Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Prophetic Politics Goes to Washington?

Timothy Sherratt


March 6, 2006

When Jim Wallis speaks at Christian colleges, as he did at Gordon College last week, his message is clear and concise: evangelical Christians engage in selective moral crusades, he says. On life and sexuality issues, they take strong orthodox stances. Then Wallis pauses, looks out at his evangelical audience, and declares that these are indeed serious moral issues. But why, he protests, do Evangelicals overlook the Bible's 2,000 references to the poor and fail to mount moral campaigns to end poverty?

Wallis's model for Christian action is the Civil Rights Movement. His heroes are prominent private citizens, not public officials. This is a formula that resonates with American culture.

To his credit, Wallis wants Christians to embrace a comprehensive social ethic. He does not seek to exchange conservative moral issues for liberal moral issues. The Christian ethic he advocates penetrates the boardroom and the budget, as well as the bedroom.

As the 2006 midterm elections loom, could evangelical politics achieve the synthesis Wallis seeks, marrying traditional positions on personal moral questions to moral commitments to end poverty?

In class last week, a student remarked, light dawning and penny dropping, how evangelical the left-wing Wallis is. What did he mean? I asked. Well, he went on, Wallis does not show much patience with the governing process itself. Instead, he wants partisan differences and expedient politicians to be swept up in an irresistible wind of change. These instincts, if not Wallis's policy preferences, are shared by most Evangelicals. His religious convictions bring ends into focus, but not means. He calls for an end to poverty but not for reform of the electoral system, or a curb on executive power, or the launch of a new political party. Politics is part of the problem, never the solution. The solution can only come from the outside, from The Movement.

Wallis's impatience with politics rallies the faithful, but it cannot make for good government.

There is ample evidence of a shift among Evangelicals towards the comprehensive morality Wallis calls for. It was palpable in his audience last week. And it was evident in the recent launch of the Evangelical Climate Initiative.

This shift is taking shape through the doctrine of stewardship, which has brought a fresh understanding of our obligation to care for the environment. Stewardship is just one doctrine that branches out from the root that is the biblical view of the human being, however. There are many such branches. In the Catholic tradition, one of the more vigorous obliges society to show solidarity with its weakest members; while another helps us recognize the responsibility of the family to raise children, and the state to do justice, and commerce to serve the common good. Moral crusades conflate these distinctive and irreplaceable responsibilities.

Prophets are equally irreplaceable, however. They rebuke the corruption of the powerful and call them to resume their true offices, as Nathan rebuked King David. Evangelicalism's prophetic politics does the first but overlooks the second. The omission is fatal. We will not recognize that a clean environment, responsible sexuality, and protection of society's weakest members are values that flow together rather than against one another if we remain outside the political process.

For a quarter century, Republicans and Democrats have pitted these values against one another. To reject this contradiction and take the moral synthesis into the public square, a new commitment to politics and government, perhaps even a new political organization, will be necessary. If Evangelicalism's prophetic politics were, in this fashion, to break the mold of American politics, it would at last have come of age.

—Timothy Sherratt, Political Studies
    Gordon College

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