Published March 19, 2010
Fox's Glenn Beck and Sojourner's Jim Wallis are dueling about the meaning of social justice and the Bible. Neither man will be mistaken for Reinhold Niebuhr.
The dispute started when Beck, on his radio show, said, “I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. . . . Am I advising people to leave their church? Yes! If I am going to Jeremiah Wright's church. If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop.”
Wallis fired back in a post, saying:
Beck says Christians should leave their social justice churches, so I say Christians should leave Glenn Beck. I don't know if Beck is just strange, just trying to be controversial, or just trying to make money. But in any case, what he has said attacks the very heart of our Christian faith, and Christians should no longer watch his show. His show should now be in the same category as Howard Stern.
“When your political philosophy is to consistently favor the rich over the poor,” Wallis added, “you don't want to hear about economic justice.”
There are several things to untangle in this dispute. The first is that Glenn Beck is hardly an authority who can (or should) speak to such matters. There is a critique to be made here, but this is not the manner in which it should be made. I have made it clear any number of times that Beck is not someone I find particularly appealing — and have I spelled out some of the things he has said that I find outright offensive.
The second thing to say has to do with the terms “social justice” and “economic justice.” They are simply not offensive terms per se. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are filled with admonitions to pursue justice. And showing concern for the poor and the dispossessed, the alien and the sojourner, the widow and the orphan, is clearly scriptural. There are vastly more verses dealing with our treatment of the poor than there are, for example, dealing with homosexuality. So, to be in favor of social justice is not itself problematic and, rightly understood, is commendable.
At the same time, however, the terms “social justice” and “economic justice” have, in the hands of politically religious activists like Jim Wallis, been cheapened. They have gone from being a set of important biblical principles to becoming a justification for a liberal/Left political agenda. That's not entirely surprising in the case of Wallis, who himself is a fairly radical political figure, as anyone who has read Sojourners and Wallis over the years can attest.
Let's see where this self-described “public theologian” has come down on various issues over the years. We could start, I suppose, with Wallis' extraordinary claim years ago about the Vietnamese boat people. “Many of today's refugees,” he said, “were inoculated with a taste for a Western lifestyle during the war and are fleeing to support their consumer habit in other lands.”
In the 1980s, Jim Wallis said of the United States and the Soviet Union, “We must refuse to take sides in this horrible and deadly hypocrisy.” According to Wallis, “a totalitarian spirit fuels the engines of both Wall Street and the Kremlin.” About the communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Wallis said their policies “are designed to benefit the poor majority of the country more than the middle and upper classes.” He declared as well that “the gift of democracy to the Nicaraguan people came from the Sandinistas.” (See Katherine Mangu-Ward's excellent story, “God's Democrat,” for chapter and verse.)
During the welfare debate in the mid-1990s Wallis was a fierce critic of reform, saying, “The results we can now expect [from welfare reform] will be nothing short of disastrous for many people. . . . A million more children will likely be thrown into poverty, and 3 million to 4 million already in poverty will be plunged into deeper jeopardy.” Nor has Wallis been at all shy about criticizing Republican budgets as being an attack on the poor.
Some of Wallis' comments have been morally indefensible. Beyond that, though, he doesn't bring any particular knowledge or competence to matters of public policy or governing. And so he often makes claims that in time are exposed as ridiculous. Overhauling welfare, for example, ranks among the most successful social reforms of the last half-century. (For more, see the discussion of welfare reform here.)
At other times Wallis comes across less like a self-styled prophet and more like Paul Begala. Take as just one example this posting by Wallis in the aftermath of a “60 Minutes” episode:
I believe that Dick Cheney is a liar; that Donald Rumsfeld is also a liar; and that George W. Bush was, and is, clueless about how to be the president of the United States. And this isn't about being partisan — I was raised in a Republican family with two Republican parents that I loved more than any two people in the world. I've heard plenty of my Republican friends and public figures call this administration an embarrassment to the best traditions of the Republican Party and an embarrassment to the democratic (small d) tradition of the United States. They have shamed our beloved nation in the world by this war and the shameful way they have fought it. Almost 4,000 young Americans are dead because of the lies of this administration, tens of thousands more wounded and maimed for life, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis also dead, and 400 billion dollars wasted — because of their lies, incompetence, and corruption.
But I don't favor impeachment, as some have suggested. I would wait until after the election, when they are out of office, and then I would favor investigations of the top officials of the Bush administration on official deception, war crimes, and corruption charges. And if they are found guilty of these high crimes, I believe they should spend the rest of their lives in prison — after offering their repentance to every American family who has lost a son, daughter, father, mother, brother, or sister. Deliberately lying about going to war should not be forgiven.
This comes from a man who calls for a “politics of compassion, community, and civility.” Wallis' rants would qualify him as just another partisan (and uncivil) voice on the Internet, except for the fact that he so often justifies his views by placing on them the imprimatur of God, the obvious and indisputable position held by those who care about “social justice.” Indeed, Wallis authored a book modestly titled “God's Politics” and is described on the Web site of Sojourners as a “bestselling author, public theologian, preacher, speaker, activist, and international commentator on ethics and public life.”
With that write up one would think he would bring a seriousness of purpose and a reasonable tone to the debate of the issues of our time. But one would be wrong.
Many of us believe that it is fully appropriate, and in some cases honorable, to be involved in politics and governing. Politics is a means to advance the moral good. “The end of the state,” Aristotle wrote in “The Politics,” “is not mere
life; it is, rather, a good quality of life.” He went on to argue that “it is the cardinal issue of goodness or badness in the life of the polis which always engages the attention of any state that concerns itself to secure a system of good laws well obeyed.”
At the same time, those in politics who speak in the name of Christianity can, if they are not careful, do great harm to their faith and their witness. Their faith becomes a means to a political end, a cudgel with which to beat up those with whom one disagrees. It vulgarizes and can even corrupt Christianity; people, both within and outside that faith are understandably turned off when partisans use it to advance ideological ends.
Which returns us to Jim Wallis. In many respects he is, ironically enough, the mirror image of the late Jerry Falwell. Like Falwell, Wallis is drawn to power and attention like a moth to a flame on a dark summer night. Like the former founder of the Moral Majority, Wallis takes biblical principles and simplistically connects the dots to public policies he supports. He has, as the Reverend Falwell had, enormous confidence that he knows the mind of God on matters of politics. And Wallis says harsh and irresponsible things about those who hold views different than his. It is reasonable to say, I think, that there is little evidence of a spirit of grace and reconciliation in the words of Wallis.
“Identification of Christian social ethics with specific partisan proposals that clearly are not the only ones that may be characterized as Christian and as morally acceptable,” the Christian ethicist Paul Ramsey once wrote, “comes close to the original New Testament meaning of heresy.” That assessment is a wise and serious one — and it is one Jim Wallis, a person who undoubtedly longs to be faithful to his Lord, should carefully reflect on.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.