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Seven Ways to Change the World: Reviving faith and politics

Jim Wallis
Lion, 256pp

Britain and the United States are two nations divided not only by a common language but also by a common religion. Both historically and, in theory, currently Christian, their actual Christian cultures could not be more different.

In one, politicians are warned off 'doing God' because, as Alastair Campbell noted in his diaries, it is a political 'disaster area'. In the other, they are pretty much compelled to genuflect before Jesus and the Bible if they want to stand any chance of being elected. Polls show that the US electorate would rather vote for a presidential candidate who was Catholic, black, Jewish, female, Hispanic, Mormon, thrice-married, 72 years old, or homosexual than they would one who was an atheist.

UK Christians forced to tiptoe round this whole God and Caesar business might wistfully yearn for the US freedom to talk about faith in public, but that freedom comes at a cost, one that has been a woefully high over recent years.

According to Jim Wallis, the political debate in the US has become 'polarized and paralyzed'. One side does God - meaning abortion and gay marriage - vigorously and at every opportunity. The other side, repelled by their opponents' narrow focus and belligerent tone, turn the other cheek and look elsewhere for their morality and motivation. Hence the subtitle of Wallis' previous book: Why the right gets it wrong and the left doesn't get it.

Wallis now detects a 'sea change'. Indeed, Seven Ways to Change the World is essentially about that sea change. The book's full US title - The Great Awakening: Reviving faith and politics in a post-religious right America - says it all. The age of the 'religious right's' domination (and corruption) of 'values' in US political discourse is, Wallis believes, over. More and more US Christians, particularly younger ones, are recognising how their faith has an impact on every area of life, and are searching for a political 'third way' that is not simply a 'mushy political middle' but rather 'a moral centre that focuses on the common good'.

Wallis is the trailblazer of this new movement and Seven Ways to Change the World reads like its manifesto. It explores issues of social exclusion, racism, environmentalism, equality, and economic and social justice, but without ignoring more conventional moral issues. One of the refreshing things about Wallis is that, unlike so many 'radical' Christians, he is not afraid to talk about 'traditional' 'values' issues, such as the breakdown of family life or the criminal level of abortion in the west. He rails against 'an invasive, hyper-sexualised, greed-filled popular culture' and insists that 'sexual ethics are important'. But he also insists that there is very much more to the gospel that what you do in bed.

Underpinning his entire argument lies a determinedly relational ethic. 'All this,' he writes at one point, 'is rooted in the call to right relationships, which is at the heart of the biblical notion of justice itself'. Later in the book he concludes, 'This relational ethic, as applied to our God, our children, our families, and our neighbours… may be the political value that counts the most.' Amen to that.

The book is not perfect. Too often it reads more like a Barack Obama speech than a book of political theology: 'It's time to move from the politics of blame to a politics of solutions… I believe that the real battle… of our times, is the fundamental choice between cynicism and hope'. Such soundbites are great from a podium but superficial in a book.

Similarly, too many important questions are left unexamined. 'Clearly the answer to the endless left-right debate is neither small government nor big government,' he says at one point, 'but rather effective smart and good government'. Well, yes. But what does that actually mean? What should the state actually hope to achieve?

Similarly, he argues at one point, 'The church is the conscience of the state, holding it accountable for upholding justice and restraining its violence'. This is helpful but it still begs the question, what does 'upholding justice' entail? For some it will mean maintaining a just and well-functioning police force, military and judicial system, but it is clear that Wallis wants rather more than that. What?

Again, along similar lines, he notes in passing the potential tension between the traditions of 'civic republicanism' and 'liberalism' that dominate US political life, but he fails to explore how the gospel might help us adjudicate any such conflict.

Such weaknesses as these do not undermine the book, however, because Seven Ways to Change the World is not a work of academic political theology. Rather, it is the call to join a embryonic awakening, one that could change the face of US and therefore global politics for years to come. Although it will be more relevant to a US audience, it will resonate with a UK one. And it should inspire both.

Nick Spencer