Ever the prophet, never the king

Article Highlights

  • In discussing foreign policy, Wallis’s recommendations are big on rhetoric and idealism, but short on workable solutions.

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  • In the words of Lincoln, we should ask “not whether God is on our side,” but instead “seek to be on God’s side.”

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  • When “conservative think tanks...speak of a...concern for the poor” something is going right, Wallis says.

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Rather than focusing primarily on questions about the Right and Left, Jim Wallis’s new book, "On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good," asks readers to “go deeper” and to recall the ancient religious commitment to the common good. In the immortal words of President Lincoln, we should ask “not whether God is on our side,” but instead “seek to be on God’s side.”

Wallis asks his readers to consider what each side of the political aisle “gets right.” For conservatives, it is the idea of personal responsibility, which he has witnessed in his own family and sees as an essential ingredient to helping men and women overcome poverty. “It is right and good, and part of the common good, to emphasize such a conservative ethic in making … good personal choices.” 

Similarly, the best liberal idea is social responsibility. This value expresses itself through compassion, a politics of inclusion, and our efforts to end poverty, Wallis says. We will do better as a nation if we attempt to see the good in one another’s positions — not demonize our opponents.

Wallis encourages his readers to consider the power of social movements rather than politics alone to achieve the common good and to address the major problems of our time, whether through strengthening marriage or confronting the horrors of sex trafficking. (Some of his best insights about the priority of social movements can be viewed here.)

His advice to not rely on politics alone is particularly useful given that he is consistently light on policy proposals — even when attempting to speak on matters of today’s political economy. Like Wallis’s other books, "On God’s Side" is prophetic in tone, rather than kingly. That is, Wallis is a perennial activist: his ideas are frequently meant to provoke, rather than prescribe.

When discussing the 2008 financial crisis, for example, Wallis offers solutions that are long on morality but short on specifics: “We need nothing less than a pastoral strategy for the financial crisis,” he says. But this is entirely wrong-headed: we don’t need pastors directing our economic life, and there are limits to how far theology can go in enhancing areas of scientific inquiry and finance. What we do need is for financial actors to follow the rules. We need good governance. We need a marketplace hospitable to dynamism and creativity, which makes it possible for individuals to earn their success and contribute freely to their communities. We need a level playing field. And we need sound public policy that suppresses both statism and cronyism. 

Similarly, in discussing foreign policy, Wallis’s recommendations are big on rhetoric and idealism, but short on workable solutions: “Ultimately, food is cheaper than bombs,” he posits. Three times in a single page he uses a partisan phrase, “wars of occupation,” to describe our engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, suggesting outright that the “occupation and domination” by the U.S. military led to more violence and hardship. Are things really as clear as Wallis suggests, or is he falling prey to the very sort of partisanship he elsewhere decries?  Is this really the kind of rhetoric that builds up the common good?

We can do better. For Wallis to say, as he does, “The war in Iraq was fundamentally a war of choice, and it was the wrong choice. From the outset, this war was fought on false pretenses and for false purposes,” is to undermine his larger thesis about going “not left, not right, but deeper.” In a number of policy areas having to do with down-to-earth governance, he could use more humility and less judgment. 

Elsewhere, Wallis gives equal time to what the liberal and conservative churches get wrong. In his view, conservatives apply the biblical gospel merely to sexuality, not the world’s justice issues, and liberals often see Christ’s resurrection merely as a metaphor, thereby losing the gospel’s redemptive power.

In his closing plea, Wallis draws heavily on his experiences as a Little League baseball coach, and as a father, in exhorting fellow parents and citizens to pursue the common good and seek to build a better world. He lauds President Obama’s own example as a father, suggesting that tending our own families and communities is the most important duty of all. 

Reflecting on his 40-year fight, Wallis sees two battles down, and one to go: One, faith is no longer seen “as a private thing [between] me and my Lord,” since most American Christians today know their faith has public dimensions. Two, faith is not merely tied to sexuality, as Wallis says the traditional “religious right” once claimed; it also has implications for the poor and vulnerable. When “conservative think tanks now speak of a Christian concern for the poor and invoke the term ‘social justice,’” something is going right, Wallis says. 

“The third great battle ahead of us will be about the nature of the society that God wants — and in particular, whether there is such a thing as the common good.” What does a proper commitment to solidarity mean for the roles of our government, markets, civil society, and religious congregations? How will increasing changes in family structure affect our economic future? Who is my neighbor?  And how can America’s unchanging commitments — to liberty, the rule of law, democracy, and human rights — continue to be accessible for generations to come?   

Josh Good is the program manager for the Values & Capitalism initiative at the American Enterprise Institute.

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