The Common Good
March-April 1995

Who Speaks for God?

by Jim Wallis | March-April 1995

An Alternative to the Religious Right.

Who speaks for God today? The Religious Right would have us believe that it does. The media have been very cooperative, giving right-wing fundamentalists most of the coverage when the issues of politics and religion come up. And religion and politics come up all the time these days.

For several years now, the Religious Right has virtually controlled the national discussion of politics and morality with the help of the media, who have virtually ignored alternative voices. And with all its money, the Religious Right literally has been able to buy its own microphones and broadcast its message around the world.

The time has come to challenge the Religious Right and offer a deeper perspective. A clear, visible, public alternative is vitally needed today-one that lifts up another vision of the relationship between faith and politics.

Among many sectors of the church's life, a new conversation is taking place. Dissenting evangelical voices seek a biblical approach to politics, not the ideological agenda being advanced by the Religious Right. Strong Catholic voices assert their own church's social teachings as a vital alternative to the Religious Right and the secular Left. Many African-American, Latino, Asian, and Native American church voices combine personal and family values with a commitment to social justice that leads them to embrace neither the liberal nor the conservative program. New voices from all the Protestant churches feel represented neither by old religious liberalism nor Religious Right fundamentalism.

Together, we proclaim an evangelical, biblical, and catholic faith that must address a nation in crisis; and we will not be dismissed as "liberals" or "secular humanists" as the Religious Right always characterizes those who disagree with it. We do not challenge the Religious Right's "right" to bring its religious values into the public square as some political liberals have.

On the contrary, we believe that our impoverished political process needs the moral direction and energy that spiritual and religious values can contribute to the public debate. Separation of church and state rightly prevents the official establishment of any religion but does not and must not prohibit the positive influence of religious communities on the nation's moral and political climate.

The question is not whether religious faith should make a political contribution, but how. If religious values are to influence the public arena, they ought to make our political discourse more honest, moral, civil, and spiritually sensitive, especially to those without the voice and power to be fairly represented.

That is where the Religious Right has failed. Since the 1980s, the powerful influence of the Religious Right has been an important factor in making our political debate even more divisive, polarized, and less sensitive to the poor and dispossessed.

AT STAKE IS NOT just politics, but the meaning of faith itself. It is time to challenge the aggressive right-wing litmus test that has distorted the independent moral conscience that faith can bring to politics. Many committed Christians are dismayed by those who would undermine the integrity of religious conviction that does not conform to a narrow ideological agenda. And prophetic religion is subverted when wealth and power are extolled rather than held accountable; when the gospel message is turned upside-down to bring more comfort to those on the top of society than to those at the bottom.

Regrettably, the Religious Right has claimed the evangelical faith and an almost exclusive right to define it by its political agenda. That reality has become especially problematic for the many evangelical Christians who do not endorse the political Right. In fact, most evangelical Christians are not members of the Religious Right, despite the media-created perception of an evangelical right-wing juggernaut. Even the word "evangelical" has become so identified with a particular political and cultural militancy that many evangelical Christians now hesitate to identify themselves as such.

"Evangelical" used to be a good word. It means a biblically rooted and Jesus-centered faith, and it comes from the word "evangel"-meaning "good news." Jesus himself used the word to announce the meaning of his coming. There, standing in the temple in the little town of Nazareth, he quoted Isaiah's ancient prophecy, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news [the evangel] to the poor...."

The Religious Right preaches a politics that is more nationalist than truly evangelical. Listening to its leaders' words and agenda, one hears little about Jesus at all. Their political preference for wealth, power, and military might flies in the face of a gospel that was intended to be good news to the poor and was preached by an itinerant Jewish rabbi who said that it was the peacemakers who would be blessed.

One wonders whether the Religious Right even knows its own history. In the last century, evangelical Christians were leaders in the abolitionist movement against slavery, were tireless advocates of the poor and oppressed, and were in the forefront of the struggle for women's rights. Is today's Religious Right agenda good news to the poor, women, and disadvantaged racial communities?

The evangelical Christian movement has been hijacked. Evangelical Christianity has been commandeered by a combination of fundamentalist preachers and right-wing political operatives who recognized their common cause and the power to be gained by taking over the evangelical label. They have now effectively done so in the perception of the nation.

True evangelical faith focuses on the moral values that must be recovered to heal the torn political fabric; ideological faith would rend the fabric further in the pursuit of power. Evangelical faith tries to find common ground between warring factions by taking the public discourse to higher ground; ideological faith fuels the rhetoric of "us and them" and breeds a climate for hate and even violence. Evangelical faith holds up the virtues of compassion and community; ideological faith appeals to personal and group self-interest. Evangelical faith understands our identity as the children of God as a call to humility and reconciliation rather than the basis for attacking those who are less righteous.

WHO WILL ARTICULATE a political vision that seeks common ground between diverse people with legitimate concerns? The politics of division will only take us lower and lower. We need a politics of values and vision today, one that takes seriously both personal and social transformation.

Despite public cynicism, a deep longing exists in the land for rediscovering the moral heart of our public debate. Many Americans now believe the crisis we face is a spiritual one, and deeper than politics as usual. It's the "healing of the nation," as envisioned by the biblical prophets, that we most need today, and the "soul" of politics that we must recover. While the liberals and conservatives carry on arguments that seem more and more irrelevant and relentlessly attack each other, our children are being shot in the streets.

Our times cry out for renewed political vision. And vision depends upon spirited values. But if politics will be renewed more by moral values than by partisan warfare, the religious community must play a more positive role. The language of morality and faith is absolutely essential to political discourse. Because the crisis we face is spiritual, it must be addressed by solutions that address the "spirit" of the times that often lies beneath our political and economic problems. Further, the old political language and solutions of Right and Left, liberal and conservative are now almost completely dysfunctional and helpless to lead us into a different future. Conformity to the old options offered by either the Religious Right or the Religious Left will not take us forward.

The almost total identification of the Religious Right with the new conservative political rulers in Washington, D.C., is merely the latest dangerous liaison of religion with political power. Such faith is clearly more ideological than truly evangelical. With the ascendancy and influence of the Christian Right in the Republican Party, the religious critique of power has been replaced with the religious competition for power.

Likewise, the continuing identification of religious liberalism with political liberalism and the Democratic Party has demonstrated a public witness without either moral imagination or prophetic integrity. Liberal religious leaders have sought access and influence with those in power no less than their Religious Right counterparts. Neither right-wing religious nationalism nor left-wing religious lobbying will serve us at this critical historical juncture.

RELIGIOUS FAITH MUST NOT become another casualty of the culture wars. Indeed, religious communities should be the ones calling for a cease-fire. The ideological polarization of the churches will not contribute to the spiritual discernment of politics the country most needs. Name calling is no substitute for real and prayerful dialogue between different constituencies with conflicting priorities.

Today the body politic is buffeted by polarized extremes. Instead of helping a politically war-weary public find common concerns and values, the religious community, on both sides, has often given sanction to the perpetuation of tragic divisions. Many Christians refuse the false choices between personal responsibility or social justice, between good values or good jobs, between strong families or strong neighborhoods, between sexual morality or civil rights for homosexuals, between the sacredness of life or the rights of women, between fighting cultural corrosion or battling racial and economic injustice.

Many of us care deeply about moral values and the breakdown of family life. We feel the erosion of personal responsibility and character in our neighborhoods and nation. But that doesn't lead us into the arms of the Religious Right. On the contrary. We believe that social responsibility is also at the heart of our biblical traditions, that racism and sexism are also sins, and that the best test of a nation's righteousness is not its gross national product and military firepower but, according to the prophets, how it treats the poorest and most vulnerable.

It is time to call ourselves and our churches back to a biblical focus that transcends the Left and the Right. Christians should carefully consider each social and political issue, diligently apply the values of faith, and be willing to break out of traditional political categories. By seeking the biblical virtues of justice and righteousness, the Christian community could help a cynical public find new political ground.

The American people are disgusted with politics as usual and hungry for political vision with spiritual values that transcends the old and failed categories that still imprison public discourse and stifle our creativity. The religious community could help lead that discussion and action toward new political alternatives. Toward that end, we need a new dialogue with all sectors of the religious community.

The leaders of the Religious Right have dominated long enough. They have one perspective and deserve to be heard. But the issues of political morality are too important to be left only to one voice. Other visions of faith and politics exist in the land.

Politicized religion is no substitute for prophetic faith. A growing number of American Christians are feeling a fresh commitment to apply spiritual values to the vexing questions of our public life and, where necessary, to offer a Christian alternative to the Religious Right. Let the other voices be heard.

Jim Wallis is editor of Sojourners Magazine. This article appeared in the 1995 March/April issue of Sojourners and may not be reprinted without permission.

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