Book review: On God’s Side, Jim Wallis

I enjoyed meeting Jim Wallis in Parliament through The Bible Society. He’s undoubtedly a great orator with a huge heart for service to other people in fulfilment of the Christian faith we share. I mostly delighted in his book, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good.

The book’s key inspiration is a saying of Abraham Lincoln,

My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.

In Part 1, Jim shows how to inspire the common good, reflecting on scripture and history. In Part 2, he provides some practices for the common good. It is a book which shows how people of goodwill can work together despite that which divides them.

One important insight British readers may easily forget is that Christianity is more dominant on the right in America. Whereas in the UK, Christians seem on the whole to be oriented to serve others irrespective of political conviction, Jim portrays an America polarised between a secular left and a Christian right with a narrow and private conception of the Gospel. While I regret that so many Christians on the British left believe that they are called to promote and extend state power, I believe I prefer this problem to the one Jim describes.

I agreed with most of what I read. Of course Christians should apply our faith in everything we do. Of course the Gospel is a story of social redemption not only individual, private salvation. We should choose to serve others, first remembering and helping the poor and oppressed. His arguments make sense and I hope Christians on left and right will read this book and adjust their words and actions, as I have done and intend to do yet further.

However, I recoiled from some words on page 243 and some of their consequences which were then elaborated. In considering biblical justice and the role of the state, Jim writes,

I’ve never done the math, but if you cut from Government many of the things I don’t support – like a military budget that dwarfs the rest of the world’s defense spending, or spending trillions on wrong wars, or the billions in corporate subsidies we dole out, or the unnecessary overpayments in skyrocketing health care costs – and just focussed on the things government is supposed to do to protect its people, my ideal government might even be smaller and more focused than its current form.

This is an admirable sentiment with which I would love to wholly agree. I would end corporate subsidies before looking at benefits for the poor. I am against excessive military spending and unnecessary wars. Indeed, Jim here appears to more or less agree with the vision of small government set out by F A Hayek in concluding The Constitution of Liberty.

The trouble is, seeking after the common good requires us to do the math.

In the UK this year, the Budget showed that about 2/3 of government spending would be social security (mostly pensions), personal social services, health and education. Add the debt interest and you reach 74% or 3/4 of government spending.

That is, most government spending goes towards protecting the poor, the elderly and the sick and educating our children, plus paying the debt interest on those past pledges government couldn’t fund honestly out of tax.

The situation is similar in the United States. The tone of these two videos won’t appeal to many but they do make the reality of US public spending easily accessible.

Here’s What Can We Cut to Balance the Budget? (US social programs plus interest cost more than federal taxes raise.)

And the rather brutal How to Fix Our Fiscal Crisis (cut entitlements),

I do not doubt that governments currently fail to adequately serve those in need. The quantity and quality of welfare, health and education services is not good enough. I don’t doubt that a transcendent doctrine of the common good is necessary and I would very much like to see some powerful mass social movements for change.

But none of that will make any sense unless more people with what has traditionally been left-wing intent “do the math”. As I have not ceased to explain, politicians’ promises of plenty for all at the expense of everyone else have long since outstripped the capacity of the people to pay for them. The result for forty years has been robbery of those who could afford it least through inflation.

There is a great deal of value in this provocative, insightful and much-needed book by Jim Wallis. Jesus said,

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

In its compassion and yearning after justice, this book is strong on one aspect of the road that leads to life: love for our neighbour. But love for our neighbour also requires us to face the facts as they are if we are not to take decisions which ultimately harm those we wish to help in our pursuit of the common good. Jim Wallis is quite right that we are heading into a great battle about the nature of society and the role of government, market, civil society, churches, families and local communities. The battle will be on entirely the wrong territory if it is not informed by a clear understanding of our present situation.

Note to secularists: As I have said many times, policy must never be determined by faith alone but by facts and reason. No policy is acceptable which relies critically on faith. Facts and reason may be disputable but the extent of the sometimes murderous passion of disputes over theology means it must be kept out of policymaking. It is, however, in vain to attempt to exclude Christian values from the motivations of individuals in public service.

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