The Common Good

Ralph Reed to Jim Wallis: Rejecting the Liberal "Straw Man"

Part two of a dialogue between Jim Wallis and former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed on the question: "What should values voters value most?"

Jim, you make the point that there are many issues of moral concern beyond marriage and abortion. I don't think there is a disagreement between liberals and conservatives of faith on this point. Pro-family leaders have worked tirelessly on a range of foreign policy issues, including ending genocide in the Sudan, support for Israel, and promoting human rights in China. Walter Russell Mead, the Henry Kissinger Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, points this out in an outstanding article on the impact of religion on U.S. foreign policy in Foreign Affairs.

The claim that religious conservatives focus on one or two issues or somehow believe that other issues lack a moral component is a straw man. Conservative people of faith have worked on a broad agenda, including anti-poverty measures and minority home ownership. Nearly 2 million minority families have purchased their first home under President Bush's home ownership initiative.

One challenge we face in the dialogue about faith is the tendency to focus on controversy over healing and reconciliation. Where religion and politics intersect, the media spotlight generates more heat than light. If a religious leader speaks out on gay rights, media coverage is extensive and often sensational. But when Franklin Graham helps tsunami victims or the Southern Baptist Convention assists Hurricane Katrina victims, there is scant press coverage. So we must do more to raise the profile of works of compassion outside the prevailing stereotype that defines religious folk engaged in public life.

Yet people of faith must address the central moral questions of our time. As Taylor Branch so accurately portrays in the third and final volume of his history of the civil rights movement, the central moral issues of the 1960's were civil rights and Vietnam. Martin Luther King?s decision (contrary to many other civil rights leaders) to voice his opposition to the Vietnam War was highly controversial. Slavery was the dominant moral issue in the pre-Civil War period, and religious leaders and all Americans had no choice but to confront it.

In our own time, issues of life are prominent in our politics, especially since Roe v. Wade. Religious conservatives did not create this issue and did not seek it out to benefit the Republican Party; indeed, most of them were Democrats until the 1980's. But the nation's conscience is unsettled by one out of every three pregnancies ending in the death of an unborn child, and people of faith should address it persistently and prominently. And when the courts began to impose a redefinition of marriage, people of faith were right to speak out consistent with their beliefs and values.

In the end, what separates religious conservatives from their liberal coreligionists is not a broad versus a narrow agenda, but rather a liberal versus a conservative agenda. We differ on the war on terrorism, how best to alleviate poverty, and the appointment of judges. We bring to those discussions not only our theology but our philosophy of governance and personal political leanings. Taking one side or another on these issues does not make one a better Christian, Jew or Muslim. Hopefully, our faith causes us to take positions as a matter of conscience, and faith should also bring a measure of civility and mutual respect to the discussion that is all too often lacking in our public discourse.

Our faith should cause us to pursue what is right as we can best understand it with a measure of humility. For now, we can only know in part and understand in part. We are flawed and imperfect vehicles seeking to do God's will. We should acknowledge it more often.

Jim, isn't there a connection between the reticence of liberals toaddress abortion and marriage as moral issues and the view held by manyAmericans that the Democratic Party is unsympathetic to their religious concerns?

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