Poverty and the Christian left
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Poverty and the Christian left

There is clearly a “Christian Left” growing among evangelicals in America. We have heard a great deal about the “Christian Right” for more than two decades. I frequently critique this movement unfavorably. But what is the Christian Left?

The Christian Left is almost as hard to define, in one certain sense, as the Christian Right. And it is equally hard to tell, at least at this point, how many people actually fit this new designation and just how many potential voters this movement really represents. Is there real political power in this movement? Time will tell. It seems to be a small right group now but the movement is clearly gaining in terms of public notice. It is especially appealing to some evangelical Christians who draw a lot of attention to a select set of issues that they have linked to the Bible in a certain way.

There can be no doubt that since the 2004 presidential campaign  this movement has grown in popularity. It is becoming increasingly outspoken in how it frames the political issues of the day in terms of Christianity. The father of this movement is Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, a magazine read by several thousand. Wallis is also the author of one of the most misnamed books I know: God’s Politics (Harper, 2006). If someone my age and background wrote a book with this title I think I would be maligned for my sheer audacity and incredulity. But Wallis is a kind of hero among many young zealous Christians thus his title seems quite acceptable to them. His book is a manual of solutions and social views that represent an activist role for government in solving the issues of poverty, education, and international peace. In fact, if one issue represents the core of Wallis’ interpretation of Scripture it is the issue of ending, or at least of drastically reducing, poverty.
This summer a major event of the Christian Left will be held in Washington, D.C. It is titled: Pentecost 2007: Taking the Vision to the Street and will be held June 3-6 at National City Christian Church. The goal of this conference is to “call individuals, churches, and most importantly, our political leaders to commit to putting poverty at the top of our national agenda.” The promotional literature adds, “We believe that the conversation about moral values in America has been widening and deepening, building into a movement for real change.” The promoters of this event believe that Christians “from across the political spectrum are being moved by this call for justice and are forming partnerships.” It further suggests that there are many “new found partners and allies” that are coming together and thus this event will be a place for that to happen.

It is interesting to note what presidential candidates have accepted invitations to speak at Pentecost 2007. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards will appear at the presidential candidates forum on June 4th. Other featured speakers during the conference will include Brian McLaren, Rev. Rich Nathan, Lynne Hybels, Gary Haugen and Ron Sider. There is also an “emerging leaders” track that features a younger leader. Workshops and visits with Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill are planned. You an learn more about this event here.

I have no personal problem with the Christian Left staging such an event. They are perfectly right to promote their solutions to poverty. The problem I see here is the staggering hubris behind suggesting that their way of answering the poverty question, which I believe Christians should seriously address since the Bible speaks a great deal about it, is the only solution for Christians who really care about this issue. (You get the same approach when global warming is presented.) Long before these advocates of the Christian Left got excited about promoting governmental solutions to poverty there were large numbers of Christians promoting alternative solutions through the market, private enterprise, and the church. These types of solutions, which are rooted in both Catholic and Reformed theology, preserve personal freedom and keep government from becoming the central player in the solving this problem. There is a long tradition of Christian social thought that is not based on the federal government leading the way in charity and economic growth for people, including the weakest among us. From reading the literature of the Christian Left you would never know this tradition existed at all since the literature paints with such a broad brush, much like some in the Christian Right.

Here is what I would really love to see. A open forum designed for Christians where alternative views and solutions are genuinely discussed and debated in the light of Christian theology and tradition. We could start with the various contributions of the Catholic Church, especially since Vatican I, and then move to the thought of Abraham Kuyper and the progressively Reformed witness in this same area. I would like to challenge the promoters of this event, if they are serious about real Christian solutions, to invite some articulate speakers to such an event who do not represent the Christian Left. By this means they could address the issue of poverty and how to solve it in a way that might build the kind of consensus we truly need. The Pentecost 2007 deck is very heavily stacked. If you believe we need the kinds of solutions traditionally offered by the Democratic Party since the 1930s then you will likely love this event. If you prefer the moral agenda of the Christian Right then you will not love it at all. I urge young Christian leaders to consider these facts and then realize that these two positions do not represent the best Christian thought on these very important subjects. We desperately need to have a church-wide discussion about these matters in the coming decade.

In the last election cycle Sojourners featured a campaign with a clever bumper sticker that said: “God is not a Republican. And he is also not a Democrat.” I seriously wonder if they meant it, especially since the type face they used tended for the sticker gave away their concern to attack the Christian Right and the Republican Party as their primary to the effort. When I read their literature I get the strong feeling that they routinely confuse the social solutions of Clinton, Obama, and Edwards with those of all faithful Christians just as much as some on the Right confused the coming of the kingdom and Christian principles on a few moral issues with the election of George W. Bush.

Do you know who has hired all the consultants over recent months in order to appeal for the religious, or the faith, vote in the 2008 election? If you said, “The Republicans” you had better try again. If any one of the three leading Republicans candidates (Guilliani, McCain or Romney) is nominated it will be interesting to see who injects the “religion card” the most aggressively into the next election. I don’t really care for the way the Christian Right tried to link the kingdom of Christ to the Republican Party over the past twenty years. I sense that we are going to get the reverse in the next eighteen months. It is at least worth watching and it would be wise that we ask lots of questions.

Missional Christian theology is not equal to the Christian Left’s political and social agenda. Sadly, some have concluded that the two really do go together. It is the church that will suffer loss once again if this mistake is perpetuated in the manner that we now see developing. Christians need to engage the politics of many important ethical and social issues but they should do so only after they have worked much harder to understand the serious nature of what is required to form a public policy that is deeply rooted in historic Christian theology.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at “encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening.”

John Armstrong

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."