Every now and then, it’s good to read a book that, going in, you expect to disagree with in large measure. For instance, though I’ve not bought any of the books written by the new “militant atheists”—and don’t intend to—I’ve perused some of their arguments, particularly those of Sam Harris in Letter to a Christian Nation. I don’t find his reasoning particularly compelling, from what I’ve read, but it is good from time to time to read such. And so my reading over Christmas vacation was Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics. Now, I don’t mean to lump Jim, a professed evangelical Christian, in with an atheist like Harris; I certainly agree with Jim Wallis on the “big ticket” items of life (salvation in Christ being at the very top of the list, of course). But Wallis is a Democrat, and takes a decidedly liberal position on political questions of the day. I confess up front that I know I’m a tough cookie in such matters; my positions have not been taken without considerable thought, and so I don’t generally vacillate a whole lot. That said, I want to be open-minded; I didn’t start out as the libertarian I’ve pretty much become, but rather have arrived at this political stance after rethinking a whole lot of things; I can even date the genesis of this political conversion to a conversation with my friend Wade in the car on the way to PromiseKeepers 1994 in Indianapolis—but I digress. I wanted to read Wallis’ book in order to give him a fair hearing, because I don’t think he’s a stupid man, and because say what you will about him, I believe he is quite genuine in his concern for people, a concern motivated by his commitment to Christ. What would God’s Politicshave to teach me? How might it change my perspective? And just as importantly, could Wallis begin to give me some level of intellectual and spiritual justification for changing my thinking politically?
And so I dug in. And it wasn’t easy, frankly, because—how do I say this gently—Jim Wallis isn’t a particularly good writer, maybe on the level of Sean Hannity, ability-wise, which isn’t saying a whole lot. The first five-six chapters of the book give one the feeling that he wrote each chapter individually, at times far removed from each other, and then promptly forgot what he’d previously written. He repeats himself over and over again to the point of distraction; how many times does he feel it necessary to explain that he really, really believes that Saddam Hussein had to be removed from power? Does he write to convince us, or to convince himself? It’s hard to tell, and hard to read as well.
Finally, after taking several chapters to repeat his standard evangelical leftie boilerplate, he tackles the war in Iraq. This is probably the best part of his book, because he does make a reasonable case that this war was unnecessary (I concur) and counterproductive in the “war on terror” (again, I concur). I believe that history will not be terribly kind to George W. Bush—and that’s before the president’s ridiculous rush to involve the government in American business to an unconstitutional and unprecedented degree. Though I’m not terribly sure that the solutions that Wallis favors—he’s a big believer in multinational solutions, and puts a lot more faith in the UN than I believe is warranted—will work, it’s nonetheless true, particularly in retrospect, that the Iraq war was a mistake.
The part of the book that interested me most, though, was his take on domestic issues, poverty in particular. Could Wallis provide intellectual justification for big government approaches to solving the problem?
In a word, no. Rather than engaging in a discussion of the actual effectiveness of Wallis’ favored big-government solutions, Wallis’ approach is to simply assume that the Democrat/liberal/big government/throw more money at the problem solution is the right one, without much of any attempt at justifying his conclusions. For instance, though he doesn’t mention it a great deal, Wallis treats as a given the fact that the minimum wage is too low in America, and that it needs to be raised to provide a “living wage”. This, of course, is just the problem: it’s rather simple economics to demonstrate that the minimum wage (i.e., artificially tinkering with market) does harm to the very people it purports to help. “Regulation” of the market is a good thing to Jim Wallis, and problems come when the government isn’t providing hawk-like oversight. It either doesn’t occur to Wallis that part of “God’s politics” ought to include intellectual justification for his positions, or Wallis has his blinders on to such a degree that he’s not even willing to consider any alternative to what he’s been immersed in all his life.
Basically, what this book seems to do is to suggest that Democrat policies are on target except on pro-life issues (and there, he still comes off as though the issue isn’t as big a deal as I believe it to be), and that they just need to moderate their tone on some things, to be more genial, etc. Wallis demonstrates a woeful ignorance of fundamental economics—something that seems to be to be endemic to most all liberal-types—and throws around the standard liberal buzzwords (“social justice”, to name one particularly vacuous one) and such rather than engage in vigorous examination of the issues at hand. I can’t say I’m surprised. This is what I find to be true on a large scale for liberal apologists: there are code words and buzz words and mantras ad nauseum; there is plenty of emotion and lots of feeling; there are red herrings galore, question-begging a-plenty, guilt-by-association and logical leaps by the bucketload. But substantive debate? Arguments that stand up to the light of reason and reality? Proven solutions rather than surface-level, emotion-driven plays upon our passions? Nah, I don’t find much of that, and God’s Politics is just another book in this long line.
Jim Wallis is a guy with a big heart, and one can appreciate his passion for a better world. I admire that greatly, and find myself challenged by his example. Nonetheless, God’s Politics isn’t a particularly impressive book, and I find myself continuing to wonder of the “evangelical left”, “is there one among you who can develop an intellectually-satisfying defense of your positions?” Guess I’ll have to keep looking…