Pollsters and pundits were quick to declare that voters choose candidates in the 2004 elections based on their “moral values.” What were the moral values voters supposedly considered in the voting booth? Abortion and gay marriage were, if you believe the conventional wisdom, the only moral issues that mattered (and the only moral way to vote was for anti-choice and anti-gay candidates). What happened to moral issues like providing support for children and poverty alleviation? Republicans have co-opted the image of God for political purposes and the political left has let them. Neither party, however, has talked about religious faith in a broader and more progressive way. “The privatizing of faith has weakened its impact on critical public issues and opened the door for a right-wing ‘Christian politics,’ which both narrows and distorts a biblical agenda”, writes Jim Wallis in his newly released book God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get it. Wallis says the aim of his book is to “show how God is personal, but never private, and how the witness of the biblical prophets and Jesus must be recovered for these times and courageously applied to a whole range of moral and political issues. If we make ‘prophetic faith’ a public issue as it has been before at critical times in history, we might literally change the political wind on matters of great importance.” Wallis’ writings in this new book about partisan politics and the war in Iraq have been well chronicled. Less has been said about what Wallis included about how family issues impact political affairs.
Wallis is concerned that political liberals do not take seriously the justifiable concerns of parents. “The legitimacy of the family values debate has been demonstrated in the clear links that have been made between the problem of family breakdown and the social ills of youth delinquency and crime, drug use, teenage pregnancy, welfare dependence, and the alarming disintegration of civic community, especially (but not exclusively) in poor neighborhoods,” he writes. Why don’t Democrats address these issues and instead simply leave them to conservatives to exploit? Why is it that conservative evangelical churches are seen as more family friendly? Wallis notes that “57 percent of married voters supported President Bush, while 42 percent voted for Senator Kerry. Conversely, 58 percent of unmarried voters supported Kerry and 40 percent voted for Bush.” He then quotes from researcher Anna Greenberg who says, “It would be easy for Democrats to dismiss this Republican ‘morality’ advantage as an artifact of the influence of fringe religious voters. But it is evident in a broad swath of voters. And a large portion of these voters are married. But does this mean that married Americans are hijacked by the Christian Right? Hardly. A more likely story is that when people get married and have children, their new experiences alter their political concerns.”
Do single people – who make up a large share of the Democratic voter base – really see moral values differently than married couples with children? Wallis mentions one survey that showed that only 16 percent of single men considered sex and violence on television to be a “very serious problem, compared with 47 percent of married men. By comparison, 42 percent of single women and 56 percent of married women” considered the issue to be very serious. Many of us can still remember when Tipper Gore and other Democrats raised the issue of sex and violence in music and on television in the 1980s and were attacked by liberals as advocates of censorship. “Such findings indicate that the answer to the ‘family values’ crisis may not be a return to traditional roles for men and women and combating gay marriage, as the Right suggests, but rather in supporting the critical task of parenting – culturally, morally, and economically. Here again, both the Right and the Left are failing us. The Republican definition of family values, which properly stresses moral laxness but ignores the growing economic pressures on all families, simply doesn’t go deep enough. Similarly, the Democrats are right when they focus on economic security for working families but wrong when they are reluctant to make moral judgments about the cultural trends and values that are undermining family life.” We can assume that political groups on the right (like Focus on the Family with their anti-gay agenda) and political groups on the left (like those opposed to anything that might censor the individual right to express views – no matter how distasteful) would oppose any coalition of religious people concerned about both family values and economic justice. Yet Wallis makes a convincing argument that both are important. Could such a coalition be formed?
Wallis has already provided evidence that “conservative” and "liberals” can join sides to work on justice issues. He formed the group Call to Renewal to combat poverty in America. Religious leaders who have no common ground on gay marriage, for example, have agreed in that forum to put aside their differences so that they can work on areas on which they have agreement (like expanding the earned income tax credit). “Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce, 1.5 million women a year are assaulted by their current or former husbands or boyfriends, one in three children are born outside of marriage (even in poor communities), and so on. Family ties and relationships are growing weaker at an alarming pace, with disastrous consequences – especially for children,” writes Wallis. “And the consequences are also clear for poverty; delinquency and crime, sexual promiscuity; education and employment; physical; emotional, and mental health; spiritual well-being; and social pathologies transmit themselves intergenerationally.” Wallis appropriately notes that the Right has trued to blame gays for the breakdown on families. “That breakdown is causing a great social crisis that affects us all, but it is hardly the fault of gays and lesbians.”
It is often said that when liberals talk about diversity they only mean inviting to the table people who while different than them (in terms of skin color, for example) still expect that everyone will basically share the same world view. Honestly addressing issues like the breakdown of families or poverty will require that those of us who consider ourselves to be progressive to be more inviting of differences. Most conservatives and progressives share issues of common concern around the family and could be more proactive in developing social policies if we were willing to sometimes set aside for the moment other important issues. The same effort required of progressives will be required by evangelicals. Conservatives serious about lowering the rate of abortions (something most people would like to do) need to find constructive ways to talk with pro-choice supports who disagree with them but might support new efforts to promote adoption. Sometimes we have to find those places where we share concerns and find ways to work in unison. Wallis’ book offers good examples and models for how we might accomplish that. The alternative is to keep doing business as usual. All that option has accomplished is to further polarize us as a nation. Finding those areas of common ground could be a great gift from the Christian family of believers to the entire nation.
Related Post: Jim Wallis Visits Eden Theological Seminary
Related Link: Watch Jim Wallis on the 1/20 episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Click here for the video.