October 29, 2013

Review: On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good

– 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.


2 Responses to Review: On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good

  1. Adrian Croft says:

    In all Wallis’s books, Jesus’ agenda looks suspiciously like Jim Wallis’s agenda (pure coincidence, of course), and that Jesus has a knack for using the latest liberal buzzwords like “inclusivity” and (the core idea of On God’s Side) “fairness.” Who could object to “fairness”? No one. But the BIG question liberals never dream of asking is, fairness as defined by whom? (Well, THEM, of course.) In this book, “fairness” means accepting open borders, admitting illegal immigrants and accepting them, everything but people-movers to aid them in their illegal entry. Is that “fair” to the US citizens in Arizona and New Mexico who have their property trashed and who often live in fear? Or to US taxpayers coast to coast, who all pay for the massive cost of millions of people who should not be here, aided by a president who has made it clear that, for him, there is no border, and by a Congress in which both parties shy from the immigration issue because they are such craven cowards that they are cowed by fears of the media calling them “racist.” Jesus’s view of fairness (or, Wallis’s view, rather) is that US citizens don’t matter, “fair” only applies to people whose presence in the US begins with breaking the law. Ignoring the needs of US citizens and focusing all our compassion on illegals fits Wallis’s definition of the “common good,” one of his bumper-sticker clichés that shows up on every page. Keep saying the cliché, make the reader shut down his brain and just accept the pleasant-sounding phrase. Who would oppose “the common good”? I would – that is, I would define that far differently that Wallis would. As a Christian, I see myself under no divine mandate to encourage illegal immigration or any other crime. Wallis can tear down the walls of his home if he wishes to and put up a sign that signs “Homeless people welcome here.” He has no right to tell an entire country, or all the Christians in it, that they must do the same – and, incidentally, Wallis isn’t going to open up his home because he understands that being “welcoming” and “inclusive” doesn’t mean removing all boundaries. But remember, liberalism isn’t about being generous, it’s about forcing other people to be generous.

    For Wallis, being “on God’s side” and being guided by Jesus means: be a liberal, support open borders, accept that the immigration situation will remain as it is, or worsen, but God wants you to accept it and abet it. If you want to contribute to the “common good,” check the names on the ballot that have a “D” (as in “Democrat”) next to them. And when you talk, use the right words – “compassion,” “common good,” “inclusive,” “equality,” the usual list. This is the Gospel, according to St. James.

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