The Politics of Jim Wallis

Jim Wallis substitutes ideological hubris for reasoned political discourse


By Rev. Aaron Payson
Summer 2005


Like many of my colleagues, I waited with anticipation for Jim Wallis’ new book God’s Politics. Having been steeped in his work for a number of years, I wanted to see what new insights Wallis might offer in this era of religio-political speculation, especially after the 2004 elections, when many are calling for a reengagement, especially by Democrats, with issues of faith and morality. But unlike many in Washington, DC, and around the country who have responded to this material as though they have discovered a new apocryphal epistle to add to their scriptural canon, I was sorely disappointed, and wonder if we will ultimately pay the price for his newfound popularity. For what could have been a fresh and invigorating analysis turns out to be the diminishing echo of a chord that was struck most vibrantly a decade ago with the publication of The Soul of Politics, diminishing through his Who Speaks for God?, and finding faint echo in his newest publication, proving, perhaps, that most ministers only preach one good sermon in their lifetime. (This may add some credibility to ecclesiastical systems that move ministers to different calls every five to seven years.)


I laud Jim Wallis for his attempts to broaden the debate on public morality to include issues such as poverty and war. Indeed, his personal commitment to live among and minister to the most impoverished in our nation’s capital is admirable and something to be vigorously replicated. His conversion experience as a young man, which led him to find community within the black church tradition, is a marvelous story of breaking out of cultural norms and seeking to understand the experience of others in their own environs. Here Wallis is most vital and vibrant in his analysis of the need for nationwide conversion. However, he shows himself to be most vulnerable and analytically ineffective when striving to articulate a “ consistent ethic of life.” And it is here that the diminishing echoes of more than a decade of publications seems most dangerous.


A decade ago, Jim Wallis expounded upon a “pattern of inequality” in writing about gender justice. “The time has come for men to move from a posture of reaction, defensiveness, and guilt, to a pro-active initiative on behalf of genuine equality between women and men.” (The Soul of Politics, p114) Outlining the devastating effect of forced sexual labor, rape camps, and sexism and advertising on women, he concludes, in part, “What most still will not admit is the pattern that underlies and fuels the violence. The name of the pattern is patriarchy—the subordination of women to men. It is a structure of domination. And, like the division of the world between rich and poor and the institutional character of white racism, sexism is also systematic, with clear social purposes.” (The Soul of Politics, p124)


Here is a clearly articulated analysis of gendered power imbalance, which Wallis admits is exploitative of both men and women. But then he turns to the issue of abortion and strives to walk the razor’s edge of his own form of religio-political correctness, which might best be characterized as anguished indecision.


Here his analysis turns from advocacy for the most marginalized to a call for more conversation so that those at both ends of the spectrum might “hear” each other, all the while seeming to forget that this conversation occurs within the context of a “pattern of patriarchy,” a structure that already has clear social purposes, which include the subordination of women.


On abortion Wallis strives to walk the razor’s edge of his own form of religio-political correctness, leading to anguished indecision.


Here I turn to Catherine MacKinnon, with whom I disagree on other issues such as pornography, but whose analysis of abortion and gender inequality is compelling. Reflecting on “Sex Equality Under Law” in her book Women’s Lives, Men’s Laws, MacKinnon notes that the theme of “laws of sexual assault and reproduction is male control of, access to, and use of women.” (Women’s Lives, Men’s Laws, p129) The historical reality of women’s reproductive choice being deprived because of forced sterilization, particularly of women of color and mentally disabled women, is a primary example. As well, when fetal rights law redefines women as merely vessels for growing and delivering children, or criminalizes, defunds, or bureaucratically burdens abortion providers with needless, targeted regulations, the case for institutionalized sexual inequality is all the more clear.


Two years after the publication of The Soul of Politics, Wallis reiterated his social visioning in Who Speaks for God? This work, however, moves from an analysis of patriarchy to pleading for “public policies that discourage abortion and actively seek alternatives to taking unborn lives,” asking, “ Why can’t we create a common ground where pro-life and pro-choice people can work together to dramatically reduce the number of abortions in this country?” (Emphasis in original.) Leaving behind much of the analysis of patriarchy, Wallis suggests that we simply must learn to listen to each other and find common ways to solve the problem of abortion. Again, at least implicitly, ignoring the inequitable reality faced by women that would permeate such conversation and suggesting more stridently that we face a cultural impasse instead of challenging structures of institutionalized and increasing legalized gender inequity.


Catherine MacKinnon’s analysis is again pertinent. Caught between the reproductive consequences of sexual use and aggression and economic inequality that is the product of continuing unjust sex role allocations in the market and in the family, women are prevented from having the children they want and forced to have the children they don’t, often because they are not in a position to care responsibly for them. “This,” she concludes, “is what a social inequality looks like.” (Women’s Lives, Men’s Laws, p137)


Finally, Wallis moves from an analysis of patriarchy through a call to discursive compromise, advocating in his latest work for “a consistent ethic of life.” Persuaded by the rhetoric of the former cardinal of Chicago, Joseph Bernardin, concerning “a seamless garment of life” that places abortion among a spectrum of violence that includes euthanasia, capital punishment, nuclear weapons, poverty and racism, Wallis argues that such a seamless garment is “an invaluable plumb line by which to evaluate all political candidates and parties.” (p301)


But those, like Wallis, who advocate such seamlessness often err by confusing many of the systemic causes of oppression (poverty, war, and racism) with the often tragic consequences, or effects, such oppression can have on individual lives (capital punishment, abortion, and euthanasia). And while arguments against capital punishment are often predicated on the reality of systemic inequity by which the standards of law are applied in cases of capital crime, such as the chasm of disparity between the races on death row in this country, abortion and euthanasia are made distinct here because they are legally predicated foremost on the basis of individual privacy and liberty. Thus, to suggest that those of us who advocate for the rights of women over their own reproductive capacity; the rights of the terminally ill, who by their own conscience choose to end their suffering through medically sound forms of euthanasia; and the rights of citizens not to be victimized by state-sponsored homicide are not consistent, and therefore out of step with an ethic of life, only offers further credence to the confusion of the causes and effects of oppression.


For a consistent ethic of life to become more real than ideal requires a human and cultural transformation that far exceeds the vision offered by the editor and chief of Sojourners. It must begin from a frank confession of our failures as beings and a culture to address the pervasive reality of human and systemic inequity that is fundamentally a product, first and foremost, of patriarchy. From there it must challenge “structures of domination” by admitting and sustaining a dependence upon the moral agency of women and men as the guiding principle for making choices concerning their own bodies, personally and communally. MacKinnon offers this analysis. “The range of procreative events along which inequality is experienced contextualizes the fact that when women are forced into maternity, they are reproductively exploited. Short of achieving sexual and social equality— short of changing the context—abortion has offered the only way out. However difficult an abortion decision may be for an individual woman, it provides a moment of power in a life otherwise led under unequal conditions that preclude choice in ways she cannot control. In this context, abortion provides a window of relief in an unequal situation from which there is no exit.” (Women’s Lives, Men’s Laws, p141)


The Hebrew prophets got it right. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) And, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) Here justice is a conscience 22 prerequisite to righteousness, and it is from the fountain of justice that love, kindness and humility flow. In other words, a consistent ethic of justice is a necessary prerequisite to a consistent ethic of life, and ought to be the foundation upon which any political debate on reproductive rights is based.


Affirming former President Clinton’s admonition that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare” while arguing for dialogic compromise between and within the dominant political parties of this nation, Wallis’ political conversion is made complete. For the question is not whether abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” but rather, from which end of the admonition one ought to begin to work. Where he once argued for a confrontation with the pervasive forces of patriarchy, he now argues for a “seamless garment of life.” Where he once began with the frank acknowledgement that abortion should remain safe and legal, especially in light of the plight of impoverished women in our country, he now argues that such procedures should be rare. Thus we have been privy to the transformation of a modern-day prophet into a politician. Interestingly enough, as I write during this season of the Christian Passion, we would do well to remember that Jesus himself turned away from this choice many times. Funny that one who professes to be faithful to Christ would abandon him so publicly by ignoring this core principle of Christian faith.


But this is the price one pays for courting power. The shift is complete. Wallis now eats at the table of the cultural elite when once he supped with those most marginalized in his community. And we pay the price for that popularity.


The price is the trend to substitute personal religious ideology for political wisdom, a trend that has turned the once honorable tradition of congressional debate into the latest form of entertainment— political theater. And that price has never been more evident than in the latest spectacle provided by Congress over the case of Terri Schiavo. Never in the history of this nation have we been privy to such a glut of pseudo-religious rhetoric from our most honored public servants. It is difficult to believe that those faithful to a culture of life would lead us into war with such abandon, would reduce public welfare subsidies so callously, would slash education to the bone, and still have the gall to call themselves “prolife.”


What should have been dealt with within the sanctity of the Schiavo family became a public spectacle. Legislators, with newfound faith in a “culture of life,” have turned a personal tragedy into a poster child for evolving precedents to create legislative redress when one does not agree with the outcome of judicial process. Now we know that when your day in court is disheartening, Congress is the next best step.


This is the consequence of substituting ideological hubris, under the guise of personal faith, for reasoned, wise political discourse. This is what happens when politicians are courted as fledgling preachers instead of called to govern justly. It is the inevitable outcome of debates that seek to legislate the quality of “ rare” as the prerequisite to “safe and legal.” This is the danger of a diminishing echo.


REVERAND AARON R. PAYSON is the pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Worcester, Mass., and past president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice of Massachusetts and the Jane Fund of Central Massachusetts.


Catholics for Choice