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Open Letter to Jim Wallis of Sojourner’s Magazine

Dear Jim Wallis,

I recently read your book God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. As an agnostic atheist, I spend a great deal of time fighting against the Religious Right and the evils that they do in addition to helping my fellow human beings and working for a better and more peaceful world for everyone. So I was excited to read something from the self-identified Christian Progressive perspective. I must admit that I was surprised to hear that you reject being called part of a new “Religious Left” movement. Nevertheless, this is how the media will label you, and I am not sure that they are entirely wrong about that label. Now that President Barack Obama has been putting a great deal of effort into creating a Religious Left movement, I wonder if your position on that issue has changed or will change.
While I appreciate your focus on poverty and share that as a priority, I think your attacks on big corporations and politicians are hypocritical at best. While I agree with you that big corporations are indeed swindling the poor to increase the profits of the rich and that they refuse to pay their fair share of taxes by paying off politicians to make the tax code more favorable to them, I don’t really see religious institutions as much different. Churches—both Progressive and Religious Right—have been swindling the poor at the collection plate for two thousand years, and you don’t seem like you are going to change that anytime soon. While big corporations are able to get away with not paying their fair share of taxes to the government to help fund programs for the poor, the religious aren’t paying the government ANY share of taxes—fair or otherwise—to fund social programs that will help the poor and impoverished. Instead, there are huge, elaborate churches on virtually every street corner in America, not to mention the growing number of enormous Mega-Churches popping up like weeds across this great nation. May I ask you, Reverend Wallis, how much money you make a year off of your religion (this book included)? Is that salary tax free? If so, do you think you could put your money where you mouth is and set a good example by paying taxes (if you don’t already)? I am not trying to be a smartass; I am just trying to call your attention to the hypocrisy of this situation in the hopes that you will put forth steps to correct this enormous injustice. I believe you have the best of intentions, and it is in the spirit of that belief that I write this letter and appeal to you in this way.
But I am not finished. I was most disappointed that your book attempted to rewrite history for religious/political gain. I don’t know if this was an intentional attempt at deception or an ignorance about history on your part. My faith in people over gods leads me to believe that you simply were not aware of the facts concerning the various social movements in American history, or more likely your religious beliefs clouded facts and biased your perspective. You seem to want Christianity to take credit for all that is good and just in the world while trying to escape responsibility for all the wrongs and evils committed as a result of Christianity.
Let’s examine the suffrage movement first. You claim that Christianity is the cause that has helped women in America gain the right to vote and that Christianity is to be praised for continuing the fight for women’s equality. While I have little doubt that many Christian women fought and continue to fight for equal rights, I disagree with you that the reason for their fight has anything at all to do with Christianity. The reason why women have fought and continue to fight for equal rights for women is pretty obvious: as women, they have been and continue to be treated as less equal than men. If you were being treated as less equal to other people simply because of your gender and not your abilities, you might be pushing for equal rights, too, regardless of your religious values or views. And as a man who sees others being treated unequally, it is a natural and compassionate thing to do, to fight with women for their equal rights. Again, one need not be a Christian to fight for gender equality, and in fact, many non-Christians were equally as engaged in that struggle and many non-Christians actually led the Suffrage Movement. They just didn’t brag about their non-belief as much… although some like Elizabeth Stanton certainly did.
The same is true with the civil rights movement. You continually repeat the claim that Martin Luther King Jr. fought for civil rights because he was a Christian and completely ignore the obvious fact that he was black. I think it is far more likely that it was the ways he and other black people were treated that lead him to make his great speech and not his religious values. Also, you seem to be under the impression that the civil rights movement started and ended with Dr. King while completely ignoring the long history of the civil rights movement. It should be mentioned that early in American history such patriots as Franklin, Jefferson, and most vocally Tom Paine spoke out for an end to slavery. Paine was a deist who spoke and wrote quite a lot against Christianity and against slavery. Jefferson, too, was a deist (although far less vocal about it, he did rewrite the Bible to suite his fancy), and Franklin is probably best described as a Foundationalist, finding something of value in every religion yet not considered a part of any one religion solely. The next great benchmark in the civil rights movement was, of course, the Civil War. For Lincoln, freeing the slaves was more of a political move then a matter of religious conviction or value. Lincoln’s priority was to hold the nation together. Slavery was just the catalyst for the conflict, just as the right of women to control their bodies threatens to be the catalyst for the next civil war. In the early 1900s, men like Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DeBois continued the fight for civil rights. DeBois, for the record, was an outspoken atheist. But you won’t hear me claim that atheists deserve all of the credit for the civil rights movement because of that fact. To do so would be disingenuous.
Then there is the gay rights movement that is currently taking place. Oddly enough, you assert that Christianity deserves all the credit for this movement, too. The sad fact here is that this movement, like the suffrage movement and the civil rights movement, wouldn’t have even been necessary if it weren’t for Christianity. The Bible is replete with passages about how women are less equal to men. Paul is notorious for his views on women. The Bible also speaks about slavery and how a slave ought to be treated. In addition, there are a good number of passages claiming that people ought to be slaves of God. The whole idea of God being a “Lord” is a prominent reminder of feudalism. There can be no mistake that during the Civil War, those who argued that they had the right to keep slaves based on the Bible had the theological high ground despite their lack of a moral high ground. And for the gay rights movement, it is abundantly clear that the fear and hatred directed at gays comes directly out of the Bible, because there is almost no other reason ever given for such hate. Even you, Reverend Wallis, as progressive a Christian as you claim to be, somehow ended up on the wrong side of this important issue. You seem to be of the opinion that Christianity should have the monopoly on marriage and that only Christianity has the right to define or redefine that term. In the interests of respecting your religious views (as much as I can) and still supporting the equal rights of all people—gay or straight—I offer up this compromise. Gay marriage should be legal in any church, religion, or secular institution willing to grant that status, but no church ought to be compelled to sanction such a ceremony against their (misguided) theology. This view is consistent with the pluralistic nature of America and the separation of church and state. It is respectful of the bigoted views of so many Christians while maximizing freedom. I do not think it is the best possible solution, but until Christians stop using a two-thousand-year-old work of fiction as the basis for their morals judgments, it will have to do.
Next, I would like to comment on parenting and how it relates to free speech issues. In your book you said, “The Republican definition of family values which properly stresses moral laxness but ignores the growing economic pressures on all families simply doesn’t go deep enough. Similarly, the Democrats are right when they focus on economic security for working families but wrong when they are reluctant to make moral judgments about the cultural trends and values that are undermining family life.” Here again you assume incorrectly that Christianity has the monopoly on moral judgments and family values. We live in a pluralistic society, and as such, people’s values will clash. You cannot censor someone else’s values or culture because they offend your values and sensibilities. There are two views with regard to parenting here. The first view is your view that a parent’s job is to protect a child from the world. In this view, all undesirable thoughts, images, sounds, and ideas must be censored or hidden from view because they may corrupt the child. This view creates a worldview dominated by fear. It leads to mass censorship and paranoia. Who, then, becomes the arbiter of what is family-value friendly or what is culturally immoral? Right now it is the Religious Right. On the other hand, there is another view on parenting. It is the view held by many atheists and secular people in which the job of parents is to guide their children through the world and teach them the critical thinking skills needed to decide for themselves what is appropriate and why. In this view, even undesirable cultural trends are viewed as learning experiences used to help shape a child’s view of right and wrong. Those things are conversation starters, and even children as young as three or four years of age are encouraged to think about the world they live in and to engage their minds. These parents aren’t failing to make moral judgments on cultural values—they are making them privately in their own way. They aren’t presuming to have the monopoly on good taste or high-minded culture. Could you imagine how much pride and joy you would get if young Luke or Jack said to you that their friends wanted them to see some movie but that they took one look at the poster and didn’t think it was appropriate for them, so they declined? This would be a different kind of pride then you might get if they told their friends that they weren’t allowed to see that movie. It really does say something about a child’s character when they are allowed to see an inappropriate movie but choose not to see that movie because of their own value judgments.
Finally, I am confused a little bit by your book, which at times seems to support the idea of a pluralistic society and the separation of church and state but then treats society as if it belongs only to Christianity and claims that non-Christians should be tolerated but shouldn’t be given a voice. You at times reject the notion that the great struggle of our age is between the religious and the nonreligious, but then you go on to say that it is about hope vs. despair, with Christianity having the monopoly on hope. The secular community is not out to get you, Reverend Wallis; we just want an equal voice at the table. You call any secularist who speaks his or her mind a secular fundamentalist, but all we are trying to do is think freely. You speak about how tolerant you are because you let a Jewish Rabbi pray with you, but he read from a book that was in both your holy texts. Even the idea that you “let” him pray with you implies an inequality. Would you have “let” a Buddhist or a Hindu meditate or pray with you? Would you have “let” an atheist protest at your side? And was it such a big deal that you had to use it to prove just how tolerant you are?
Jim, I think you have your heart in the right place but that you see secularism as a greater enemy than the Religious Right. While I have met many, many Christians, the one thing that they all have in common is that every Christian I meet is unquestionably certain that he or she understands what it means to be a “real” or “true” Christian and other Christians have it wrong. So not all secularists treat all Christians like you as if they are part of the Religious Right, but I do see you as almost as dangerous as the Religious Right at times. I don’t think it has to be that way. I think in the spirit of reconciliation, cooperation, and peace that your Sojourners can work with the secular community to fight against injustice and inequality, to fight the war on poverty, and to create a better world for all of us together. The answer isn’t better religion (as you put it), it is better discussion, better understanding, and greater tolerance. Christians shouldn’t be threatened by nonbelievers. We are compassionate and hopeful people. We share many of the same values, morally and culturally. We have similar fears and similar hopes and dreams. If you prick us, do we not bleed? At the end of the day the only real difference is that we are skeptical of the claims about the nature of the universe that you and so many Christians make with such absolute certainty. For that, we are treated like second-class citizens. This is why the new secular rights movement has started. This is why the books of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, and so many others are topping the bestseller list. You have a choice now, Jim: are you going to join us and help us make the world a better place for everyone, or are you going to continue to play “God’s politics”?

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