God's Politics after Katrina: Faith and Hope in Public Life
Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life
Our fifth annual Prophetic Voices of the Church Lecture (co-sponsored by the Church of the Redeemer, Newton, MA) featured Reverend Jim Wallis, founding editor of Sojourners magazine and author of the best-selling book God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. Wallis paced the stage of Robsham Theatre as he passionately argued for a public conversation about faith and morality not hijacked by the political right or misunderstood, even ignored, by the political left. As he described, “Religious fundamentalists have a stranglehold on the right,” while “secular fundamentalists have this control on the left.” Wallis spent the first portion of his October 17 talk commenting on the landscape of the religious conversation in American politics, noting that the religious right has narrowed the field of discussion to abortion and gay marriage. As a consequence, issues demanding moral assessment such as the war in Iraq and poverty in America are woefully neglected.
Wallis challenged the left to recall the achievements of progressive Christian reformers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries— including the abolition movement, women’s suffrage, and the civil rights movement—as a model for left-leaning religious activism.
Wallis, however, proceeded beyond simply laying out the contours of contemporary politics and religion. He maintained, “religion is not supposed to be a wedge that divides us,” but “a bridge that brings us together.” Drawing on the example of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, Wallis cautioned against “God is on our side” rhetoric in both domestic and international politics. Such thinking leads to hubris and unsound policy. Instead, he urged Americans—both right and left— to worry whether “we are on God’s side.”
For Wallis, the rampant poverty in America, and in the world, tests Christian devotion to “God’s side.” The scriptures, he reminded, contain more passages on poverty and serving the poor than any other issue. According to Wallis, the “good” of Hurricane Katrina is that “The waters of Katrina washed away our national denial of just how many Americans are living in poverty. It washed away our reluctance to admit the still persistent connection of race and poverty in America.” In one of a handful of partisan moments, he blasted the right for continually supporting tax cuts for the wealthy while cutting services to the poor. Finally, he suggested, Katrina provided America with a teachable moment—a moment for the leadership of this country and for the average citizen to face the reality of the poverty line, but, more importantly, to do something about it.
Wallis concluded his remarks with a call to action. To combat both the right’s monopoly on public God-talk and the forces of poverty in America, he implored the audience to help create a movement of committed progressives dedicated to changing the “political wind.” Changing the wind required not the election of new politicians but ordinary voters voicing concerns about morality and poverty. If the voices grow loud enough, Wallis assured, the politicians will follow. He illustrated his point by describing politicians as the individuals walking around Washington D.C. with wet fingers thrust in the air, ever-testing to see which way the wind is blowing. As a consequence, Wallis remarked, “Our vocation is to change the wind.”