Magazine article The American Conservative

Out for Justice

Magazine article The American Conservative

Out for Justice

Article excerpt

Out for Justice [The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith B Politics in a PostReligious Right America, Jim Wallis, Harperone, 352 pages]

By Peter Suderman

"ADMITTEDLY," Jim Wallis begins The Great Awakening, his newest manifesto on religion and politics, "religion can be a confusing subject" It's a telling admission, yet it might have been more accurate had it been presented as a warning to anyone hoping to come away from the book with a clearer view of the role of faith in public life.

Hopelessly jumbled and largely substance free on both policy and theology, The Great Awakening is a masterpiece of wishful thinking from a man desperate to reconcile his lifelong faith with his progressive politics. In the end, the only thing that is clear is that when it comes to religion, Wallis is indeed confused.

He is the front man for a movement that urges Christians to shuck their affiliation with the Religious Right and adopt progressive politics-the closest thing to a rock star the movement has produced. Just as Jerry Falwell and James Dobson have become synonymous with Christian conservatism, Wallis has, over the past few years, become the go-to pundit for faith-based liberalism, as well as a strategist of sorts on the ways in which the Democratic Party might make inroads with the evangelical community.

Wallis claims he's not partisan but an independent above the fray. He says he's "in no party's pocket" and that what he proposes is "not necessarily a shift to the left." But even a passing glance at his favored policy positions says otherwise. He supports increased federal and state poverty assistance, substantial increases in foreign aid, loosening of border restrictions, civil unions for gay couples, a robust program aimed at carbon reduction, and greater internationalism-all in the name of his great, abiding concern: social justice. Moreover, he explicitly sets himself up as an alternative to the Religious Right, which he sees as having twisted the role of faith in public policy.

Despite having written several books on the subject, Wallis has never been able to present a coherent view of how government and religion ought to interact There is a biblical role for the state, just as there is for the church, and they are not the same," he writes, but the details of those roles are never fully or clearly articulated.

On one hand, the book makes a strong case for government that is heavily influenced by religious belief. Wallis hankers for a "political agenda drawn ... from our deepest moral values." He wants "religious convictions" to be "translated into moral arguments, which must win the political debate." His stated purpose is "to explore the prospects for a revival of faith that changes politics." He argues that issues such as immigration are, in fact, "religious issues." Clearly, he wants religious communities to work through and with the government toward religious goals and wants faith and its advocates to make a definite impact on public policy.

Or does he? Wallis warns, "it is a tactic of religious fundamentalism ... to try to make the state an enforcer of religious belief and practice, and it is always dangerous." The church, he insists, must maintain its "independence and separation from any state." And while he feels that religion ought to play a deciding role on issues that energize him, like immigration and Third World poverty, he seems to think that on other issues Christians should accept compromise. On abortion, for example, he cautions opponents against pushing too hard to outlaw the practice, suggesting that their efforts might be divisive. He approvingly quotes someone calling the practice "a necessary evil." (Where is it in the Bible, I wonder, that Jesus shrugged his shoulders and sighed, "Look, sometimes evil is necessary. Let's just try to minimize it") Government and religion, then, are to work hand in hand to achieve moral goals-except, well, when they shouldn't

If his vision of the role of government seems muddled, perhaps that's because it's grounded on such a shallow foundation. …

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