The Common Good
January-February 1997

Common Ground Politics

by Jim Wallis | January-February 1997

During the fall 1996 Call to Renewal tour, we had the opportunity to speak
directly to thousands of people across the country, and to hear their questions
and concerns.

During the fall 1996 Call to Renewal tour, we had the opportunity to speak directly to thousands of people across the country, and to hear their questions and concerns. I am more convinced than ever that many Americans are looking for a moral vision of politics beyond both the Religious Right and the Liberal Left.

Calls to the countless radio talk shows we did on the tour confirmed what we heard each night at the town meetings—namely, that people are vitally interested in the real issues at stake in our public life, that people are deeply disillusioned with both political parties and political choices in general, that the old solutions—liberal and conservative, Left and Right—no longer supply adequate answers to our problems, and that more and more people are eagerly searching for alternatives.

But what are those alternatives? And what does it mean to go beyond Right and Left? We certainly don't want to sacrifice prophetic politics for a mushy middle. Big corporate donors won while people on welfare lost as Bill Clinton rushed to the political center in order to ensure his re-election. A Republican Congress also regained election by moderating its message and keeping Newt Gingrich in the closet. Corporate contributions were the largest in history; clearly, the people doing the downsizing of America are buying huge influence in both political parties. Newsweek reports that .03 percent of the population now controls the funding of the political process. I suppose that's one definition of centrism.

The day after the election, both parties claimed victory, along with every special interest across the political spectrum. From the AFL-CIO to the National Rifle Association, from the Christian Coalition to the Interfaith Alliance, groups rushed to claim credit for the outcome, trying to show that they were effective in providing the margin of victory for their targeted races.

The fact that religious groups on both political sides are now measuring their success by such marginal partisan gains is especially disconcerting. Religiously based social movements should measure their progress by concrete moral change and societal impact, not by adopting the same false bottom lines as the pollsters and pundits. How can the election or defeat of a handful of conservative members of Congress be viewed as a benchmark of victory either way, as compared to the kinds of monumental changes like the end of slavery or legal segregation led by religiously inspired abolitionist and civil rights movements of the past? Would Jeremiah or Amos be satisfied with such marginal electoral body counts?

A TRULY FAITH-BASED social movement requires more. Making a moral impact upon a society usually requires subjecting traditional politics to outside moral criteria rather than merely playing the inside power games. Holding politics morally accountable is better accomplished by independent social movements with clear priorities rather than merely seeking a place at the table of political power.

Both the Religious Right and the Religious Left would do well to be more "religious" than they are either Right or Left. Unfortunately, too many religious people are still just lining up on either side of our all-too-polarized political battlefield. For example, conservative critic Richard John Neuhaus has already attacked the Call to Renewal by condescendingly coining a new phrase—"the beyondists"—which I suppose makes sense for someone who still thinks all the answers are on the Right. Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson show no signs of rethinking their agenda either.

Meanwhile, on the other side, many bemoan the loss of a "real Left" due only, in their analysis, to the fact that the American people have been confused and duped by a highly energized religious and secular "New Right" that has outspent, out-organized, and outsmarted everybody else. Calls from both religious and secular "progressives" for rejuvenating the Left seem also to assume that all the answers still lie on their side of the political spectrum.

But what if the Left has been wrong about some very important things, and what if the Right also has fundamental moral flaws? On the question of alleviating poverty, for example, does anyone on the liberal-Left side really want to say that their solutions have mostly worked, or would have if funded at higher levels? On the other hand, does anyone on the conservative-Right side really want to say that the problems of poverty and violence are simply due to the failures of liberal solutions and that without government programs our streets would be just fine? Isn't it about time to admit that neither liberal nor conservative solutions have been working very well and that we need some new directions? That's what many people in this nation believe, and we heard it all across the country.

Conservatives have been right about the importance of a values-based politics, personal responsibility, and strong family systems, and the dangers of bureaucracy to healthy citizenship. But conservatives have been morally wrong on racism and on their failure to defend the poor, and they have been guilty of a double standard in attacking big government while uncritically championing both corporate power and militarism.

The Left has conversely been on the right side in the battles for racial, economic, and gender justice, in fighting corporate power, and in standing for peace. But the Left has failed to uphold critical personal and cultural values, such as support of the fraying fabric of family life, and instead too often has offered the nation a litany of moral relativism. If conservatives have been too uncritical of the market, the liberals have relied too much on state solutions to our social problems. And finally, the Left made a fundamental mistake in seeing a woman's right to choose as the only moral issue at stake in the abortion dilemma.

A new moral vision of politics, beyond Right and Left, would build on the strengths of each side, seek to correct their mistakes, and transcend both options with new solutions. A fresh discussion of values—both personal and social—is paramount in forging that new vision of politics. A new politics won't be restricted to a discussion of government policy but will also include conversations about the cultural and moral assumptions that are the unspoken underpinnings of our public discourse; for example, how the ideologies of individualism and materialism fundamentally shape our political discussions. A new politics would raise the deeper questions that both the Right and the Left often leave out.

The first priority in shaping a morally based politics is how the poor and vulnerable are treated. Second, overcoming our racial and ethnic divisions—judged by whether we are being brought together or further divided—should be a moral criteria for evaluating our political goals and processes. Finally, the search for common ground should become more central than merely organizing against our opponents. This last priority is probably the most challenging of all, but it is absolutely necessary if we are ever to resolve our endless conflicts around incendiary issues such as abortion, family values, and gay rights.

RELIGIOUS LEADERS and service providers around the country are deeply concerned about the aftermath of a welfare reform bill that will cut people off with no provisions for work and that contains no accountability on the use of welfare block grants to the states. In Mississippi, the state plans to use such grants to build more prisons, and Gov. Kirk Fordice has told welfare recipients that all he would provide for them was "an alarm clock."

In late November, the Center on Budget Priorities released a study that showed that poor families and individuals have absorbed 93 percent of all reductions in entitlements. On Thanksgiving Day, The New York Times reported that 260,000 families were about to receive letters from the federal government informing them that benefits to their disabled children were being cut.

The critical need for fundamental reform of the welfare system is clear, but issues of fairness, justice, and mercy are in danger of being just swept aside. All over the country, people remember the social policy decision in the 1970s to "deinstitutionalize" mental patients. When few of the promised halfway houses materialized, we faced a national crisis of homelessness. The fear is that another social disaster is now in the making.

In response, the Call to Renewal will work in all the cities we've just visited, and other places too, to help the religious community and service providers come together. The religious community must provide a moral accountability, not provided by the welfare bill, as to how we as a nation will now treat those whom Jesus called "the least of these." In addition to a moral monitoring, the religious community must help lead the way in finding a "new paradigm" to overcome poverty and violence, one that combines the best insights of liberals and conservatives but goes beyond them both.

A DEEP DESIRE for racial reconciliation and justice is growing in this country. In unexpected places, such as in evangelical groups, the desire for racial reconciliation seems to be growing by the day. Organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Black Evangelical Association, the Christian Community Development Association, the Southern Baptists, black and white pentecostals, and even the Promise Keepers are all focusing on racial healing. Along with the renewed efforts of mainline Protestant churches and Catholics, the opportunity for a fresh coming together is now presenting itself.

In every city on the fall tour, we talked about the "hot button" issues. Both pro-life and pro-choice people came to the table to discuss ways they could work together to reduce dramatically the tragic number of 1.5 million abortions each year, instead of just carrying on an increasingly empty and futile debate about a constitutional amendment that everyone knows will never pass anyway. And in Colorado Springs, evangelical pro-family advocates at the Call to Renewal town meeting agreed that family breakdown is more due to "heterosexual family dysfunction" than to homosexuals. That breakthrough allows us to "delink" genuine family concerns from questions regarding homosexuality and deal honestly with each on their own merits.

Rather than the old language of "the center" or "the middle," the challenge of building new "common ground" may be a better way to describe the quest for new politics beyond Right and Left. In every region of the nation, Call to Renewal's effort to build that common ground was widely affirmed and will continue to expand.

All of these issues are really ways of speaking about the need to build or rebuild our "civil society," which has crumbled so badly. It is finally all about the politics of community, and it can no longer be contained by the categories of Left or Right.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)