It has been said that the definition of good writing is, “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” If that is true, then I submit Jim Wallis’ book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It as an example of excellent writing.
The question Wallis poses at the opening of the book is, “How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-American?” The basic thesis of the book is that true Christianity is none of these things.
Of course Wallis is not the first person to point this out. It doesn’t take a trained theologian to realize that the right has long been twisting the message of Christianity for its own benefit. As Wallis notes in his book, even non-Christians often realize the basic message of Christianity has been twisted by politicians.
But it is a pleasure to see a trained theologian systematically and thoroughly dismantle the ideological base that the religious right has been using for years. There’s not a lot of new material in this book. If you’ve been following the newspapers, you won’t read anything that will surprise you. But Wallis is able to weave all of his material into a masterful case against religious right.
As indicated by the title, however, the book is not simply a polemic against the Right. Wallis goes after the left at times as well. Wallis alleges that the Left has sabotaged itself by alienating people of faith, and in this way missed the opportunity to create a coalition with many people who would otherwise have been sympathetic to the goals of the left.
The most divisive issue in the religious wars is of course abortion. Wallis claims that the Left has helped to create the polarization of this issue by demonizing the pro-life movement as anti-feminist, instead of acknowledging that there were legitimate concerns represented.
“There are literally millions of votes at stake in this liberal miscalculation,” Wallis claims. And then later, “Republicans literally win elections on the basis of their anti-abortion position and then proceed to ignore the issue…by doing nothing to reduce the number of abortions.” Wallis claims that if the Left and the Right were to focus less on the legal battle surrounding abortions, but instead work together to reduce the need for abortion, many voters would be more comfortable voting Democratic. Admittedly Wallis is talking about bourgeois electoral politics here, as he is in most areas of the book, but the points he makes can spill over into activism and organizing as well.
A large section of the book is devoted to the Iraq War, in which Wallis convincingly makes the case that since the only two options in Christian theology are pacifism and the just war theory, Christians cannot support the Iraq War. Wallis’ arguments on this point are flawless, but unfortunately the book suffers from stylistic problems here. Wallis apparently feels that, given today’s political climate, he cannot mention Saddam’s name without taking a brief break from whatever he is talking about to remind us that he knows full well Saddam was a bad man. That should be assumed, and even if it is not mentioning it once should be sufficient. But, Wallis is apparently worried that if he even once criticizes the Iraq War without simultaneously condemning Saddam, he will be accused of being a Baathist apologist. Given the debating tactics of the Right, this might be a legitimate fear, but it is stylistically tiresome.
It is hard to imagine a Christian continuing to defend the Iraq War and the Bush administration after reading Wallis’ book. The question is, however, how many of the religious right will be able to pull themselves away from Fox news or AM radio long enough to hear out Wallis’s arguments? The tragedy of this book is that the people who need to read it the most probably won’t touch it. Wallis may well end up preaching to the choir.
Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, (Harper San Francisco, 2004).