Who Are You Calling Liberal?

"Like" the Patheos Progressive Christian Page on Facebook to receive today's best commentary on Progressive Christian issues.

Is free enterprise moral?

This question was debated by Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, and Jim Wallis, president and CEO of Sojourners on November 30th at my alma mater, Gordon College.

The event was framed as a debate, but for these two men who have taken this show on the road—this was their fourth such event—their exchange seemed more like a friendly conversation than a crossfire of "gotcha" points. The moderator, Gordon professor Tal Howard, no doubt contributed to this atmosphere, even suggesting in the midst of perhaps the most heated discussion of the evening that Brooks and Wallis continue their conversation over a beer later.

What most struck me about the conversation, in fact, was how many points of agreement there were between the two men, purportedly on different sides of the political spectrum. They agreed on their diagnoses of our nation's problems—individual and family morality was discussed far more than the morality of free enterprise—but they differed on possible solutions.

If anything, the debate further proved the claim that Jim Wallis has been making for years—and that his detractors have been deriding for just as long—that he cannot be characterized as a leftist. Though his oft-used phrase, well on its way to becoming an empty refrain—"Don't go left, don't go right, go deeper"—was lampooned a bit by Howard, he suggested that Wallis does in fact go deeper, but also to the left.

When I first heard Wallis make this claim years ago, I, too, resisted. There is a part of me that wants to be categorized, that wants to find my place among other likeminded people on the political spectrum. This is a discussion my wife and I have had hundreds of times, and we always disagree. She, like Wallis, suggests that labels polarize and make discussion near impossible. I see that point, but the argumentative and combative side of my personality says, "What's so wrong with that?"

It wasn't until recently, when I was reading the new book by Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes, Left, Right & Christ, for the Patheos book club (my entry is here), that I really came to appreciate Wallis' position. He, along with World magazine editor Marvin Olasky, write forewords that are meant to align with their side; Harper works for Sojourners and Innes is a professor at The King's College, where until a couple years ago Olasky was provost. But, as I note in my blog post about the book, Wallis nearly implodes the whole argument of the book before it even gets going. That is, he dismisses the categorization that forms the book's premise.

After the debate at Gordon, I had the privilege of joining Wallis, his assistant (and my friend) Tim King, and several area pastors for a chance to continue the conversation at a nearby restaurant. There, as we recapped the night's discussion, Wallis further elucidated the foundation of his refusal to take on a label. The starting point for Christians when it comes to politics has to be theology, he said. That is, if we start with scripture and frame our political opinions around scripture, we will not fit neatly into one category or the other. On some issues Christians will be accused of veering too far to the right and, as is the case with Wallis, often we will appear to lean left.

If we start with theology, it is likely we will find, as Brooks and Wallis have, that we have a lot in common with those perceived to be our opposites. But, as their conversation also proved, though we may agree about what ails us, there is still plenty of room to debate the proper medicine.