Originally published by Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry Summer 2005.
Jim Wallis is a progressive evangelical minister who has worked on behalf of the poor from the micro to the macro, from soup kitchens to third world debt, opposing U.S wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and working against apartheid with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He aspires to carry on the admirable tradition of progressive religious political movements: abolition, women’s suffrage, Gandhi and Dr. King. After lecturing to an audience of Harvard-area liberal intelligentsia about his desire to see religion play a greater role in political life, the first question from the audience was “But Jim, what about the inquisition?” Wallis responded,
“Unless you want me to raise the specter of the communist butcher Pol Pot and his brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia every time you talk about the need for a comprehensive national health plan, why don’t we move onto a better discussion.”
Wallis argues that “Protests are good, alternatives are better.” Pacifists have a responsibility to take seriously the problems which war ostensibly deals with. — What to do about problems like terrorism or an oppressive government such as Saddam Hussein’s? Wallis demonstrates that there are real alternatives, which are not in fact, far-fetched, but instead quite practical. The choice between going to war and doing nothing is a false dichotomy. In the broad range of issues he covers in the book, he always presents alternative policy.
Wallis makes frequent reference to the Catholic church’s concept of a “consistent ethic of life” which opposes war, the death penalty and abortion in a single breath. To his credit, Wallis doesn’t advocate
restrictions on abortion, pointing out that a recent drop in abortion rates is “due more to economic progress for poor women during the Clinton administration than to any initiatives by religious right supported Republican presidents.”
The book does have its shortcomings. It can be a bit redundant, and after dismissing ministers who would rather be seen in high places than serving the poor, Wallis still manages a fair amount of namedropping.
His central thesis is in some ways unsettling. It seems to me quite likely that an increased role of religion in
politics would likely lead to the marginalization of anyone who doesn’t partake of mainstream Christianity. It
would be difficult to agree with Wallis on everything, but he asks questions worth asking, and even when I disagreed, the process was worthwhile.
Wallis sees Bush as promoting a militaristic Christian theology capable of doing a good deal of harm not only
to U.S. policy but also to religious faith itself. “The best response to bad theology is not secularism, but good theology.” If progressive candidates don’t bring their religious beliefs into public discussion, the Right will continue to have the privilege of defining abortion and gay marriage as moral issues, but not poverty and war. Wallis and his organization are doing exciting work in broad coalitions, and propose ideas that deserve attention.