Jim Wallis is an intelligent and sincere person, someone worth listening to on serious subjects. But he appears to be politically illiterate. There is simply no engagement with serious conservative political writers—no hint that he knows such people even exist. This is typical of many intelligent and well-informed people on the Left…
One of my conservative relatives often asks liberal friends and family members what books of political thought they recommend. He almost never gets a response; one friend recommended a book he had heard of but hadn’t read, and refused to read the conservative book recommended in exchange. A Left-leaning relative, asked what book supported his political views, said “the Bible.” Of course the Holy Bible is not a treatise in political philosophy, and it does require some interpretation. Jim Wallis took on that interpretive challenge in his 2005 book God’s Politics, which was recommended to me when I put out the same challenge to a very intelligent and sincere liberal friend of mine who is a believer. So I’ve read it, and here is my take on it.
As his subtitle indicates, Mr. Wallis offers rebukes to both sides of the aisle. One of the most important correctives he aims at liberals is to insist that religion is not a strictly private matter (as they often assert) but must have expression in the public sphere. And he highlights the secularism of a large number of Left-leaning people. He is critical of the ACLU as well as of Jerry Falwell, noting that there is a secularist fundamentalism as well as a religious sort. Bravo.
Nevertheless, the book is finally a justification for the many believers who consistently vote for liberal or progressive candidates. He says “It is true that some of the religious Right’s leaders are indeed theocrats—those who would impose their versions of morality on the nation if they ever had the chance.” Note that he slips in a definition of “theocrat” that is simply not what the word means. A theocracy is a system such as the one in place in Iraq in which the religious authorities are the civil authorities. Such a system is certainly to be avoided (and my church, the Roman Catholic Church, forbids priests to run for public office). But if Christians in America come together and vote for politicians who subscribe to our moral views and then inscribe those values in law, what is happening is the proper functioning of a democracy, not the creation of a theocracy. Civil law is nothing if not the imposition of moral values on some people who do not hold those values. You may think fraud is fine, but the majority of us believe (based on religious as well as philosophical principles) that fraud is wrong, so we have laws forbidding it. The Law is always the imposition of common values on those who do not hold those values—and those common cultural values are nearly always religious values. Mr. Wallis’s labeling of the leaders of the religious Right as theocrats is slippery and disingenuous. In effect, he takes back what he just said about secular fundamentalists insisting on relegating religious beliefs strictly to the private realm, joining their unholy chorus. This book often resorts to such slipshod thinking.
The first major topic of the book is war. It was written just as President Bush authorized the invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, a decision Mr. Wallis condemns. I must confess to having thought at that time that the Iraq war was justified, but in hindsight it appears to have been over-reaching without a clear moral justification or an achievable political purpose. Mr. Wallis has nothing good to say about Saddam, but his critique of the “neo-conservatives” who dominated foreign policy during the Bush years is valid. Their notion of spreading democracy by invasion of other nations was naïve, hubristic, and belligerent. A conservative should be aware of how long it took for our own democratic republican system to develop from the Magna Carta of 1215 AD to the present. A successful democracy requires a culture formed to preserve it, and that takes time.
Mr. Wallis does not, however, explore the larger question of when war is justified. Was American intervention in the two World Wars justified? What does he think of the first Iraq war, which pushed back Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait? Does he accept the traditional criteria laid down by theologians of old for a just war? That is unclear. When he thinks about war, his instinct is the liberal one—blame the United States. A litany of our national failings culminates thus: “The truth is that the United States sits atop and is the leader of a global economy in which half of God’s children still live on less than two dollars a day, and the United States will be blamed around the world for the structures of injustice that such a global economy daily enforces.” He has immersed himself in the anti-American atmosphere of Left-wing thinkers, what Roger Scruton calls “the culture of repudiation.” As a result, he cannot assess rationally the justice or injustice of a particular war because the answer is always the same: It was our fault in the first place. More on this horrible global economy next…
The issue of poverty invades Mr. Wallis’s discussion of war because it is his primary concern, and perhaps it should be. As he points out, the Bible is filled with passages commanding care of the poor and oppressed. He tells us that when he asks about Biblical passages concerning poverty, audiences always cite Jesus’s words “the poor you will always have with you” (Mk. 14:7), but few remember what the Lord says next: “you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.” Clearly Christ’s assumption was that his disciples would tend to the needs of the poor, not let them starve in the street. Surely Christians are in agreement about this. But when care of the poor becomes a political question there are legitimate disagreements as to means toward that end—disagreements that Mr. Wallis and other liberal Christians do not really consider. He quickly plays his ace, Matthew 25, in which the Lord sits in judgment and demands what those being judged have done for the least. He says to the righteous, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” For my liberal Christian friends and relatives, this pretty much clinches it: A Christian must vote for liberal politicians because they are the ones who care about the poor. Just a moment of reflection would tell them that it isn’t so simple: Christ’s words clearly refer to individual acts of charity, not to government programs. As Paul Ryan once said, “The preferential option for the poor is not a preferential option for Big Government.” Jesus commands care for the poor, and he tells the rich young man to give all he has to the poor, but he does not suggest that the state coerce such charitable donations and manage the distribution. While it is certainly legitimate to use governmental organizations at all levels to help the poor, we need not wait for that; we are invited to help the poor on our own or through our churches or other non-governmental organizations. Mr. Wallis knows this well, and he has been involved with such charitable organizations. Yet in his discussion of poverty he falls back on the Left-wing assumption that we must have what he calls a “comprehensive plan for change.”
A conservative thinker such as T. S. Eliot warns us against the desire for a comprehensive plan in his Notes towards the Definition of Culture: “For one thing to avoid is a universalised planning; one thing to ascertain is the limits of the plannable.” This is where the fundamental debate must happen, not between one master plan and another. To give another example, when Russell Kirk’s blockbuster The Conservative Mind shook up the political world in 1953 by showing that conservatism was not “the stupid party” but had in fact an impressive intellectual pedigree, reluctantly admiring liberal reviewers demanded that Kirk provide his conservative plan of action. In response he wrote a follow-up book entitled A Program for Conservatives, but the title was a trick, for Kirk pointedly refused to give a ten-point plan for solving all of mankind’s problems. This is precisely what the conservative believes is fundamentally flawed in the liberal approach, the belief that we can get some smart people together around a table and come up with a comprehensive plan which, when implemented by the federal government, will create a utopia. It does not mean that the conservative means to ignore the problem, but it means a skeptical attitude toward big government solutions. Catholic teaching suggests that social problems should be addressed according to the principle of “subsidiarity,” applying our efforts at the most local level practicable. Again, Mr. Wallis knows first-hand the power of local, non-governmental organizations, yet he cannot resist mentioning with admiration a commitment made by the Labour government in the UK “to cut the child poverty rate in half by 2010.” Such grand statements of intent usually come to nothing—after huge expenditures.
Mr. Wallis’s faith in comprehensive governmental schemes is abiding and uncritical. “For those who care about poverty in America,” he intones solemnly, “the coming years are a critical time, a turning point similar to the New Deal of the 1930s or the War on Poverty of the 1960s. Now, as then, we can make a difference in the lives of millions of people.” This rousing rhetoric shows no awareness whatsoever that there is any debate about the efficacy of those grand progressive projects, but there is a debate. Many historians and economists have argued that the New Deal wasted gigantic sums of money, accomplished little, and resulted in many undesirable consequences. (See, for example, FDR’s Folly by Jim Powell.) Perhaps the critics of the New Deal are wrong, but it is either ignorant or dishonest to assume blithely that there is no question of its efficacy. As for the War on Poverty, I thought everyone even in 2005 had realized that after massive expenditures that war had simply been lost. The poverty rate has not budged in all the decades since Johnson initiated that combination of programs, and some have calculated that if the money spent had simply been given out to the poor they would all have become fairly wealthy—instead much of it was siphoned off by the government bureaucracy. Mr. Wallis acknowledges the problem of family breakdown among the poor, but he never addresses the well-substantiated claim that perverse disincentives in the War on Poverty welfare programs were a major cause of that breakdown. If you have a husband, you do not qualify for many of the programs. The rate of illegitimacy was roughly the same for rich and poor before the Great Society, but that massive effort has caused the rate of single motherhood to skyrocket among the poor (perhaps a more significant gap than the wealth gap, and one that contributes to it). My more reasonable liberal friends and relatives freely acknowledge these failures of President Johnson’s signature initiative. There has been a lively debate going on about these matters for many years, but Mr. Wallis appears to be oblivious of it in this book.
Like most progressives, Mr. Wallis has great faith in Big Government along with a proportionate distrust of Big Business. He repeatedly brings up the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and he mentions the rather shocking fact that the top 400 families at that time had one percent of the nation’s wealth. He doesn’t analyze this fact, treating it as incontrovertible evidence of injustice. But again, that is under discussion. A book published more recently by Thomas Sowell, Wealth, Poverty, and Politics does that analysis. One thing he notes is that the list of wealthiest people changes constantly: some who were in that group drop below, and others rise into it. The same is true of the lowest income group: Many of us were in that bottom quintile when we were younger, and relatively few people stay in it throughout their lives. The unspoken and unexamined assumption of the social justice activists is that the top and bottom are both fixed. They also assume that economics is a zero-sum game, in which if some get richer others must get poorer—but it simply does not work that way. Even those who don’t own shares in successful corporations (and a majority of us beyond a certain age do) profit by being employed by them or by other companies that supply them—and we profit by being able to buy the things the corporations produce at a good price. This is the simplest level of economics, but it seems to be incomprehensible to my liberal acquaintances.
A refrain of this book is decrying “tax cuts for the rich.” It it true that the Bush tax cuts of that era rewarded the wealthy more than the rest of us, but many of us with lower incomes did see a reduction in our taxes. The same mantra has been repeated by the Democrats in response to the Trump tax cuts of 2018, with virtually all my liberal acquaintances asserting that “the tax cuts only went to the rich.” Not true: Income taxes were reduced in every tax bracket. This discussion needs some specificity, which liberals rarely offer. They also do not acknowledge that the U.S. tax code is in fact one of the most progressive in the world, with nearly half of Americans paying no federal tax at all and the people in the top bracket paying well over half of the taxes collected. Liberals do not ask what percentage of the income tax revenue comes from the most wealthy, but the gap there is as disproportionate as the income gap or wealth gap. All this is debated, but not by Mr. Wallis, who presents the widening wealth gap as prima facie evidence of injustice. He objects to Republicans who call this “class warfare,” but there is some truth to the charge. In the context of a discussion among Christians, I am inclined to call it coveting your neighbor’s goods—the deadly sin of envy.
To clinch his diatribe against the big corporations, Mr. Wallis has a chapter excoriating the Enron executives. The fraud committed by the officers in charge of that company was truly appalling, but it did not go unpunished. After a lengthy recounting of the sordid story, Mr. Wallis finally notes in passing that 28 former executives had been indicted when he was writing. They were mostly convicted, too. A free market can only work if it is subject to the rule of law, and the law prevailed eventually in this case. So what is the point of making this instance of fraud a major issue? It seems to be simply to suggest that big business is always oppressive and fraudulent: “The tree of the American economy is rooted in the toxic soil of unbridled materialism.” There is certainly some truth to this, one that religious conservatives agree with. However, while deploring the materialism of our culture, we should also be grateful for the material well-being our thriving market economy affords us. Placing full trust in big government and completely distrusting big business is a simplistic response with no practical solutions to propose. Or rather Mr. Wallis does propose a solution, the estate tax, redistributing the wealth of the rich when they die. More envy. More coveting.
Mr. Wallis closes his section on the poor by turning to global poverty. Once again he puts his trust in government initiatives such as the Millenium Development Goals, a commitment by 147 nations to cut global poverty in half by 2015. But how do you do that? The only solutions he offers are to cut the debts owed by poor nations, and to have fair trade rather than free trade. He apparently did not realize that poverty worldwide had been diminishing for a century when he wrote. The pace of poverty reduction has increased since then. Was it the Millenium Development Goals that did it? Was it Bono (a hero of his)? No, it was the infernal old free market and the globalization of that market—powered, by the way, by fossil fuels. For a lesson in how initiatives by governments and Non-Governmental Organizations have frequently failed and have often had serious negative consequences, I would suggest the documentary Poverty Inc., produced by the Acton Institute. Free markets and the rule of law: It is a simple formula, but somewhat difficult to reproduce in places accustomed to inefficiency and graft. What does not work is pious sloganeering and grand schemes.
The social issues come last, since Mr. Wallis knows this is his weakest area. How can he justify liberal policies that are plainly contradictory to biblical truth? The big one is, of course, abortion, and Mr. Wallis trots out the “seamless garment” rationalization: We need to focus on all the life issues, not just abortion. He attempts to establish a moral equivalence between abortion and capital punishment—or rather he asserts it without actually attempting to establish it. I accept my church’s teaching that capital punishment should no longer be used in advanced societies that can effectively incarcerate people for life, but to compare the judicial killing of 60 vicious murderers (the number executed in the year in which this book was published) with the killing of a million innocent babies in the womb is a staggering abuse of human reason, a culpably illogical rhetorical gambit. Yet we’ve become so accustomed to our liberal Christian friends working this gag that we hardly know how to respond. Here is a response: My liberal Christian brothers and sisters, in voting for pro-abortion candidates you are colluding in the Slaughter of Innocents. To quote Hamlet out of context, what you are doing “out-herods Herod.” And then to expect the rest of us to roll over when you mention capital punishment—or, as some friends did recently, separation of families at the border—adds intellectual insult to moral injury. For shame.
To change the subject, Mr. Wallis in his next chapter uses racism as a red herring. His hero here is Howard Dean, who, in a 2003 speech, accused the Republican Party of having made itself into the party of white people. When Reagan spoke of quotas and welfare queens it was “to convince white Americans that minorities were to blame for all of America’s problems.” This is nonsense. What Reagan was saying, explicitly and repeatedly, was that quotas and the welfare system were examples of government programs with good intentions that ended up harming the very people they were meant to help. Affirmative action quotas in universities, besides being unconstitutional, have been proven over and over again to be counterproductive: When minority students are admitted to universities that would not admit them based on their academic records, they tend to drop out at very high rates. A degree at Berkeley was dangled in front of them, but they often ended up with no degree at all. Perhaps “welfare queens” was unnecessarily derogatory, but the point is that the welfare system has trapped poor women in a cycle of dependency and perversely incentivized single-motherhood. Several black writers and activists (including the admirable Robert L. Woodson, Sr.) have made the case against quotas and the welfare system, but there is no engagement with them here. Once again Mr. Wallis misses the opportunity to think seriously about a political issue, preferring self-righteous indignation.
Of course the issue of family values gets its chapter. Predictably, the decline in family coherence is blamed on “the tremendous economic pressures of our corporate-driven society.” Of course the major issue is gay marriage. We need strong families, Mr. Wallis agrees, but “the Right has seized upon this agenda and turned it into a mean-spirited crusade. To say gay and lesbian people are responsible for the breakdown of the heterosexual family is simply wrong”; that has more to do with “heterosexual dysfunction.” Thus far, I happen to agree with him: The homosexual marriage issue would hardly have arisen had it not been for the damage heterosexuals had already done to marriage by indulgence in divorce-on-demand, pornography, co-habitation, etc. I would go further (and probably part ways with Mr. Wallis) by saying that the widespread acceptance of contraception made the push for homosexual marriage all but inevitable, for when sexual love is radically separated from procreation it loses an essential aspect of its meaning and is no longer distinguishable from sterile homosexual relationships. Homosexual desire was seen as abnormal when the norm was acknowledged to be the biological reality that the manifest purpose of sexual intercourse is procreation; when heterosexual couples denied and frustrated that reality, they could no longer refer to that norm. Mr. Wallis was trying to have it both ways by proposing civil unions, but that was always clearly a way station, as subsequent events proved. He declared that “the states themselves will ultimately resolve” the issue—but in the event it was five liberal judges who discovered a right to same-sex marriage in the penumbra of the constitution—just where they had already discovered the right to kill your unborn children. The legalization of homosexual marriage did not cause the disintegration of the family; it was merely another hammer blow. Still, to vote for politicians who celebrate the shattering of the family, the natural and fundamental unit of social organization, is to participate willingly in that cultural destruction.
Jim Wallis is an intelligent and sincere person, someone worth listening to on serious subjects. But he appears, by the evidence of this book, to be politically illiterate. By that I mean that he shows few signs of having read much of anything substantial on political topics. His notes rarely cite anything more fully developed than an E. J. Dionne editorial. A handful of books are cited there, and not one of them offers an opposing viewpoint; the thin notes are those of a book written in an echo-chamber. There is simply no engagement with serious conservative political writers—no hint that he knows such people even exist.
This is, I’m afraid, typical of many intelligent and well-informed people on the Left. I suspect that they do not feel the need to read and debate with Right-leaning political thinkers because they are so very pleased with their own pure intentions that they cannot imagine anyone could in good conscience dispute their positions. Being a liberal means always holding the moral high ground—and never having to say you’re sorry. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that anyone with such pure intentions could ever do any harm. But you see, that happens all the time. As Flannery O’Connor once said, “Tenderness leads to the gas chamber.”
I suppose I will continue to ask my progressive colleagues and friends to point out to me a solid book of political philosophy that supports their political ideas and policies. Who is your Edmund Burke, your T. S. Eliot, your Russell Kirk, your Roger Scruton? But I am beginning to believe that they actually haven’t read any books on the subject and do not feel any need to do so—given that the righteousness of their position is self-evident. Or perhaps serious books of liberal political philosophy simply do not exist.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is licensed from Michael Wuertenberg under Creative Commons 2.0