Thursday, November 09, 2006

What's the Matter with Jim Wallis?

I already posted something today, but I just can't resist posting an addendum: A gigantic "huh?" response to the brief election commentary by Jim Wallis, one of the best known Christian leaders attempting to pose a more thoughtful alternative to the religious right, on Beliefnet (cross-posted on HuffPo) just now. In a reflection entitled "A Defeat for the Religious Right and the Secular Left," Wallis claims: "In this election, both the Religious Right and the secular Left were defeated, and the voice of the moral center was heard. A significant number of candidates elected are social conservatives on issues of life and family, economic populists, and committed to a new direction in Iraq."

I respect Jim "vote all your values" Wallis, and I admire all that he's done as an alternative voice for Christianity in the public sphere. Yet although I agree with Wallis's Christian perspective on the specific issues he cites--economy, poverty, Iraq, etc.--I have two serious objections to his argument:

#1) How exactly was "the secular left" defeated in this election? The shift in favor of Democrats was across the country in just about every demographic category. It was a resounding victory for the secular left by getting rid of some of its most odious persecutors (e.g., Rick Santorum) and drastically diminishing the power of the Republicans in Congress. To be sure, some Democrats elected are conservative on cultural issues (what else is new? remember the Old Solid South? I doubt you could find a Democratic rep today that wouldn't pale in comparison as a cultural conservative!) Yes, many Democrats were willing to talk about their faith in a wider sense. But in most cases they did so in such a way that I doubt any secular people could have been at all offended, or felt that their victories were in some way a "defeat" for them. (Or correct me if I'm wrong: Do Jon Tester, Claire McCaskill, and Jim Webb seem like a "defeat" to you secular leftists out there?) Moreover, the most high-profile candidate to try out-Christian-ing the Republicans, Harold Ford Jr., himself went down to DEFEAT--although I will grant that also had to do a little bit with racist TV commercials and veiled code language used by his opponent. For so many others, though, it was simply a victory for the whole progressive left--Christians, Jews, Muslims, secular people, and others--all together. (If you want to be picky about it on a quantitative level, exit polls showed that secular people were the demographic group most voting in favor of Democrats, and more Democrats won, so I guess that they fared the BEST, if anyone did!) I just don't see any way you can spin this recent election as a "defeat" for the secular left.

#2) Why are we demonizing the "secular left" at all? This is what really gets me. I am an unabashed Christian and an unabashed Leftist (to me, the former basically implies the latter!) As far as I'm concerned, I want to be in a political coalition with EVERYONE who believes in the same ideals and values, not just United Methodists, or Protestants, or Christians, or "people of faith" in general. Widen the circle one more step, please! One thing I cherish about being an American is that we don't establish religion through the state; instead, we give people religious freedom and separate religion from the state. Both can flourish better this way. And we then have to make better arguments in the public sphere, because we can't just fall back on some unreasoned appeal to religious authority. In fact, in my experience, I can say that many secular people I have known have more deeply thought and deeply ethical convictions than many religious people in our society. So please, Jim Wallis, don't demonize and exclude secular people from your vision of our progressive future.

What's really at the heart of my discontent with Jim Wallis's version of "progressive Christianity" is that it seems like a game of strategic Clinton-esque triangulation. It is a problem I've had with his public statements (I heard him talk in person once, and I do heartily recommend his books, such as _God's Politics_) many times before. He likes to talk about the "moral center" and decries the language of "right" and "left." He always tries to balance criticism of one group ("the religious right") with an equal and parallel criticism of the other side ("the secular left," so it sounds). That way he can appear even-handed and can perhaps appeal more easily to self-avowed evangelical Christians who may be more open to listening to someone who is claiming the center, who identifies both "left" and "right" as problematic, etc., etc.

The problem with this view is not just that it might sound like a typical politican trying to have it both ways to win votes, but more simply that it is a false parallelism. (Or maybe I should leave open the possibility that it reflects Wallis's sincere belief that both right and left are equally misguided?) It is my deeply felt belief, informed by study of the Bible, my religious tradition, my own experience, and my reason, that the Christian Gospel's true home is on the Left. The Christian message is not just some bland "moral center" but a bold and prophetic call to action against the principalities and powers that rule the world today. It is a call to solidarity with the poor, to the equality of all people in the world (e.g., an Iraqi life is equally and infinitely precious in God's eyes to an American's life), to resist materialism and greed, which along with the glorification of violence are the real sinful idols of our modern world. If Jesus were alive today, I submit to you, wouldn't he be on the Left?

I respect the sincerity and faith devotion of people who think they are doing God's work by trying to ban all abortions, even in the case of rape; or who are trying to stop stem cell research, even if the embryos are already being thrown away; or who want to bar gay and lesbian people from having the same rights as everyone else. But as much as I respect the fact that they are willing to have convictions about something greater than themselves, I absolutely, positively, sincerely, from the bottom of my heart DO NOT BELIEVE THAT THEY ARE ACTUALLY DOING GOD'S WORK. I believe they are good people, and many of them are in fact quite committed to doing other good things, but in this case they are being misled by duplicitous, hypocritical church leaders (e.g., Pastor Haggard in Colorado), as well as scheming and designing business and political leaders, who see that getting people all worked up about these issues is an effective way to divert them from the powers-that-be in modern society (at last, I now refer to Thomas Frank's argument in _What's the Matter with Kansas?_, which inspired the title of this post!)

If Wallis's real target is people like Richard Dawkins--i.e. militant atheists who are just as fundamentalist and dogmatic in their own beliefs as the extreme Christian Right in the USA who want to make it a theocracy, or the Jewish extremists in Israel who want to expel all Palestinians from the Occupied Territories, or the various Muslim religious extremists in the Middle East and elsewhere whose fanatical designs are too well known to need mentioning--then I am totally in agreement with him that these people's views are problematic in parallel ways. But in my experience, very, very few secular leftists would fit into this category. They probably wouldn't even fit on the head of a pin. And even if they did, they have very little power in the world, as far as I can tell. And I certainly don't see any of them starting wars lately.

I have had many secular friends over the years. Most of the people I hang out with on a daily basis are secular people. I have experienced nothing but respect for my religious views from all of them. Even the most energetically atheist ones just made it more fun to debate with them and dispel their misconceptions about Christianity formed by seeing its public face presented by the Religious Right. In theory, I can imagine a completely secularized world where materialistic, completely hedonistic, secular people dominate absolutely everything--a world filled with selfish, individualistic people just trying to help themselves and not caring about other people or behaving ethically. But that is not the world we DO live in. And based on my experience with secular people, it is not a world I predict we will EVER live in.

On the contrary: One of the saddest things to me as a Christian in the last few years was during the debate (such as it was permitted to occur) before the invasion of Iraq. I remember that a poll showed that the more likely someone was to go to Church, the more likely they were to support bombing and invading Iraq. Let me quote the shortest sentence in the Bible: "Jesus wept."


Ambivalent_Maybe said...

I'm a secular leftist, but I have a lot of respect for religious people. I think most other secular leftists do, too. Hell, I tried being religious, but it was too hard. I also find Richard Dawkins to be a terrible bore, though I do have respect for the field of molecular biology. I've never tried *that*, but it also looks pretty hard.

christian_left said...

Glad you are still in the coalition. Apparently I'm not the only one who found Wallis's remarks puzzling--

christian_left said...

One more link to something I just found this morning. Jonathan Singer over at mydd points out that evangelical Christian voters and frequent church attenders actually shifted to Democrats LESS than other demographics, such as secular people, Jews, and Hispanics:

Jim Wallis is well meaning when he tries hard to bring evangelical Christian voters into the progressive coalition. (And I myself will continue to point out as often as I can how much my Christianity resonates with my leftist politics!) But I think the reality is not working out that way just yet, and I hope Wallis reconsiders his misleading emphasis on the triumph of a "moral center" which plays into the hands of those who would oppose progressive issues and needlessly alienates thoughtful and ethical secular voters, who are a central part of our coalition.

Tess said...

I've been enjoying catching up on your posts this morning.... I, too, get tired of the idea that religious = good = political right, and secular = bad = political left. Like you, I know lots of "secular" people who are working hard to make the world a better place.