Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Book Review (#20 of 2011)

God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It by Jim Wallis.

Someone had brought Jim Wallis to my attention before I read this book, but I didn't remember. (You can Google him yourself to find out his historical support for problematic causes.) Nor was I familiar with Sojourners. I'd like to think this gave me an objective stance in reading this book.

I find Wallis to be a Leftish version of what he criticizes on the Right -- someone who wants to impose his interpretation of Scripture on everyone else in America. Wallis criticizes the evangelical church for forgetting Jesus' words about providing for the poor and making peace. But rather than focus on changing the American church, Wallis devotes his attention to changing American government. He attacks the Pat Robertsons and G.W. Bushes of the Right for confusing the American Church with America the nation, but doesn't see that he does the exact same thing by calling for government policies to essentially replace and emulate the church's traditional role of supporting family, peace, and helping the poor.

Wallis argues that faith-based non-profits can't do their jobs unless better funded by taxpayers. The shortcoming of Bush's Faith-Based Initiative was its lack of taxpayer funding. Rather than focus on increasing the voluntary giving of American Christians, Wallis wants to increase the forced redistribution from all Americans to non-profits through taxes.

Wallis doesn't argue from a historical theological or philosophical perspective. Abraham Lincoln is about the oldest source as he draws from. Martin Luther King is held up as an ideal at least a dozen times because "He held his Constitution in one hand and his Bible in the other," we are told at least three times. Wallis rather annoyingly repeats his talking points over and again, making many pages superfluous.

Wallis argues that the government should keep policies in line with what the majority of Christian denominations put out official stances on. The Iraq war was immoral because every denomination (except Southern Baptists) spoke out against it. Budgets are "moral documents," and all legislation should follow the prescription of the ecumenical Church-- increased taxes on the wealthy, increased transfers to the poor, higher minimum wage laws, "fair trade" instead of "free trade," funding "real education," debt forgiveness to poor countries, more environmental regulations, and a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, etc. Not as much ink is given to why those causes are correct scripturally or what the historical stances of the Church has been. Jim Wallis agrees with it, therefore it's right.

He accuses the Religious Right of "prooftexting," twisting Scripture out of context to support their ideals. But Wallis engages in his own prooftexting. For example, he uses quotes from prophets like Micah to argue for debt relief for poor countries. But in the very next chapter in dealing with capital punishment, which Wallis opposes as immoral, he ignores that the same prophets both advocated and carried out capital punishment as God's will. (I'm not saying we should interpret OT Israel as prescriptive for today, just pointing out that Wallis wants to use some prescriptions for today while ignoring others-- prooftexting.)

In a chapter dealing with the global economy, Wallis decries "free trade" practices of the West/North as putting undue restrictions on the South. Any trade agreement that includes restrictions shouldn't be called or understood as "free trade." The best thing America could do for trade with the poor countries Wallis wants to help would be to immediately unilaterally eliminate all tariffs and quotas to give them unfettered access to U.S. markets. But Wallis doesn't point this out. Probably because it would be heavily opposed by the trade unions Wallis ironically supports as many American workers in those formerly protected industries would eventually lose their jobs. While painful for those workers who must find new occupations, the truly poor people-- those earning $2 a day or less-- would greatly benefit. Wallis wants to have it both ways.

There are some really vague prescriptions, like promoting "real education." What is "real" education? Wallis never says, just decries the American government for not supporting it better. On trade and labor economics, Wallis seems really ignorant of the data. He prescribes raising the minimum wage as a poverty-reduction strategy without pointing out that most minimum wage workers aren't trying to support a family on it, a large number are teenagers and college students who are still dependents on their fairly well-off parents. How high should minimum wage be? Why not just raise the minimum wage to $1,000 an hour? Wallis doesn't think about it.

Wallis spends much of the book arguing for Jubilee-style income redistribution and decrying how the highest-income Americans have seen incomes rise much higher and faster than everyone else. But rather than encouraging Christians to give more and spend less, or to be more conscientious of what products they are buying and lifestyles they are supporting, he simply advocates for government to tackle the problem. Wallis' shallow thinking shows up disappointingly in one of the final chapters, where he talks of his love for the NBA. Wallis doesn't point out that most NBA players are among the top 1% of the American income earners who have seen disproportionate income increases. It's apparently okay if an NBA player makes $10 million a year, so long as he is a "nice guy," and isn't a "slasher" or a "thug" like "Allen Iverson." Wallis apparently doesn't see any contradiction in supporting those salaries by purchasing tickets to NBA games or merchandise, nor does he call on the church to reevaluate its thinking about why entertainers and athletes are among the highest-paid in America. Because we need "fun and diversions." This is hypocrisy.

I give this book 1 star out of 5. I was hoping for M. Douglas Meeks and got the Left's version of Jerry Falwell. I'm not sure who is more dangerous to have advising a President.

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