Skip to content

Right wrong, Left confused, Josh Wrong.

My brother read God’s Politics, and failed to understand it.

Not all of Jim’s ideas are great ideas. Not all of Josh’s ideas are great ideas. Not all of mine are (just most). But the greatest idea (which isn’t mine) is that despite all that, we can still talk. And on the stuff that we agree on, we can work together in. We have a word for that: we like to call it Democracy.

Just like you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, you can’t convince all of the people all of the time. Just ignoring those who don’t drink the same Kool-Aid doesn’t help: you need to figure out a way to get things done, because if you can’t do that then all the bitching about what you do and don’t believe in is just that: bitching.

I’m not saying that we should just follow along and support whatever it is Jim Wallis says. On a number of issues I disagreed with him (cf abortion, censorship). But that doesn’t mean we slam the door in his face and never talk to him again (and calling him a fascist probably won’t help either). What we do is figure out what we agree on, and work from there. Helping the poor? That’s a great start. Peaceful solutions? Sure thing. Trampling on free speech? Sorry Jim, you’re on your own.

I am echoing The Moose and New Donkey here, but the Democratic Party is a Coalition party. Expunging people for infractions against your One True Faithâ„¢ will not help matters. When you’re losing popular elections, getting rid of people is the wrong approach. You need to get more people.

The thing is, I agree with a lot of what Josh wants:

For the record, the liberal discussion eschews framing its inherently moral discussion in religious terms because — get this — religious terms aren’t common to all parties of the discussion. That’s right, we have people that don’t believe the same things you do. In fact we have people who don’t believe the same things I do. That’s our whole gig — the celebration of different points of view, and the acceptance of the ambiguity of the universe.

That’s great. But there is a difference between eschewing the terms and mandating that they cannot be used. If they don’t work for you, don’t use them. But if they work for Jim (and I would argue that they do), let Jim do it. You can’t claim to offer a level playing field and then decide which arguments can and cannot be presented, based on whether or not you agree with them.

And that is why I liked God’s Politics: not that it gave me a new direction in life, but because it acknowledges that there are multiple sides to the arguments, and that on at least this one (morality, what-have-you), the liberals are losing. Is Jim’s way the way to win? Maybe, maybe not. But at least it’s a try.

{ 10 } Comments

  1. avatar Josh BishopRoby | 2005-10-26 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Hey, Seth!

    I don’t have a problem with Jim talking. I have a problem with Jim characterizing “secular fundamentalists” as excluding him because we won’t use his vocabulary. I didn’t say “Shut Up, Jim Wallis” I said “Fuck you, Jim Wallis.” There’s an important distinction, there. He can go on talking all he wants using vocabulary that doesn’t communicate anything to me, I’m certainly not going to stop him. If he wants to communicate with me, though, he’s going to need to use vocabulary that’s common to both of us. Yeah, we can communicate about poverty. We can’t communicate about marriage, however, as long as I mean ‘two consenting adults committing themselves to each other’ and he means ‘two consenting adults who have different internal plumbing committing themselves to each other in a union consecrated by my god’. We may both be saying the word ‘marriage’ but we won’t be talking about the same thing.

    I don’t mandate what language Jim can use. Over and over again, however, he demands that the Left start using his language. And that’s what rankles me.

    Because the thing is, I’m all for dialogue. I’m all for finding common ground. The absolute worst way to go about finding that common ground, however, is assuming that the other people are like you. That assumption is anathema to creating dialogue. That destroys dialogue. And going the step further and patronizing other people for not “getting it” when you don’t bother to “get” them is not only counterproductive, it’s offensive. It’s reducing every difference between us as unimportant and irrelevant. These are my closely held beliefs that he dismisses. While he chides the Left for dismissing his point of view. How am I not supposed to be offended by that?

    The Democratic Party is a coalition party, certainly. “The Left” is not. The Left is a movement, a philosophy, a dialogue. Jim can be a Democrat and I won’t say boo. I’ll be happy to have his vote, in fact. But if Jim doesn’t engage in the dialogue that is the Left, or if he refuses to abide by the foundational rules of that dialogue… I still won’t say boo. I won’t tell him to shut up and leave the discussion. Because he’s not in the discussion to begin with. He’s commenting on the discussion from outside. Should we invite him in? Sure! Come on in, Jim, we’re talking about morality and ethics and doing so in terms that we all have in common. You wanna join us? Or would you prefer to stay outside the discussion complaining that you’re being shut out?

    I’m not upset because he’s saying the ‘wrong things’ in the discussion, I’m upset because he’s outside the discussion and doesn’t want to join it.

  2. avatar TALlama | 2005-10-26 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    I will to a certain extent agree that Jim Wallis wants the Mountain to come to Mohammed.

    But his basic argument is “Hey, Left! What you’re doing over there isn’t working. Look over here: there’s an alternative!” He’s trying to connect with the vast middle of America that thinks of the Left as special interests and the Right as the out-of-my-face party, as wrong as you and I believe those characterizations to be. But he’s got a point that what the Left is doing now is not winning elections, and maybe things will change if there is a converted effort to start connecting with the people who currently don’t connect with the Left on issues such as morality, poverty, peace, and justice.

    His recipe goes like this: frame your debate in terms that these people recognize. Tell them you understand where they are coming from. Maybe you don’t agree with them completely. Maybe you disagree on some other, unrelated issue. But if you can find a chunk of common ground, stand on it and get something done that you both agree on.

    Will it solve every problem he wants to solve? No. Will the Left join every battle he wants to fight? No. Will he get something done in a political environment that has been purposely driven to toxicity by the current administration? I hope so.

  3. avatar Josh | 2005-10-26 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    I can’t help but see his central argument as more like, “Hey you silly Leftists, there’s all these votes in the middle that you can pander to!” Cause he’s not looking for common ground; he’s asking that the discussion be framed in different vocabulary. There’s a big difference.

    (I cut the rambling dissertation on differance and deconstructionist linguistic theory — consider yourself lucky.)

    The words we use are important and powerful; changing them in order to get more votes and support without adding to the actual dialogue is petty, reckless, and frankly exploitive. Watch how the Right uses Christianity without either incorporating it or criticising it. That’s what the Left does not do, and the Left doesn’t do it for a reason.

  4. avatar TALlama | 2005-10-26 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    There’s a fine line between pandering and accommodating.

    The question we’re dealing with is: can the tent be made bigger, or does it really have to move? I don’t know what Jim’s answer is to that, but I think the tent can be bigger; more people can fit under it than currently do, and you don’t have to push people out of the left-most end to move people into the right-most end.

    I fully realize that semantics matter, and my memory of the book’s finer points is dim on that front, but I think that there are ways to speak in a way that those in the center react to without losing those on the left. But repeating the same lines that aren’t working now (free the guys in Gitmo!) isn’t going to magically start working, and maybe coming at it from a different direction (the government is overstepping its bounds and impinging on our freedoms) might. You don’t necessarily have to lose information in that shift. Nor do you have to change the conclusion, but finding a reason that people listen to is vital.

  5. avatar Josh BishopRoby | 2005-10-27 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Bigger tent or moving the tent — I’m not sure how that relates to language. A bigger tent means expanding the range of vocabulary used in the discourse, and moving the tent means substituting the range of vocabulary? I don’t like either of those, and I don’t think the important bit, getting more people in the tent, requires either. Both are predicated on the assumption that Jim’s peeps in the middle are too stupid to communicate in anything but religious-speak, and that’s bunk.

    At root, though, I don’t think Jim’s point in the book was how to improve the Left. His target is the national dialogue, engaging both the Left and the Right on issues that he cares about, and in vocabulary that he prefers (because it frames the issues the way he likes them). Whether he realizes it not (his demeanor in interviews I read is this “aw shucks” nonsense, but he’s politically active and not stupid), he’s making a power play to try and change the terms by which the dialogue works. Is it necessary, or a good idea, or an effective counter to that rampant toxicity everybody talks about? Maybe. But can you understand why suggesting that everything will work better if we all just start speaking Standard Evangelical Speak freaks me the hell out?

    (As for semantics and the book, Wallis’ language was wretchedly imprecise, repeatedly giving rise to terrible synedoche and metonymy. He may have been writing without an editor — or at least without a competent one.)

  6. avatar Josh BishopRoby | 2005-10-27 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Ah ha! The phrasing came to me over my chicken nachos bell grande!

    My issues lies in the divorce between participating in the discussion, which Wallis advocates, with trying to control the discussion, which Wallis does. Obviously those two are not absolutely distinct — all participants of a discussion exercise varying degrees of control over that discussion, after all — but nowhere did I get the impression that Wallis was open to other points of view, or that he would ever be persuaded to change his mind through the course of the discussion. He was just baffled at all those crazy Leftists and Rightists who didn’t get what was so obvious to him. Also the implied ultimatum that nobody was going to get “his” middle ground voters until they caved and started participating in the discussion under his terms. Admittedly, if you’re writing a book where you present your point of view you take a strong stance, but absolute certainty never contributed to dialogue.

  7. avatar TALlama | 2005-10-27 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    I completely understand that you don’t think that Standard Evangelical Speak would be a great idea, and I have my doubts. But I think the problem there is either/or thinking instead of with/and thinking. You do not have to eschew the traditional “reality based” talk of the left to also talk in the faith-based community using the verbage that they are comfortable with, but one must be careful that that shift in medium does not actually alter the message. Is that possible? I think so, but I agree that it takes effort.

    I think the real power of Wallis’ book is actually that he is trying to do this in the other direction. He’s not eschewing the traditional Religious Right issues of abortion and whatnot, but he’s trying to bring more people under the tent by pointing out that poverty is a moral issue. I don’t think that he’s trying to say that his way works and therefore everyone should stop what they are doing, but rather that his way works and the Left should try to start using it in addition to the other tools in their arsenal.

    If that’s not what he’s saying, it’s what I’m saying, and I should get an award for originality or something.

    I do agree that Wallis seems a little baffled that what he finds obvious is not taken as (no pun intended) gospel among the rest of the world, but I think that everyone falls victim to that particular sin (synedoche boy (and I’m no better)). I also think he claims the middle ground voters more as a membership than a leadership, but I agree that it could be read either way, and one is a much more questionable assertion.

    So if we take him as a self-proclaimed leader with a new way of talking to the middle that he wants everyone to adopt, I agree that he’s more than a little wrong-headed. But I don’t think that’s where he’s coming from: I think he’s frustrated that no one on either side is taking to him (and by extension a lot of people he knows), and that his liberal ideas force him out of the Right’s discussion but his Christian rhetoric reflexively makes the Left drive him away from the table. Is there a good solution to that? I’m not sure, but I think it’s a valid point.

  8. avatar Josh BishopRoby | 2005-10-28 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I hereby award you the Harriet Beecher Stowe reward, recognizing those who point out that the shit we’ve been doing for centuries is inherently immoral!

    Wallis, I still feel, equates morality with religion a little too simply, and his “Democrats should talk about morality!” sounds to me like he’s saying “Democrats should talk about their religion!” So we end up as a kind of joke: a jew, a catholic, and a muslim walk into Congress… The punchline, of course, is that they can’t communicate until the stop talking in terms of their faith and start talking about morality directly. Not to mention the call to start talking about religion leaves atheists and agnostics out of the discussion entirely. In this article on Salon he emphasizes that in order to talk religion you have to “be authentic.” I can be authentic when talking about religion — it just requires profanity and marxist dialectics. That doesn’t really work well.

    but his Christian rhetoric reflexively makes the Left drive him away from the table I have yet to see this, ever, either when I was a fundamentalist talking with liberals or when I’ve been a liberal talking with fundamentalists. I mean, I heard this complaint all the damn time, but I’ve yet to see an actual instance of a person of faith excluded from dialogue. I’ve seen them not make a connection because they weren’t speaking their audience’s language, but that’s not the same thing (and it’s certainly not the fault of their audience).

    I agree, however, that issues like poverty and terrorism should be framed by the Left and Democrats as an inherantly moral issue, because they are. I don’t think they should be framed as a religious issue, however, because while they very well may be religios issues for religious communities, neither the Left nor the Democratic Party is a religious community. The thing is, it’s really not hard to frame these things as moral issues without using religious language: you say, and I mean this literally, “Too many Americans live under the poverty line. This is wrong.” Or alternately, you ask the question that nobody wants to ask: “Why are people killing themselves to attack America?” Because the Bush answer, “they’re all crazy fanatics,” is not one that you can say aloud without being denouced as a bigot. Everybody who speaks English knows what “wrong” means — it’s a common term. Bush’s favorite, “evil”, is not as common, because it has theological underpinnings. Wrong is also a strong term, which is why it doesn’t get bandied about in politics, along with terms like “madman” and “reckless.” These are the words that the Democrats should be using, and these are the terms that will make a connection with the coalition and bring more people into the tent.

  9. avatar Josh | 2005-10-28 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    “We bring faith to the public square when our moral convictions demand it. But to influence a democratic society, you must win the public debate about why the policies that you advocate are better for the common good. That’s the democratic discipline religion has to be under when it brings its faith to the public square. And some religious fundamentalists haven’t learened that yet. But religious people should be told just to be quiet, they should be invited to participate as citizens who have the right and obligation to bring their deepest moral convictions to the public square for the democratic discourse…” — Jim Wallis, God’s Politics, p71

    See, he gets it, and then he drops the ball. You have to offer it as something promoting the common good or else you’re not participating in the discussion. But then everyone is supposed to welcome you into the conversation so you can talk about your deepest moral convictions… that they don’t share.

    Although at this point I’m willing to believe he gets it, but his terrible word choices keep suggesting and implying things that he does not necessarily mean. Case in point: what does “bring their deepest moral convictions to the public square” really mean? He talks about it like it’s a suitcase. Does he mean bring those convictions and talk about what you believe and why you believe it, or does he mean bring those convictions to inspire your discussions about what you believe is good for the body politic?

    Of course, the darker suggestion is that he’s being deliberate ambiguous in order to appeal to the broadest audience — so I have to choose between him being inept or underhanded. You know, the same two options I get to choose between when I consider Bush.

  10. avatar TALlama | 2005-10-29 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    Whatever Jim is saying, I’m saying that everyone should bring everything they have to the table. Otherwise, what’s the point? We can’t have a representative government if we hide part of ourselves, or rule out a bit of what we believe in. And that goes for faith as well as it goes for a belief that torture is wrong or that freedom is an essential good. And I think that both of the ways you take it work: my beliefs should in-form my arguments in the Robert Anton Wilson sense: they should spur the arguments both as a starting point and as an ingredient.

    If my arguments don’t move you, no matter what they are based on, you can ignore me. That’s your prerogative. And I do think that Jim gets that. I don’t see how he could miss it: people on both sides have been ignoring the center for quite some time.

    That is where I was coming from in my original reply: Jim and his faith can come to the table, and they can talk their little talk, and we should listen. If it doesn’t move you, that’s fine. If it moves some people, great. If it moves enough people that it makes a difference in elections, I’ll be even more happy.