Jim Wallis’ previous book, God’s Politics , was a Book of Revelation for evangelical Christians whipsawed between the strident puritanism of the religious right and the alternative of separating their faith from politics altogether. Wallis’ new book, The Great Awakening (Harper One, 336 pages, $25.95), is more like an old-fashioned tent revival, with a certain amount of snake-handling mixed in with all the amens and hallelujahs.
First off, Wallis asks readers to accept on faith (and it takes a lot of faith) that the religious right’s domination of American politics is over. Never mind that the president believes he’s got a red phone in the Oval Office connected straight to God. Or that the Supreme Court has been packed with right-wing justices to the tipping point on issues like abortion. Or that conservative evangelicals handed the GOP Iowa caucuses to a former Baptist minister by a wide margin. Wallis nevertheless argues that America is moving into a post-religious right period in it politics. People of faith, he writes, need to revive their spiritual commitment to issues of social and economic justice, the nonviolent pursuit of world peace, and environmentally sound stewardship of God’s creation.
Wallis’ ecumenical approach to faith and politics is eye-opening for readers who have never encountered it before, but there’s little new here for readers already familiar with God’s Politics . Much of The Great Awakening feels like Wallis is padding out the tail end of a multibook deal with his publisher. Readers of faith as well as secularists will find themselves agreeing with 90-plus percent of Wallis’ views, but as for that last 10 percent or so, oh my God. For all the hellfire and brimstone he calls down on the religious right, Wallis still essentially aligns himself with conservative evangelicals on the two issues that divide religious and secular voters most—abortion and gay marriage. Sure, Wallis softens his stance on abortion by calling for “a consistent ethic of life”—i.e., he opposes war, starvation and the death penalty as well—but his politics on this issue remain about as “progressive” as the pope’s.
On gay marriage, Wallis really dials down the rhetoric, insisting that same-sex unions “should not be the primary battleground in the fight for the health and stability of marriage and family in our society.” Amen, brother! But why should gay marriage be a “battleground” for Christians at all? By what conceivable, rational stretch of the imagination do legal unions for same-sex couples threaten or in any way diminish the institution of marriage? Monday Night Football does more to raise the divorce rate. And yet arguing the social benefits of gay marriage with conservative evangelical voters is about as useful as trying to reason with someone who believes there were dinosaurs on Noah’s ark. Jim Wallis’ work with progressive faith-based organizations like Sojourners, which he co-founded, and his thoughtful ruminations on politics and faith should be lauded from the church pulpit as surely as the bully pulpit. But there’s no escaping that some issues require debate from a civic perspective without the benefit of sectarian cant.
READ: Jim Wallis appears at the Bagdad Theater, 3702 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 236-9234. 7 pm Thursday, Jan. 31. $25.95, includes a copy of The Great Awakening .