Political Theology Today A Forum for inter-disciplinary and inter-religious dialogue among clergy, scholars, students, and activists

Jim Wallis and Liberal Care for the Poor

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Last Thursday, I attended a panel about Public Theology and Public Discourse with Jim Wallis and two conservative political science professors from the area. After their opening statements in which all three concluded that we needed more dialogue and deliberation between the two parties, there was a time for questions. I asked Jim Wallis how he would respond to the argument that no amount of liberal care for the poor will address the state of the poor because it does not address the inherent relation of capital and privatization of the commons. Grimacing, Wallis proceeded to talk about campaign finance reform, mentioning briefly that the Bible speaks against inequality. Him dodging the question aside, his answer was representative of this tendency to seek the elusive middle, as if the middle between the candidates would resolve inequality and solve state alienation.

Based on the work of Locke and others, the founders warned against factions. In the Federalist 10, James Madison argued that factions are a dangerous feature of democracy because they tend to pursue their own interest at the detriment of the common interest. After providing various reasons for how to avoid factional behavior, he ends his essay by revealing the motive in avoiding factions:

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State. In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government. And according to the degree of pleasure and pride we feel in being republicans, ought to be our zeal in cherishing the spirit and supporting the character of Federalists (italics mine).

From the beginning then, Madison feared factions because they might undermine the purpose of the constitutional order: protecting private interests. Thus, bipartisan agreement emerged as a way to maintain the property relations.

Throughout the discussion, Jim Wallis continually rephrased the moderation to, what was for him, the central question: what is the purpose of government. His answer was simply liberal care for the poor. My point was that the constitutional order itself creates poverty by protecting private interests and capital.

Ultimately, bipartisanship is only good in so far as its aim. There is that familiar metaphor of standing on the movie train: if you ignore the movement of the whole and just focus on getting to the end of the train, it seems like you’re making progress in moving against the grain, while in fact the progress is nothing compared to the general movement of the train. And that’s the problem: Jim Wallis is trying to convince us to ignore the general movement of the train and simply move toward the back of train.

Jim Wallis walks the dangerous line between state and Christian soteriology, which threatens to betray Christianity. Max Horkeimer argued that religion betrays its intrinsic quality of other worldly salvation when it colludes with the state. Salvation becomes a worldly enterprise. Although Horkeimer falsely dichotimizes worldly and other-worldly salvation, he is correct that the corrupting influence of state interest creates a chimera of heterodox ideologies that, more or less, function to maintain the power of the state rather than the liberation of people. Caring for the poor is a central tenet of Christianity, but when it gets mixed with state care for the poor it becomes a tool of capitalism, maintaining the relation of capital by mediating some of its visible affects to appease the guilt of the wealthy classes whose social and economic status is predicated on the existence of the poor, as well as reintegrating the poor in to the system of labor.  Jim Wallis has good intentions and does good things for the poor, but his activism is a tool of the ideological state apparatus.

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One Comment

  1. I think that the state has been captured by the wealthy and powerful. Fundamentally the American state is not a bad actor. It has been bent to the will of those that have captured it.

    I think the church (and other faiths too) needs to take a more radical role in calling this out, criticizing the dynamics of it, and motivating congregations to do more than charity. We have sinful institutions within our society that need to be brought down or reformed. I think of Walter Wink when throwing this out there.

    Yes, Wallis is a DC insider but his voice is a useful part of the conversation/process in Christian justice work which we should use to build a more radical and effective means of making our country (and world) a better place for all human beings.

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