Jim Wallis, editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine, posted this YouTube video criticizing the shutdown of non-essential parts of the U.S. national government as “unbiblical.”
Wallis’s argument is three-fold. First, he posits the factual claim that the government of the United States is now “shut down.” Secondly, he suggests that those who support the shut down don’t simply disagree over the policy wisdom of the Affordable Care Act or the wisdom of funding an ever-growing national government. Rather, they are “against government per se.” By being against government “per se,” Wallis continues, they oppose God by opposing support for his magistrates (a la Romans 13). Finally, the Republican “extremists” are “against the poor because they’re against the government.”
Where to begin with Wallis’s argument? First, despite the rhetorical styling of a “government shutdown,” the national government is not shut down. Reports are that approximately 80 percent of those who work for the U.S. government will continue working during the “shut down.” That’s approximately 3.3 million Federal workers showing up for work out of a total of around 4.1 million. To be sure, non-essential parts of the national government funded through the annual appropriation process are temporarily shutdown, but wide swaths of the national government that are deemed “essential’ continue unabated, as are the parts of the national government not budgeted through the annual appropriation process. And state and local governments are largely unaffected as well.
Normally I’d take folks who speak of the government “shut down” as using short hand to mean “the temporary and partial shutdown of nonessential parts of the national government budgeted through the annual appropriation process.” Using a short-hand expression to refer to a more-complex reality is not a problem – even an acronym in this case would be unwieldy. (Referring to the TPSNPNGBTAAP really does not help matters.) But because of his next claim, Wallis seems to suggest to his viewers that the U.S. government has literally shut down. Wallis says that the shutdown is prompted by politicians who are “against government per se” and that “they want to destroy the house.” That the government has been “shut down” is the evidence Wallis draws on for his claim that extremist Republicans really want to destroy the entire national level of government in the U.S.
The exaggerated factual claim is necessary for the exaggerated conclusion. It is, after all, difficult to deduce a desire to dispense with the entire U.S. national government from a temporary shutdown of non-essential parts of that government that are budgeted through the annual appropriate process in which 80 percent of federal workers continue on their jobs. Wallis diminishes his argument, and himself, by exaggerating the impact of the “shut down” in Washington, D.C. and its implications.
But Wallis has one more deduction to make. From the conclusion that Republican extremists want to destroy the national government, and because the national government supports the poor, he concludes that these Republicans are therefore “against the poor because they’re against the government.”
I believe that Wallis is a smart man, and as a smart man I don’t think that he really believes either the exaggerated factual premise of his argument, or the exaggerated deductions he makes from that argument.
Rather, I’d hypothesize that Wallis opposes Republican objectives in this policy fight because the main goal of many GOP legislators is to delay implementation of, if not repeal outright, the Affordable Care Act. But defending the Affordable Care Act by name would mean that Wallis would implicate all the gray shades of the practical, compromised world of actual policy making, and that doesn’t make a compelling narrative for anyone on this side of policy wonkdom. Better to paint the controversy in the blacks and white of a Manichean policy world, even at the cost of accuracy.
I believe that Jim Wallis is passionate in his support of the Affordable Care Act. I believe that his support derives from a bona fide belief on his part that the ACA is good for the poorest and most vulnerable among us. But I also believe in the good faith of many, if not most, of the Republicans who disagree with him. Numerous Republicans believe, in good faith, that current levels of taxation and regulation serve as a deterrent to the type of economic growth that would best serve to reduce poverty and to empower the weak. Most Republicans, even among the “extremists,” believe that social insurance systems can be more efficiently financed and administered, thereby better supporting those in need. Surely there is room for good-faith disagreement regarding the form that social insurance takes and whether the Affordable Care Act is a step forward or a step backwards, when balancing anticipated advantages of the policy against its anticipated costs. And even on the level of tactics – it takes two to play a game of chicken. If Democrats compromised with Republicans, then the government would not now be shut down. (Democrats of course do not want to compromise because it would undercut their credibility in future policy debates. But there’s no reason to think that’s any more noble than Republicans who aim at the same outcome.)
But Wallis doesn’t want to paint in policy gray. He wants to paint in black and white, where good people support the policies that he supports and bad people oppose the policies that he supports. So he seeks to escalate a policy debate into a debate between those who support biblical truth and those who oppose it.
Wallis criticizes the Republican “extremists,” saying “What’s happening here is more than politics, it’s ideology.” Despite Wallis’s claim to be advancing a “theological” criticism of what’s happening, what’s happening in Wallis’s YouTube video is not theology, it’s ideology in theological clothing.