Friday, July 29, 2005

Jim Wallis answers Joe LeConte: Must all religion be right?

From the Sojourners newsletter (

Joe Loconte is on a mission to make sure all religion in America (or at least the political expressions thereof) will be dependably right-wing, like his Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation. Any moderate or, worse, "progressive" religious deviation from the Republican Party line is anathema to Joe, who feels called to stamp out such heresies.

In his recent Wall Street Journal commentary, "From Gospel to Government," published July 1, 2005, Loconte, a Heritage Foundation fellow, derides all such progressive religious groups as having "no obvious grassroots constituency," as being "composed mostly of mainline clergy and church elites who are often culturally out of step with the rank and file," and as people who "treat traditional religion with either suspicion or outright contempt." Wow. That certainly is true for the "secular fundamentalists" who exercise the same undue influence over the Democratic Party as the "religious fundamentalists" do over the Republican Party, but certainly not for orthodox Catholic and evangelical Christians (like me) who simply don't share Loconte's right-wing politics. It's hard to find ourselves in Loconte's diatribes.

He charges that such non-Religious Right heretics "leap directly from the Bible to contemporary politics" without the proper theological and political nuances. Interesting. Wasn't it Religious Right leaders who in a Nashville "Justice Sunday" event said that Christians who don't support all of President Bush's judicial nominees are not really "people of faith?" "Imagine my surprise," said an evangelical seminary professor from Asbury, Kentucky, at an alternative religious service when he realized that despite his biblically orthodox upbringing, he was not really a Christian unless he backed the Republican president's choices for the federal court. In his op-ed, Loconte attacked "religious progressives" for being "allied" with George Soros and MoveOn.Org when I know of no connections to those liberal funders and groups that are as direct as the Religious Right's ties to right-wing funders and think tanks such as Loconte's Heritage Foundation. Perhaps a good test of religious independence would be to examine how critical faith leaders and groups are of their natural political allies. I'd love to compare the religious left and right on that score.

Loconte referenced the "best-selling book God's Politics" that I wrote and accused me of deriving from Isaiah a "blueprint for government welfare spending." On that book tour (in which we spoke to the constituency Loconte claims none of us have), we reached nearly 70,000 people face to face over 21 weeks in 53 cities and reached millions more through the media. What I found was a silent majority of moderate and progressive religious people who don't feel represented by the shrill tones and ideological agenda of the Religious Right, nor the disdainful attitudes toward religion from the secular left. But they do feel that poverty is a moral value and religious issue (there are 3,000 verses on the poor in the Bible), that protecting the environment (otherwise known as God's creation) is also matter of good faith and stewardship, and that the ethics of war - whether we go to war, when we go to war, and whether we tell the truth about going to war - are profoundly religious matters. The people I met don't see federal spending as the only answer to poverty (and neither do I), but they do believe that budgets are moral documents and that all of society is responsible (public, private, and civil society sectors - including faith-based organizations) for working together to overcome poverty.

In a recent National Public Radio commentary, Loconte accused all churches and religious groups who had questions about the war in Iraq of being hopelessly utopian pacifists, and invoked the example of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's opposition to Hitler as the more realistic path. The problem is that Pope John Paul II, who opposed the war in Iraq, and the current Pope Benedict are not pacifists. Nor are the majority of church bodies around the world who studied the rationales for the war in Iraq (including the majority of evangelical churches worldwide) and concluded it did not fit the traditional just war categories. And Niebuhr, suggest many of his students (including his theologian daughter), would have been quite alarmed at the Bush theology in the war on terrorism, which too easily sees our adversaries as evil and us as good, denying the evil that runs through all human hearts and nation states.

So what's Joe's problem? I think he's worried about what I saw and felt around the country as I met the constituency he hopes doesn't exist. The monologue of the Religious Right is now over, and a new dialogue has just begun on the application of faith and values to politics. Joe wants the Religious Right's monologue to continue and to make sure that no serious dialogue about faith and politics in America gets a chance to really begin. His attacks do, however, serve one useful purpose. He gives credible evidence to the subtitle of God's Politics: Why the Right gets it wrong and the Left doesn't get it.


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