The Magazine

Our Savior, the Democrats

What would Jesus do about the deficit?

Jun 13, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 37 • By MARK TOOLEY
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Wallis featured Senator Obama at a Call rally and in 2008 effusively supported him for president, earning White House access. In 2009 Wallis hosted a conference call to energize religious support for Obama-care. “I’m going to need you to spread the facts and speak the truth,” Obama told listeners, complaining that “our religious faith” is inconsistent with America’s current health care system. He also insisted his plan would not fund abortions or facilitate “death panels.” Wallis interjected: “We are in danger of losing the moral core of the health care debate,” even as “many people are hurting from our broken health care system.”

Despite his embrace of Obama, Wallis has continued to insist he’s nonpartisan, and this has opened doors. In 2010, he addressed the annual evangelical “Lifest” in Wisconsin, which typically attracts 70,000 to its open-air concerts. One Christian radio station withdrew its support, protesting Wallis’s “unholy alliance between the church and government.” But the event’s organizer still introduced Wallis warmly as his “brother in Christ,” saying, “I believe he has a message from God for the church today.”

Wallis responded with humor, saying he’d heard some people around there thought he was “an avowed Marxist.” Well, as a student he’d read a lot of things, including Jesus’ command to care for the “least of these,” which was “more radical than Karl Marx and Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh.” And he’d “signed up to be a follower of Jesus.” The young audience, no doubt ignorant of the Marxist groups that once inspired Wallis, gave him enthusiastic applause. 

To his credit, Wallis has been debating conservatives. Last year at Wheaton College with Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, Wallis reasoned that a “new generation is tired” of the “argument between big government and small government.” More important is “what is smart and effective government.” Having been arrested 22 times, Wallis insisted he is a “movement person” akin to Martin Luther King, rather than a promoter of either government or the free market.

This year at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, Wallis debated King’s College president Dinesh D’Souza over American “exceptionalism.” Wallis extolled “God bless the world” over “God bless America,” warning against a “kind of exceptionalism” that creates “self-delusion.” He professed love for America’s “values” but lamented, “I don’t love when we violate those values, .  .  . acting like an empire.” D’Souza countered that “American foreign policy has made the world much better.” Wallis pointedly mentioned his ongoing Lenten fast against budget cuts several times.

These days the angry rhetoric is mostly gone. White-haired and often sporting a black turtleneck, Wallis has become an elder statesman among religious activists. His Circle of Protection coalition with Catholic bishops and evangelicals testifies to his successful political transition into the religious mainstream, at least in terms of image. His essential message, however—that God favors big government and opposes American “empire”—remains virtually unchanged across 40 years.

 

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.


 

 

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