Jim Wallis’s On God’s Side comes in two parts. In the first, he argues that biblical Christianity involves not only the personal, individual standing of the Christian before God and the individual’s relationship with Christ, but also a deeply communal element that inspires genuine concern for one’s neighbors. In the second, he fleshes out how these sometimes-competing concerns ought to inf luence Christian political thought and engagement. Wallis’s inspiration for the title of the book is a quote from Abraham Lincoln—“My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side”—and he uses this second half of his book to explore exactly what being “on God’s side” would entail, tackling several prominent and hotly debated issues ranging from the structure of the American political system to specific policy issues.
Wallis opens his political discussion by focusing on some of the structural elements of American electoral politics, beginning with political discourse. He argues that our political dialogue has become fundamentally flawed, concerned more with blame than honest engagement with ideas. In response, he emphasizes the need for compromise between conservative and liberal political views in order to raise the level of political debate. For Wallis, both conservatives and liberals have important contributions to make to political discourse that align with the dual biblical notions of personal and social responsibility that he introduced earlier. The traditionally conservative view of family values, for example, helps to encourage personal accountability, while taking a more traditionally liberal view of the state aligns more with the Christian’s responsibility to promote social welfare.
Wallis believes that compromise between these two political groups is the best way to capture the fullness of a “Christian” politics, and that it will also open eyes to the important contributions that various political groups have to make to our larger political discussions. What remains unclear during this discussion, however, is exactly why Christians ought to support precisely this set of compromises and why this type of reasoning ought to carry any weight at all in the broader, pluralistic political dialogue. Wallis appeals to conservatives and liberals generally to be more open-minded in political dialogue, encouraging both sides to borrow the “best big idea” of each view. But the position that personal and social responsibility ought to play equal parts in our political reasoning is just as substantive, normative, and contestable a claim as saying that either one of those ought to take precedence over the other.
Wallis’s call for compromise, while it appears to be inviting to both liberals and conservatives, insists on compromise just as strongly as either group insists on the primacy of its favored value. One could just as easily assert, and many do, that a commitment to either personal or social responsibility is important enough that it ought to trump the other consideration. There is a whole spectrum of views weighing those two values against one another, and just because Wallis believes the Christian should be concerned with each of them does not necessarily mean that he ought to weigh them equally. A skeptical reader of Wallis’s position, one who didn’t already subscribe to the view that political reasoning ought to give equal weight to personal and social responsibility, would find little in Wallis’s writing on the subject to convince him.
Wallis continues his survey of the ills of American democracy with a discussion of what could be called structural failures: voter suppression, the high cost of winning off ice, the inf luence of money in political advertising. Again, he attempts to position his suggestions for improvement as theologically grounded, but the link remains tenuous. His discussion of money and political advertising is especially one-sided. Wallis opposes the Citizens United ruling, calling the notion of corporate personhood a “theological error and a deeply offensive one” because it takes the theological notion of personhood and misapplies it to corporations, giving them equal status and rights as regards political speech.
Wallis handpicks quotes from justices and legal scholars that support his position, but fails to convincingly engage with the majority opinion or the complexity of the issue given the high value assigned to political speech. There is no discussion of the implications or consequences of capping political speech, whether the first amendment is meant to protect speech or speakers, or the idea that the freedom of individual speech might also extend to individuals speaking in association. Here again, a lack of deep engagement with opposing views leaves the reader feeling that Wallis’s practical suggestions would hold little water in the broader political discourse. Even for Christian readers, Wallis’s positions seem far from obvious given eh broad theological themes he developed earlier (for example, it is not really clear that a respect for individuals rooted in theology implies much of anything about whether corporations are engaging in protected political speech).
Wallis’s insistence on returning all of this to a discussion of the “common good” serves only to complicate matters further. Again, he comes up sort of demonstrating that the good he describes is in some way common or transcendent, rather than happening to align, in a way that several other visions of the good could, with the general principles he establishes. While Wallis attempts to trace from biblical text what exactly God’s side would be, his efforts to move from general biblical themes to policy recommendations may fall victim to exactly the types of errors Lincoln’s words warn against. That is, he may be using general themes to endorse one specific set of actions to the exclusion of other viable alternatives.
While Wallis is likely correct that being on God’s side involves both a healthy sense of personal responsibility and a deep concern for social causes, it is more difficult to be sure that it also includes expressing and prioritizing those concerns in the particular ways that Wallis describes. The conceptual foundation that Wallis lays during the early sections of the book tends to get lost amid the confusing attempts to tie those concepts to policy recommendations. Wallis and his readers may well have been served by confining the discussion to more general discussions, leaving the hard work of applying the general themes to specific political action to Christians and communities themselves.