Book Review: Jim Wallis’ The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America

The last two years haven’t been kind to Jim Wallis.  First his man in the White House, Barack Obama, has spectacularly stumbled in his bid to reunify the country and get the economy going again (I don’t think he was sincere about either, but that’s another post).  To use Sarah Palin’s delightful phrase, that “hopey-changey thing” hasn’t worked out for Wallis any better than anyone else.  Then the Religious Right, whose demise he celebrates in the book under consideration, has helped to energise the Tea Party, creating more (and broader based) triumph on the right and heartburn on the left.  And last but not least we all know that Jim Wallis, who enjoys “speaking truth to power,” in reality takes money from that ultimate power of the financial world, George Soros.

Given all of this, it’s probably not a bad idea to revisit Wallis in one of his more triumphalistic moments, before all of these disasters took place.  So let’s take a look at his book The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America.  Wallis’ basic thesis is that we need–and are on the verge of–a socially conscious revival that will sweep away the Religious Right (am I sounding like Mao here?) and bring social justice to the land, in the tradition of Charles Finney and the anti-slavery movement.  Since he’s brought up Finney, a good place to start would be to consider his legacy.

To put things into focus, let me start with an analogy to another towering figure, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.  Probably one of the most influential philosophers to ever live, Hegel’s immediate legacy is conventionally divided into two camps: the “right Hegelians,” who wanted to keep Hegel’s idea more or less intact, and the “left Hegelians,” who turned Hegel’s philosophy into a vehicle for radial revolution of one kind or another.  The best known left Hegelians, of course, are Karl Marx and Frederich Engels.

It is my opinion that Charles Grandison Finney is the single greatest religious figure in American history.  Reading Revivals of Religion, one wonders why anyone bothers to write anything else on the subject after that, because all of the elements of revivalistic Christianity are described there in their most successful implementation.  Finney is currently at the “back of the bus” in Evangelical discourse because Evangelical Christianity in this country is dominated by the Southern Scots-Irish, and they can’t quite bring themselves to give credit to a Northerner who did so much to spark the War Between the States.  Cane Ridge is a more congenial place to mark the beginning of revival than somewhere between Albany and Buffalo.

As with Hegel, Finney’s successors have split into right and left camps.  The right camp desires to continue revivals without necessarily linking them to a political, social justice movement.  The name of Leonard Ravenhill is conventionally associated with this idea; in our time people such as Lou Engle (and outside the U.S. Reinhard Bonnke) continue this tradition.  On the left you have those who pursued the social justice movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such as prohibition (Wallis shows no sign of having learned anything from that fiasco).  The split has been exacerbated by the Fundamentalist-Modernist split.

Personally I don’t think that the whole process of “revival” (and it is a process, not just an event) that Finney practised can be replicated in this country today.  We are too ethnically and religiously diverse country to start with, and have too many distractions, for such a focused process (and anyone who has read Finney knows how focused it is) to be sustainable.  We need something more viral than the mass-movement kind of thing that Finney saw in his day.  In the case of a “left-style revival” that Wallis envisions, the broad power of the state and the nature of the allies that Wallis has to have will turn such a process into a “perpetual revolution” that Mao Zedong tried to implement in China.  (Wallis supportively uses that phrase in the book, quoting Jaques Ellul).  The end of result of that was the Cultural Revolution, which may explain why Chinese Communist and Christian alike have moved on to other methods.

But, as No. 2 said in The Prisoner, to the matter at hand: this book is a call to a Finney-type of awakening where social justice is at least as much a part of revival as personal conversion.  He starts by setting the scene with the “New Agenda” for American Christianity, why it’s important, why it’s now viable (that’s where he pronounces the “death” of the Religious Right) and how he thinks the best way is to accomplish it.  The book then turns on his call for a “moral centre” for American politics.  The rest of the book concentrates on specific issues: war, the environment, life, etc., and he ends with another call for action and a hopeful look for the future based on the dispositions of the new generation.

I would have to admit that there are certain points with which I agree with Wallis.  We need leaders who are more interested in the general good of the country rather than simply lining their own pockets.  What has eluded our generation is defining what that “general good” is, and I’m not sure Wallis has moved that part of the debate as far forward as he thinks he has.  He’s also correct that the right’s approach to immigration is flawed; I have stated on numerous occasions that the Republican Party’s general stance on this issue is one of the stupidest things we have ever done.  And I agree that the Religious Right has spent too much time on same sex civil marriage, although I doubt that Wallis is far enough along to support the abolition of civil marriage altogether.

That being the case, I found much of this book hard to take.  And that, in turn, forced me to ask myself the question: why is it that, ever since left-wing religious social activism was first thrust in my face in prep school, I have always had such a profound aversion for it?  There are five basic reasons for this.

First, particularly in the Main Line churches, many of the purveyors of this kind of thinking and action are also purveyors of unorthodox belief.  Although there were a few things in the book that left me suspicious, I don’t think that Jim Wallis is a James Pike or Katharine Jefferts-Schori, not yet at least.

Second, putting political and social action at the centre of Christianity seemed to me than and seems to me now to be a diversion from what Christianity is at its heart.  Wallis spends a great deal of time, for example, talking about the redistribution of wealth, but in good Evangelical style seldom discusses its renunciation.  (I’d like for him to try to sell that to George Soros, because we’d all be better off if he succeeded).  As is the case with his Main Line friends, he’s always more comfortable lobbying Caesar to spend his money than to direct God’s money to do the work.  He never quite grasps the truth, as Jesuit John McKenzie did, that the image the New Testament gives of the church’s relationship to the state is Jesus before Pilate.

Third, his “prophetic” approach to politics is, in practical terms, a non-starter.  Do it long enough, and one of three things will happen: you will get tired of seeing nothing done and sell out, you will turn to those who will accomplish what you believe is God’s will by force (more about that below), or you will become a perennial gadfly, garnering no respect from either side of the debate.  As a general rule, it is the prophet’s job to proclaim what is on the Lord’s mind and then let God make it happen.  The “right-Finneyites” know that; the left ones don’t.

Fourth, Wallis is a babe in the woods on two topics he needs to be more conversant with if he’s going to debate intelligently in the public square: economics and science.  In that respect it’s unfair to compare a “left-Finneyite” like Wallis with left-Hegelians like the aforementioned Marx and Engels, because the latter had a far better grasp of both the economics and science of their day than Wallis does of his.  This is a typical fault of left-wing Christian activists, Main Line and Evangelical, and Wallis does nothing to fix it.  No where does this become more evident than in his chapter on the environment.  He uncritically replicates the environment movement’s conventional wisdom every chance he gets, including the “green jobs” mirage.  Needless to say he also replicates Al Gore style panic on climate change, although the rough road that this line has experienced lately post-dates the book.  What really rankles about this last point, however, is that he does not come out and state the obvious: that, if he and Al Gore are right on climate change, the only appropriate solution is universal poverty (the “fifty square metre apartment” business), which would induce an immediate drop in energy consumption.  If universal poverty is the deal, why all of this longing to bring the people who are there out of it?  His position is either delusional or disingenuous.

And that leads me to the fifth reason for aversion: Wallis’ uncritical belief, evidenced in just about every chapter, that all problems can be solved by another “moral crusade”, never mind that Christianity is not principally a moral system.  Much of our current difficulty in the U.S. is due to the simple fact that our criminal and civil codes are littered with the results of one moral crusade after another.  Think about it: just about every piece of legislation is the product of some blow-hard member of Congress telling us that “we need to get tough on _________”, or “so that ___________ will never happen again”.  Our ridiculously high rate of incarceration is a testament to the victims of perfectionistic moralism driving our political life.   Today we live in a society where there are so many laws and so much regulation that it has shoved real, bottom-up wealth creation (a concept that eludes Wallis as it does many clerics) into the legal shadows and rewarded inaction as surely as it did in H.M.S. Pinafore. As Robert Samuelson observes:

Second, politics has become more moralistic from both left and right. Idealistic ideologues campaign to “save the planet,” “protect the unborn,” “reclaim the Constitution.” When goals become moral imperatives, there’s no room for compromise. Opponents are not just mistaken; they’re immoral. They’re cast as evil, ignorant, dangerous, or all three.

Wallis extols the virtue of Micah 4:4 (“But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it,”) but it never occurs to him that this is most appropriately applied to a society where individuals can live and create wealth for themselves and their families with inviolate property rights.  Wallis’ moral posturing is guaranteed to erode that possibility as it has done in the past.

He brings up slavery (old and new) up often, and Finney’s crusading against it.  But he ignores the fact that it wasn’t a moral crusade that ended slavery in the U.S. but the War Between the States.  Since he thinks he’s such a prophet, he needs to answer this question: when is he going to anoint his Jehu?  How many people will have to die, be imprisoned, or financially ruined to see his moral vision fulfilled?  I guess the answer to that is tied up in his call for an international “police force”.

His stance on same sex civil marriage–that we need same sex civil unions–may sound good to him but will not cut it with his LGBT friends, or at least their leadership.  One thing he will find out the hard way–as many North American Anglicans have–is that the message of the LGBT community to the nation and the church is the same as Ulysses Grant’s to Simon Bolivar Buckner: no terms except unconditional surrender.  I expect that, sooner or later, he will sell the pass on the Christian sexual ethic, as his Main Line counterparts have done, but that is something he will have to deal with.

He spends some time at the end of the book about the death of Jerry Falwell, telling us that it is a turning point for Christian political involvement in the U.S.  Another figure in the “Religious Right” that doesn’t get the same space is Pat Robertson, only mentioned once, and that in a disparaging way by secularists.  I suppose that a figure such as Robertson, who himself expressed grave misgivings about the war in Iraq, who poured millions into the relief of the 2004 Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina and participated in the “One” campaign is too complex for Wallis to unpack.

In his discussion on race, Wallis quotes himself (it’s a bad habit of both his and mine) as follows:

The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.

When I read that, my gut reaction was simple: “If he thinks that’s true of this country, why doesn’t he call for its abolition”?  Such a connection eludes Wallis, whose Evangelical roots leave him unwilling to think an issue through to its logical conclusions.  With our country’s parlous economic state, dysfunctional political system and ballooning debt, he may yet live to see a world without the United States.  I doubt very seriously he would find that an improvement, and would doubtless consign any hopes he has of seeing the best parts of his agenda realised to the dustbin of history. The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right Americamay be his idea for making this country a better place, but it certainly isn’t mine, and I would not be as sure as he is that it is God’s.

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