Thursday evening I had the distinct honor of attending the much-anticipated debate between AEI President Arthur Brooks and social justice advocate Jim Wallis at Wheaton College. The discourse was thought-provoking, the participants engaging, and the event as a whole was, in my mind, a huge success. There were a number of avenues I wanted to take a blog-post about the Brooks-Wallis debate down, but couldn’t land on just one. So instead of chasing waterfalls, here is a quick re-cap of what I consider to be the most important things I took from the event.
1) I’ve followed Jim Wallis’ public statements over the past 6 years or so, and while I had the chance to spend some time with Wallis after the debate, and found him cordial and interesting, his favorite tactic is to paint his “no government” opponents in one extreme corner on the Right and then pay lip-service to the “big government” extremists on the Left.
Resting comfortably in the center is Wallis.
But the positions held by someone like Arthur Brooks are not extreme and do not include a call for “almost no” government. Wallis is right when he says that the Left want total, top-down socialism, but he is wrong when he paints free market conservatives as being their polar-opposites. Anarchists are the other extreme, not Newt Gingrich.
2) When challenged with facts regarding government fraud and waste, or the negative impact something like a higher tax-rate can have on the economy as a whole (including the lives and well-being of the poor), Wallis played politician and insisted that he “wasn’t an economist” and didn’t want to get “bogged down in the details.” The problem with this, however, is that the details are everything. No one is against helping the poor. No one wants people to go hungry or unable to find work. Despite the attempts by Center-Left activists to paint Center-Right Americans as heartless, miserly jerks, the crux of the debate between Right and Left comes down to seemingly menial, trifling issues such as tax rates and commercial regulation. And to Wallis’ “I’m not an economist” claim, one meant to get his misguided public comments off the proverbial hook, I say this: “But Dr. Brooks is! He does know this stuff, and also cares about the poor, so why not give him (and his ideas) a chance?”
3) Wallis presents himself as a moral, spiritual leader – nay, a prophet – whose only goal is to call attention to injustice and suffering. He frequently points out the danger that awaits a person (or nation of people) that makes money an idol. His solution is the elusively-defined “social justice” that he promotes through his organization Sojourners. But as he railed against the excesses of capitalism, I couldn’t escape the nagging voice in my head that kept asking the question, “Is it possible to make social justice an idol?”
Stay with me here: as C.S. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity, even the well-intentioned love of a mother for her son can become sinful if it is made into an idol in her life. For someone so worried about the idolatrousness of the American people, as I believe Jim Wallis legitimately (and in many cases, rightly) is, he has very little to say about the blind obsession many on the Left have with social justice and environmental activism. The idea that one’s recycling habits, or fervor for perpetually-failing government-run “solutions” to poverty, are better indicators of personal moral health than one’s character and adherence to biblical teachings on marriage, sex, and private charity is so prevalent in the culture that it might serve a prophetic voice like Wallis well to address such glaring blind-spots in the lives of millions of Americans who agree with his general worldview.
4) The last thing I’ll say about my experiences at (and after) the Wallis-Brooks debate at Wheaton College last week is this: Jim Wallis is a nice man who has very good intentions. The culture wars tend to claim as one of their victims the ability of the average American to separate the ideas and values they dislike from the fellow citizen promoting those ideas and values. Mr. Wallis loves his kids like my conservative parents love me. He wants to leave the United States a better place than he found it. He disagrees with the ardently secular voices in the country that want to humiliate God-fearing Americans. He likes baseball. (And I assume, mom’s apple pie.) We don’t have to stop disagreeing with each other, but we ought to stop hating one another.