April 21, 2013

Partisanship and the Common Good

Jim Wallis

(Photo credit: Facebook)

by Rick Plasterer

Partisanship in American political culture has reached unprecedented levels, seriously threatening the common good, according to Jim Wallis of Sojourners, who was interviewed with Michael Gerson of the Washington Post and the ONE Campaign at an event sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University on March 10. He discussed his ideas in connection with his new book On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and What Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good.

The solution, Wallis feels, is to look to more than one’s own “tribe” (whatever class, ethnic, or sexual group one identifies with) and ask what he called “the common gospel question,” i.e., “who is my neighbor.” He noted that “parts of our population do not even acknowledge the common good,” citing Ayn Rand libertarians on the right, and groups interested only in “identity politics” on the left. Against the contemporary economic reality, which he called the “uneconomy” (he believes it is “unfair, unsustainable, and makes many people unhappy”) and the political reality of gridlock (in which “checks have replaced all the balances in our public life”) he proposed a new societal maxim that “all are responsible for all.” If applied to law and public policy, it is hard to see how this is much different from the collectivist vision generally offered by the religious and secular left. While holding that in the current highly partisan environment “Washington, D.C. is not getting very much right,” Wallis did maintain that we will soon see comprehensive immigration reform pass Congress.

Gerson responded that Wallis’ book and argument is “resoundingly right in its central premise.” Saying that “social justice needn’t have negative connotations” he maintained that “Christianity is inherently communitarian.” Against what he feels are common errors of our day, Gerson said that against libertarians, the common good is not the triumph of market economics, against the left, it is not to be understood as “choice,’ and against secularism, the common good is not a strictly secular public square.

A major challenge to be dealt with by American society is how we deal with the new demographic which is now coming into being, Wallis said, to which Gerson responded that there is now a “deep ambivalence” about American identity, now evolving toward “a more universal view.” This tension has now come to a head due to “differential development,” and Gerson spoke approvingly of the “Circle of Protection” concept, in which entitlement programs for low income persons are held immune from budget cuts in the ongoing fiscal crisis.

In response to a question from Galen Carey of the National Association of Evangelicals regarding the “intergenerational” nature of the common good, Wallis said that “value driven choices and decisions are needed,” and noted approvingly the maxim of some native American peoples that we should “make a decision today based on the seventh generation out.” How a modern society or its planners can project more than a century into the future would seem dubious in the extreme, however. Perhaps a future unconstrained by market economics is anticipated. Gerson did point out at this juncture that the level of “discretionary spending” (non-entitlement spending) has been almost completely stable in recent years; what is driving the skyrocketing deficit is the aging population and its entitlements.

In advancing a renewed interest the common good as a way to advance social and political life, Gerson noted the danger that it might become a new buzz word, with everyone claiming to believe in it. This is what has happened with the concept of “national interest,” it was claimed. “The common good” must involve specifics, but Wallis said that people on Capitol Hill are reluctant to be specific because they are “afraid of being pilloried by the pundits,” whose job is “not about solving, but about blaming.” To be substantial, the common good must involve the provision that we must all be willing to make sacrifices. Evidently, however, this can’t be literally meant; the “Circle of Protection” concept holds that sacrifices should not come from everyone. The middle class, however, cannot be exempted from sacrifice, as any workable effort to alleviate deficit spending cannot rely only on increased burdens for the wealthy.

The general nature of the discussion was perhaps understandable due to the broad view of the polarized political landscape today. Most people would approve of a less polarized environment, but is it possible unless people seriously believe their adversaries in the political and cultural wars of recent years have significant merit in the specific positions they take (not necessarily a correct assumption)? Or that hard fought issues don’t matter after all? It is doubtful that many people of the American right or left do think that. Wallis and the Sojourners ministry continue to passionately advance the favored leftist issues of the hour (immigration reform and gun control), and the call for “civility” is hardly new (and often not practiced) from that part of the political spectrum. The ONE Campaign continues to advance initiatives against poverty, but that really doesn’t provide a model for “culture war” issues where objectives radically differ. On the issues that passionately divide America (and the West) – entitlements, marriage, right to life, religious freedom beyond church walls, and others – it is only natural that discourse will continue to finally be based on worldviews and values that are inimical to one another, and “civility” will continue to recommended especially for the other side.

14 Responses to Partisanship and the Common Good

  1. Eric Lytle says:

    I keep hoping that, before he dies or retires, Wallis will say something intelligent, but I’m not holding my breath. If he wants “all are responsible for all” to be a foundational principle for America, fine, but it certainly isn’t a biblical principle. God didn’t tell us to love “the world” or “mankind” or “everyone,” but rather the “neighbor,” the person we actually encounter in life, human beings, not abstractions. Jesus didn’t form a Lepers’ Rights Association, he healed the individual lepers he encountered. Wallis has been digging socialism out of the Bible for decades, but it just isn’t there.

    If Wallis ever read Aristotle (doubtful – way too logical for the softminded) he’d encounter the political principle that, when “all men are brothers,” then the word “brother” is meaningless. Aristotle was no socialist, nor was Jesus or Paul. I’d love to see Wallis do an exegesis of 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat,” Paul’s stern mandate to lazy Christians who expected fellow Christians to support them. Paul didn’t exactly subscribe to Wallis’s “all are responsible for all.”

  2. Marco Bell says:

    It’s great to finally hear some discussion on the subject of ‘moving forward’ by some heavy thinkers.

    The only part that seems strange, was the sentence:

    “…The middle class, however, cannot be exempted from sacrifice, as any workable effort to alleviate deficit spending cannot rely only on increased burdens for the wealthy.”

    “Increased BURDENS for the wealthy” Ha! or LOL!!!!

    Seriously? That has to leave the average ‘Joe’ scratching his head in bewilderment, given that the “wealthy” have had more than three decades of rising ‘profits’, while the bulk of Americans watch their (net) worth wither unabated.

    JESUS!! What is so wrong with asking those that have the capacity, to pay their fair share, to actually, pay their fair share?!!

    Does the author of the article feel the pinch as a “wealthy” person?

    • Donnie says:

      Did you just use Jesus’ name as an exclamation, Marco? On a Christian web site? Classy.

      Anyway, according to the IRS, the top 25% pays 86% of taxes, and the bottom 47% pays zero. And while I wouldn’t expect the poorest of the poor to pay any taxes, if we really want a fair tax system then some of those 47% should pay something. But then again, this was never about fairness, only about punishing the successful.

    • Once the tax burden become too severe the wealthy will take their assets (and jobs) elsewhere: then we will get ZERO from them. Is that what you want, Marco? Is punishing the rich that important to you?

      The poor should not have to pay as high a tax rate as the rich. And they don’t. But EVERYONE should have some skin in the game or else they will simply vote to stick someone else with the bill. That voting pattern has put in the sad shape we’re in.

      • Marco Bell says:

        Dear Cleareyedtruthmeister,

        The “skin” in the game of the poorest in our country, is the skin on their backs!
        The wealthy 1% will do whatever they want with their money to avoid paying what should be their “fair share”.

        I am not suggesting punishing ANYBODY.
        What puzzles me, is that many middle-income ‘Right-wingers’ defend the 1% like it was their child under attack. Amazing!
        If it hasn’t been made clear over the last three decades, that all class incomes have been compromised and marginalized by the tax laws, then it is probably too far gone to fix, and the 1% have accomplished their goal of dividing America by keeping this gulf of poverty between them and us.

        I’m not a Socialist, but that system has it’s virtues over the one we are currently perpetuating under our present tax code.

        Let’s return to the tax rate of the Clinton era for starters.

  3. Just last week Hugh Hewitt interviewed Jim Wallis about his new book. It became apparent early in the interview that Mr. Wallis was not going to answer many questions directly or specifically, preferring instead to invoke vague, feel-good platitudes on issues ranging from Islamic terrorism to nuclear war.

    Mr. Wallis said as a young man he left his church because it was too concerned about personal salvation and not enough with social justice (he apparently does not see the connection between the two).

    Hewitt challenged Wallis regarding an assertion in his book that the Taliban had no aspirations “outside its own borders.” Long story short, it became painfully clear that Mr. Wallis simply had not done his homework. He was knowledge-deficient, particularly regarding modern-day terroristic threats, including where they are most likely to emanate from, what ideology prompts them, and which governments are most likely to sponsor them.

    I find it difficult to listen to people, like Wallis, who are not only intellectual paper tigers but who also pretend to be ideologically neutral while essentially advocating for only the left side of the political spectrum, a side which has turned its back on many of the teachings of historic Christianity.

    • gregpaley says:

      Cleareyed, I’m sorry I missed that encounter with Hugh Hewitt and Jim Wallis. That would be like John Calvin arguing with the church secretary. Wallis is, as you pointed out, “knowledge-deficient,” as all liberals are. They figure that their passion and compassion allow them to forego facts and logic. It’s hard to trust any so-called Christianity who shows more tolerance of the Taliban than he does evangelicals.

  4. Marco Bell says:

    Yes, Jesus was a “Socialist”! Certainly NOT a Capitalist!!!

    • Which Jesus are you referring to? The one in the Bible, or the fictional one that exists in aging hippies’ wild imaginations? The gray ponytail types who feel the marketplace has never accorded them the adulation they deserve tend to be haters of capitalism, on the assumption that they would be VIPs under a socialist system. (Ask the jailed artists and writers who flourish under Castro – oops, wait, you can’t do that, they’re behind bars.) It’s never wise to let one’s theology grow out of one’s personal grudges. People who have never read the Bible tend to view Jesus as a mirror image of themselves – which I guess means their “Christianity” is the same as narcissism.

      • Marco Bell says:

        Thanks for the compliment Noel Weymouth.

        I attempt to live a Christ-like life, and if my ponytail gets in your way of seeing my sincerity, I have no problem with that. It’s your view of the world.

        I hold NO personal grudges for anyone, well, perhaps my loathe for Bush and Cheney is a “grudge”, but for humanity and religion, I am simply amused.

        I am a capitalist in that I provide a service/product in exchange for money. I own an S-Corporation, and am somewhat dependent upon the 1% for my market segment. So I don’t know why you or anyone would think I hate Capitalism?

        If the emerging plutocracy isn’t clearly evident to you, then maybe I need to stand on the curb a little longer, with my signs? Since that’s what Hippies DO!

        Thanks again for the compliment.

    • You may want to also ask Alexander Solzhenitsyn who, from what I hear, spent a little time in a Soviet “work” camp…and, oh yes, check with his friend, Igor Shafarevich, who researched the history of Socialism and found it to be much less than advertised; indeed, he found Socialism to be antithetical to Christianity: http://www.amazon.com/The-socialist-phenomenon-I-Shafarevich/dp/0060140178

      • Marco Bell says:

        Thanks for the link Cleareyedtruthmeister.

        Regarding the book by Igor Shaferevich, the synopsis of several book reviewers seem to make your point regarding the severity of “the default system” known as Socialism.

        My attempt to assign or compare a social system to Jesus may have sounded brash or even insincere, but I would personally believe that Jesus may have had more inclination to tout the Societal sharing aspects of Socialism over the “I got Mine” attitude of pure Capitalism.

        Either way, I appreciate the educational upgrade you provided me.
        That book would provide days of continuous engagement, if only I had $199.00 to pay for the hardcover edition… and time to digest it.

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