Now that my reading is no longer dictated by my thesis research I find that … well, I read more or less the same mix of stuff that I read while I was writing. Including the scary books about religion and politics. While Hanna’s parents were here a couple of weekends ago and we went shopping at the Brookline Booksmith, I picked up a copy of Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (New York: Harper, 2005). Jim Wallis is one of the founders of Sojourners, an evangelical social justice organization that grew out of anti-war activism during the 1970s. To this day, Sojourners is active in anti-war, anti-racism, and anti-poverty work. They have tried to exist, as the subtitle of Walli’s book suggests, as a third way in the American religio-political landscape: progressive on some social justice matters while also remaining very conservative in some issues I would argue are also social justice questions — but which Wallis sees as divisive “culture war” issues (i.e. gay marriage and abortion). Recently, Sojourners came under fire from some more queer-inclusive religious groups for rejecting an ad submitted to its magazine from an LGBTQ Christian organization. Given the recent buzz, when I saw a copy of God’s Politics at the store I decided it was time for a re-read.
I vaguely remember reading the book when it came out right after the 2004 election. Mostly, I remember feeling fairly certain that Wallis didn’t “get it” when it came to characterizing leftist politics … since most of his criticisms of leftist activists (people he often characterizes as “secular fundamentalists”) bore little resemblance to the people who I understood as left-liberal. I can’t say that my overall impression, upon re-reading God’s Politics six years later, has changed. I still feel the book is condescending towards those whose politics fall to the left of Wallis’ (I’ll return to this below) and I think that he’s trying a little too hard to have his cake and eat it too.
Take, for example, the “culture war” issues he tries to dismiss as meaningful political topics. He wants to claim that evangelical Christians can stand at once for the full human rights of queer folks while continuing to exclude gay people from full participation in church life. He argues that they can be “pro-life” but also feminist, while defining “pro-life” in a way that actually makes him politically pro-choice. While I agree with Wallis that it is possible to be personally against abortion, and to work to reduce the need for abortion, without robbing women of the ability to make necessary decisions for themselves and their families, I find it offensive that he makes what is essentially a reproductive justice argument and yet re-frames it as something that is distinct from (and superior to) the arguments of feminist activists. While I’m not against trying to re-claim “pro-life” as a more comprehensive idea — anti-death penalty, anti-war, reproductive justice — for Wallis to act as if by using the term he can change its political meaning overnight is naive at best and disingenuous at worst.
I also grew very tired of his use of language like “moral” and “values” as if religious folks have a monopoly on morality and ethics. Assuming as he does that religious folks are better at thinking and acting “morally” than their secular peers, I feel that he is blind to non-religious possibilities for some of the problems he diagnoses in American society. His reflexive support for normative family structures, and his assertion that children thrive best in two-parent (by implication heterosexual) families, for example, fails to ask deeper questions about how we might re-form our understanding of family to meet the needs of all people, regardless of their marital status, age, sexual orientation, or other social ties. In his efforts to appease the Christian right, I can’t help feeling that he missed an opportunity to imagine new ways of caring for one another that actually fit quite well into Biblical visions of community as well as dovetailing with very left-radical notions of how non-traditional families might be recognized and honored.
He also loses me when he writes about the degradation of modern culture and the need to re-affirm the value of nuclear family life in language full to bursting with nostalgia for the 1950s that never was. While he never overtly calls for a return to “father knows best,” his recourse to the politics of disgust over hypersexualized television commercials and the comic book violence of Van Helsing (really? that’s the movie you found worthy of condemnation??) amounts to a recoil from modern popular culture that suggests he would be more comfortable if such things would just disappear. I’m always confused by this argument, since surely if you don’t like the violence of Van Helsing or the ideas about human nature found in reality television shows you can turn the television off. Or you can engage in deconstruction and analysis of the show’s messages. (Perhaps he should read Jennifer Pozner’s Reality Bites Back?) In these moments of recoil and the impulse to make the icky thing just go away I feel Wallis betrays his mid-century evangelical youth, when even films like “The Sound of Music” were Godless indulgences.
Wallis’s strength lies, unsurprisingly, in the sections where he writes about nonviolence and economic justice. I was particularly struck by his insistence on positive alternatives to war as the only effective way of breaking down the notion that violence will somehow bring about a more peaceful world. “If nonviolence is to have any credibility, it must answer the question that violence purports to answer, but in a better way” (160). I was not particularly satisfied with Wallis’ nonviolent solutions (he distinguishes “military” from “police” enforcement without recognizing that in many parts of the world, “police” are justifiably seen as perpetrators of, not protectors from, violence) but I appreciate that he realizes that simple opposition to violence is not an effective political position. I also think he is on much firmer theological ground when arguing that the God of the New Testament (and Jesus) have an inherently anti-war message, and that the Bible calls on us to care for the most vulnerable members of the human community. In some ways, I wish that he had stuck to these two messages rather than trying to forge a “middle way” between social justice and cultural conservatism — since I think his capitulation to cultural conservative ultimately undermines his claims for the latter.