Paul Begala on Jim Wallis’s Religious Challenge for Washington

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Wallis has come up with a Covenant for Civility: seven biblically based rules for political combat. Will Shilling/AP

Abraham Lincoln was raised Baptist and had a powerful personal faith. But he refused to affiliate with any organized church. Emailing me this week from the road, where he is on an 18-city book tour, the Rev. Jim Wallis wrote, “Maybe Lincoln was one of the first ‘None of the Aboves’”—referring to the 60 percent of today’s young people who, he says, “have just chosen not to affiliate with any religion in large part because of the behavior of the religious.” Yet Lincoln captured perfectly the way people of faith should consider God in the public square. “My concern,” he famously said, “is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”

Wallis—an evangelical Christian minister, a political liberal, and (full disclosure) a friend—has chosen Lincoln’s observation as the starting point for an important sermon. His new book, On God’s Side, purposefully challenges both the religious right and the religious left to come together on higher ground for the common good. A political junkie, Wallis removed himself from much of the coverage of the 2012 campaign; he didn’t even know who won the New Hampshire primary for days. He went on retreat, seeking silence and solace and sanity. When he returned, he wrote On God’s Side. It is in many ways a slap in the face to politics as usual, a plea for all sides to heed the scriptural command to find a time to mend and not just to tear; to love and not just to hate; to search and not just give up.

As a practicing pundit and political consultant, as well as a practicing Catholic, I found that Wallis’s book contained a special challenge for me. He has come up with a Covenant for Civility: seven biblically based rules for political combat. One is a commitment to pray for one another—even and especially our political adversaries. Another is to follow the Epistle of James, to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” I probably violated that one before I even finished the book. Still, it is helpful and healthy that Wallis has set the bar high for us pundits. Wallis argues passionately for men and women of good will to reach across the ideological divide and join in advancing the common good. I agree wholeheartedly. But what about those whose goal is not the common good? What if, instead of dealing with goodhearted conservatives who truly want every American to succeed, President Obama is actually dealing with a different hard-core conservative cadre that denies and even denigrates the notion of the common good?

Because he is a Christian who lives his life by biblical precepts, Wallis sometimes suffers from projection: he thinks everyone else is as public spirited and compassionate as he is. Indeed, many (perhaps even most) conservatives are. The late Jack Kemp used to call himself “a bleeding-heart conservative,” and even Ronald Reagan remarked about the unfairness of a tax code that charged a bus driver a lower rate than a millionaire. But it may be that some of today’s conservatives are cut from a different cloth. Rather than the Bible, these new militant individualists regard Atlas Shrugged as their sacred text. Its author, Ayn Rand, was contemptuous of Christ and sneered at compassion.

“I am against God,” she declared. “Nobody has ever given a reason why man should be his brothers’ keeper.” She called the notion of salvation through the Crucifixion of Christ (the heart of Christian theology) “monstrous” and repeatedly sneered at caring for the less fortunate.

At the time she was writing, Rand’s virulently anti-Christian message was excoriated by conservatives, but today’s conservatives have embraced Rand with a fervor that is frightening. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and Mitt Romney’s running mate, has said he requires his interns to read Rand. Justice Clarence Thomas similarly assigns it to his law clerks. (Ironic, isn’t it, that a philosophy that extols free will is forced onto people?)

Ryan worships Rand, saying, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.”

Yes, Wallis said during our exchange, there are those on the right “who don’t actually believe in the concept of the common good—the Ayn Rand disciples who believe society is only about individualism and we have no common life together ... But there are others who heed the wisdom of Edmund Burke, for example, and believe in a healthy life together.”

I pray that he is right. But I know this: if political participants want to be encouraged to selfishly screw their neighbor, they should read Ayn Rand; on the other hand, if they are looking to be challenged—to be better political combatants, better Americans, perhaps even better Christians—they will find that challenge in the works of the Rev. Jim Wallis.

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