I've been trying to carve out some time over the last few days to write about Joe Loconte's recent spate of articles on the Christian left in the New York Times, but with the start of a new quarter, it had to be put on hold, and as a result, smart folks like Slacktivist and Jo Guldi have beat me to the punch.
But there is still much to be said, only a fraction of which I can say here. Regular readers will know that I often get frustrated with Wallis's appeals to nonpartisanship, when, in my view, he's pretty solidly on the left of things (he, of course, disagrees). Nevertheless, I think Loconte's criticisms are off-base on a number of fronts.
First, in criticizing Wallis's move from scripture to public policy (about which, more below), Loconte writes: "Isaiah, an agent of divine judgment living in a theocratic state, conveniently affirms every spending scheme of the Democratic Party. This is no different from the fundamentalist impulse to cite the book of Leviticus to justify laws against homosexuality."
Oh, there is so much wrong about this (though, I acknowledge Jo's critique of Wallis on this point as well). In the first place, my own reading of Wallis is not that he is simply trying to read a public policy off of a biblical command (a la Leviticus and homosexuality). Rather, he is referring to Isaiah's eschatological vision of the Kingdom of God to provide a social ideal that ought to govern our public life. This is an ideal that embraces justice and peace as goals worthy of our best efforts, and sees the hand of God active in movements to bring those ideals about.
Oddly, Loconte contrasts Wallis with Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King. Now, leaving Niebuhr aside for a moment, how is Wallis's appeal to prophetic calls for justice different from King's use of the prophet Amos, declaring "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream"? Both Wallis and King take that eschatological vision, and apply it the the injustice and unrighteousness they see in society, holding that vision up in contrast the world as it is.
Niebuhr is different insofar as how he uses (or doesn't use) scripture, but he nevertheless upholds a prophetic vision of justice as an eschatological ideal to which we are responsible as moral beings. Depending on what you read of Niebuhr, he will either hold the religious underpinnings of this moral agenda at arm's length, or he will embrace it explicitly, but it's always there. And while it's true that neither Niebuhr nor King became "partisan priests" (as Loconte puts it), neither, I would claim, has Wallis. Nor have I, nor have my friends in the various progressive Christian movements.
Wallis is right that God is not a Republican (or a Democrat), but liberal or progressive or leftist Christians are also neither Republicans or Democrats, regardless of our party affiliations. My Christian faith isn't in service to the Democratic Party any more than Niebuhr's was. (Niebuhr, in fact, never joined the Democratic party. He ran for Congress one time, as a socialist, and thereafter joined the Progressive Party). We are not partisan in the sense that we want to see Republicans lose and Democrats win. If we are partisans at all, we are partisans on behalf of the idea that our Christian faith demands of us that we be on the side of the poor, the outcast, the dispossessed, the least among God's people, and that we strive to make real a society in which the needs of these children of God are given priority.
To the degree that the Republican Party is willing to embrace that ideal and have an honest conversation about how that is possible, progressive Christians are here to engage in that conversation. To the degree that Democrats sell out to the powerful and the wealthy, we have no interest in supporting them. This is not partisanship, this is principle. We support whoever supports us.
This is in stark contrast to the Religious Right, which is currently a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party, as the ties between Ralph Reed, Jack Abramhoff, and the Republican establishment have demonstrated. Progressive Christians would do well to learn from that particular example and not sell their souls for the kind of political power exercised by the Christian coalition.
That said, we do want to be taken seriously by people in power, not simply because they want to use our ideas to win elections (as Loconte points out, it's ridiculous to host panels like "I don't believe in God, but I know America needs a spiritual left"). We want our ideas taken seriously because we have ideas that are good for the nation, and that are morally preferable to the ideas of the religious right. I'd happily stand up and debate the relationship of the Bible to public policy with Joe Loconte, if our goal is to figure out how to make a genuinely better society. But it's making a better society that's the goal, not getting or keeping political power.
It's also worth pointing out the straw-man quality of Loconte's quip. I doubt highly that he can find me an example of where Wallis uses the Bible to "affirm every spending scheme of the Democratic Party." In fact, Wallis has been on record for years in supporting any number of different kinds of strategies, including, but not limited to, government-sponsored programs, to increase social justice. He's supported community initiatives, groups like the 10-point coalition, and the action of small groups of citizens working within civil society to transform the social landscape. It's not only about "spending priorities." It's about social priorities. If we can come to an agreement on those, then we can have a very legitimate and pragmatic debate on the best ways to achieve those priorities. And in that case, I suspect that Wallis, Loconte, and I would all find we have a lot in common about the variety of different kinds of programs we'd support.
One last note: Loconte is simply wrong in attributing Isaiah's vision to a "theocratic state." Here we suffer from a lack of theological imagination. While it's true that Isaiah's vision is ultimately "theonomos" (in Paul Tillich's sense of the word), it's not "theocratic." From Tillich's perspective, such theocracy would undoubtedly be "heteronomos," and Tillich would be right there. But the eschatological vision of a kingdom of peace and justice is not about who rules the state, but about who rules the universe and who rules in the hearts of human beings. It is not when Christians control the state that justice reigns, but when a new law is written on our hearts. That vision of the consummation of all things remains in imagined future. But that imagined future can have an impact on how we live our lives today, if only we'll allow it to. How that translates into public policy requires what John Bennett used to call "middle axioms" by which we can translate Biblical injunctions into public priorities. Perhaps our time would be better used developing those middle axioms rather than sniping at those who believe, apparently with Loconte that "the Bible is a priceless source of moral and spiritual insight," but who, apparently unlike him, also believe that the Bible means something in terms of how we live our lives, both privately and publicly.
PS. Evidence that Loconte doesn't really know what he's talking about: Calling Stanley Hauerwas a "liberal." I can here Stan howling from here.
PPS. Further evidence that Loconte doesn't know what he's talking about: accusing Wallis and other progressive Christians of ignoring human rights issues (middle axiom!) and questions of the family. In fact, I just got my new issue of Sojourners the other day, and the cover story was all about the importance of family. Now, I wonder when Loconte will be publishing his apologies to Jim and Stan.