Well, I finished up God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It by Jim Wallis. This was a great read and did an excellent job of assessing the weaknesses of each party. As promised in the "what are we reading right now" thread, here is my summary/review of the book.
God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It is a political and public administration policy assessment by Jim Wallis that discusses that Neo-Conservative Right – Liberal Left dichotomy in America as it relates to religious values. Published in January 2005, I was first made aware of the book from watching, of all things, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I was intrigued by the author’s arguments that politics today forces the voters to compromise on which values they hold closest. Voters like myself frequently have difficulty selecting a candidate because their moral values are held by one, while social values are supported by another. Wallis takes on this issue, chastising the current system as failing to represent all of the values preached to generations of Christians. In particular, he discusses the description of public religion as fanaticism, the confusion of religious voters, his option of “prophetic politics”, moral responses to terrorism, Iraq, poverty, abortion & capital punishment, tools, race, family and community values.
Wallis opens with an immediate attack on the Left and Right of the political debate. He notes that neither the Religious Right, with its claims of divine inspiration to remove all evil from the world and that it is the duty of every Christian to vote Republican despite its judgmental and corrupt perceptions, nor the more secular Democrats, with their demand that all candidates be pro-choice, is a proper representation of American values. Republicans present a skewed interpretation of Christianity, while Democrats refuse to acknowledge the importance of religion in public debate. Wallis seeks to clarify the dichotomy through introduction of a unified stance on Christian values and their application in American politics.
Wallis discusses how many Christians feel that their faith has been taken advantage of to create support for other policies. They know that religious belief does not equate to subsidizing the rich, unilaterally supporting war, or being supportive of only America as “God’s chosen country.” They desperately want to return to the basics of their faith in public policy. Rightist politicians focus on sexual and cultural issues while ignoring justice. In contrast, the Left politicians completely discount faith as an instrument of support for change.
Wallis describes what faith is, rather than how the media perceives it. Faith calls for assisting the poor. It creates communities by refusing to let characteristics like gender, class, race and sexuality. It seeks peace, rather than forceful domination. The media, however, does not seem to grasp this. They see all religion as subscribing to the fundamentalist beliefs or as an aggressive theocracy akin to Islamic fundamentalists. Religion is not that simple; it holds principles above power and action in a belief system that sees everything in the world as reflecting God’s image.
Wallis then takes on the issue of economic inequality and poverty. He feels that the Religious Right created an environment that completely goes against Christian values of assisting the poor. When they are attacked for their poverty policies, they respond with accusations of “class warfare” and say that “personal responsibility” is the only solution to the problem. Leftists, on the other hand, argue that the solution is better social programs. Wallis feels that both sides need to reassess their positions to see that both solutions play a role in the remedying the problem. He argues that a poor person cannot climb out of poverty if his or her job has moved offshore. He or she needs to be retrained or assisted in finding a job. In other words, the poor need social assistance in developing personal responsibility. However, Rightists tend to force their beliefs on others while the Left tends to dodge discussing the “values that make up American life.” He calls for politicians to look at problems from a variety of perspectives rather than a simple two-sided approach. Wallis continually reminds politicians about Jesus’ proclamation “blessed are the poor…” In addition, he uses Biblical references to blessing peacemakers and loving your enemies as he assesses policies of the Right. These “values” of Christianity do not seem apparent in what Wallis calls “empire-oriented unilaterial, fear/hate mongering policies.” Wallis explains that the best interests of the country will be served when the religious demands to know what the morals and values of the candidates are, regardless of party affiliation.
Wallis recalls that the most successful social changes were driven by “progressive religious churches” and their “morally outraged followers.” Wallis notes that the stances of politicians seem to change “with the wind.” He argues that the public should seek to “change the wind.” He draws the example of the civil/voting rights movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. When President Johnson told King to hold off on his proposed reforms, he decided to “change the wind” to create support for his group. Following marches and the famous “bloody Sunday” event, religious leaders from all denominations banded together with King and, five months later, the Voting Rights Act was passed. Wallis explains that the people today need a new wind. However, he notes that both a vision and people to follow it are needed. Unfortunately, in his estimation politicians today either lack vision or have the wrong one. He states:
"We all suffer when there is no vision, no guiding moral compass that steers our public life. We become bereft of meaning and purpose in our social relationships, we lose all sense of the ‘common good’ or our shared humanity, and the bonds of society themselves become so frayed that each individual feels forced to fend for themselves. The poorest and weakest among us who are the least able to do that pay the greatest price; but we all are diminished when our social life is reduced to the survival of the fittest."
Wallis also addresses religion in the public arena. Some politicians wear their “beliefs” on their sleeve, while others seem to hide theirs. He notes that in the Bible, God played a prominent and public role in defining the good of the people. Wallis states that denying a public God rejects biblical faith, arguing that keeping faith private it becomes a cultural religion that provides as a sounding wall for people with like beliefs without challenging them. It screens people out rather than creating a diverse community. He points out that it is no wonder that 9 a.m. Sunday morning is called the most segregated hour in America. He argues that America needs a unifying event similar to a tent revival to revamp public life.
Wallis goes on to talk about the options for religious voters. He points out that people who attend church regularly vote Republican more often. He notes that Democrats should be concerned that their failure to engage in meaningful debate about the role and type of religious values affecting public policies is allowing the Republicans carte blanche control over the agenda. Republicans trace their policies to their religious values, which endears them to the faithful public despite their broken promises. Wallis argues:
"Rather than suggesting that we not talk about God, Democrats should be arguing on moral and even religious grounds—that all American should have economic security, health care, educational opportunity and that true faith results in a compassionate concern for those on the margins."
Wallis presents a new option for religious voters—prophetic politics. Wallis relays a story from a Harvard private dinner with a top Republican strategist was the speaker. He was asked what one of his candidates would do if he faced a candidate that took a traditional moral stance on social and cultural issues that was not mean-spirited—blaming gays for the breakdown of the family, focused on lowering abortion rates by providing more options, emphasized social responsibility, moral values and denounced pop culture. He was further asked what would happen if that candidate, in addition to the above, endorsed populist economics, social programs for the poor, reforms for corporate corruption and the power elite, health care and educational opportunities for middle and lower class families, environmentalism, and cooperation among nations. His response was, “we would both panic.”
Wallis explains that voters have three basic options for voting, none of which allow them to vote all of their values due to the drastic extremes presented: extreme conservative, extreme liberal and libertarian. He argues that this fourth option of prophetic politics would strike the needed center ground. It would promote traditional family values, sexual integrity and personal responsibility while endorsing populist policies on poverty and racial justice. It would emphasize environmental stewardship and gender equality and think globally with intentions of maintaining peace. Furthermore, it would endorse social and corporate responsibility along with personal. This political voice would not attack particular groups, but look for causes rather than symptoms. Gone would be the “blame game” of two-party politics as this viable middle ground emerged.
Wallis takes on some key issues that were discussed during the past election. He believes that the American anti-terrorism policy is based on quick-reacting fear rather than thoughtful consideration of the anti-American sentiments and their causes. He discusses the reasons for anti-American sentiments, stating that it is foreign policy, rather than values, are the cause for anger. Other countries are angry about America’s selective support for dictators, exploitive trade agreements, and how our dependence on foreign oil has led to tolerance of corrupt Arab leadership. He argues that America needs to exercise caution in waging war and invasions, remembering that terrorism is “taking of innocent lives” and that each bystander further entrenches their hatred for the United States. He argues that the U.S. should stop demonizing terrorists and their host countries to address the causes of terrorism like poverty and hopelessness, both recruiting tools of al Qaeda. Wallis further says that everyone must be secure in order to maintain peace. He states that security is more than physical; it includes economic and spiritual freedom. Security gives people hope.
Iraq provides an additional example of poor policy decisions leading to increased anti-American sentiments. Wallis questions the need for invasion given the climate in the Middle East at the time. He notes that Arab countries were cooperating with investigations and closing terrorist cells until the U.S. invaded Iraq. Furthermore, information found to be intentionally falsified was used as justification. Americans had made their wishes well known on terrorism—they were willing to attack terrorists, but this ran counter to public opinion as the nature of Iraq as a terrorist threat (or not) and public/world opinion turned against the policy. He also notes that support for the war comes from America’s poorest, not the richest. He further criticizes the war as not promoting democratization, but in reality serving to conquer and occupy. He states that this perception can be avoided by turning Iraq over to the United Nations. While the leadership states that they are ridding the world of evil, Wallis feels that they lack the moral and religious authority to do so since they often represent people with vested interests in the outcome.
Wallis takes on specific domestic policies and how this fourth option would address them with a basis in Christian values. He notes that Jesus constantly called for his followers to take care of the less fortunate and love their enemies. Jesus did not blame to poor for their circumstances or expect them to pull themselves out without assistance. He mentions that most Americans think that if someone has full time employment that they will not be poor. However, this is simply not the case as many people struggle with multiple jobs to make ends meet. He criticizes Republicans and Democrats as trying to blame each other for the problem rather than trying to fix it. He explains that through cooperation, creativity, budgeting, minimum wage increases and the like, many of the issues with poverty can be resolved. Wallis goes on to say that a world superpower should be able to ensure that all able-bodied people have employment, have good and affordable housing and healthcare. This could be accomplished by prioritizing the budget with the Christian values in mind, meaning funding social programs rather than an unjustified, damaging war. He feels that a main reason this has not happened is the religious and rich Right failing to prioritize based on what their beliefs should be instead of their own interpretation. Furthermore, America should exercise more caution in its international economic policies. The current agreements do not protect workers, human rights or the environment. He states that wages in the United States have reduced as a result, which may lead to an incredible backlash.
Abortion and capital punishment present a unique issue. Wallis feels that if the Democrats would simply acknowledge a desire to reduce the abortion rate and that members of their party were free to hold pro-life beliefs, they could make great strides in gaining support. However, they seem to avoid these stances only because they are the opposite of Republican beliefs. He explains that they should campaign on respect for life, including support for AIDS assistance, child starvation, and opposition to the death penalty.
Race presents another issue that prophetic politics could make a difference in. Republicans use language that gives the impression that economic problems are due to minorities rather than poor economic policy and leadership. These discussions divide the country and distract from the real issue that race has nothing to do with stagnating wages. The public must be unified so they can solve the real problems like poverty, lack of healthcare and other serious problems. They should pursue an agenda that benefits everyone instead of a particular interest group.
Perhaps the largest area for the prophetic agenda to take hold is in family and community values. Wallis points out the irony of the Fox network that shows what many consider the most conservative news reporting while airing some of the more risqué shows that the public has grown heavily critical of. Most parents decry the negative impact of pop culture on children. They want programs that show lasting marriages, and do not show lying, stealing or cheating. However, the second someone tries to protest the toxic pop culture, they are attacked as trying to revoke free speech. Any candidate that expresses a need for pop culture to gain social responsibility will win over parents regardless of their past party affiliations. Regardless of economic or social status, all parents want their children to learn different, positive values. They want them to learn about love, honor and virtue. They want shows that show people making a positive difference, rather than reality shows that thrive on deceit.
In conclusion, this book provides an explanation to people like myself for why so many voters feel unrepresented. Rather than taking a partisan side, Wallis shares criticism of both parties as they cater to the extremes of the political arena. His argument that the religious Right does not get Christian values correct seems on target to me. Likewise, he makes important points that the Democrats cannot win when they refuse to participate in any kind of meaningful debate. One can only hope that the candidates for 2008 pick up a copy of this book and learn what the real values of America are, rather than preying on their religion as a way to gain false support for other policies.