Keeping Our Eyes on the Evangel

What if, in the beginning, President George Bush had stood next to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in front of the whole world, and pledged unequivocal U.S. support for the restoration of democracy in Haiti? What if comprehensive international economic

and diplomatic sanctions had been called for and rigorously enforced against the Haitian military dictators by both the Bush and the Clinton administrations? What if those sanctions were part of a clear and consistent policy?

What if President Aristide, as Haiti’s democratic and spiritual leader, had called for massive civil resistance in Haiti, and even risked his own life again in going back to lead it? And what if American religious leaders had volunteered to go with him in a peace army, offering a different kind of "invasion"? Would we be in a different place today?

What if Bill and Hillary Clinton had turned the American political process into a massive town meeting on the central issues of health care and crime? What if the core values and fundamental moral choices had been focused so clearly that ordinary Americans understood what was really at stake and could have decided themselves in what direction they wanted the country to go? And what if American religious leaders had turned their pulpits into prophetic instruments that cut through the false rhetoric, partisan hypocrisy, and moneyed interests to plead the cause of justice in these policy debates? Would we be in a different place today?

What if the conservative members of the NAACP’s board who wanted to undermine the agenda of change offered by Ben Chavis had nothing with which to go after him? What if the leaders of progressive movements were as well known for their personal prudence, humility, and integrity as they are for their bold social and political leadership? And what if the religious community were to raise all those issues as if they were of equal importance? Would we be in a different place today?

What if the upcoming fall elections featured a wide range of political candidates that people actually believe and trust? Would a former gunrunner who lied to the Senate now be leading the race in Virginia’s political swamp to get a seat in the Senate? Would a convicted drug user (whose real addiction has always been to power) be about to become mayor again in the nation’s capital if the city hadn’t become almost completely unmanageable? Are these strange bedfellows, Oliver North and Marion Barry, successful because they cultivate the politics of redemption or the politics of resentment? And what if the churches were more concerned with basic issues of character instead of opportunities for political influence? Would we be in a different place today?

What if the Christian Coalition were practicing a politics that was truly evangelical, instead of just right wing and nationalist? What if their "evangel" was good news to the poor like Jesus proclaimed, instead of just good news to white suburban conservative Republicans? Would we be in a different place today?

IN A MOMENT of admirable candor, President Clinton admitted some of his own failings and struggles to a breakfast meeting of about 60 religious leaders in early September. He recalled something an unnamed person said to him while he was vacationing at Martha’s Vineyard. They were discussing the need for balance in life between work, play, and worship. His conversation partner said, "If you don’t have faith, you never get the rhythm right." Clinton, acknowledging his deep perception problems with the electorate, confessed he still hadn’t gotten the rhythm right.

I appreciated the honesty. But I also thought something else wasn’t yet right—the "vision thing." During the campaign, candidate Clinton quoted the ancient proverb, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." It struck a chord and awakened a hope. But that hope is as yet unfulfilled; the chord is now just a faint echo.

The American people have yet to glimpse or grasp a compelling vision for what this country might become. Perpetual crisis is leading to dangerous cynicism and despair, rather than an opportunity for change. The unraveling that journalists spoke of during the 1992 campaign has only deepened.

Democrats are now running away from their own White House and Republicans seem to have only one political goal—to discredit the president. Partisanship has reached a new level of cynicism, while an increasingly disgruntled electorate argues over who is most to blame. Until vision and integrity become the focal points of political discussion, we will continue to lurch from one problem to another, never finding any real solutions.

The religious community will have to do more than go to breakfast with the president or attack him as the Antichrist. It must provide a moral leadership that goes beyond the Religious Right and Liberal Left. A very serious discussion is now required, in the churches and with our political leaders.

Vision is the question, and leadership is the most important political and spiritual responsibility before us. The upcoming midterm elections may reveal how much the political process is polarized. Whatever the outcome, a new and deeper dialogue must soon begin if the nation is to rediscover its political soul.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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