The Common Good

Biblical Perspectives on Idolatry, Poverty, Abortion

Beliefnet invited Jim Wallis to participate in a "blogalogue" with David Klinghoffer, author of How Would God Vote? Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative. Here's Jim's response to David's latest post, "What Are God's Real Politics?"

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You asked for specific issues from a Biblical perspective.

Let's start with idolatry. I agree with your definition that it is "setting up moral authorities in competition with, or to the negation, of God." But you then turn it into a partisan polemic against the Democratic Party, and what you call its "aggressive secularism" and "classic pagan hallmarks." I do not agree that the "chief crisis that any would-be political leader today needs to address" is the idolatry of secularism. The far greater crisis is those who call themselves Christians (or Jews), but put other loyalties ahead of their loyalty to God

The reality is that the idolatries that rule in the U.S. include nationalism, materialism, racism - ideologies that compete with the rule of God and for the loyalties of people of faith.

I've told the story many times about when I was in seminary, and our group of students did a thorough study to find every verse in the Bible that dealt with the poor. We looked for every reference to poor people, to wealth and poverty, to injustice and oppression, and to what the response to all those subjects was to be for the people of God We found several thousand verses in the Bible on the poor and God's response to injustice. We found it to be the second most prominent theme in the Hebrew Scriptures--the first was idolatry, and the two often were related.

On Bush's "idolatries." I recount in God's Politics how often George W. Bush has confused the American nation with the people and the purposes of God in his use of Scripture, hymns, and his calls to arms in his war against terrorism. I do believe that Bush's theology has led to disastrous consequences and has embarrassed American Christianity and damaged our image around the world.

On same-sex marriage. I believe in equal protection under the law in a democratic, pluralistic society for gay people and everybody else. Some would debate whether civil unions are necessary for that, or whether other legal protections are adequate. And that's a fair discussion. But, I have consistently said that I don't think the sacrament of marriage between a man and a woman should be changed.

On abortion. I have repeatedly said that I believe abortion is wrong and always a moral tragedy. The number of unborn lives that are lost every year is alarming. But I also do not believe that the best way to change that is to criminalize abortions and just force them underground. The question is how can we actually prevent unwanted pregnancies, protect unborn lives, support low-income women, offer compassionate alternatives to abortion, make adoption much more accessible and affordable, carefully fashion reasonable restrictions, and thus dramatically reduce the shamefully high abortion rate in America? You say you want to respect the will of the people. Well, every opinion poll shows the same thing - substantial majorities think that there are too many abortions and that we should pursue measures to reduce and restrict the number, but they do not support overturning Roe v. Wade.

Finally, on poverty. You say that we can agree that some needs should be addressed by government. But in your book, you say that "I can find nowhere in the Scripture where the state is commanded to extend generosity to the impoverished." I suppose it depends on how you define "the state." It was very different in ancient Israel before the monarchy, but the Bible is full of laws that govern leaving the corners of fields unharvested, not shaking olive trees and grapevines a second time, the Jubilee year of redistribution - all aimed at compelling those who "had" to hand over some of their plenty to those who did not. And there are laws governing fair wages (think minimum wage), unfair interest rates (think outlawing payday lending), and other ways of ensuring some degree of economic justice. It's the gap between the rich and the poor which seems to most concern the prophets and reducing the economic chasm is a priority for them.

Then, in perhaps the most outrageous statement in your book, you say that "It is debatable whether the Bible's many admonitions to care for the poor really apply today, in the United States, other than to a relatively small group of people." Do you really believe that trying to support a family of four on $20,000 a year (the official poverty measure) isn't really poverty? Thirty-seven million people living below the poverty line is not a small group. I couldn't believe your statement when I read it this week. And it tells me that you have never lived in a poor neighborhood or had any poor people as your friends. Do you see the news these days, with stories of families having to choose between paying the rent or buying food, between keeping the electricity on or buying needed medications? And what about all the children who are poor, and even hungry, in America. Do you think that it is all just their fault? Do I need to tell you the heartbreaking stories of what happens to families in the poorest neighborhoods in Washington DC where I have lived for three decades? There is real and painful poverty in the U.S. today, David, and the Bible's admonitions certainly do apply. And frankly, most all the rabbis that I have been blessed to know over many years would completely disagree with you on this. Your incredible statement about the biblical imperatives not applying to the poor in your country makes me think that we will never agree on very much about what the Bible says about politics.

Finally, who I personally vote for is not the issue. In our work, we have successfully worked across the aisle on a number of issues. On TANF (welfare reform) reauthorization, we convened a group of senior Republican and Democratic staff to work on a bipartisan approach. We worked with former Republican Senator Rick Santorum on the CARE Act, supported the direction of his Republican anti-poverty platform, and several other measures. My closest friend in the U.S. Senate for many years was former Senator Mark Hatfield, Republican from Oregon. Sadly, I have not been very enthusiastic about the voting choices we have had in many recent elections. But what says more about my politics are the causes and movements which have compelled my time and energy. It's not who I may vote for, but who I work with as allies toward common ground and common goals.

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