– by Robert Benne
Following upon his 2009 New York Times Bestseller—God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It—Jim Wallis, CEO of Sojourners and editor in chief of its magazine by that name, continues his efforts to call all Christians, but especially conservative evangelicals, to join in a common quest to transform America. In this book he summons all Christians to get on God’s side by focusing on the common good, which he believes can be a unifying and rallying focus amidst the raging partisan battles of our time. Indeed, he believes a movement made up of young people—including the Occupy Movement—is already forming around this quest for the common good. He even suggests that this movement is part of The Great Awakening, the title of another of his recent books. Like the Second Great Awakening in the first half of the 19th century, Wallis’ movement aims at the transformation of American though an array of voluntary associations. Unlike the Second Great Awakening, revivals do not play a role in his scheme. Indeed, he seems to have ethical awakening without religious revival, since the latter suggests too much focus on an “atonement-only gospel,” of which he is very critical. (14)
I give his attempt to call Christians to a unified movement toward the common good an “A” for effort. This rambling book addresses a myriad of issues with zest and commitment. It aims at bringing together polarities that characterize partisan extremes. Instead of a Christ who is only an atoner for sin (held by the kind of evangelicals of his Plymouth Brethren youth) or a Christ who taught the Kingdom of God but never rose from the dead (held by some sorts of liberals), Wallis proposes a Living Teacher as his Christological key. (28-32) Politically, instead of an emphasis on only personal responsibility (conservatives) or only on social responsibility (liberals), we need a politics of the common good that combines both themes. (16) Wallis does spend some time on personal responsibility, especially in chapter 10 on “healthy households” and in the Epilogue, but the lion’s share of the book is given over to the social responsibility of Christians, which for the most part bends noticeably toward the left.
Thus, while it is clear that Wallis really wants to bring people together in a unified movement, his actual performance can only garner a “C” in my estimation. It would be lower except for his chapter 10 on strengthening marriage and a good section in chapter 4 on the ecumenical effort to ensure a “circle of protection” for the poor.
Beyond those instances, he seems to be preaching to the choir, the host of liberals who really think conservative evangelicals ought to get on their bandwagon. Wallis promotes almost every liberal cause and criticizes almost every conservative cause in our conflicted political world. He is for conflict resolution with our enemies instead of the “official and failed responses of Washington, DC, to the tragedy of 9/11(135) ;” he nearly equates Islamic fundamentalism and American Christian fundamentalism (145); he assumes the innocence of Travon Martin and the guilt of George Zimmerman (250); he solely blames the nefarious banks for the financial melt-down of 2008 with nary a word on the role of legislators and Fannie Mae for insisting that easy money be made available to unworthy credit risks (233); he chides the Tea Party for being anti-government but has no worries about the expansion and intrusiveness of government (231); he doesn’t seem to share the worries that conservatives have about government’s challenge to the free exercise of religion; and while he argues that all can agree “to work together to prevent unwanted pregnancies,” (a strategy agreeable even to Planned Parenthood), he can find no warrant for legally restraining abortion. (171) His repeated references to the Occupy movement as harbinger of social transformation would particularly grate conservatives, who view that sputtering movement at best as an adolescent effort to replay the 60s, and at worst as a gathering of thugs and other ne-er do-wells. Finally, he claims that conservatives are afraid of social justice (242), but, given his definition of social justice and the common good, it is quite understandable that religious conservatives interpret “social justice” as a code-word for liberal public policy.
Theologically, his Christology is essentially nineteenth century liberal—Jesus is primarily a teacher with whom we have a personal relationship and who conveys a universal ethical message summoning us to change the world. The gospel of the grace of God in Christ seems oddly absent; Wallis’ gospel is rather the demand for unending social activism. The sovereignty of God and the work of the Spirit are scarcely present. In fact, in all the book’s talk about social transformation the Holy Spirit is mentioned only three times, two referring to the historical event of Pentecost.
In short, there is little in this book—politically or theologically— that would draw religious conservatives into a shared quest for the common good. It is just too loaded with liberal biases to get that job done. Perhaps being on the New York Times best-seller list and hob-knobbing with the great and near great (including President Obama) led Wallis to a certain triumphal blindness to the hard contours of religious and political controversy in this country. We still await the Great Unifier, whoever he or she might be.
Robert Benne is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus, as well as founder of what is now the Robert Benne Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia.