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God’s Politics: Why the American Right gets it wrong and the Left doesn’t get it

by
02 November 2006

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Winning the battle for hearts and minds: In the US, the Right has hijacked religious faith, declares Anthony Howard

THIS stimulating book advances a simple thesis: that in the United States the Republicans have hijacked religious faith, leaving

the Democrats floundering, and muttering mantras about the necessary separation between Church and state.

Its author, Jim Wallis, started life as member of the Plymouth Brethren, but he has since become much more liberal. He now makes a powerful case for the Left’s having unnecessarily evacuated territory to which it has at least an equal claim to that of the Right. Perhaps the most convincing proof of the Republicans’ recent takeover of the faith community lies in the extraordinary fact that, at the presidential election in 2004, more Roman Catholics (52 per cent) voted for the Evangelical George W. Bush than supported their co-religionist, the Democratic John Kerry.

Wallis’s book has already been published with great success in the United States, making its way on to the New York Times bestseller list. It is not easy, however, to see it causing the same waves in Britain, if only because it presents an argument very much rooted and based in American experience, and quite removed from our own more secular society.

It has managed to cross the Atlantic, though, armed with an ecomium from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, which is prominently reproduced on the book’s cover. Nor is the author unacquainted with British life. His wife is an Englishwoman, and was, indeed, one of the first women priests to be ordained in the Anglican Church, back in 1994.

Wallis himself has obviously spent a good deal of time in Britain, even arranging, just before the outbreak of the Iraq war, for a group of international Protestant churchmen to meet with Tony Blair in No. 10. Although the delegation included such figures as the Bishop of Washington and the Archbishop of Cape Town, it did not make much headway. The war took place in defiance of the counsel of restraint which the Christian leaders had, virtually unanimously, offered.

In this book, Jim Wallis, who heads an ecumenical organisation in Washington called Sojourners and edits its magazine (which goes under the same name), demonstrates that he is a most persuasive advocate. He possesses a nice turn of phrase: 9/11, he says, transformed the United States into a nation "ruled by the fear of terror — and the terror of fear".

And he knows how to marshal an argument. He is particularly effective in managing to define the success the American Right has had in turning such issues as abortion into a touchstone of the depth of anyone’s religious commitment.

Nor is he ever anything less than fair-minded. He makes it clear that, as things stand, it is much easier for a Republican leader such as the Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, or the former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, to be "pro-choice" than it is for any leading Democrat to be "pro-life".

So far as his own position is concerned, he never discloses his political or religious affiliation. He tells us that he was "a political activist" in the 1960s (a particular admirer of Martin Luther King); and we also learn that Sojourners is a "network of prominent Christians working for justice and peace" .

But with this book he stakes his claim to be something else: a doughty polemicist, who is not merely ready but is eager to challenge the traditional English notion that "politics and religion do not mix."

Anthony Howard is a journalist, and writes for The Times.

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