The Politics of Jim Wallis: Jim Wallis Substitutes Ideological Hubris for Reasoned Political Discourse

By Payson, Aaron | Conscience, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Jim Wallis: Jim Wallis Substitutes Ideological Hubris for Reasoned Political Discourse


Payson, Aaron, Conscience


LIKE MANY OF MY COLLEAGUES, I waited with anticipation for Jim Wallis' new book God's Politics. Having been steeped in his work for a number of years, I wanted to see what new insights Wallis might offer in this era of religio-political speculation, especially after the 2004 elections, when many are calling for a reengagement, especially by Democrats, with issues of faith and morality. But unlike many in Washington, DC, and around the country who have responded to this material as though they have discovered a new apocryphal epistle to add to their scriptural canon, I was sorely disappointed, and wonder if we will ultimately pay the price for his newfound popularity. For what could have been a fresh and invigorating analysis turns out to be the diminishing echo of a chord that was struck most vibrantly a decade ago with the publication of The Soul of Politics, diminishing through his Who Speaks for God?, and finding faint echo in his newest publication, proving, perhaps, that most ministers only preach one good sermon in their lifetime. (This may add some credibility to ecclesiastical systems that move ministers to different calls every five to seven years.)

I laud Jim Wallis for his attempts to broaden the debate on public morality to include issues such as poverty and war. Indeed, his personal commitment to live among and minister to the most impoverished in our nation's capital is admirable and something to be vigorously replicated. His conversion experience as a young man, which led him to find community within the black church tradition, is a marvelous story of breaking out of cultural norms and seeking to understand the experience of others in their own environs. Here Wallis is most vital and vibrant in his analysis of the need for nationwide conversion. However, he shows himself to be most vulnerable and analytically ineffective when striving to articulate a "consistent ethic of life." And it is here that the diminishing echoes of more than a decade of publications seems most dangerous.

A decade ago, Jim Wallis expounded upon a "pattern of inequality" in writing about gender justice. "The time has come for men to move from a posture of reaction, defensiveness, and guilt, to a pro-active initiative on behalf of genuine equality between women and men." (The Soul of Politics, p114) Outlining the devastating effect of forced sexual labor, rape camps, and sexism and advertising on women, he concludes, in part, "What most still will not admit is the pattern that underlies and fuels the violence. The name of the pattern is patriarchy--the subordination of women to men. It is a structure of domination. And, like the division of the world between rich and poor and the institutional character of white racism, sexism is also systematic, with clear social purposes." (The Soul of Politics, p124)

Here is a clearly articulated analysis of gendered power imbalance, which Wallis admits is exploitative of both men and women. But then he turns to the issue of abortion and strives to walk the razor's edge of his own form of religio-political correctness, which might best be characterized as anguished indecision.

Here his analysis turns from advocacy for the most marginalized to a call for more conversation so that those at both ends of the spectrum might "hear" each other, all the while seeming to forget that this conversation occurs within the context of a "pattern of patriarchy," a structure that already has clear social purposes, which include the subordination of women.

Here I turn to Catherine MacKinnon, with whom I disagree on other issues such as pornography, but whose analysis of abortion and gender inequality is compelling. Reflecting on "Sex Equality Under Law" in her book Women's Lives, Men's Laws, MacKinnon notes that the theme of "laws of sexual assault and reproduction is male control of, access to, and use of women. (Women's Lives, Men's Laws, p129) The historical reality of women's reproductive choice being deprived because of forced sterilization, particularly of women of color and mentally disabled women, is a primary example. …

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