Jim Wallis has a new book out. I have read a little bit of it already and found much of it to be recycled rhetoric from his last couple books. He delves in on what it means for Christians to expand their political platform into areas that have just as much biblical merit as old conservative favorites (abortion, gay marriage). He preaches that it is the robust faith and morality of religion that has led to many of our great civic advances in the United States history. He cites the abolition and civil rights movement as examples of faith intersecting culture in a blessed way. Yet Wallis seems to contradict himself.
I know it is election season and the interest in the intersection of faith and politics seems to be at an all time high in our nation, but I wonder if some Christians are in an over reaction, pendulum swinging back in the other way, type mode to conservative religious politics. Let me explain.
I saw Jim Wallis being interviewed by Jon Stewart last night promoting his book and some of his comments were a bit troubling. He joyously and definitively declared that the “Religious Right” is dead. Of course this was met with roaring applause from the audience and nodding approval by Jon Stewart. The truth is the religious right is not dead, it is just less influential. Iowa showed us that this group can still make some noise when it feels motivated to. But in all likelihood this group will be less of a player in the upcoming election, as the group is now quite fractured with many of the big wigs endorsing all sorts of different Republican candidates. Plus I think many of these religious values voters feel disillusioned after this last Bush term. This group is far from dead but it is not what it was in 2004.
I think what Wallis was trying to say is that there is a new movement in younger Evangelicals to turn out and value such moral issues as poverty, the environment, and human rights. There seems to be a growing tension that has developed between my generation of Christians and the Baby Boomers. Both have locked into different paths of how our faith plays out in the political realm and what issues should compel them into action. I think this is a healthy change that will hopefully allow for some of the tired stereotypes that have long been attached to Evangelicals to fade away. If you would like to see some of these issues I would recommend Dan Kimball’s book, “They Like Jesus But Not The Church.”
But as the interview went on with Jon Stewart, Jim Wallis made a troubling statement that I thought gave ground that he did not have to and seemed to be more pandering than genuine. And may I remind you that I say all of this as someone who politically lines up pretty closely with Jim Wallis. He said that “religion does not have a monopoly on morality.” He followed this by saying that the religious views of a candidate do not matter and that we can all embrace a common societal good. These are bold assertions which I just do not think are accurate and are in contradiction to the thesis of his new book. Because even if religion does not have a monopoly on morality, it is the only one with an explanation for morality.
First morality is fundamentally a question of what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong. In order to say something is good or evil, or right or wrong you must answer ready to explain the standard or authority you are using to make that judgment. Now one can invoke the “Golden Rule” here but if someone does not believe in a higher power that determines such actions as right and wrong, then the notion of treating people the way you want to be treated is just a pithy arbitrary statement, based on the preferences of that individual. In other words, if morality is arbitrary to personal preference, than there is no reason others ought to abide by it or act in accordance with it. So my question to Jim Wallis would be how does one feel morally compelled outside of a religious framework? They can have a preference for social justice or ending poverty but no objective standard that makes it binding for others to act in agreement.
These ideas can be clearly seen in the civil right movement and the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. It was his faith and religious convictions that built the moral framework that allowed him to call discrimination “unjust.” Without this Christian moral framework how would have MLK called for civil rights, and argue that all humans, regardless of race, deserve to be treated with dignity, value and respect? The answer is you cannot. That is because Morality is an “ought” and all oughts come with a why? And if the answer to the why must be based on more than a feeling to be authoritative for all. You see both the Christian and the Atheist can look at the world and tell you that things are not “right,” but only one can tell you what that means…