Right-wing self-interest."(emphasis added)

The two scholars conclude that Wallis' hostility toward conservatism prevents any transcendence from taking place. Even Commonweal criticized Wallis' simplistic generalities. Citing a lack of understanding of "the country's complex political history" and a "disturbingly naive" view of foreign policy, Commonweal called Wallis' writing "simpleminded" and declared that he essentially wrote "an extended sermon." The Nation declared that Wallis was "on a roll" by appearing on "Meet the Press" and accused him of the same "triumphalism" and "self-righteousness" that he claimed characterize the right. Further, they declared that Wallis was "translating politics into theology" as a "power play" just like the leaders from the right.

Wallis' latest action –– the "anti-war worship service" at Washington's National Cathedral –– continued the polarization of evangelicals. None of his simplistic slogans about a "revolution of love" and none of his exaggerations and generalities about the church being "united on the issue of peace" will bring unity. Wallis did not cite all the Biblical texts that support social justice because those same texts require bending the knee to the one true God and clearly prohibit human beings from setting ourselves up as "God."

*Bohn David Lattin and Steve Underhill, “The Soul of Politics: The Reverend Jim Wallis’ Attempt to Transcend the Religious/Secular Left and the Religious Right,” The Journal of Communication and Religion, (November 2006), 205-223.

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