The Common Good
September 2004

Take Back the Faith

by Jim Wallis | September 2004

The best contribution of religion is precisely not to be a loyal partisan.

Many of us feel that our faith has been stolen,

Many of us feel that our faith has been stolen, and it’s time to take it back. An enormous public misrepresentation of Christianity has taken place. Many people around the world now think Christian faith stands for political commitments that are almost the opposite of its true meaning. How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and pro-American? And how do we get back to a historic, biblical, and genuinely evangelical faith rescued from its contemporary distortions?

That rescue operation is even more crucial today, in the face of a social crisis that cries out for prophetic religion. The problem is clear in the political arena, where strident voices claim to represent Christians, when they clearly don’t speak for most of us. We hear politicians who love to say how religious they are but utterly fail to apply the values of faith to their public leadership and political policies. It’s time to take back our faith in the public square, especially in a time when a more authentic social witness is desperately needed.

When we do, we discover that faith challenges the powers that be to do justice for the poor, instead of preaching a "prosperity gospel" and supporting politicians that further enrich the wealthy. We remember that faith hates violence and tries to reduce it, and exerts a fundamental presumption against war, instead of justifying it in God’s name. We see that faith creates community from racial, class, and gender divisions and prefers international community over nationalist religion, and we see that "God bless America" is found nowhere in the Bible. And we are reminded that faith regards matters such as the sacredness of life and family bonds as so important that they should never be used as ideological symbols or mere political pawns in partisan warfare.

THE MEDIA LIKES to say, "Oh, then you must be the Religious Left." No, and the very question is the problem. Just because a Religious Right has fashioned itself in one predictable ideological guise does not mean that those who question this political seduction must be their opposite political counterpart. The best public contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable nor a loyal partisan. To raise the moral issues of human rights, for example, will challenge both left- and right-wing governments who put power above principles. And religious action is rooted in a much deeper place than "rights"—that being the image of God in every human being.

Similarly, when the poor are defended on moral or religious grounds, it is not "class warfare" but rather a direct response to the overwhelming focus in the scriptures that claims the poor are regularly neglected, exploited, and oppressed by wealthy elites, political rulers, and indifferent affluent populations. Those scriptures don’t simply endorse the social programs of liberals or conservatives, but make clear that poverty is indeed a religious issue and that the failure of political leaders to help uplift those in poverty will be judged a moral failing.

It is precisely because religion takes the problem of evil so seriously that it must always be suspicious of concentrated power—politically and economically—either in totalitarian regimes or in huge multinational corporations, which now have more wealth and power than many governments. It is indeed our theology of evil that makes us strong proponents of both political and economic democracy—not because people are so good, but because they often are not and need clear safeguards and strong systems of checks and balances to avoid the dangerous accumulations of power and wealth.

IT’S WHY WE DOUBT the goodness of all superpowers and the righteousness of empires in any era, especially when their claims of inspiration and success invoke theology and the name of God. Given human tendencies for self-delusion and deception, is it any wonder that hardly a religious body in the world regards unilateral and pre-emptive war as "just?" Religious wisdom suggests that the more overwhelming the military might, the more dangerous its capacity for self and public deception.

The loss of religion’s prophetic vocation is terribly dangerous for any society. Who will uphold the dignity of economic and political outcasts? Who will question the self-righteousness of nations and their leaders? Who will question the recourse to violence and the rush to wars long before any last resort has been unequivocally proven? Who will not allow God’s name to be used to simply justify ourselves, instead of calling us to accountability?

In an election year, the particular religiosity of a candidate, or even how devout they might be, is less important than how their religious and/or moral commitments and values shape their political vision and their policy commitments. Understanding the moral compass they bring to their public lives and how their convictions shape their political priorities is the true litmus test.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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