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Issue Date:  February 25, 2005

By Jim Wallis
HarperCollins, 416 pages, $24.95
Building a bridge between blue and red


Six words comprise the basis for Jim Wallis’ bestselling book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. They are, “Without a vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).

In 384 pages, Mr. Wallis repeatedly proclaims not only that God is not a Republican or a Democrat, but that neither party provides us with a vision of what it means to be a person of faith who desires to inform one’s politics with one’s faith. He calls for “prophetic politics” and offers a “fourth option” (the first three being conservative, liberal and libertarian) that goes beyond the narrow vision of the religious right and the lack of vision of the secular left. Mr. Wallis also asserts that the “best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable nor loyally partisan,” and he says, “God is personal, but never private.” Mr. Wallis’ “fourth option” is “traditional or conservative on issues of family values, sexual integrity and personal responsibility, while being very progressive, populist, or even radical on issues like poverty and racial justice [and] it affirms good stewardship of the earth.”

For subscribers of Sojourners magazine or readers of Mr. Wallis’ earlier book, The Soul of Politics, this book will not be new ground to plow. Mr. Wallis has preached and lived his brand of prophetic politics for three decades now. However, the zeitgeist of our national politics may have finally arrived at a place where Mr. Wallis’ words will be heard as never before. Or as the saying goes, “When the student is ready, the lesson appears.” Students from the left and the right may be ready for Mr. Wallis’ lesson for the first time in 30 years. While recently organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State have chided him for trying to inject religious language into the political system, Mr. Wallis urges all of us to build on the strong tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., who, Mr. Wallis says, brought religion into public life “in a way that was always welcoming, inclusive, and inviting to all who cared about moral, spiritual or religious values.”

Mr. Wallis leaves few stones unturned in the deft though broad categorizing of issues under international relations, economic justice and social issues. One by one, he tackles the preeminent issues. He castigates the religious and political right for “triumphalism, self-righteousness, bad theology, and, often, dangerous foreign policy.” Then, although Mr. Wallis’ support of the Democrats in 2004 is no secret, he equally chastises the left for failing to articulate a vision based on values and our common humanity, thereby promoting a “politics of complaint.”

Few will agree with Mr. Wallis on all issues. He leaves the gay/lesbian community bereft of blessing by calling only for their civil rights in a larger picture of sexual integrity. He insists that pro-life can be pro-feminist in ways that will leave the pro-choice community calling for him to surrender his credentials for the next Democratic National Convention. But only a small number of readers will deny that Mr. Wallis’ voice and vision attempts to bridge the blue state/red state divide in ways that actually provide some tensile strength to the bridge and he invites his readers to cross that bridge with him.

Although Mr. Wallis addresses issues from war to abortion, there is little doubt that poverty is the “umbrella issue” of his ministry, his life and this book. This commitment to eradicating poverty informs Mr. Wallis’ vision on almost every issue addressed. For example, as recently as in his 2005 State of the Union speech, President Bush tells us that the antidote to hatred of the United States is freedom. Mr. Wallis purports the answer to our ever-diminishing international image is abolishing poverty. For Mr. Wallis, hatred of the United States resides in persistent poverty in the face of our abundance.

While Mr. Wallis’ style is a bit pedantic, repetitive and not likely to win prestigious writers’ awards, his goal is accomplished. He chides us to “never be satisfied with mere protest or complaint about the things we believe are wrong. Rather we must do the harder, more creative, and ultimately more prophetic work of finding and offering alternatives. … The clear shift from protest to alternatives could change the political framework of the debate.” Mr. Wallis provides readers with basic documents that have been used by organizations in the past to influence political leaders and challenges us not only to build on these through discussion and new alternatives but to move beyond cynicism to hope.

In their pre-election statement, “Faithful Citizenship,” the Catholic bishops wrote: “Politics in this election year and beyond should be about an old idea with a new power -- the common good. The central question … should be ‘How can we -- all of us, especially the weak and vulnerable -- be better off in the years ahead? How can we protect and promote human life and dignity? How can we pursue greater justice and peace?” Mr. Wallis and the bishops are in agreement about the questions that need to be asked by every person of faith in America.

One suggestion in the post-election reality for igniting the fires of discussion would be to encourage every church, synagogue and mosque study group, every Sunday School class, every youth group, and every secular book club to read and discuss God’s Politics. It is a primer for life at the intersection of religion and politics in 2005 and will most assuredly instigate lively and productive discussion that may even lead to action.

The Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson is a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister who lives and works in Washington. She served briefly as director of religious outreach at the Democratic National Committee last year.

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2005

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