The Common Good
January 2008

A Real 'Values' Agenda

by Jim Wallis | January 2008

"The Church is the conscience of the state."

As we enter the 2008 election year, it’s time to start talking about Christian faithfulness and responsibility when it comes to exercising our voting rights. As Christians who seek to both live and vote by our values, we should all remind ourselves of what those values are and how they should affect our political engagement.

In October, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and I held a dialogue at a summit focused on the “values” for values voters, a gathering put on by an arm of the Family Research Council. In that dialogue, we found areas of real agreement and also healthy disagreement—and that is good. And there were lessons for all Christians that we discussed.

We agreed that the issue is not whether faith should help to shape our public life, but how.

I said I believed that Christians across the political spectrum might have more common concerns than people think—and potential common ground—on some critical issues. There are principles and policy directions that could bridge and even transcend our bitter partisan divides and move us forward.

First, there are biblical principles of the kingdom of God on which we can agree. Our faith-inspired vision of a “beloved community” should ground all of our efforts to transform our society.

Second, there are prudential judgments on policies where there is room for disagreement and deeper dialogue.

Third, we must make sure our faith trumps ideology.

For me, I told the FRC, that often means making sure that my faith challenges the Left. I suggested they probably don’t have that problem! But I encouraged them to make sure that their faith challenges the Right.

And together we should challenge those who wish to banish religion from the public square. But religion has no monopoly on morality, and the moral discourse we need to have about politics this election season must be open to all citizens, whether they are religious or not. Religious convictions must be translated into moral arguments, which if they are to be implemented must win the political debate. Religious people don’t get to win just because we are religious (in a nation that is often claimed to be a Judeo-Christian country). Like any other citizens, we have to convince our fellow citizens that what we propose is best for the common good—for all of us.

ON WHAT DO WE agree? Most of us agree that faith plays an important role in public life; faith is personal but never private. But as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.” King also never endorsed a candidate but instead made them endorse his agenda. There’s a lesson for us in that.

Red and blue, left and right, are not biblical categories. They are political ones, and religious people don’t easily fit the labels—nor should we. God’s politics resists ideology and often calls us to transcend our narrow political categories and place our commonality as Christians above any political allegiance or identification with a political party. We can come together around a broader and deeper values politics.

God is not a Republican or a Democrat. The people of God must not be in the pocket of any political party. There is a great danger in being too close to either side and not maintaining our critical prophetic distance. We should be the ultimate swing vote, judging all the candidates by our moral compass.

Presidential candidates will be seeking our votes, and we will be bombarded by their advertising. But we should all remember that even if our favorite candidate wins (whoever that turns out to be), that person will not be able to really change the biggest moral issues of our time unless a movement from outside continues to push him or her. Remember, Lyndon Johnson did not become a civil rights leader until a faith-based civil rights movement made him one.

When politics fails to resolve the great moral issues, social movements often rise up to change politics—and the best social movements have spiritual foundations. We have been divided, but perhaps we can find ways we might work together in the future on the greatest moral issues of our time.

In the spirit of the great social movements that Christians have helped to lead—such as the abolition of slavery, child labor laws, women’s suffrage, and the civil rights movement—we might do it again. The more we look like our evangelical foreparents, the more we see our faith as the spark for social justice, the more faithful and united we could be.

And this is the key: The biblical prophets tell us that God judges societies not by their gross national product, their military strength, or their cultural dominance, but by their justice and righteousness—especially how they treat the weak and vulnerable. There are multiple threats to human life and dignity that suggest a new moral agenda that could bring us together. Some of the elements of that new agenda could be:

• Overcoming extreme global poverty and disease, as well as unnecessary poverty at home

• Finding a better path to national and global security

• Advancing a consistent ethic of the sanctity of life

• Healing the wounds of racism and sexism

• Ending human trafficking and promoting human rights

• Strengthening marriage and families

• Renewing the moral fabric of our culture

• Protecting God’s creation

If we could agree on these basic principles, we could reshape American politics—and, with God’s help, we might change some of the big things that politics has been unable to change. That new agenda, consistent with our deeply held values and not bound to the standard right-left battles of American politics, could provide a new moral center for our public life. And if we could agree on the agenda, we could then focus on how best to accomplish it.

As for politics in an election year, the U.S. Catholic bishops have some good advice for us. They counsel Christians to be political but not partisan, principled but not ideological, clear but also civil, and engaged but not used.

Because, above all, we are called to be faithful to the principles of the kingdom of God.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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