Late last month, Jim Wallis, founder of Call to Renewal, a faith-inspired anti-poverty movement, wrote a column for the New York Times. (The column was reprinted on MLK Day by the progressive web site TomPaine.com.) Wallis suggested that Democrats’ discomfort with talking in religious terms cedes control of the debate to Republicans, who define religious values entirely in terms of individual moral choices and sexual ethics. Wallis writes, “For too many Democrats, faith is private and has no implications for political life. But what kind of faith is that? Where would America be if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had kept his faith to himself?” Democrats, he argues, should be talking about the moral and spiritual dimensions of issues such as poverty and war.
I would submit that there’s a major difference in usefulness between talking about these issues in moral terms versus religious terms. For as soon as you start talking in religious terms, you open yourself to dogma-driven sectarian nonsense–the very thing that drives the split in American Christianity between the so-called “mainstream” denominations and the evangelical, charismatic, and/or pentecostal denominations, some of whom go so far as to say that fellow Christians in mainstream churches are going to Hell because of doctrinal error. And when you allow religion into the discussion, you encourage people like the guy from Oregon who called C-SPAN this morning and said, “I’m tired of liberals saying we killed 8,000 or 10,000 Iraqis. If we did, we killed them for Jesus because George W. Bush is a godly man.”
When talking with believers about comments like the one from Oregon, it never takes very long for the NTC argument to come out–the guy is Not a True Christian; if he was, he wouldn’t talk like that. I submit that any religious teaching that can be interpreted in such a way that it validates both the wholesale slaughter of defenseless people and joining the Peace Corps probably isn’t worth much as a moral guiding light.
Better we should work for social justice and peace not because we’ll go to Hell if we don’t, but because it’s the right thing–the moral thing–to do for our fellow human beings. I refuse to take part in discussions over the source of morality, the idea that without a God, there’s no anchor for morality, because I don’t accept the basic premise. It’s pretty simple to understand what our fellow human beings require, because they’re the same things we require for ourselves. And it should be easy enough for us to act in ways that ensure social justice and peace for our fellow human beings. That we don’t can be laid in large measure at the very door of the religious impulses that are supposed to assure we do.
So yes, Jim Wallis is right in suggesting that Democrats ought to frame the Bush administration’s record of utter failure in moral terms, and not let Republicans get away with painting themselves as the only fit guardians of all that is good and right. But to talk about the administration’s immorality in biblical terms, which Wallis also advocates, excludes those who don’t believe in the Christian bible or the Christian god. And as long as some people are excluded from participating in the struggle for peace and justice, the struggle will continue.