Evangelical left leader Jim Wallis and Republican Congressman Frank Wolf (Va.) discussed how politics can serve the common good at a Thursday panel at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. While the panel was called, "Competing Visions of the Common Good: Rethinking Help for the Poor," Wallis and Wolf talked more about where they found common ground than where their visions were in competition.
"Politics is destroying the common good," Wallis said.
Wallis, president and founder of Sojourners, wrote a recent book about the common good, called On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned About Serving the Common Good.
Both liberals and conservatives have important contributions to the common good, Wallis argued. "The best conservative idea is personal responsibility," and "the best liberal idea is social responsibility." Wallis believes both of these are critically important to advancing the common good. Yet, he added, those two sides "are at war" and are "lacking civility."
With regard to how the common good can serve the best interests of the poor, Wallis urged liberals to understand the limits of government welfare programs.
"While I believe in compassionate, responsible, safety nets, the Left needs to learn that safety nets, at best, protect people from further poverty," Wallis explained. "They almost never end poverty, which should be our goal."
There are three things, Wallis said, that can end poverty – work, education and family. And, he added, there are three policy commitments that can advance the goal of using work, education and family to end poverty: "fairness, opportunity, and partnership between all of our sectors – government, markets, and ... faith-based organizations."
Wolf, who is currently serving his 17th term in Congress, spoke after Wallis. Rather than direct his remarks at Wallis, Wolf had a message for his fellow Republicans – they need to demonstrate compassion and show how their policies can serve the interests of the poor.
Wolf said his "convictions about the common good are centered in my faith as a follower of Jesus and grounded in the broader Judeo-Christian tradition."
"I am compelled, because of my faith, to have compassion for the weak and vulnerable in our midst," he added.
In particular, Wolf noted that his concern for the poor came from studying scripture passages, such as Isaiah 58 and Luke 4, and a 1998 sermon by Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, called "Blessed are the Poor."
That sermon "has greatly informed my own thinking," Wolf said. "Keller said there is nothing clearer in Scripture than our duty to care for the poor."
The problem with the Republican Party today, Wolf believes, is not that it is too socially conservative, but that it is too often believed to be a defender of "the rich and powerful instead of the poor and vulnerable."
Wolf argued, though, that Republican policies are superior to those of the Democratic Party in relation to the poor and vulnerable. In particular, Wolf mentioned prison reform, school choice, anti-trafficking initiatives and welfare.
"But because we marginalize these issues," he concluded, "... we have lost the opportunity to influence the electorate, and, more importantly, affect long-term systemic change." This marginalization, Wolf argued, is not only "politically troubling" but "morally indefensible."
"You can't just pillory the teachers unions and sound the free market trumpet," he pleaded with Republicans. "We must visit the failing schools. We must talk to the mother who desperately wants more for her child and offer a constructive way out. We can't simply lambaste ... food stamps or decry dependency. We must harness the resources of our houses of worship, civic organizations and business community to fill the shelves of food banks, offering a helping hand to the needy in our midst. We can't just rail against crime. We must speak of the root problems – devastating family breakup, an insidious culture of violence that cheapens human life, skyrocketing prisoner recidivism rates that rob our communities of husbands and fathers – and recognize that there is a societal role in rehabilitation and restoration."
The panel was part of AEI's "Values & Capitalism" project, which seeks to engage Christian college students with ideas about the moral dimensions of a free market economy. A video of the panel can be watched at AEI's website.