America’s New Moral Assignment

Second thoughts on religion in the political arena.

By Wallace Best

In an age when political commentary abounds—some of it good, some of it bad, all of it necessary—the progressive evangelical Jim Wallis is right about many things. He is, perhaps above all, right about the primacy of the fight for social justice in the Christian faith. As he argues, “Religion has [historically] led the way for social change.”

In his recent book, God’s Politics, in his speaking and teaching, in his work with Sojourners, Wallis is right, for example, about the war in Iraq—a preemptive strike on a sovereign nation to stage a unilateral war based on misinformation, disinformation, and lies is a moral issue because it is as wrong as it is unwise. He is right about poverty in the United States—in the wealthiest nation in the world, millions of people are poor and hungry, a national crisis and dis-grace. He is also right about the Republican Party—and the Democratic Party. The Re-publicans have too closely aligned with the divisive tactics and rhetoric of the Christian right; the Democrats have been reticent in talking about religion and morality.

As one trained in theology at Wheaton College, I remember a time when the question was, What is an evangelical? Mark Noll, David Bebbington, George M. Marsden, and a few others have for the most part settled that question. Noll convincingly argued that “evangelicalism” is a descriptive term meant to provide some type of order to a “multifaceted, complex set of impulses and organizations.” He drew inspiration from Bebbington, who outlined four “key ingredients” to evangelicalism: conversionism, biblicism, activism, and crucicentrism. Even within these sub-categories, however, scholars note that there are shifts and complexities.

Now the questions are: What does an evangelical do? How does she worship? What are his spiritual, institutional, and political priorities? With these questions in mind, Jim Wallis targets his message primarily at evangelicals who consider themselves in the seemingly oppositional categories of “conservative” and “progressive.” The revelation is that there is fault to find on both sides. The progressives need to find their moral voice and the conservatives need to realize that moral discourse includes, but is in no way limited to, abortion and same-sex marriage. All of us need to learn that, with regard to religion in the public square, dialogue is superior to monologue.

Doesn’t a vision for moral values articulated in explicitly Christian terms work to exclude those who don’t share the faith?

But I’m worried about a few things. Like many other Americans, I worry about the inherent exclusivity of any religious vision expressed within a pluralistic society. Doesn’t a vision for moral values articulated in explicitly Christian terms work to exclude from this conversation those who don’t share our faith? I’m reminded of what Senator Barack Obama of Illinois has recently proclaimed: “We are all connected. We may be divided by faith but we are all connected by citizenship.” Neither the Republican Party nor the Christian right has a monopoly on morality. But the same can be said for Democrats, or even Christians for that matter. How do we include other faith traditions in this discussion without making faith a matter of “civil religion”?

I wonder if a plural America is in a real way a complication for this vision. As much as it pains some Americans to ponder, the United States was not founded as an exclusively Christian nation. Indeed the founders worried about the place of religion in public life and made provision for a healthy separation of church and state. Although certain tenets of the Christian faith influenced the founders, they understood the country to be, and accepted it as, religiously pluralistic. The genius of America is how all religions were embraced and protected unconditionally. When any particular religious vision dominates the discussion, we fail to be true to the most basic tenet of America’s religious heritage.

Equally important to ask: What value does James Madison’s warning about the separation of church and state hold when we continually call for a fuller involvement of people of faith with government? For instance, progressive Christians don’t seem to be complaining that the religious right mixes religion with politics. They seem merely to wish that those religious convictions conformed to theirs. But what are we saying here? That Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and company should be differently religious? In Madisonian fashion, I wonder if the “mixing” is the problem in the first place. Madison was convinced that “religion and government will both exist in great purity, the less they are mixed together.” I’m not sure we need a government that is beholden to the progressive evangelical left any more than we need one that is in the grips of the conservative Christian right.

Finally, perhaps God does not have a “politics.” The metaphor is at least inexact. Framing the discussion this way, we run the danger that God, in our contemporary conversation about religion in public life, becomes politicized. The politics of God be-comes the politics of God. Neither God nor morality needs further politicization. What we need is a fresh infusion of civil society.

Civility, understanding, and grace are what Jim Wallis calls us to embrace. This is America’s new moral assignment and it will take some courage to follow. It will take courage to work toward a truly liberal democracy, one that is inclusive in the way imagined by the founders of this nation. It will take courage to extend the reach of morality beyond the bedroom and into the institutions that truly shape our lives. It will take some courage to hear the voice of moral authority coming from unexpected people and places. This, however, is our only hope. It is our only hope of rising to the ideal recently articulated by Barack Obama, who stated that there is “not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is just the United States of America.”

Wallace Best is Assistant Professor of African American Religious Studies at Harvard Divinity School and author of the recent book Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915–1952.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.