Jim Wallis, the author, public theologian, speaker, and international commentator behind the Christian Left’s Circle of Protection, was in Grand Rapids last night, and I went to hear him speak. Wallis was presented as the latest in a long line of progressive luminaries to speak (or play their guitars) at the Fountain Street Chruch: Eleanor Roosevelt, Clarence Darrow, Margaret Sanger, Malcolm X, Gloria Steinem, U2, and the Ramones have all appeared on the same dais. He was introduced to speak about “where we are going together so that we can keep our eyes on the prize.”
That’s a pretty hip list, and Wallis considers himself a pretty hip guy, so I was genuinely surprised to enter the nave and find a sea of grey heads. Even the handful of Occupy Grand Rapids protesters were in their forties and fifties. Well I’m here for his lecture, I reminded myself, not to draw conclusions from his demographics before he even speaks.
Wallis started off with baseball — a promising place to start — telling the audience, “Baseball, following teams like Detroit, it builds character.” (Detroit missed out on the World Series a few days ago when it ran up against the indomitable Texas Rangers.) I was hoping to hear him expound on this theme in the rest of the talk, but he moved on to his core message: that with respect to Christ’s words in Matthew 25:40, the budget is a moral document.
Then he addressed the handful of forty- and fifty-something Occupy Grand Rapids protesters, and spoke about hope. “Hope,” he said “is not a feeling. Hope is a choice we make based on faith.” His lesson for the protesters was the same, he said, was the same one he had learnt from Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa during apartheid: that “hope means believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.”
Both were very true statements on the nature of hope, and the secular, materialist world desperately needs to hear them. But hope is a theological virtue, and Wallis applied it only to the material world.
I understand that he was speaking to a wide audience in a Unitarian church, but the faith he spoke of — the faith that undergirds his hope in this world and the next — is a supernatural faith. Without talk of hope in the City of God, the lecture lacked a fundamental coherence that no anecdote about Desmond Tutu, Elizabeth Warren, or President Obama could supply. It lacked even a discussion of the character that the Tigers’ season might have instilled in the audience. (It is possible that part went right over my head, since I’m a Rangers fan and the experts have picked us to win in 6 games.)
The lack of any transcendent meaning in the talk may have been why the youth of today weren’t there. Times are hard, employment is scare, it’s a bad time to be graduating college and looking for a job. But young people don’t have time to go hear someone tell them that if they hope for more from this life, they’ll get it. Wallis should stay away from that message anyway, since Joel Osteen delivers it better.
Someone looking for a gathering of energized youth in Grand Rapids should come in June for Acton University. That’s a gathering based on true hope, and the attendees (with an average age probably 40 years lower than in Fountain Street Church crowd) gather from scores of countries to discuss economic growth motivated and guided by a transcendent faith. Until Wallis’s message goes a little deeper, he continue to expect audiences that just want to be told they’ve lived a benignant life.
John Baden, chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment in Bozeman, Mont., wrote a column for the August 19 Bozeman Daily Chronicle about the Circle of Protection and Christians for a Sustainable Economy and how each has formulated a very different faith witness on the federal budget and debt debate. Baden says that the CASE letter to President Obama is “quite remarkable for it reads like one written by respected economists and policy analysts.”
I attended the FREE conference on the environment for religious leaders in July, the event referenced in Baden’s column (appended below). FREE is building a really useful conference/seminar for faith groups with outstanding lecturers and a truly diverse mix of attendees. I would recommend it to anyone seeking to deepen their understanding of environmental policy as informed by a religious worldview.
Also see Acton’s “Principles for Budget Reform” and associated resources on the budget and debt debate.
Religions’ reactions to financial realities
By John Baden
Many quite normal people, not just the paranoid, believe America will spiral downward and drown in a sea of debt. The Aug. 5 downgrade of U.S. bonds stoked their fears. Much of the debt problem is based on entitlements, commitments to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Prescription Drug Act.
As Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts said on NPR on Aug. 9: “I am not going to tell an 80-year-old woman living on $19,000 a year that she gets no cost-of-living, or that a man who has been doing physical labor all his life and is now at a 67-year-old retirement – which is where Social Security will be soon – that he has to work four or five more years.”
Sojourners is a “progressive” religious organization that supports Frank’s position. (Ironically, billionaire atheist George Soros has generously supported Sojourners.) They have recently drafted a letter to President Obama, “A Circle of Protection: Why We Need to Protect Programs for the Poor.”
Sojourners acknowledge our unsustainable deficits – but reject reforms reducing entitlements directed to the poor. “Programs focused on reducing poverty should not be cut. … The budget debate has a central moral dimension. Christians are asking how we protect ‘the least of these.’ ‘What would Jesus cut?’ ‘How do we share sacrifice?’”
There is nothing radical or even unusual in their position. Many, probably most mainline denominations, support similar positions. Sojourners’ leader Jim Wallis wants to move the broad religious community into the policy arena. Hence he is mobilizing a diverse nonpartisan movement of Christian leaders to make them “deeply engaged in the budget debate to uphold the principle that low-income people should be protected.”
Few would question Wallis’ goal but his strategy is challenged by a new group, Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE). They too sent a letter to President Obama.
While they share identical goals of helping the most unfortunate and poor, their means are diametrically opposed. They question policy outcomes by asking the ecological and economic question “and then what?” What are the logical, practical consequences of policies allegedly designed to help the unfortunate and needy?
Their effort had an unusual origin. It arose from an economic conference involving an ecumenical, indeed disparate, group of religious leaders, mainly Christians and several Jews. They represented a wide philosophical and theological spectrum. Some are allied with the Sojourners, others opposed.
CASE’s letter soliciting signers began, “At one level CASE began with a few of us at a lovely conference in Montana with fresh air, kindred spirits, time to talk and the gift of the idea to join together. … Signatories already include us (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox) … (and) many who work alongside the very poor, and so on.”
I find their letter to the president quite remarkable for it reads like one written by respected economists and policy analysts. “We do not need to ‘protect programs for the poor.’ We need to protect the poor themselves. Indeed, sometimes we need to protect them from the very programs that ostensibly serve the poor, but actually demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations. Such programs are unwise, uncompassionate, and unjust.”
Their text explains, “We believe the poor of this generation and generations to come are best served by policies that promote economic freedom and growth, that encourage productivity and creativity in every able person, and that wisely steward our common resources for generations to come. All Americans – especially the poor – are best served by sustainable economic policies for a free and flourishing society. When creativity and entrepreneurship are rewarded, the yield is an increase of productivity and generosity.”
A decade ago I wrote a column celebrating Nobel Prize economist Milton Friedman’s 90th birthday. Milton was an apostle of responsible prosperity and liberty. While he is gone, his influence lives. CASE’s letter to the president is a sterling example.
John Baden is the chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment and Gallatin Writers, Inc., both based in Bozeman.
The Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has announced a debate later this fall between Jim Wallis and Al Mohler. They’ll take opposing positions on the question, “Is Social Justice an Essential Part of the Mission of the Church?” The debate is slated for October 27, 2011 at 7:00 pm, and you can find more details at the Henry Center website. This is a really important question the answer to which really turns on some important definitions.
I would take the “yes” or the “no” position depending on how you define social justice and church. If by social justice you mean what Wallis usually means, something along the lines of redistribution of material wealth by government coercion, then I would take the negative. If you also mean the church to refer to the church as an institution, then again, I would take the negative, particularly if by social justice you mean a political program to engineer a state of affairs in which all have equal shares.
But if by social justice you mean a state of affairs in which each is rendered what is due by the appropriate parties, then the church does have a role to play (even if it is not a primary or “essential” part of the church’s mission). In the sense of the institutional church, it seems that the role is to pursue its primary responsibilities of proclaiming the Gospel in Word and Sacrament and exercising church discipline. That’s the way in which the institutional church promotes social justice, by doing its appointed task as part of the variegated social order. It would be hard to say in that regard that social justice is an essential part of the institutional church’s mission. It would rather be more like a secondary consequence or effect.
If we consider the church as an organism, however, consisting of all the individual members in their particular callings and offices, then promoting social justice becomes more clearly central. Promoting social justice would presumably be more consciously central for some callings than for others, at least in terms of the legal and political rules of the game. But each member of the congregation is called to manifest justice in their own dealings with others. They are, in fact, called to grow in the virtue of justice as an individual Christian.
What I’ve found, though, is that progressive and transformationalist Christians are often very quick to dismiss the kinds of distinctions I’m talking about here, and pursue in rather simplistic and straightforward way the pursuit of their vision of the right social order. Questions about the limits of the institutional church’s authority and responsibility are of little interest; whatever authority or structure that can be used must be pressed into service in promoting social justice. Nevermind if doing so in fact undermines rather than promotes a truly just society. This is why in my book Ecumenical Babel I note that the distinction between church as institution and church as organism is so important for reform and renewal of the church’s social witness.
In this regard, the exchange between Calvin Seminary professor Calvin Van Reken and denominational leader Peter Vander Meulen is instructive. In examining this exchange, you see Van Reken make precisely the kinds of distinctions I endorse here in addressing the question of “The Church’s Role and Social Justice.” You also see Vander Meulen run roughshod over such nuance in “The Church and Social Justice.” Van Reken’s essay on “The Mission of a Local Church,” wherein he identifies the ministries of “mercy,” as they are sometimes called to be a secondary calling of the church, is also helpful.
I should add that to the extent the institutional church has a role in promoting social justice directly in material terms, it follows that there are particular responsibilities that adhere to different offices. In this case, the role of the deacon would be that which has primary responsibility (rather than say the preaching pastor or teaching elder).
It looks like Congress will vote later today or this evening to raise the debt ceiling and avert a possible default by the United States Treasury. How the debt ceiling compromise will fair when measured against Acton’s Principles for Budget Reform it is too early to know, but one thing is certain: if the deal contains a single budget cut for even the most ineffective of social programs, we’ll hear screams of protest from Jim Wallis and his Circle of Protection.
Already parts of Washington are “livid over the extent of the deal’s domestic spending cuts, as well as the absence of any immediate tax hikes on wealthier Americans.” Coalitions that have a confused idea of the common good won’t like a debt deal that threatens to reflect economic realities and truths about the human person—and this plan doesn’t even have the support of many important conservatives.
As Jim Wallis explained the progressive Christian’s view of the debt negotiations:
Our country is in the midst of a clash between two competing moral visions, between those who believe in the common good, and those who believe individual good is the only good. A war has been declared on the poor…
Wallis reveals here a fundamental misunderstanding of the common good, and thus of politics. To Circle of Protection and its allies, the common good is achieved by higher taxation of the wealthy and redistribution of wealth: as everyone gets his check on the first of the month, justice is served. What redistributionists don’t understand is that simply running all the money through a common mill doesn’t mean you’re serving the common good. A large administrative state is not a sign of flourishing communal society.
An idea of the common good must be grounded in a correct vision of human nature, and the class warfare lens through which Wallis views the world distorts by materialism his perception. What is called the common good is in fact the common advantage, and belief in the common advantage is indeed belief that “individual good is the only good.”
Government for the sake of the common good requires a free citizenry, because without the freedom to make choices of moral consequence, a people cannot do good. Thus, taking the means of private charity and redistributing it for the sake of material equality is not practicing government for the common good.
From the “What Would Jesus Cut” campaign to the Circle of Protection, Jim Wallis’s liberal activism rooted in his “religious witness” has grabbed headlines across the nation . Wallis advocates for the “protection” of the poor and vulnerable by pushing for expansive government welfare programs. However, has Wallis effectively analyzed all of the programs for efficiency before advocating for their preservation?
In the National Review Online, Rev. Sirico raises many concerns about the Circle of Protection campaign underway by Wallis and his supporters :
The Circle of Protection, led by Jim Wallis and his George Soros-funded Sojourners group, is advancing a false narrative based on vague threats to the “most vulnerable” if we finally take the first tentative steps to fix our grave budget and debt problems. For example, Wallis frequently cites cuts to federal food programs as portending dire consequences to “hungry and poor people.”
Which programs? He must have missed the General Accountability Office study on government waste released this spring, which looked at, among others, 18 federal food programs. These programs accounted for $62.5 billion in spending in 2008 for food and nutrition assistance. But only seven of the programs have actually been evaluated for effectiveness. Apparently it is enough to simply launch a government program, and the bureaucracy to sustain it, to get the Circle of Protection activists to sanctify it without end. Never mind that it might not be a good use of taxpayer dollars.
As Sirico articulates, Wallis’s agenda is politically based, which needs to be remembered when listening to his arguments:
The actions of Wallis and the co-signers of the Circle of Protection are only understandable in light of political, not primarily religious, aims. Wallis, after all, has been serving as self-appointed chaplain to the Democratic National Committee and recently met with administration officials to help them craft faith-friendly talking points for the 2012 election. And when Wallis emerged from that White House meeting, he crowed that “almost every pulpit in America is linked to the Circle of Protection … so it would be a powerful thing if our pulpits could be linked to the bully pulpit here.”
Think about that for a moment. Imagine if a pastor had emerged from a meeting with President George W. Bush and made the same statement. I can just imagine the howls of “Theocracy!” and “Christian dominionism!” that would echo from the mobs of Birkenstock-shod, tie-dyed, and graying church activists who would immediately assemble at the White House fence to protest such a blurring of Church and State.
But in the moral calculus of Jim Wallis and his Circle of Protection supporters, there’s no problem with prostrating yourself, your Church, and your aid organization before Caesar. As long as he’s on your side of the partisan divide.
Read the full article by clicking here.
The question of “What Would Jesus Cut” raised in new ads for John Boehner’s, Harry Reid’s, and Mitch McConnell’s home states is fundamentally wrongheaded. It reverses the proper approach of religious leaders to politics and threatens to mislead their flocks.
The PowerBlog has already addressed the Left’s inclination toward class warfare rhetoric during the debt ceiling debate. Much to our surprise, President Obama didn’t seem to have read that post in time to include its insights in Monday night’s speech. Instead, we heard the same disheartening lines about corporate jets and big oil: the president doubled-down on his jealousy-inducement strategy and continued to ignore economic reality.
The country’s religious leaders who have begun to parrot this class warfare language are failing an even greater responsibility than the President’s. It is good that they enter into the debate, but as we explained last week with reference to Archbishop Charles Chaput, religion must always guide political engagement, not the other way around. Evangelization is the necessary and proper motivation of political speech by a religious leader. To reverse this engagement—to turn to religion secondarily, as a means to solving political ends—is to court error.
Aristotle writes his Nicomachean Ethics first, and then his Politics, for precisely this reason. Ethical inquiry (and metaphysical before it) must precede and direct political inquiry. To reverse that order is essentially to justify means by ends.
Father Sirico addressed the WWJC question in April, during Wisconsin’s showdown with its public sector unions. On the Paul Edwards Program he explained the invalidity of Sojourner’s WWJC approach:
I have a very difficult time taking a question like that seriously. It politicizes the gospel: it reduces the gospel—the mission of Jesus Christ—to a question of budget priorities…. It really attenuates the whole thrust of what the gospel is.
The very name the group behind the ads has chosen for itself, the Circle of Protection, is reflective of their misunderstanding. Rather than venturing into the political realm driven by an evangelical spirit, they circle the wagons around a particular policy and use Christianity as a shield.
None of this is to say that the practical solutions advanced by the Circle of Protection are necessarily wrong—only that if the group is right, it has stumbled upon the best policies without the enlightenment of Christianity that it claims.
Essential reading on Jim Wallis by long-time observer Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion & Democracy:
How does Wallis—the old Students for a Democratic Society agitator who touted the Vietcong in the 1970s and the Sandinistas in the 1980s, who denounced welfare reform in the 1990s as a betrayal of the poor, and whose funding by George Soros was exposed last year—enlist Catholic bishops and mainstream evangelicals in his endless political campaigns? “We’re frankly challenging leadership on both sides of the aisle on this one,” he recently told reporters. “If you’re going to come after the poor, you have to go through us first.” Famously a name dropper, Wallis mentioned his impending White House visit. He’d urged evangelicals to support Obama in 2008 and has carefully not burned bridges, despite passage of the ultimately bipartisan 2011 budget cuts against which he fasted.
Read Mark Tooley’s “Our Savior, the Democrats” on WeeklyStandard.com.
Shane Claiborne and Jim Wallis are posing the question, “What Would Jesus Cut?” in an effort to skew the federal budget debates toward the usual big government solutions favored by the religious left.
Recently, Claiborne wrote an article for the Huffington Post, exploring the idea of withholding a portion of his taxes to demonstrate his disapproval of military spending. He announced that he is going to withhold 30 percent of his taxes to protest all U.S. defense spending. Mark Tooley, at the Frontpagemag.com, has given thoughtful push-back questioning how Claiborne got the 30 percent figure along with articulating logical flaws in Claiborne’s ideology:
It’s not clear where Claiborne got the 30 percent figure. U.S. military spending in 2011, including Iraq and Afghanistan operations, is supposed to be about $671 billion out of an over $3.8 trillion budget. So the military will consume under 18 percent of federal spending. Maybe Claiborne is playing the usual game of excluding “entitlement” spending from the total…
Claiborne, like much of the Evangelical and Religious Left, wants to reinterpret Christianity primarily into a resistance movement against the “empire,” which is chiefly America. By doubling the actual amount of U.S. defense spending as a percentage of the federal budget, and deducting 30 percent from his IRS bill, Claiborne is striking his own blow against the empire. No doubt America will survive without Claiborne paying all his taxes. But what would happen if all American Christians ignored the teachings of their own faith and didn’t pay their taxes in protest against all military defenses? What evils would then prevail? How many would die? What chaos and suffering would then ensue?
Here at the Acton Institute we have developed the Principles for Budget Reform resource page where we not only explore the problems with the federal budget, but provide solutions that are fiscally and morally responsible. Furthermore, we have questioned Wallis, Claiborne, and the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign by providing reasoned critiques which can also be found on the resource page.
In light of today being Tax Day, we asked whether the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign might not be counter-posed with the question, “What Would Jesus Cut…from the Constitution?” Our new ad can be found on the Principles for Budget Reform resource page. We’re making the ad freely available for use as a poster or as an advertisement in your local paper, church publication or bulletin, or school newspaper.
Not so long ago, the Rev. Jim Wallis was positioning himself as the Chief Apostle of Civility, issuing bland pronouncements about all of us needing to get along. His “A Christian Covenant For Civility,” barely a year old, is now looking more tattered than a Dead Sea Scroll. Of course, he took up the civility meme back when he was hoping to brand the Tea Party as a horde of un-Christian, poor-hating libertarian bullying racists who enjoy nothing more than kicking widows and orphans with their hobnailed jackboots. Here he is last year warning America about the hostile Tea Party threat: “Honest disagreements over policy issues have turned into a growing vitriolic rage against political opponents, and even threats of violence against lawmakers are now being credibly reported.”
Ah, but the Apostle of Civility fled the agora. Right about the time that the vicious and violent attacks started on elected officials like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. It’s routine anymore to hear thuggish threats at state capital protests such as, “The only good Republican is a dead Republican” — and worse. (see video at bottom of post but be warned: rough images and language.)
Now, Wallis has returned, wearing the robes of an Old Testament Prophet, the scourge of those who would oppress the poor and bargaining unit members in threatened civil service classifications. The tip off was the title of his latest Huffington Post article, “Woe to You, Legislators!” Nice touch, that. More, from Wallis, who channels Isaiah:
You may think that my language sounds too strong: “bullies”, “corrupt”, “hypocrites.” But listen to the prophet Isaiah:
“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. What will you have to say on Judgment Day, when Doomsday arrives out of the blue? Who will you get to help you? What good will your money do you?” (Isaiah 10:1-3, The Message)
Ryan’s budget seems to follow, almost line by line, the “oppressive statues” Isaiah rails against. Ryan’s budget slashes health care for the poor and elderly by gutting Medicaid and undermining Medicare, and cuts funding for food stamps, early childhood development programs, low-income housing assistance, and educational programs for students.
Phrases such as “gutting Medicaid” are not designed to inform, but to inflame. This is the work of a demagogue. (more…)