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Commentary: Prophet Jim Wallis and the Ecclesia of Economic Ignorance

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Sign up for Acton News & Commentary here. This week, I contributed a piece on Jim Wallis’ new book.


This class of the very poor – those who are just on the borders of pauperism or fairly over the borders – is rapidly growing. Wealth is increasing very fast; poverty, even pauperism, is increasing still more rapidly. – Washington Gladden, Applied Christianity (1886)

For three decades, we have experienced a social engineered inequality that is really a sin – of biblical proportions. We have indeed seen class warfare, but this war has been waged by the wealthy and their political allies against the poor and the middle class. – Jim Wallis, Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street (2010)

One of Jim Wallis’ long running aims at Sojourners is to cast himself as a moderate or centrist (God is not a Republican. Or a Democrat). This is howling nonsense to anyone who pays attention to his policy prescriptions or watches the progressive/liberal company he keeps. With his new book, Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street (Howard Books, 2010), Wallis drops all pretense to holding the center as he piles on with the horde of religious left activists and others now demonizing Wall Street. The book, a clip-file pastiche of easy eat-the-rich moralizing, relentlessly pushes for the sort of collectivist policies that even the Obama administration is reluctant to take on directly (to Wallis’ chagrin).

The Wallis publicity machine casts him in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets with their fiery visions and passion for the social application of faith. Alas, he can only scold: “It’s clear that Wall Street has learned nothing, wants to learn nothing, and instead just wants to go back to the same old behaviors.”

With this new book, Wallis has ventured into the nation’s economic life with his cheap outrage. There, he has exposed himself as utterly ignorant of even the most basic economic principles. Not even a disinterested undergraduate halfway through a compulsory Econ 101 would make these mistakes. Case in point:

The market’s fear of scarcity must be replaced with the abundance of the loving God. And the first commandment of the Market: “There is never enough,” must be replaced by the dictum of God’s economy: namely, there is enough, if we share it.

Well, no, wrong. You cannot wish scarcity away. It is one of the most fundamental realities of economic life, involving everything from raw materials to money to the very time we have on God’s green earth. Still less can you wish away scarcity with shallow sentiment and decree that all of humanity will have enough (what is enough?) if we follow the “dictum” of “God’s economy.” Scarcity is not a Republican or a Democrat issue, you might say.

Such is the essence of Wallis’ prophetism. It is his perception that the large, dark forces of society – Wall Street, Madison Avenue, Republicans — have overpowered and oppressed the Little Guy, the one who hasn’t enough money, power, free health care, or immigration rights (insert felicitous scriptural reference here). The dark powers are large and impersonal, for the most part, in this great captivity. With the exception of, say, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Glenn Beck.

Because Wallis’ classic progressivist fix for social ills is to shift greater power over the economy into the hands of Caesar, he must think that no one actually needs to understand anything about the economy or fiscal policy. Caesar has it under control, or will figure it out soon. But, again, reality is difficult for Wallis. Is your boss, who might be a Republican or someone who watches Glenn Beck, driving the cube farm a little too hard? Wallis has a solution in the form of the generous labor laws and vacation policies of the European Union. Amazingly, he seems to be unaware that the EU project, groaning under the weight of welfare policies that Wallis can only dream about, is teetering on the edge of the precipice.

As for wealth creation, that happens as magically as the medieval alchemist changes lead into gold. In Wallis’ economic phantasmagoria, it is merely a given that there is wealth. It will always be there — and it’s there for the taking. Wallis’ job is not to understand how wealth is created but to moralize, and condemn the money changers: the people behind Reaganomics, Enron, Gordon Gekko, Bernie Madoff, the evil bankers in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He even unearths an anecdote to show how the genetic malevolence of merchants was behind the Great Plague of Marseillein 1720.

In his new book, Wallis does commit two or three grudging paragraphs to acknowledge that there might be some upside to the market economy. But his heart’s not really in it. “Markets,” he says, “are the best ways that humans know how to create goods and services, although they often fall short in fairly distributing them.” Ah yes, where is the Grand Distributor when you really need him? In his mind, the economic problem rests with those who “preside over the market.” Again, back to Econ 101. You can participate in the market, with mutually beneficial exchanges. You might even cheat your neighbor in the market, if there’s darkness in your heart. But no one or no government can “preside” or manage the economy from the commanding heights. It’s been tried before.

Likewise, Wallis devotes two lines in the book to the notion that “rich and poor alike can be villains and heroes.” That would be, ahem, a simple orthodox Christian belief about sinful humanity. But what about all those rich people who don’t like to share in God’s economy? It doesn’t take long for Wallis to begin castigating the “wealthy” for villainously changing the meaning of redistribution in most people’s minds “into almost a swear word.” Vile sin!

Thus, Wallis takes it upon himself to redefine the redistribution of wealth, making it more palatable with quotations from Scripture and the American Founders that — he believes — support his view. There’s just one problem. Redistribution will, Wallis concedes, require “new regulation and responsibility by our government” to make it all right. “A new ethic of social responsibility will require a new framework of new social regulation in which critical entrepreneurial activity can best take place,” he announces. That’s it! We’ll have a new “framework” of government regulation to incentivize entrepreneurs just waiting around for permission from the regulators to get started.

What’s Wallis’ solution to the market’s ills? Well, voilà, “green energy” jobs, which have the double advantage of guilt-free economic activity supported by massive government intervention. Nevermind that it’s Utopian as well. Wallis has the audacity to call for the “rewiring” of the entire U.S. energy grid (give that about 30 seconds of serious thought). His cure for decaying urban cities like Detroit? Gardening and animal husbandry on the land that hundreds of thousands of people have vacated in search of better opportunities elsewhere. Presumably, they’ll be wooed back at the prospect of new careers in chicken farming and sheep herding. But returning Motown to the Midwest prairie will also, according to Wallis, be accompanied by converting those rusty old auto plants into windmill factories for the generation of clean energy. Prophet Wallis reminds us that the total conversion to clean energy will require not just “a change in the energy system” but … you guessed it … “a change of heart.”

The free market, in his mind, is also a grave threat to American democracy:

… the real battle now is not capitalism versus socialism, but the unrestrained market versus genuine democracy. We have seen the tyranny of the all-powerful market; and it is time to reassert our best and most basic traditions of democratic accountability.

Is this how Wallis plans to bring business people and entrepreneurs into his moralizing orbit? Does he really think that castigating business people will have them falling all over themselves to build the clean energy economy? It needs to be said, first of all, that the U.S. economy is not “all powerful” or “unrestrained” but a highly regulated mixed economy. There is a large and growing participation by the government at all levels in the private sector, most recently in health care, autos and mortgage banking. Big plans are afoot to regulate the energy business, under cap and trade schemes, to save us from global warming. Again, Wallis seems to have missed this.

While Wallis’ prescriptions for the “reform” of the U.S. economy are laughable, his influence on young people is not. Wallis himself brags that half of his audience is under 30. These are young people, he says, who “want to follow after the Jesus who proclaimed the good news to the poor, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of Jubilee!” This is the Jesus understood as Divine Community Organizer, the One described by Wallis as a “fascinating character” who is all about social justice and whose most emblematic act is the overturning of the money changers’ tables in the Temple. Don’t expect the 20-somethings who imbibe this stuff to champion economic liberty anytime soon.

In a January talk at the Brookings Institution to tout his new book, Wallis claimed that the “faith community” was perceiving economic issues more and more as moral questions. So far, so good. But this moral searching in his view calls for a more activist government to strike better “balance” on economic questions. Back to Caesar, again.

At Brookings, Wallis also made it clear that he wasn’t really all that wedded to the idea of morality rooted in faith – a strange sentiment for a Christian activist or a modern day Prophet. “Religion has no monopoly on morality,” he insisted. “We make that clear. Religion has no monopoly on morality. We need more than a religious movement.”

Well, at least Wallis is honest about that. But, and especially when grappling with economic issues, we need more than pious denunciations and cheap moralizing. We need some real understanding of economics.

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Roger McKinney

    I used to debate socialists on Wallis’ sojo web site until they banned me. I wasn’t rude or insulting. My guess is that I got too close to revealing to all that Wallis and most of his colleagues are not evangelicals at all. They are old fashioned liberals who deny the accuracy of the Bible, the divinity of Christ, the resurrection, etc.

    Wallis can take insults, though I never offered them. Others did. But he can’t handle the truth. Most new comers to the site immediately recognize the heavy socialist bias, even though the old timers constantly deny it. He got the most upset when Glenn Beck revealed the truth about “social justice” and its connection with socialism.

    The only thing that surprised me was the total disdain he and his cult have for economics. They consider it evil. I guess that’s because it rejected their saint–Karl Marx–so they rejected economics. As far as they’re concerned, all they need to know about economics is in the Mosaic Law and Das Kapital. Anything else is evil and they won’t bother to read it lest they become contaminated. It’s nearly impossible to debate anyone on the site because they are so utterly ignorant of economics and life in general. Usually when I presented some economic truth, I would get either insults in return or was dismissed as being an ideologue.

    Polylogism is their most common refuge. Anything written by capitalists is evil and a lie by definition; no other explanation needed.

  • DavidWd

    “I used to debate socialists on Wallis’ sojo web”
    Roger, I believe, many of them wouldn’t identify themselves as socialists. Socialism as state-ownership of the means of production. They want ‘social justice’.
    Socialism is unfeasable without having dominion over the whole state. This is loud, it’s noisy, it’s even ugly after the fall of east europe, Mao, Pol Pot. It was already loud and ugly in the late 1920ies for many.
    So what do you get if you want eschew ‘socialism’ but at the same time ‘social justice’ from a strong state?
    What do you get, if the Gov’mnt. doesn’t OWN the means of production but regulates anything and everything? (or approximates that ideal?)
    There is a twinbrother of socialism, sharing the main part of its DNA: it’s called FASCISM. (strong state, strong intervention, panes et circenses).
    What Wallis longs for is fascist policies.
    Surely, he isn’t aware of this.
    Keynes wrote the cookbook for fascist policies (General Theory) (Interesting, his foreword for the German edition, 1936, I think)
    It was the zeitgeist of that time. I wouldn’t call FDR a socialist, but an adherent of its twin: fascism.
    No wonder Keynes isn’t obsolete yet.
    We need to make that clear: It’s fascism, what you demand, Jim, not the Gospel. Are you sure, that is what you want?

  • almond603

    roger, I have to ask: you claim that you never were rude or insulting, yet you refer to his organization as a cult, with Karl Marx as its saint, and people who go there as being ignorant about life? how are these not rude or insulting statements?

  • Roger McKinney

    Actually, I was using the traditional definition of socialism at state control of productive resources. It’s true that “progressives” don’t like to call themselves socialists. They have identified socialism strictly with the USSR and communist China. That’s there way of defining words so that they automatically win arguments. If you accept the “progressive” definition of anything, there is no debate left. Besides Fascism is just one flavor of socialism. Socialism has always meant state control of business, not just state ownership. “Progressives” shouldn’t be allowed to define it away.

  • Roger McKinney

    almond, I didn’t write those things in posts on the sojo web site. I did call them socialists, which upset them to no end, but then demonstrated all of the ways they were exactly like socialism. But I never got any censure from those posts. I got banned after discussing the theology of some of the posters who denied the fundamental truths of Orthodox Christianity.

  • Roger McKinney

    As I pointed out on the sojo web site, Nazi was an acronym for National Socialism. Though “progressives” might not think Nazis were socialists, Nazis certainly though they were socialists, even though the state did not own the means of production.

    At the same time, we have to define what ownership means. Again, “progressives” define ownership as having the paper title to property. But property means control. Without control, paper titles mean nothing at all. So in “progressive” language, I could own a car if I have the paper title to it even though someone else used it all of the time and I had no control over the use of the car.

  • almond603

    I’m sure that you didn’t put those things on the website, and I wasn’t accusing you of that. though I do find it difficult to imagine that while you harbor such obvious hatred for their views that this didn’t come through in your posts, I was merely pointing out that it is extremely difficult to have any kind of meaningful discussion with people you believe to be a part of some cult who worships Karl Marx. and this is even more difficult if you believe these people to be ignorant about life.

  • It’s nearly impossible to debate anyone on the site because they are so utterly ignorant of economics and life in general. Usually when I presented some economic truth, I would get either insults in return or was dismissed as being an ideologue.

    Roger: IOW, bringing economics into a discussion of social justice (poverty, income inequality, etc.) makes you an “ideologue”?

  • DavidWd

    “Besides Fascism is just one flavor of socialism.”
    Of course, Roger. It’s socialism’s right wing – but far to the left from libertarians and conservatives. Fasc. to Soc. is like Pepsi to Cola, as one smart guy once pointed out.
    And telling them how close they come to fascism isn’t flattering at all. They will probably resist likewise.

    “It’s true that “progressives” don’t like to call themselves socialists” Yes, both leftwing soc’s. as well as rightwing soc’s. aka. fascists where the ‘progressives’ of the 20ies and 30ies. That’s how they felt, that’s how they called themselves.
    But there are distinctives, wouldn’t you agree Roger?
    Expropriation via rules, taxes and regulations comes on silent feet. Fascist elements is what socialist and social democrats have to offer, when they can’t get hold of the whole system. I think, we need to point that out to those who want big Gov. and State-idolization in the name of social justice and the common good.
    Perhaps I’m writing too much from a German perspective.
    Socialism in mild forms is still respected here around whereas fascism is the big no-go. ‘Kampf gegen Rechts’
    ‘Fight against the (extreme) right’ is a slogan of a German progressive weekly newspaper. We have to point out: “… but that’s exactly what you’re fighting FOR, not against!”

  • So Sojourners has a leftist bias and Acton has a rightist bias – which one is more biblical? One that is focussed on widows, orphans and the powerless – or one that is focussed on the market economy and individualism? (And no I’m not a socialist – just a Christian trying to figure out what a response to biblical values looks like in the political and economics arena.

  • Patrick Powers

    You may wish to research and join the Knights of Columbus to discover how free enterprise meets the needs of the powerless, the widow and the orphan. You will find that Knights have achieved sainthood through martyrdom, at the hand of “do-gooder” socialists. Their investment programs have helped countless families weather the loss of breadwinners for generations.
    Which would you say, the Right or the Left, supports abortion, or willing to trade unborn lives for social programs? My belief is that the Left sees the Church, families and free enterprise as enemies of the state.
    Judge them by their fruits and forget debating biases.

  • Roger McKinney

    DavidWD: “Fight against the (extreme) right’ is a slogan of a German progressive weekly newspaper.”

    So the extreme right is fascism and the left is socialism, but the right at least allowed paper title to property while the left wants the state to own everything. Where is libertarian thought in all of this? Is there nothing but the two flavors of socialism in Germany? Has Roepke left no legacy whatsoever?

  • Roger McKinney

    Roger: “what a response to biblical values looks like in the political and economics arena.”

    Check out the articles on this site about the Scholars of the School of Salamanca, Spain. Long before the socialist/capitalist debate, these scholars were struggling with the application of Biblical principles to commerce. In short, they were the philosophical foundation for capitalism.

  • Patrick Powers

    I’ve been watching the interchange between Almond603 and Roger McKinney. In some ways it is more interesting and informative and interesting than the topic under discussion.
    C. S. Lewis notes our times are plaqued with “men without chests”, basically, lacking in passion, polite to the point of indifference. What moderns call civilized, Jesus called “spittal”, because it is neither hot not cold.

    In the Introduction to his book “Rules for Radicals”, Saul Alinski praises Satan not for being right, but making a place for himself in Hell…the blind Leader of the Blind, but at least he’s a leader.

    Consider Jesus calling the Pharisees a “brood of vipers”. More recently, one Vatican official referred to the Democrats as the Party of Death. Democrats refer to pro-Life people as terrorists. But, the pro-life people offer conversion, reconciliation and redemption as an alternative to death. Is “Brood of Vipers” uncivilized name-calling, or an equivalent of the Party of Death. Giving things their names was one of Adam’s first jobs. Of course, after his encounter with Alinski’s hero, Adam had a lot more trouble getting names and objects identified, but the Son of Man didn’t have that problem.

    In this post we are considering giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Wallis’ suggestion that government has a better grasp of morality than traditional religion runs contrary to popular belief (a recent poll found that 80% of Americans distrust their government).

  • almond603

    patrick, perhaps I’m reading you wrong, but it sounds like you’re saying that we should not embrace what society deems civil discussion and instead go with more aggressive means to debate our positions? does this not eliminate all or at least most hope of ever getting anything done? can’t we see this kind of partisanship ruin our current government where nothing of any substance is accomplished?

    you are right that Jesus referred to the Pharisees as a “brood of vipers,” but I must ask a couple of questions: 1) should we engage in this type of name calling on the Internet? (especially since you’re advocating for a more courageous form of discourse, but I would argue that engaging in this type of discourse on the Internet is not courageous because of the anonymity of venues such as this and is in fact more cowardly), and 2) how do we keep this in mind when we are also instructed to love our enemies?

  • Patrick Powers

    First let me suggest that you Google the phrase “Men without chests” and get the meaning as C. S. Lewis meant it in his book “The Abolition of Man.” Wikipedia posts the following concerning the debunking of natural values: “The final chapter describes the ultimate consequences of this debunking: a distant future in which the values and morals of the majority are controlled by a small group who rule by a perfect understanding of psychology, and who in turn, being able to “see through” any system of morality that might induce them to act in a certain way, are ruled only by their own unreflected whims. The controllers will no longer be recognizably human, the controlled will be robot-like, and the Abolition of Man will have been completed.

    Perhaps you can find an easier, softer way to describe a political party whose principle plank is the annual abortion of millions of children, genetic selection and cloning? For the head of the Vatican’s Supreme Court to refer to the democrats as the Party of Death is defining. Brood of Vipers/Party of Death, one can complain or debate about it, but eventually you’ll find yourself trying to swallow a camel.

    As for getting things done, I enjoy a phrase attributed to several of America’s Founders and relevant to legislation: “That government is best which governs least.” I believe that a lot of people agree, since 80% of the American people distrust government.

    It useful to consider that Jesus completed his healings on the Sabbath without going to the Sanhedrin to debate the issue. One might also consider Mother Teresa scolding of the Clintons on the abortion issue. Perhaps, Reagan’s referral to the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire” was impolitic but valid?

    Roger states he was banned from the Sojo site because he posted orthodox views. I guess, Sojo would have banned the Pope, rather than tolerate his views. Is there something cowardly, all head and stomach, with no heart in those who refuse to comprehend competing points of view? Such are the Men Without Chests.

  • DavidW

    Roger: “Where is libertarian thought in all of this? Is there nothing but the two flavors of socialism in Germany? Has Roepke left no legacy whatsoever?”
    I’m not suggesting a thing like that.
    High taxation and heavy regulation is not socialism by itself (exploitive taxes in some Roman provinces where not socialism; the highly regulated guild system wasn’t either)
    But such policies nowadays approximate socialism, and they do it from the right side – where it is fascism.
    I suggested a more precise decription of whats going on. Just that.
    High taxes and all-invading regulations are not even fascism but fascist elements which go into a highly
    problematic direction: unduly empowering sinners (politicians and judges in the case in point).
    At the end we will be further from paradise and closer to scarcity and tyranny.

    As for Germany:
    The Germans elected recently a conservative-libertarian coalition (that’s at least what the label says). The oppinion of the German Mrs Chancellor about freedom and America can be found @

    If Germany were a socialist nation, she couldn’t play the role she plays in the world economy. She’s quite an engine, economical-wise.
    But Germany suffers by and large from similar ailments as America does, differing only in emphasis. (I spare you the list)

    Roger, I read many of your comments, and not just on this site. I learned a lot and share many views.
    But I think your use of ‘socialism’ could be more precise.
    I suppose, your valid arguments will be heard more readily if you use ‘socialism’ more defined.
    Your voice is rational and important. Please don’t blunt it by a too freewheeling use of ‘socialism’. I’m afraid, people won’t identify their beliefsystem with it and skip the rest of your argumentation. That would be a pity. Just my two pence to it.

  • Roger McKinney

    DavidW, Thanks for the advice. However, I think you assume that people are interested in the truth and searching for it. I don’t. I think very few people are interested in the truth. My goal isn’t to persuade socialists to change; for the most part I think that is a fool’s errand. My goal is to present the truth for the very small number of readers who may not post on the blog but who are interested in the truth.