11 June 2005

God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong, and the Left Doesn’t Get It / By Jim Wallis

reviewed by Leora Bersohn

We have no proof as to what the most unread book of the last twenty years may be, but we can certainly hazard a guess: A Brief History of Time has long been mocked by publishers and comedians alike as the quintessential book that flies out of stores, only to collect dust at home. This year, Jim Wallis’s latest, God’s Politics, will join Hawking’s effort on your bookcase’shighest shelf , where it will remain ever after as a source of mild guilt. It’s easy to see why theBrief History goes unread: Physics is hard. Most people were traumatized in high school and don’t feel qualified to broach the subject. “Time” itself is so abstract as to seem unfriendly, and many of us like our books with people in them. By comparison, the unreadableness of God’s Politics is a mystery.

The intersection of religion and politics is probably the topic of our times. And Wallis seems uniquely positioned to discuss it: The globe-trotting activist minister is rapidly becoming the face of progressive “Don’t call us the Religious Left” evangelicalism. Why, then, is reading this book such a struggle?

The answer lies in the gap between the book’s claims and its contents. In its titles, design, and jacket copy, God’s Politics offers itself as an election-year panacea, a cross-over book in which Wallis will move from addressing his flock to addressing the nation, and a good read. It is none of these.

We are told from the cradle not to judge a book by its cover, but we may certainly assess a book’s marketing strategy by its design. The book-jacket of God’s Politics looks like a battered leather Bible, complete with gleaming gold cross. Atop the Bible, though not attached by any visible means, lies a tattered, translucent slip of paper (reminiscent of toilet-paper) printed with red, white, and blue donkey and elephant emblems, which significantly have their backs turned to each other. This cover seems to promise a tasty mixture of biblical exegesis and election-year punditry, and it boasts blurbs by such luminaries as Bono, Desmond Tutu, and Bill Moyers. Reader, beware: All but one of the blurbs praise Wallis the person but do not mention this book. Somewhere in Cornel West’s house, the galleys of God’s Politics lie untouched.

The book has three titles (an ominous indicator of its lack of focus): God’s Politics, which hints that we will learn about biblical portrayals of politics and the lessons we can learn from them; the first subtitle, “Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It,” which implies that this is What’s the Matter with Kansas? with answers; and the second subtitle, “A New Vision for Faith and Politics in America,” which promises, at least, novelty.

Alas.

In his analyses of the Iraq War and American’s role in the world since 9/11, Wallis rehearses the standard anti-war arguments that have been made with greater clarity elsewhere. It is often difficult to see precisely how Wallis’s Christian commitment has influenced his stance. He is prone to making blanket statements like “Christian theology is uneasy with empire” and “Truth telling is also central to Christian theology, which teaches that falsehood has consequences.” Wallis seems to expect his readers simply to share these assumptions about what “Christian theology” might be. He characterizes everything he believes in as “good theology” and everything he disagrees with as “bad theology.” For example, Wallis says: “Christian theology suggests that domination is oppressive and corrupting for both the dominated and the dominator. In preferring the virtues of human dignity, justice, and humility, Christianity implicitly teaches that empire is not the best strategy to fight terrorism.” These may well be central Christian tenets, but where are Wallis’s sources? Is he reading LukeSt. Augustine?Reinhold Niebuhr? Whose Christianity are we talking about? And wouldn’t even our Christian President George W. Bush argue that he is pursuing dignity and justice for Iraqis, if not humility for Americans?

The rare moments where Wallis cites his theological sources stand out and give God’s Politicswhat value it has. In an essay entitled “Getting the Words Wrong,” Wallis demonstrates that when Bush quotes from the Bible or from Christian hymns, he consistently applies language meant to describe God to America or Americans. Thus, “power, wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb” becomes “power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.” Wallis sees this as a fundamental distortion of Christianity, which he says requires its adherents to be members of the human race before they are members of any nation. If only Wallis had been willing to do more of this kind of work, God’s Politics would have been a lot of fun.

Wallis is slightly stronger on the issue nearest his heart: poverty. This is the area he knows best, so rather than citing amorphous categories like “Biblical wisdom,” Wallis quotes specific verses requiring that we care for the poor. Better yet, he offers a few concrete solutions to global poverty, including debt-cancellation and the adoption of fair-trade practices. In one of the book’s strongest chapters, Wallis argues that “budgets are moral documents,” that they indicate the priorities of our society. He goes on to tell the story of Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama’s attempt in 2003 to raise taxes for the rich and eliminate income taxes for the poorest citizens of his state. Wallis exults: “Here’s one Christian politician whose ideology has been altered by his faith and who was trying to do the right thing.” This moment, in which Wallis provides an example of legislation that could have improved people’s lives, is a rarity: He is no policy wonk.

Similarly, despite its title, God’s Politics is not a book about what the Bible has to say about politics. Such a book does exist: Patrick D. Miller’s recent The God You Have: Politics, Religion, and the First Commandment is a concentrated, essay-length exploration of the prohibition against worshipping other gods. Using a variety of Old and New Testament sources, Miller demonstrates that those other gods are always linked to commerce or political power. Miller, a chaired professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary, is a learned and intelligent writer. Unfortunately, his erudite essay is probably better suited to scholars than general readers.

Wallis’s book, by contrast, is not scholarly enough. He has several favorite tropes to which he returns repeatedly: In his hands, Habakkuk is an exemplar of “the politics of complaint” that we need to reject in favor of solutions; Mary’s song of praise in the gospel of Luke, which describes a reversal of power relations, is a reflection on the eventual fate of both Saddam Hussein and those who have toppled him; the injunction in the gospel of Matthew that we remove the log from our own eye before taking the speck from our neighbor’s eye is sound advice for George W. Bush; and the Book of Micah’s famous prediction that we will beat our swords into plowshares, etc. “neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees” is a claim that prosperity will bring peace, which happens to be precisely the opposite of what Micah is saying.

Besides these greatest hits, Wallis quotes only a handful of Bible verses, and his analysis skates the surface at all times. It is possible that he assumes that his readers know the Bible so well that they need no reminders, but sometimes he is downright negligent — at one point, Wallis describes addressing the Democratic Platform Drafting Committee, noting rather defensively that he would have happily addressed the Republicans as well, and he forgets to mention what his prophetic message actually was: “I quoted Isaiah to the Democrats and urged them not to avoid moral and religious language in expressing their concern for economic justice.” Maddeningly, he makes no further reference to Isaiah. Some 200 pages later, in a chapter entitled “Isaiah’s Platform,” Wallis quotes Isaiah 10:1-2 as reimagined in Eugene Peterson’sThe Message: “Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims — laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children.” We can probably infer that this is the text Wallis cited to the Democrats, but we should not have to work this hard.

God’s Politics is rife with such careless omissions, as well as the grating repetition of whole sentences, even entire lines of argument. Worse, Wallis reprints large chunks of his previously published work, including “open letters” to various public figures, op-ed columns with by-lines and copyright information left intact, responses to major events drafted with fellow-travelers among the clergy, and pieces from Wallis’s magazine Sojourners. While these cut-and-pasted segments bulk out the page-count of God’s Politics, most of them have a deleterious effect on the book. The “open letters” are unintentionally funny, as they address public figures who are no longer quite so public: Governor Jesse Ventura? General William Boykin? The collaborative Op-Ed columns and talking points demonstrate how much more convincing Wallis sounds when he has a writing partner or a strict editor on hand to whip him. This impression is compounded by the fact that Wallis either anticipates or reiterates each of his reprinted articles or statements of principle by making all the same points in a rambling, inarticulate fashion. Then there are the Sojourners reprints — if Wallis aims to address a national audience, he should at least have rewritten his press releases.

He should also have removed the many anecdotes about his six-year-old son. Hearing a member of the clergy whom you know well discussing his or her children can be charming. Reading about how a stranger’s child “really connected with ‘the helpers’” after September 11th or has declared his intention to model his career on that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. offers the same sensation as resting your hand on the subway seat next to yours and touching something wet.

In the age of Ann Coulter and Michael Moore, most mass-market political books are compiled, rather than composed, and are unlikely to win any literary prizes. However, God’s Politics is sloppy beyond all reason; it reads like an unedited Dictaphone transcription. While this book’s political thought is stale and its religious expression lacking in intellectual rigor and occasionally gooey, what pushes this work beyond the mediocre and less than fun to read and into the territory of the terrible and the unreadable is the apparent absence of an editor.

If you are beginning to regret the $25 you shelled out last month, do not despair. Though some of us glance ruefully at our copy of A Brief History of Time, the impulse that made us buy it is touching: We want to be smarter, to branch out, to understand our universe better. The poor saps who continue to buy God’s Politics aspire to something better as well: We want to be kind people who help the poor, good citizens who are true to our religion or understanding of others’. If we also want to be strategic in our political rhetoric, we are becoming crafty in the interest of helping others. We are the reason why, though hating America is fashionable around the globe, hating Americans is not. We bought this book out of our best intentions; what we must do now is harness them elsewhere. Instead of wasting the next month trying to read God’s Politics, use that time to get to work — get involved in politics, practice your religion, or write a better book.

Leora Bersohn is a writer in Brooklyn.