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Jim Wallis and the Dangers of Heresy

A coalition of liberal Christian leaders — including Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, Ron Sider, Joel C. Hunter, and Tony Campolo — took out a full-page ad that asks “What would Jesus cut?” in Monday’s edition of Politico (see the news story here).

Now most of the ad is non-offensive. It argues that Christianity tells us that the moral test of a society is how it treats the poor. It insists that our budget should not be balanced on the backs of the most vulnerable. And it defends programs fighting pandemic diseases. On some of these matters I happen to agree with the signatories; on others I don’t. But where the ad crosses the line is with the campaign slogan itself: “What Would Jesus Cut?”

One is tempted to say Planned Parenthood, but set that aside for the moment. What these “progressive” Christian leaders are doing is committing the same error that some on the so-called Religious Right did, which is to pretend that Scripture can be reduced to a governing blueprint. (In this instance, we’re asked to imagine Jesus as a liberal, big-spending director of the Office of Management and Budget.) The temptation of politically active people of faith is to simplistically connect dots, insisting that certain biblical principles self-evidently translate into particular public policies.

Jim Wallis made this mistake on welfare reform. He was a ferocious critic of it in the name of caring for the poor and the vulnerable. Never mind that welfare reform ranks among the most humane social reforms of the last half-century and that Wallis’s predictions were ludicrously off-target. In the mid-1990s, however, we were not spared the sermon of how Jesus, in expressing solidarity with the poor, would oppose welfare reform.

Scripture provides a moral framework through which people can debate particular public policies. On some matters, like the slave trade and genocide, the “right” Christian position may be obvious (though what policies one should support to oppose them isn’t always). But in the vast majority of cases, and certainly when it comes to the federal budget, what we are talking about are prudential judgments about competing priority. And to pretend that the budget Jesus would bless just happens to be at the current discretionary spending levels rather than, say, what they were in 2008, is close to offensive.

The Christian ethicist Paul Ramsey wrote, “Identification of Christian social ethics with specific partisan proposals that clearly are not the only ones that may be characterized as Christian and as morally acceptable comes close to the original New Testament meaning of heresy.”

That is what Wallis & Company are engaging in. To argue that their form of liberalism has the imprimatur of Jesus — and to argue the necessary corollary, which is that those who want to return spending levels to their pre-stimulus levels are being unfaithful to the commands of their Lord — is arrogant and harmful. It reduces faith to a political weapon. In their partisan zeal, these Christian leaders are discrediting the very faith they insist they are defending.

Paul Ramsey was right.



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