Thunderbolts for Tom DeLay
This week, Republican Washington should be a nervous city. The Right-wing citidel of corruption is in the process of crumbling. Lobbyists are naming names to get themselves out of jail time. Millions of dollars of American Indian money spent on lavish entertainments for public officials. Money designated for athletics equipment of poor youth spent on Congressmen's golf trips to Scotland. An entire political culture that runs on greed and corporate kickbacks instead of representational democracy is being unmasked before our eyes.
Democrats don't do prophetic damnation well. Nancy Pelosi as Isaiah is out of character. What Dobson and Robertson pull off with aplomb, Democrats pull off weakly. Democrats hug trees; Republicans call down thunderbolts. Democrats build playgrounds in slums; Republicans call on the mighty to repent. Democrats have built a thirty-year reputation on the basis of reckoning with social forces, arguing from detailed economic and intellectual positions. Calling down fire and brimstone just isn't in their job description.
So when faced with blatant, fierce, wretched human evil, Democrats aren't necessarily the folks to take advantage of the moment. As Heritage Institute scholar Joseph Loconte pointed out in a New York Times editorial this weekend, recent attempts by Democrats to call down the wrath of God have struck many as laughable, forced, and dangerous.
Loconte points to a recent Berkeley conference for spiritual progressives and a seminar entitled "I Don't Believe in God, but I Know America Needs a Spiritual Left." Loconte hits the nail on the head when he goes after Wallis. Wallis damned the GOP budget with charges of immorality quoted from Leviticus. But Americans know that Leftists don't cite Leviticus, and that if you cite Leviticus, you instantly open yourself up the cherry-picking charge. Leviticus has some unsavory things to say of gays and women.
Jim Wallis's style of Biblically-based preaching makes perfect sense within his own background as an Evangelical preacher. But Americans also instantly recognize that most liberals aren't evangelicals.
Many religious Liberals have more complicated relationships with their Bibles. And this is known widely by America, the Heritage Institute, and the Media. Some religious liberals believe the Bible to be an inspired and powerful text with a direct connection to God, but only correctly understood from the perspective of theological and historical study. Some spiritual liberals are suspicious of organized religion altogether. Most of these groups don't call thunderbolts. They pray for the wicked to repent. They pray for God to teach and instruct them. They pray for the poor, the immigrant, and the evacuee, and they supplement their prayers with political activism and social work with hammers in their hands.
Only a fairly small percentage of religious liberals are actual Bible-based evangelicals from a tradition similar to Wallis's, where Biblical truth can be used to call thunderbolts down on the wicked. When Episcopalian and Methodist clergy stand arm-in-arm with Wallis, and Wallis calls down thunderbolts on the GOP's budget, the Episcopalian and Methodist clergy come off as fakes. Everybody knows that Wallis's friends have advanced graduate degrees in postmodern philosophy. Everybody sees that Wallis is the only one in the picket line who believes in the power of the thunderbolt. Everyone else is just pissed off.
Wallis, God-bless-him, is merely the most articulate of the Progressive Christians. But he can't speak, like Thomas Merton, to the full weight of historical orthodoxy and tradition as understood by the 1/3 of American Christians who are Catholics. Nor can he, like William Sloan Coffin, reason with the political vision of reasonable, well-read Protestants studying together for the common good, that informs the tradition of the 1/3 of American Christians who are mainline Protestants.
Theology and history have their own thunderbolts. To call the corrupt regime of GOP senators a "betrayal of the American tradition of participatory democracy" or even "a betrayal of the values of the church to serve all people" is to damn the monster for what it is.
Democrats are rightly proud of Wallis and the progressive evangelicals; they rightly value his thunderbolts. But Protestant and Catholic liberals need to learn to speak with their own voice and their own idioms. Else, the thunderbolts go askew, the Religious Left becomes as irresponsible and phony as the Religious Right, and Democrats will still come off as fakes incapable of speaking to public opinion.