Keeping God's politics honest

God's Politics: Why the Right gets it wrong and the Left doesn't get it, Jim Wallis. HarperCollins, 2005, ISBN 0060558288, RRP $35.00

Jim Wallis' God's Politics is a timely examination of how American neoconservatives have monopolised religious activism. The interesting thing is that while this should sound familiar--after all, in the past year Australia has seen conservatively driven debate on subjects like abortion and intelligent design--it forces the reader to realise just how alien American politics can seem.

 

Years of alliances and cultural imperialism may lull us into believing otherwise, but Wallis' analysis of his country's political idiosyncrasies cannot help but highlight our differences. Put simply, God's Politics identifies the way in which many Americans' faith is conflated with their status as global superpower. This gives rise to the idea that the USA is literally a chosen nation. It breeds what Wallis terms ‘easy certainty’: a lack of interest in self-critical reflection, and ultimately a nation with a God complex.

 

When this 'chosen nation' is proved mortal after all, things get even more dangerous. One of Wallis' most incisive observations is how the American vulnerability exposed by 9/11 felt so painful and so unnatural. The comfort of easy certainties was cast shockingly into doubt, and the hatred of this unfamiliar vulnerability demanded the swift re-establishment of the 'natural' order. In pursuit of this goal, faith and patriotism were bound even more tightly together. Bad theology led to worse politics.

 

Jim WallisIn an environment so dominated by fundamentalism, a book like God's Politics gives progressive Christianity a much-needed American accent. But unlike so many critics of the Bush administration, Wallis demonstrates a commitment to provide alternative political solutions. He does not merely voice his discontent. This kind of pragmatism is rare in contemporary political criticism. It is combined with Wallis' commitment to putting himself on the front line (among other things, he is active in combating poverty, and has visited Palestine in an attempt to find a non-violent solution). Together these qualities give him a credibility that few of the usual commentators enjoy.  

 

Wallis decries the ways in which wedge politics have made reasoned religious debate almost impossible. In particular, he notes that although abortion and gay rights are important issues, they crowd out debate on any other topic in an extremely frustrating way. He may appear squeamish in burying his discussion of both these issues at the back of the book. But his argument that subjects like poverty should take precedence for people of faith is unassailable.

 

He also insists that piety does not guarantee good policy, and urges people to base their vote on results rather than on whether particular candidates share their faith. He recognises that if religion must play a part in politics, voters should at least ask how their beliefs can be applied consistently. A candidate who opposes gay marriage may sound attractive, but if he also favours warmongering and tax cuts for the rich, we might appropriately vote for someone else.

 

SojournersThe chief failure of the book lies in its inability to clearly articulate precisely how to separate church and state. Wallis rightly points out that it is impossible for moral debate to take place in a vacuum, but fails to provide a convincing model in which a variety of beliefs can co-exist politically. Although he notes astutely that the public debate should be won by explaining ‘why the policies you advocate are better for the common good’, this is an ideal. It lacks the pragmatism of his other arguments.

The fundamental difficulty with it is that politicians are supposed to serve their entire constituency, not simply the ones that happen to share their religious beliefs. Few politicians do so.  But if we genuinely expect them to pursue the common good, it is hard to believe that their religious convictions will never give rise to a conflict of duties. Wallis repeatedly instantiates figures like Martin Luther King or Desmond Tutu as workable political examples. He fails to realise that neither man was ever elected. This does not prove that religion should be banished from the public square; it means, however, that religion fits into democracy far less comfortably than Wallis contends.

 

On a more trivial level, Wallis' name-dropping becomes intrusive at times.  When he rails against pop-culture phenomena like Survivor and against Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction, he only sounds priggish. But these minor flaws are redeemed by Wallis' emphasis on finding common ground, on formulating workable policy as opposed to simply winning arguments for their own sake, and on performing works of faith rather than paying lip service. For all my occasional misgivings, in this book Wallis urges dialogue, recognises that there a multiplicity of viewpoints, and most importantly, is willing to listen.

 

 

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