The Common Good
February 2005

God's Politics: A Better Option

by Jim Wallis | February 2005

Why can't personal ethics and social justice - together - become a real political choice?

Why can'

Why can’t we talk about religion and politics? These are the two topics you are not supposed to discuss in polite company. Don’t break up the dinner party by bringing up either of these subjects! That’s the conventional wisdom. Why? Perhaps it’s because these topics are too important and too potentially divisive, or because they raise issues of core values and ultimate concerns that make us uncomfortable.

All over the country I feel the hunger for a fuller, deeper, and richer conversation about religion in public life, about faith and politics. It’s a discussion that we don’t always hear in America today. Sometimes the most strident and narrow voices are the loudest, and more progressive, prophetic, and healing religion often gets missed. But the good news is about how all that is changing.

Abraham Lincoln had it right. Our task should not be to invoke religion and the name of God by claiming God’s blessing and endorsement for all our national policies and practices - saying, in effect, that God is on our side. Rather, as Lincoln put it, we should worry earnestly whether we are on God’s side.

Those are the two ways that religion has been brought into public life in American history. The first way - God on our side - leads inevitably to triumphalism, self-righteousness, bad theology, and, often, dangerous foreign policy. The second way - asking if we are on God’s side - leads to much healthier things, namely penitence and even repentance, humility, reflection, and accountability. We need much more of all those, because they are often the missing values of politics.

Martin Luther King Jr. did it best. With his Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other, King persuaded, not just pronounced. He reminded us all of God’s purposes for justice, for peace, and for the "beloved community" where those who have been left out and left behind get a front-row seat. And he brought religion into public life in a way that was always welcoming, inclusive, and inviting to all who cared about moral, spiritual, or religious values. Nobody felt left out of the conversation.

The values of politics are my primary concern. Of course, God is not partisan. God is not a Republican or a Democrat. When either party tries to politicize God or co-opt religious communities to further political agendas, it makes a terrible mistake. The best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable nor loyally partisan. Both parties, and the nation, must let the prophetic voice of religion be heard. Faith must be free to challenge both the Right and the Left from a consistent moral ground.

"God’s politics" are therefore never partisan nor ideological. But God’s politics challenge everything about our politics. God’s politics remind us of the people our politics always neglect - the poor, the vulnerable, the left behind. God’s politics challenge narrow national, ethnic, economic, or cultural self-interest, reminding us of a much wider world and the creative human diversity of all those made in the image of the creator. God’s politics remind us of the creation itself, a rich environment in which we are to be good stewards, not mere users, consumers, and exploiters. And God’s politics plead with us to resolve, as much as possible, the inevitable conflicts among us without the terrible destruction of war. God’s politics always remind us of the ancient prophetic prescription to "choose life, so that you and your children may live," and challenge all the selective moralities that would choose one set of lives and issues over another. This challenges both the Right and the Left, offering a new vision for faith and politics in America and a new conversation of personal faith and political hope.

People concerned about social change and hungry for spiritual values can actually combine those two quests. Too often politics and spirituality have been separated, polarized, and even put into competition with one another. We have been buffeted by private spiritualities that have no connection to public life and a secular politics showing disdain for religion or even spiritual concerns. That leaves spirituality without social consequences and a politics with no soul. Political discourse that is disconnected from moral values quickly degenerates. How might we change our public life with the values that many of us hold most dear? How can we connect a genuinely "prophetic" spirituality to the urgent need for social justice? This is the connection the world is waiting for.

Prophecy is not future telling, but articulating moral truth. The prophets diagnose the present and point the way to a just solution. The "prophetic tradition," in all of the world’s great religions, is just what we need to open up our contemporary political options, which are, honestly, grossly failing to solve our most pressing social problems. The competing ideological options, from which we are forced to choose, are perhaps at their lowest ebb in compelling the involvement of ordinary citizens in public life. It is not that people just don’t care, but that they feel un-represented and unable to vote for anything that expresses their best values. That is a serious political crisis, and we need better options.

What would it mean to evaluate the leading current political options by the values of the prophets? Most importantly, what would happen if we asserted that values are the most important subject for the future of politics? What if we proposed a "prophetic politics"?

After the 2002 mid-term elections, I attended a private dinner for Harvard Fellows in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Our speaker was a Republican political strategist who had just won all the major senatorial and gubernatorial election campaigns in which he was involved. Needless to say, he was full of his success and eager to tell us about it. This very smart political operative said that Republicans won middle-class and even working-class people on the "social" issues, those moral and cultural issues that Democrats don’t seem to understand or appreciate. He even suggested that passion on the social issues can cause people to vote against their economic self-interest. Since the rich are already with us, he said, we win elections.

I raised my hand and asked the following question. "What would you do if you faced a candidate that took a traditional moral stance on the social and cultural issues? They would not be mean-spirited and, for example, blame gay people for the breakdown of the family, nor would they criminalize the choices of desperate women backed into difficult and dangerous corners. But the candidate would be decidedly pro-family, pro-life (meaning they really want to lower the abortion rate), strong on personal responsibility and moral values, and outspoken against the moral pollution throughout popular culture that makes raising children in America a countercultural activity. And what if that candidate was also an economic populist, pro-poor in social policy, tough on corporate corruption and power, clear in supporting middle-class and working families in health care and education, an environmentalist, and committed to a foreign policy that emphasized international law and multilateral cooperation over pre-emptive and unilateral war? What would you do?" I asked. The Republican strategist paused for a long time, and then said, "We would panic!"

Virtually every time I’m out speaking on "prophetic politics" during any election season, somebody asks the question, "How can I vote for what I’ve just heard?" Some very interesting polling in the last few years shows how increasingly important voters’ perceptions of "values" are to their electoral behavior. And most voters feel they can’t really vote for their values. In the polling, the values question now goes beyond traditional family and sexual matters to also include matters such as "caring for the poor." The problem is that politics is still run by ideological polarities that leave many people feeling left out.

THERE ARE NOW three major political options in our public life. The first political option in America today is conservative on everything - from cultural, moral, and family concerns to economic, environmental, and foreign policy issues. Differences emerge between aggressive nationalists and cautious isolationists, between corporate apologists and principled fiscal conservatives, but this is the political option clearly on the ascendancy in America, with most of the dominant ideas in the public square coming from the political Right.

The second political option in contemporary America is liberal on everything - both family/sexual/cultural questions and economic, environmental, and foreign policy matters. There are certainly differences among the liberals (from pragmatic centrists to green leftists), but the intellectual and ideological roots come from the Left side of the cultural and political spectrum - and today most from the liberal/left find themselves on the defensive.

The third option in American politics is libertarian - meaning liberal on cultural/moral issues and conservative on fiscal/economic and foreign policy. The "just leave me alone and don’t spend my money option" is growing quickly in American life.

I believe there is a "fourth option" for American politics, which follows from the prophetic religious tradition we have described. It is "traditional" or "conservative" on issues of family values, sexual integrity and personal responsibility, while being very "progressive," "populist," or even "radical" on issues like poverty and racial justice. It affirms good stewardship of the earth and its resources, supports gender equality, and is more internationally minded than nationalist - looking first to peacemaking and conflict resolution when it come to foreign policy questions. The people it appeals to (many religious, but others not) are very strong on issues such as marriage, raising kids, and individual ethics, but without being "right-wing," reactionary, mean-spirited, or scapegoating against any group of people, including gays and lesbians. They can be pro-life, pro-family and pro-feminist, all at the same time. They think issues of "moral character" are very important, both in a politician’s personal life and in his or her policy choices. Yet they are decidedly pro-poor, pro-racial reconciliation, critical of purely military solutions, and defenders of the environment.

At the heart of the fourth option is the integral link between personal ethics and social justice. And it appeals to people who refuse to make the false choice between the two.

Who are these people? Many are religious: Catholics, black and Latino Christians, evangelicals who don’t identify with the Religious Right, and members of all our denominational churches who want to put their faith into practice. They are Jews and Muslims who are guided by an active faith and not just a personal background. They are people who do not consider themselves "religious," but rather "spiritual," and would be drawn to a fourth option in politics. And they are people - religious, spiritual, or not - who consider themselves shaped by a strong sense of moral values and long for a political commitment that reflects those values.

AS I TRAVEL the country, I find many people who share this perspective. Still, it is not yet a viable political option. It should be. As one who has called for a new "moral politics" that transcends the old categories of both the secular Left and the Religious Right, I believe it is time to assert a clear "fourth" political option. In a recent conversation, columnist E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post said there was a huge constituency of "non-right wing Christians" and other morally concerned people in the country who need to get organized. Like E.J., they are moderate to conservative on personal moral questions while very progressive on social justice.

Recent polling shows that the more religious voters are, the more likely they are to vote for conservatives. Given how negatively much of the political Left seems to regard religion and spirituality, this is not surprising. But what if a new political option regarded personal ethics as important as social justice and saw faith as a positive force in society - for progressive social change. I think the fourth option could be a real winning vision and believe that many are very hungry for it. While the political elites and many special interest groups resist the "personal ethics/social justice" combination (perhaps because it threatens many special interests), countless ordinary people would welcome it.

What we need is nothing less than "prophetic politics." We must find a new moral and political language that transcends old divisions and seeks the common good. Prophetic politics finds its center in fundamental "moral issues" such as children, diversity, family, community, citizenship, and ethics (others could be added such as nonviolence, tolerance, fairness, etc.) and tries to construct national directions to which many people across the political spectrum could agree. It would speak directly to the proverb "Without a vision, the people perish," and would offer genuine political vision that rises out of biblical passages from prophetic texts. Our own ancient prophetic religious traditions could offer a way forward beyond our polarized and paralyzed national politics and be the foundation for a fourth political option to provide the new ideas politics always needs.

Simply put, the two traditional options in America (Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative) have failed to capture the imagination, commitment, and trust of a majority of people in this country. Neither has found ways to solve our deepest and most entrenched social problems. Record prosperity hasn’t cured child poverty. Family breakdown is occurring across all class and racial lines. Public education remains a disaster for millions of families. Millions more still don’t have health insurance, or can’t find affordable housing. The environment suffers from unresolved debates, while our popular culture becomes more and more polluted by debased and violent "entertainment." In local communities, people are more and more isolated, busy, and disconnected. Our foreign policy has become an aggressive assertion of military superiority in a defensive and reactive mode, seeking to protect us against growing and invisible threats, instead of addressing the root causes of those threats. The political Right and Left continue at war with each other, but the truth is that these false ideological choices themselves have run their course and become dysfunctional.

Prophetic politics would not be an endless argument between personal and social responsibility, but a weaving of the two together in search of the common good. The current options are deadlocked. Prophetic politics wouldn’t assign all the answers to the government, the market, or the churches and charities; but rather patiently and creatively forge new civic partnerships where everyone does their share and everybody does what they do best. Prophetic politics wouldn’t debate whether our strategies should be cultural, political, or economic; but show how they must be all three, led by a moral compass.

Perhaps most important, prophetic politics won’t be led just by elected officials, lawyers, and their financial backers. Look for community organizers, social entrepreneurs, nonprofit organizations, faith-based communities, and parents to help show the way forward. Pay particular attention to a whole generation of young people forged in community service. They may be cynical about politics but are vitally concerned with public life. The politics we need now will arise more from building social and spiritual movements than merely lobbying at party conventions. And ultimately it will influence the party conventions, as successful movements always do.

THE PROPHETIC role that churches are undertaking is illustrative of the larger public vocation that may now be required. That role may become more clear in the wake of the election. Without a vision, Democrats had nothing to offer the American people as an alternative to the vision of the Bush administration.

With the Republicans offering war overseas and corporate dominance at home, and the Democrats failing to offer any real alternatives, who will raise a prophetic voice for social and economic justice and for peace? Never has there been a clearer role for the churches and religious community. We can push both parties toward moral consistency and their best-stated values, over the unprincipled pragmatism and negative campaigning that both sides too often engaged in during the recent election.

The courage many church leaders showed in opposing the war in Iraq is an early sign of that prophetic role. So is the growing unity across the spectrum of the churches on the issue of poverty. The truth is that there are more churches committed to justice and peace than churches that belong to the Religious Right. It’s time the voice of those congregations be heard and their activism be mobilized to become the conscience of American politics in a time of crisis.

We’ve seen other moments in recent history when the churches emerged as the leading voice of political conscience and opposition. Certainly there were key times in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, in El Salvador during the 1980s, in the people power revolution that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, and in the opposition to communist rule in Poland when the churches became the critical public voice for both political challenge and change.

Even in democracies, churches have responded to that same prophetic vocation. In New Zealand during the 1990s, when conservative forces ripped that society’s long-standing social safety net to pieces, it was the churches - in partnership with the indigenous Maori people - who led marches, ignited public protest, and helped restore key programs in health care, housing, and social services. During the Thatcher years in Britain, it was again church leadership that reminded the nation of its responsibilities to impoverished urban communities, to the ethics of the common good over private gain, to social justice, and to peace. And, of course, in the United States, black churches provided the moral foundation and social infrastructure for the powerful civil rights movement that changed our society.

In a bitterly divided nation, we face historic challenges. But the political "tie" that the nation is caught in might be a moment of opportunity. It shows that the old options and debates have created a deadlock. This very crisis could open the way for some new and creative thinking and organizing. And that could be very good news indeed. Our political leaders must learn the wisdom that the way to reach common ground is to move to higher ground. And we citizens should start by showing the way.

PERHAPS THE most mistaken media perception of our time is that religious influence in political life only equates to the politics of the Religious Right. The biggest story that the mainstream media has yet to discover is how much that reality is changing. My prediction is that moderate and progressive religious voices will shape politics in the coming decades far more significantly than will the Religious Right.

History teaches us that the most effective social movements are also spiritual ones - movements that change people’s thinking and attitudes by an appeal to moral and religious values. Those movements change the cultural and political climate, which then makes policy changes more possible, palatable, and, yes, democratic. Perhaps the best example of doing it right, as we have said, is the American civil rights movement, which was led by ministers who appealed directly to biblical faith. I believe that will be the more-likely pattern for future movements that combine faith and politics, replacing the more politically conformist model of the Religious Right.

To move away from the bifurcating politics of liberal and conservative, Left and Right, would be an enormously positive change and would open up a new "politics of solutions." Right now, Washington responds to a problem or crisis in two ways. First, politicians try to make us afraid of the problem, and, second, they look for somebody to blame for it. Then they watch to see whose political spin succeeded, either in the next poll or the next election. But they seldom get around to actually solving the problem. The media make everything worse by assuming that every political issue has only two sides instead of multiple angles to view and solve the problem. Addicted to conflict as their methodology, the media always seem to want to pitch a fight between polarized views instead of convening a public discussion to find serious answers.

The answer is to put values at the center of political discourse and, in every public debate, ask what kind of country and people we really want to be. We would find new agreements across old political boundaries and new common ground among people who agree on values and are ready to challenge the special interests on all sides who are obstructing the solutions most Americans would support. Ideologies have failed us; values can unite us, especially around our most common democratic visions.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. This article is excerpted from the forthcoming book God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It: A New Vision for Faith and Politics in America (Harper SanFrancisco)

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