In their rush to interview Jim Wallis after the British finance minister Gordon Brown's warm endorsement of his New York Times bestseller, both BBC radio and BBC TV's flagship current affairs programs (Today and Newsnight) were among those that overlooked the huge risk the UK prime-minister-in-waiting (Brown) has taken. The "special relationship" between Britain and the US may be jeopardized by his blessing of this book, for Wallis' critique both of US President George W. Bush's personal ideology and of a crucial component of his voting base is devastating.
What makes God's Politics so original is that it is written from a religious perspective, by someone who is breaking ranks with his fellow believers. Like Bush, Wallis is political, patriotic and an evange-lical, but he suggests that religion has been hijacked and distorted by the religious right. His criticism is not reserved for the right. In his call for a progressive, faith-based politics of the center, Wallis contends that the left has lost out by ignoring the religious dimension of US politics. Pointing to the impact of the civil rights movement, which was inspired by religion, he urges both right and left to think again.
The beauty and power of the book lie in the way it exposes many of the inadequacies of the Bush administration. Wallis relates how, after Sept. 11, Bush talked of a new national unity -- but then blew it with a tax bill that divided rich and poor more deeply than ever.
He dissects Bush's "theology of war" and "theology of empire," offering explanations (missed by many other commentators) of what drives the president to do what he does. And, in a blow that will really sting the religious right, he shows how far Bush's ideas stray from traditional evangelical Christianity.
It's easy to see why the book appeals to Brown: it constantly stresses personal responsibility and the need to work for economic justice, both at home and in the developing world. Wallis holds up as an exemplar the Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel third world debt, a global movement that was inspired by a religious idea. Brown has made no secret of his high regard for this campaign and, indeed, told Wallis that he needs the churches to help to maintain the social movement to make his political goals for Africa attainable.
In a call that deserves to be heard by British Christians too, Wallis urges US churches to shift their focus from protesting about things they don't like to proposing something better. He argues that the church, like the peace movement, has failed to offer viable policy alternatives to militarism and war.
His argument is perhaps undermined by the fact that he has himself been arrested more than 20 times for civil disobedience, but he backs his call for radical thinking with concrete examples from his own work. The book is interspersed with extracts from statements, letters, advertisements and articles Wallis has written in support of his campaigns on everything from regime change in Iraq to the federal budget.
Wallis' frequent visits to the UK -- his wife is an Anglican priest from south London -- and his dealings with British politicians and campaigners mean that he has many insights to offer into political life in Britain. Especially inter-esting is his account of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The doors of the White House have traditionally always been open to religious leaders, but they were slammed shut as the preparations for war progressed. As a result, Wallis came to Britain with a delegation of US church leaders to see British Prime Minister Tony Blair. They spent almost an hour with the prime minister, talking theology but also exploring other ways to remove Saddam Hussein. Wallis and his colleagues advo-cated a "third way," neither containment nor war, which later developed into a six-point plan to oust the dictator without violence.
When the members of the delegation were asked later why their own president had refused to see them, they said that someone with a messiah complex doesn't like to be challenged by religious leaders.
In getting Britain's next prime minister to endorse this important book, Wallis may have found a novel way to do just that.