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Commentary

Jim Wallis and the Folly of “Progressive” Christianity


The unfortunate support for years by some Christians of what is commonly called “Progressivism” reflects the modernist folly since the nineteenth century of deferring intellectual and moral authority to the utilitarianism and moral relativism of the secular world (“the end justifies the means”). It comports neither with the teachings of Jesus nor with the Judeo-Christian tradition of natural law, either in moral ethics or economics. During George W. Bush’s presidency, for example, many “Conservatives” embraced the “Progressive” myth and sought on utilitarian grounds to justify massive expansions of federal spending and regulation, economic bailouts, unconstitutional wars, government surveillance, torture and renditioning, and massive further expansions of federal power, foreign and domestic.

With Barack Obama as president, such “Liberal” (i.e., “Progressive”) evangelicals as Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and Ronald Sider, who may have been critical of Bush’s abuses of power, now support authoritarianism by claiming that individuals choosing peaceful means that do not break the Ten Commandments’ and Jesus’ prohibitions against invasive force (i.e., murder, rape, theft, and fraud) are still “unjust” and require the intervention of government power to coerce innocent people to obey the “Progressive” vision of “social justice.” As a result, Wallis believes that government officials themselves should, as Bush similarly claimed, not just be immune from the Judeo-Christian standards for the rule of law but that their legal, institutionalized breaking of the Decalogue is somehow a higher “Christian” calling.

Comparing the views of Wallis to those of C.S. Lewis is instructive, since Lewis understood, unlike collectivists such as Wallis, that moral relativism is incoherent and unacceptable because the end never justifies the means (see, e.g., Lewis’ The Abolition of Man). Especially timely and insightful is Lewis’s essay on the dangers, dehumanization, and immorality of welfare statism and therapeutic statism, “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” from his book, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.

Wallis’s recent attacks on those who are challenging the Obama administration’s drive for gigantic government on every front is consistent with his confused support for authoritarianism as the vehicle for Christian love. In his enthusiasm for political power, Wallis has become an embarrassing apologist for the moral relativism of welfare statism, socialism, and corporatism, worshipping Obama and government power in a political idolatry. Can anyone imagine Jesus advising and defending the policies of the Caesar and the Roman Empire?

The Christian principles of other-directedness and support for civil society in no way equate with statism of any sort. Indeed, they are polar opposites. There are innumerable Christian writers throughout history who have made this point in championing individual liberty, personal responsibility, civic virtue and the rule of law, including Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, James Madison, Alexis de Tocqueville, Frederic Bastiat, etc. However, Wallis insists that we should put this all aside as “anti-Christian” because his “Progressive” state knows best and must not be impeded to utilize the very means Jesus taught against. Wallis’s reasons for doing so stem from his misguided belief in the junk-Marxist historical and economic myths that free individual choices and actions that create free-market capitalism are inherently evil and unable to overcome poverty, racism, etc. As a result, Wallis believes that coercive means must take precedence over the voluntarism and Golden Rule mandated by Christian teachings. But these myths have been refuted repeatedly (see for example here, here, here and here) because the non-invasive processes of free markets and private, community-based welfare and charity are both the morally and most efficient means to serve and uplift others simply because they are consistent with Christian Natural Law.

Moreover, Wallis’s concept of “social justice” itself is meaningless and dangerous. Either individuals are “sacred objects” created by God with free will and individually subject to God’s judgment and worthy of mercy or they are material objects subject to the collectivist dictates of mortal and flawed men and women. As Rodney Stark (see for example his book, The Victory of Reason) and others have shown, it was the unique insights from Christian teachings that each and every individual has rights under God that made the progress possible in abolishing slavery, emancipating women, and creating free and prosperous societies in which abject poverty was replaced with abundance. Lewis was fond of quoting Lord Acton’s dictum that power corrupts, and here is a quote from the end of The Abolition of Man, which “Progressives” like Wallis could learn from:

“It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere ‘natural object’ and his judgments of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will. . . . The real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his de-humanized Conditioners. . . . Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao [natural law], or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own ‘natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery. . . . The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists. The methods may (at first) differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany.”

As a result, Lewis was a devastating critic of the welfare state, nanny state, and the entire “Progressive” vision of the interventionist state. Sadly, Wallis champions all such measures and misleads some Christians into supporting the evils of moral relativism and legalized plunder on a vast scale.


David J. Theroux is the Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Independent Institute and Publisher of The Independent Review.