Tuesday, March 29, 2005

On Rev. Jim Wallis

The LA Times had a nice piece on Rev. Jim Wallis, an Evangelical minister who seems to blend conservative values with progressive policy.
Stout and silver-haired, Wallis is a longtime social activist, author and executive director of Sojourners, a Washington-based Christian ministry best known for its monthly magazine on faith, politics and culture. He confounds stereotypes of evangelical Christians by arguing for conservative social morality but a dovish foreign policy and an economic agenda focused on helping the poor.
He's just published a new book, and has started offering advice to both Democratic and Republican senators. Some religious people, frustrated by the "religious right," find him appealing:
Martin Yuson, a 35-year-old Pasadena political independent and physical therapist, explained Wallis' appeal. "A lot of evangelicals and Catholic Christians are tired of the right-left dichotomy," Yuson said. "I myself can't seem to fit in either side. I'm anti-war but pro-life. Jim Wallis bridges that divide."
Doesn't the idea of the "bridge" still conjure up the "right-left dichotomy," if only to make the "bridge" possible?

Even though Wallis has attracted quite a following, I wonder how much this talk of "bridges," "left," and "right" just ends up drawing more attention to the political arena--at the expense of deemphasizing the religion in religious arguing. Now, it's not so much that I question the inclusion of religion in debate, I don't. Instead, I am unsettled by the close connections that Wallis seems to be developing with politicians and the political system. Granted, it could have been just the way the article was framed, but it seems that Wallis is becoming quite a mover, shaker, and a symbol-of-sorts for a new type of public religious leader. Such talk makes me wonder what it means to be "in the world" but "not of it." Jesus, after all, never went to Rome, and if he did, I doubt that he would have been welcomed in the Senate.

Skepticism aside, Wallis does offer some examples of how the left and the right could come together on public policy issues.
Wallis said he aims to reach all sides and promote practical solutions. On abortion, for instance, he argues that adoption reform or more financial and emotional safety nets for pregnant women could reduce abortions more significantly than arguing about the legal right to them. He supports restrictions on abortion — among them parental notification for most minors — but opposes criminalizing the procedure, in part for fear that it would force women into risky back-alley abortions.
Looking at this position, I wonder how likely Wallis will be able to attract the conservatives who might agree that it is vital to help pregnant women by providing financial safety nets but who still find it difficult to accept the idea that the government would permit or restrict abortions. Aren't there significant, symbolic, and principled reasons to allow or prohibit abortion? Doesn't this dedication to the pragmatic side of policy-making create something of a moral hole in the debate? Isn't it just a bit too nuanced for a prophetic voice? And, in trying to walk this delicate line between the left and the right, could it work? Some say no:
"I don't think it will succeed," argued Aaron Collins, 25, a youth pastor and graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. "It will alienate both sides. The right won't want to raise taxes and the left won't outlaw abortion."
And in the process, will religion be muddled and muddied?


Blogger Patrick said...

Interesting question...

does the fact that this reverend and I both believe in the same God, yet have essentially mirror image views on policy issues suggest to you that as you put it religion is "muddled and muddied", or alternately that it is beyond being muddled or muddied by mere politics?

3/29/2005 5:41 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Interesting question...

does the fact that this reverend and I both believe in the same God, yet have essentially mirror image views on policy issues suggest to you that as you put it religion is "muddled and muddied", or alternately that it is beyond being muddled or muddied by mere politics?

3/29/2005 5:44 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Well, maybe the diverging opinions just suggest that we, as active--but still pretty frail--believers are muddled and muddied, fervently praying but not always getting thing's right. Our general feebleness, spiritual or otherwise, I would say, is why we are so lousy at organizing ourselves in the political sphere.

Your question reminds me of the thesis Ben was going to do senior year. He was going to look at deliberation in IV and other student religious groups. He thought it was an odd thing when two people would pray for guidance about the same issue, and come up with opposite conclusions on what action to take! Was one or both of them praying wrong? Did God give two different answers to each of them?

A burning bush would be nice, every now and again!

3/29/2005 6:43 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Well, it seems to me that our peculiar form of republican democracy works pretty well when we've got a whole bunch of people with widely diverging ideas of what the correct path is... things get hashed out, and in the end usually no one gets quite what they wanted but most everyone gets something that they can live with and that is usually better than any individual would have come up with on their own. The continued sucess of our as yet unfinished and continual revolution seems to support this.

So from my standpoint, I don't find there to be anything either surprising or disconcerting about people with the same faith having different or even opposition positions on issues of policy.

Re: Mr. Wu's project, I suppose things become a bit more hairy when it comes to questions of policy for a church or group of believers, but still, I don't necessarily view the diaspora of denominations and "types" of churches and faith based groups to be a bad thing... as long as there still remains some notion of everyone being part of the universal body.

3/30/2005 2:54 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Oh, I agree with you that the different people getting together with different ideas compromising until the best solution--possible--sort of rises up out of the mess. But, I still think we live in a fallen world, which is where all that frailty stuff in the political sphere comes in.

I guess one worry I might have (and I hardly ever come down definitely on anything--even my worries!) is that religious folks will get so caught up in the political fray, with its particular set of value systems and logistics, that religious principles will get diluted and that the Church will begin to lose some of the power it gets from being seperate and distinct from the state. I don't think many people are too impressed by the Catholic Church around the time Martin Luther began questioning things.

3/30/2005 4:04 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Well, I would agree with you to an extent there... the church ought to be seperate from the state, but in this country, the "body" should not be seperate from the state... thankfully I think we have for the most part avoided in this country too much connection between any organized church/denomination and state power. Perhaps we should eliminate those links that doe exist... give civil marriage entirely over to the state... get churches paying taxes etc.

3/30/2005 9:26 PM  

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