I used to know a woman in Austin who produced and directed lesbian comedies. Audiences loved the films, but reviews were invariably critical. “Not enough butches,” one would say, or “conforms to heteronormative standards of beauty.” The director’s response was always the same: “Where’s your lesbian film?”
This retort came to mind as I read Jim Wallis’ The Great Awakening, subtitled Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post-Religious Right America. This apparent follow-up to Wallis’ 2004 bestseller, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, tries to navigate a new nonpartisan path between the Scylla and Charybdis of politics and religion. Wallis, an evangelical pastor with a lifetime commitment to social justice, does such a courageous job of reimagining a Christian take on controversial political issues that I’m loathe to point out his few blind spots and rhetorical weaknesses. After all, where’s my politically viable, theologically sound rebuttal of the religious right?
Wallis believes that Christians-alongside people of all religious and spiritual persuasions-should act as the conscience of government, always advocating a more just society without allegiance to any party. But before readers can enjoy the spectacle of Wallis scripturally schooling his contemporaries on everything from immigration to the Iraq war, they have to get through the first hundred pages. In these, Wallis tries to establish that the Christian political agenda in America is already evolving beyond “baby-good, gay-bad” and embracing its destiny as an anti-war, anti-poverty, pro-environment force in American politics. This is a thrillingly hopeful premise, but Wallis’ attempts at substantiation are almost entirely anecdotal. Wallis writes, “Millions of American Christians are discovering God’s concern for his poorest children, and their biblical rediscovery could well change the political issue of poverty in the United States and around the world.” A reader who yearns for this statement to be true will be disappointed to learn that the supporting evidence is a New York Times article about starving children, which Wallis’ 8-year-old son overhears him reading aloud. Wallis often cites America’s shocked and earnest youth, who resolve to save the world from the injustices their parents have ignored, as a cause for hope. The reader wants badly for this to be true, wants to trust that the coming generation’s resolve won’t cloud and thin with age, or be co-opted by the petty monsters that turned their parents’ faith into sneering nationalism and rabid intolerance. But readers have seen this before. And readers want more than hope to go on.
One point on which Wallis thoroughly makes his case that real change is afoot is environmentalism. “Christians, in particular, have too often seen the Earth as merely a way station to heaven, an unimportant stage prop for the human drama of salvation,” Wallis writes. But then he demonstrates that a new emphasis on “creation care” (as faith-based environmentalism has been re-branded) is taking root. In 2004, the National Association of Evangelicals adopted a new policy statement urging Christians and the government to “conserve and renew the Earth rather than deplete or destroy it.” In March 2005, a New York Times article noted that the NAE was resolved to fight global warming. But in 2006, 22 prominent leaders of the religious right signed a letter to the NAE saying, “We respectfully request … that the NAE not adopt any official position on the issue of global climate change. Global warming is not a consensus issue.” Wallis writes, “Five years earlier, so powerful a group of conservative Christian leaders probably could have tamped down a new evangelical effort such as this. But this time, it didn’t work.” A month later, the NAE ran a full-page ad in The New York Times announcing the Evangelical Climate Initiative with the signed support of 86 prominent evangelical leaders. The religious right would continue to deny global warming, and Jerry Falwell would later call the climate change debate “a tool of Satan that is being used to distract churches from their primary focus of preaching the gospel.” But few would listen. The power of the religious right, Wallis convincingly claims, is waning.
After environmentalism, Wallis’ focus shifts. He stops trying to prove that good things are already happening and starts exhorting his readers, passionately and poetically, as to how and why good things must happen. Wallis hits his groove when he’s no longer trying to prove something and starts trying to do something-namely, convince his readers that a radical agenda of social change is their moral responsibility, not only as Christians, but as rational and humane beings of any spiritual stripe. With an openly Native American foundational concept of all lives as interconnected and all welfares interdependent, he broaches each new issue with a volley of Bible verses supporting his proposals, then aims his appeals at the reader’s sense of justice.
This is crucial; it’s not mercy Wallis invokes, but a sense of fairness, eschewing the paternalism of a ruling majority’s magnanimity and instead presenting an impassioned case for justice, for a just world, and for the responsibility of every just person to create it. It’s key to Wallis’ mission that his allegiance lies with neither party, but while he picks the term “radical conservative” to describe his agenda, Wallis reads more radically progressive than any conservative this reviewer has ever known. He goes far beyond the moral commitments of those who want justice as long as it doesn’t raise their taxes, and want religion as long as it assures them a place in heaven. He advocates (and provides biblical justification for) reparations for slavery, a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, strong unions, international aid and debt cancellation, women as church leaders, religious pluralism, immediate intervention to stop the genocide in Darfur, a ban on the death penalty and all forms of torture, and an end to the war in Iraq. He renounces the labeling of America as a “Christian nation” thusly: “Does anybody really want to say that America has behaved in the world as a ‘Christian nation’? For the sake of Christian integrity, I hope not.”
Wallis also writes that while abortion is always a “moral tragedy,” it should not be banned. Rather, all available measures should be taken to make it a choice no one needs to make. It’s here, in the social conservative stuff, that Wallis shows he makes a better Christian than a feminist. He lists many changes that could make abortion less necessary, including better government support of poor working women, but never mentions accurate sex education or access to birth control. The closest he comes is to hedge, “Most Americans support approaches that would … promote policies that prevent unintended pregnancies.” While he advocates government-subsidized child care for single moms, he also says many women “are having second thoughts about the consequences of their choices,” and quotes Duncan Collum, a columnist, who claims, “Many American parents know in their guts that the way we are raising our children doesn’t make sense. Of the mothers currently in the work force, only 16 percent say they would choose to work full time if they felt they had the choice.” The statistic’s source goes uncited. Wallis also fails to consider that a father might choose to stay home while a mother goes to work.
On the subject of gay rights, Wallis waffles. In an early chapter, “The Moral Center,” he gives the debate a single line: “It is possible to be strongly for marriage and the family without being against gay rights.” Later, in “Family and Community,” he recalls confronting leaders of the hyperconservative Focus on the Family about their obsession with gays. “I told them I was completely with them in believing that the breakdown of the family is a major crisis in America … but then I said I didn’t think gay and lesbian people are the ones mostly responsible for all this … After a long discussion, they conceded the point and said they agreed that the breakdown of the family in America is attributable more to ‘heterosexual dysfunction than to homosexuals.'”
It’s a duh moment, and the reader might reasonably assume that Wallis is trying to reach a middle ground with the FOF-ers. Then comes this line: “Since the divorce rate is arguably a much greater threat to family and children than is gay marriage, why is divorce much more acceptable to many religious conservatives than gay marriage is?” [Emphasis added.] For a theologian who advocates religious pluralism and respect for diversity to fail to accept homosexuality as one of God’s intentional variations is a deep disappointment. Wallis advocates civil unions, equal rights and even church “blessings” for same-sex unions, but he just can’t get behind gay marriage. Despite the many evocations of his hero, Martin Luther King Jr., Wallis fails to see that separate-in every circumstance-cannot be equal.
That’s what made me think of the lesbian comedy reviewers. In the quest for a just society, aspirants and advocates are bound to offer differing conceptions, by margins small and large, of what that society might look like. On what points and to what degree are we willing to compromise to build consensus? The Great Awakening is important not only because it seeks to incite changes the nation sorely needs, but because it shows that the Bible is a sort of Rorschach test, as effective a tool for liberation as for oppression. If progressives can see past their justified mistrust of politicking pastors, they may find in Wallis not just an ally but a visionary, beckoning from the vanguard of social justice.
Emily DePrang is a writer in Pearland, Texas.