Who Speaks for God?: An Alternative to the Religious Right: A New Politics of Compassion, Community and Civilityby Jim Wallis
Many Americans, religious or not, believe this country is facing a moral and spiritual crisis, one that has fundamentally to do with values. For people across the political spectrum, restoring moral values to our public policies and discourse has become a critical issue. But while the Religious Right has successfully portrayed itself as the exclusive protector and purveyor of moral values in politics, Who Speaks For God? illustrates that, in fact, the policies and positions it espouses fly in the face of Christian values and doctrine, and have had a harshly divisive effect on our society.
In Who Speaks For God?, Reverend Jim Wallis examines what historical Christian values, teachings and scriptures tell us about how to reinstate the sense of spirit, soul and meaning to our public policies and debates, and why it matters now more than ever beforeas poverty and homelessness increase and racial rifts tear us apart while our political leaders grow more fractious and their debate more partisan. Who Speaks For God? is a manifesto that presents an alternative vision for infusing a sense of meaning and values to our politics, a vision built around Compassion, Community and Civility.
Compassion is the first test of politics, from a religious perspective: How it treats the poor, the vulnerable, the weak, the children, is a virtual measure of a nation's righteousness according to the prophets, and in that light the material will look at our social policies and welfare reform. Whether it builds or destroys Community is a second test of a nation's politics, and the proliferation of gangs and urban violence attests to the need for a new approach.Civilitythe character of political discourse and decision makingis clearly lacking from the highly divisive political debate, characterized by the "politics of blame" in which the Religious Right has blamed the poor, the homeless, blacks, gays, feminists, and liberals for a striking array of sins; this section will reject the extremes from both the Right and the Left to envision a "moral center" for politics.
Wallis (The Soul of Politics, 1994) believes that many Americans genuinely want to see politics renewed by a sense of personal values and responsibility but do not want to give up the equally biblical imperative for social justice. Although he criticizes the Democrats for a lack of moral imagination, much of his book is an attack on Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition. He traces the way in which the religious right has successfully promoted itself as the voice of Christianity in this country, in spite of the fact that its leaders do not talk much about the teachings of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets. Wallis reminds us that the Bible consistently rebukes the rich and powerful for their neglect of the poor, and that evangelical Christians in the last century were leaders in the abolitionist movement and advocates for the poor. Although he speaks as a Protestant, Wallis admires the coherence of Catholic social teaching, in which opposition to abortion goes hand in hand with insistence on society's duty to care for the disenfranchised. Wallis's own political vision includes compassion for the poor, a renewed sense of community, and a new civility in public discourse. Although he is hard-hitting in his denunciations, he is not always as clear or specific in his proposals. On abortion, Wallis favors legal restrictions, not recriminalization, and the creation of a climate in which abortion would become "less thinkable." He supports legislation to strengthen the family and also to protect the rights of homosexuals. He concludes with a policy statement that has been endorsed by over 80 Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox church leaders.
Cogent and well written, Wallis's call for action deserves to be heard.
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The topic of politics and religion is in the air; everybody is talking about it--from Reader's Digest to Rolling Stone. The central concern today is the "values crisis," or what Senator Sam Nunn described as a "deficit of the soul" at the 1996 National Prayer Breakfast. Whether they are religious or not, most Americans are hungry for a deeper connection between politics and moral values; many would say "spiritual values." That concern is always heightened during an election year, but will continue to grow beyond this electoral cycle.
But for too long the so-called Religious Right has dominated that discussion in the mainstream media. The result is that many people who have religious or spiritual concerns, but don't feel represented by groups like the Christian Coalition, feel left out of the conversation. Those people must be brought back into the public discussion. We need them.
We live in the most religious country in the world. Many Americans across the liberal-moderate-conservative political spectrum are deeply religious or "spiritual" people. They, too, believe that their country is losing its way. They, too, see a vital connection between values and politics. They, too, if they are religious, believe the language of faith is relevant to political life. But if they don't warm to the polemics of television preachers who sound like right-wing ideologues, where are they to turn? Those people must have somewhere else to go.
Yet our problem is not just a "Christian Coalition" that claims to speak for all religious people. It is also the mostly liberal secularists who want to keep any religious or spiritual concerns out of politics altogether. Theiranti-religious bias is as rigid and intolerant as the Christian fundamentalists on the other side. These have become our false choices: hollow secularism or right-wing religion. But many people are hungry for an alternative; the good news is that there is one. I want to suggest another way.
A few clarifications are in order. First, the "Religious Right" does not speak for all social conservatives. Thoughtful conservatives in America are making valuable contributions to our discourse about morality and "virtue" in the public square, the sacred value of human life, the problems of bureaucracy in government, the need for taking serious personal and community responsibility, et cetera. Conservatives, even religious conservatives, are not all part of the Religious Right.
Second, all those Americans who are attracted to the Religious Right should not be lumped in with every political position of groups like the Christian Coalition. Many are drawn to the Religious Right out of concern for the decline of values in the country, fear for their children's future, moral conviction about the nation's abortion rates, or reaction to what they see on their television sets no matter what time of the day they turn them on. It's a mistake to believe everyone who is part of the Religious Right wants to take over the country and impose a repressive theocratic regime on his or her neighbors.
But the political views of the Religious Right's leadership are extreme and their agenda bodes danger for the country. Since they are now actively competing for political power--and getting it--their views and agenda should be made known, and they should be held politically accountable for them. Because their claim is also religious, as well as political, the Religious Right should also be scrutinized by religious and specifically biblical criteria. I want to help us attempt that task together.
Many of the references and quotations I've used refer to the Christian Coalition, its president, Pat Robertson, and its executive director, Ralph Reed. That is because the Coalition is the largest, best mobilized, and most powerful Religious Right organization in the country, and indeed has become one of the most powerful political groups in the nation.
Because he is the founding leader, political visionary, chief funder, principal policy-maker, and driving force behind the Christian Coalition, President Pat Robertson should be in the spotlight, and he is in this book. The more moderate-sounding and politically diplomatic Ralph Reed has been given the role of the Coalition's public spokesperson, but that does not change who is finally in charge. Robertson brought in Reed and retains ultimate authority, as Ralph Reed readily acknowledges. Business Week reports, "Thinking like business execs has helped Robertson & Co. avoid the pitfalls that stalled other loose-knit conservative religious movements like Jerry M. Falwell's Moral Majority. Robertson chairs the coalition's tightly controlled board of directors, whose other two members are longtime friends. And the soft-spoken Reed provides political cover for the controversial Robertson, whose preaching against a shadowy global banking conspiracy and the separation of church and state frightens many mainstream voters."
Despite the fact that many people, including many conservatives, think Robertson's views are quite bizarre, the political power his Christian Coalition has amassed makes those views no longer fringe. It makes them important, and they ought to be made the subject of public attention, especially by the religious community.
But our discussion is much less about Pat Robertson or the Christian Coalition than it is about a "new politics"--a politics with spiritual values that transcends the old categories of Left and Right, liberal and conservative.
The vital question in the discussion of religion and politics today is, indeed, "Who speaks for God?" I've tried to provide some help in answering that question and in seeking to forge a more spiritual politics. When I think of "spiritual politics," I often think of Mohandas K. Gandhi. The spiritual and political leader of India's freedom struggle warned against what he called "the seven deadly sins." They were: "politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality, pleasure without conscience, education without character, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice." Clearly, Gandhi's maxims speak to the heart of our moral crisis today. The issues he raises are much deeper than the battles between the Democrats and the Republicans. Wherever I travel, the recitation of Gandhi's warnings elicits a deep response in people across the political spectrum. Perhaps it's because the West has made Gandhi's "deadly sins" into a way of life--and we are now paying the price.
Together, we must search for a spiritual politics suited to our own time, a politics of compassion, community, and civility. Ultimately, we are searching for a new politics of hope.
Meet the Author
Jim Wallis is the founding editor of Sojourners magazine and the author of The Soul of Politics. An activist, writer, speaker, and pastor, he has helped mobilize the religious community around issues of racism, economic justice, disarmament, and peacemaking among inner-city gangs. He is the co-founder of a recently formed national network, Call to Renewal, which offers an alternative voice to the Religious Right and a new vision of politics that transcends both the Left and the Right.
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The book, "Who talks for God" I started reading assuming it was a book for Christians to come together on some of the issues... and it didn't seem to be that book. Since a very good friend had recommended it - I figured the problem must be my expectation of what the book was about. - So I tried to read it again assuming it was to liberal Christians to reconcile some of the politics of the left with their faith and that didn't work either. Then I thought maybe it's addressed to agnostics/atheists on the far left to explain how Christians could be on the same side on social issues. (Wallis doesn't appear to even know any conservatives). Then I tried searching for what other people had found in it on the web - thinking that could bring some clarity to the what it is, what it means. I found that a lot of other people thought highly of it - It's won some awards! But except for the promo blurbs, there doesn't seem to be anything written about it - If someone has found any gold here, please write a reply! On my part, my wife's two oldest daughters are screwed up Addicts. And my wife and I are always trying to walk the line between helping and enabling... Professions of faith on their part are usually faked 'jail-house conversions.' Declarations that they have decided to change are faked. My wife and I are down to never giving them any money (and we've given them thousands) but just food and diapers for the baby; because until they change, the money is just used for drugs - Possessions are just hocked for drugs - Apartments are sublet to others in exchange for drugs - They use every asset to destroy themselves and those near them. From my experience in dealing with them, and what I believe about bureaucracies, I do not support government aid to anyone - I'm libertarian. I think sucking in government funds into the church to aid the poor will have the same effect on the church as the church-state bond does in Europe - which I see as a disaster for the church - and more importantly a disaster for the faith. I could be wrong. Heck, I'd like to be wrong; and have some lever I could pull in this situation to actually aid them. But except for Prayer, my advice is to stand clear. Stupidity is like plutonium, you don't want to get any on you. Sorry for the rant... This probably betrays my spiritual weakness - because the bible says calling your brother a 'blockhead' puts you in danger of hellfire - and It's part of my faith I have a problem resolving.