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God's Politics: Why The Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It
By Jim Wallis
Harper SanFrancisco, 384 pp., $24.95

God is back in the news again, this time in a political role. The religious right claims its backing reelected George W. Bush, who supported its crusade against abortion and gay marriage, an issue that sends so many Americans into apoplexy. Most Democrats react to religion like vampires fleeing in fear when confronted with the cross, seemingly doomed to failure in a God-fearing nation.

Now comes a prophet whose message won't fit neatly into either liberal or conservative orthodoxy, wielding a Bible and proclaiming ''God is not a Republican or a Democrat." His message may bring hope to forlorn Democrats, though, supplying a religious language and biblical foundation for bedrock beliefs that once inspired their party -- issues like justice and concern for the poor and the outcasts of society. These were also the issues at the heart of Jesus' ministry, though they seem to be lost in today's religious-right rhetoric for war, wealth, and condemnation of nonconforming lifestyles.

With ''God's Politics" Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners magazine, will strike a chord with a large segment of mainline Christians who ''feel that our faith has been stolen, and it's time to take it back . . . an enormous public misrepresentation of Christianity has taken place. . . . How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-American?"

Wallis is a ''progressive" Evangelical, a breed not commonly heard about, and his magazine (he founded it) reflects that faith. He explains how his conservative brethren were co-opted by the Republicans after the Reagan election in 1980, when the media gave Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority credit in the victory: ''All of a sudden, conservative evangelicals who felt ignored and ridiculed for so long in the cultural backwaters of American life, almost since the infamous Scopes trial in the 1920s, were now in the national spotlight and getting their pictures taken in the Oval Office with the president."

The courting of conservative religious groups and their use for political power reached its pinnacle in Bush's reelection, while at the same time the Democratic Party failed to inspire, much less recruit, its own natural religious base in mainline congregations.

''Too many Democrats," Wallis writes, ''still wanted to restrict religion to the private sphere and were very uncomfortable with the language of faith and values even when applied to their own agenda."

Wallis nails a hypocrisy of the ''secular fundamentalists" when he asks why religion is OK for liberals as long as it comes from black or poor people: ''Are black people supposed to be culturally religious (love those black choirs), while white believers are intellectually suspect?"

He wants to see ''a new moral politics that transcends the old categories of both the secular Left and the religious Right." He proposes a fresh political option that regards ''personal ethics to be as important as social justice" and sees faith ''as a positive force in society -- for progressive social change."

This is where Wallis's laudable vision begins to seem too ''visionary," for compromise would be required from groups rigid in their positions. He wants gays accepted into the church and their civil rights upheld, but favors civil unions that may even someday be blessed by the church, rather than same-sex marriages. He wants antiabortion groups and abortion-rights advocates to find common ground in lowering the number of abortions through adoption reform and support of low-income women at risk for pregnancy, but doesn't want legalization.

These are the kinds of personal issues that crack potential coalitions for liberal causes in support of peace and the relief of poverty. The personal has become politicized, and religious belief has deepened the passions aroused by these issues, yet Wallis is hopeful that the larger issues of poverty and war could bring unity: ''Neither religious nor secular fundamentalism can save us, but a new spiritual revival that ignites deep social conscience could transform our society."

Wallis believes ''the answer to bad theology is not secularism; it is good theology," but one prophet's good theology is another prophet's nightmare. Imagine how President Bush and his religious advisers would feel about Wallis's critique of American foreign policy, which he writes is ''more than preemptive, it is theologically presumptuous; not only unilateral, but dangerously messianic; not just arrogant, but rather bordering on the idolatrous and blasphemous."

Wallis's theology will be welcomed by many, and ought to be read by all who have an interest in politics and religion in this country. To the ''secular fundamentalists" who believe religion has no place in political debate, Wallis preaches, ''It is not always wrong to invoke the name of God and the claims of religion in the public life of a nation. . . . Where would we be without the moral prophecy of Martin Luther King Jr., who held his Bible in one hand and his Constitution in the other as he preached, holding us to our best values?"

Dan Wakefield's books include ''Returning: A Spiritual Journey" and ''Spiritually Incorrect: Finding God in All the Wrong Places."


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