An interview with Jim Wallis
by Brian Kaller
To the rest of the world, America’s political landscape can seem as alien as the moon. Among industrialized nations—Canada, Denmark, Japan, Australia and about a dozen others, as opposed to the Third World—the United States proportionately spends the least on health care, social services and public media and the most on the military. On many issues, like gun control or capital punishment, Americans are the odd men out in the industrialized world.
religious beliefs are also off the scale: While every industrialized nation
except Japan is predominately Christian, only the United States has a fundamentalist
streak, with leaders who invoke the will of God and tabloids that devote cover
stories to Jesus and Armageddon. In no other comparable nation does such a large
chunk of the populace reject evolution, believe in a literal hell or await imminent
End Times. Since those beliefs are a good barometer of support for the Bush
administration, it seems logical to assume that fundamentalism causes the politics.
Yet until a few decades ago, many Christian groups—including fundamentalist
and evangelical groups—were populist or even radical. The writings of
John Brown, William Jennings Bryan and Martin Luther King are infused with a
religiosity that progressives today would associate with Jerry Falwell, although
the politics are radically different, and a majority of evangelicals were Democrats
as recently as the 1970s. Today’s nationalist, pro-corporate religion
is a new and wildly successful political force, one that keeps neo-conservatives
in power by putting God on their side.
That makes Jim Wallis a dangerous man.
An evangelical preacher and author of seven books, Wallis has been bringing
faith and political activism together for more than three decades, from the
Vietnam era through the anti-nuclear movement to the anti-WTO protests in Seattle.
Thirty years ago he founded a religious community in inner-city Washington D.C.—where
he and his wife still live—called Sojourners, whose publication has become
the largest progressive Christian magazine in America.
U.S.-backed death squads were massacring thousands of Central Americans, Wallis
and allies created the organization Witness for Peace, which sent hundreds of
its members to Central American villages to act as observers and human shields.
Wallis currently leads the organization Call to Renewal, a national federation
of churches and faith-based organizations working together to overcome poverty
by changing the direction of public policy. Finally, he has been a leader in
the current peace movement.
He is a relentlessly polite but passionate opponent of the current administration,
but Wallis also criticizes some progressives for, he says, distancing themselves
from the beliefs of most Americans. Since his early years, when Sojourners carried
writings of anti-war Republicans as well as Democrats, Wallis has tried to bring
Americans together to find common ground.
Now, after 30 years of activism, Wallis’s ideas are gaining critical mass.
His latest book, “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and
the Left Doesn’t Get It,” sits at #5 on the New York Times nonfiction
bestseller list. On national news programs he has held his own debating America’s
most extreme televangelists. On his book tour, Wallis has barnstormed the country,
preaching his message to sellout crowds in colleges and cathedrals, drawing
everyone from Promise Keepers to anti-globalization activists to the same forum
and encouraging Americans to talk to each other.
Wallis will speak in Minneapolis at noon Thursday, April 7 at the Westminster
Presbyterian Church’s Town Hall Forum, an event the church has offered
over the last 20 years to feature speakers on ethical issues. Wallis spoke to
Pulse last week.
PULSE: You have been an activist for decades—you’ve been
arrested in anti-nuclear demonstrations, you were at the Battle of Seattle and
you’ve been a leader in the antiwar movement. But you’re also an
evangelical minister, and your new book is critical of how progressive activists
handle religion. What do they do wrong?
WALLIS: I think the biggest mistake progressives have made in the last
several decades is to cede the entire territory of values to the political right.
Then the political right could create the religious right—that’s
how it happened, the political right created and still runs the religious right—and
they define religion and values in their own terms, very partisan and ideological.
By their definition, there are only two moral values—abortion and gay
marriage —and everything else is ignored.
on one hand you have a political plan on the right, and the left has just let
it happen. The left has forgotten its own progressive history, in which almost
every reforming movement in American history was fueled and driven in part by
faith and values. So here’s a Democratic Party, once linked to a Civil
Rights movement led by black churches, now become so secular that they are unfairly
portrayed as hostile to religion.
Religion does not have a monopoly on morality. There are people who come to
see these meetings we’re having across America who tell me, “I’m
an agnostic, but thank you for making me feel included, because I care about
I want a broad moral discourse on politics that includes anyone who cares about
moral values, and that includes people who are secular. But secular fundamentalism
is something different. There are a few people who have this disdain and hostility
for religious people, thinking they are stupid, and who think that separation
of church and state—which I believe in very strongly—means keeping
religious people out of the political realm.
Where would we be if Martin Luther King Jr. had kept his faith to himself, or
Oscar Romero or Desmond Tutu? All those movements were prophetic religious movements
over time. So the progressive political left makes a big mistake when they banish
spirituality from public life.
PULSE: When I read the writings of the abolitionists or the Wobblies
or the Civil Rights movement, they spoke very freely about doing what they did
because they believed in right and wrong. But if you listen to the cable news
shows, their values debates are always between religious pundits who support
Bush and, say, an obscure atheist group that wants to get rid of a Nativity
WALLIS: The most important thing people can do to change America is
to change the terms of the debate. At every book tour stop, we are having what
are essentially town hall meetings across America.
I’m going around the country, I’m being asked to do more and more
interviews, and we’re drawing bigger and bigger crowds from church people—2,000,
3,000 every night—who would never be seen at the WTO protests. A lot of
people are coming forward and saying that the faith being talked about in the
media and in the government is not their faith.
The monologue of the Religious Right is now over. I appeared on “Hannity
and Colmes” and was getting blistered by Hannity and Jerry Falwell, and
I told them that they don’t have a monopoly anymore, and they got very
angry. Hannity asked me, “Jim, are you in favor of killing babies or not?
Answer the question!” I said, “You don’t get to ask loaded
questions like that anymore.”
That’s something we don’t think about enough—how political
issues are framed. Whoever frames the debate, wins the debate. The way the media
phrase the questions, you can’t win no matter what you answer. For example,
are you in favor of tax relief?
PULSE: “Relief” implies that there is an affliction, that
public services are a burden.
WALLIS: Exactly. Do you want more of an affliction or less? You can’t
win. But you could also ask, “Do you believe in investing in the common
good or not?” So that’s what we need to do—not just to take
the other side of Jerry Falwell, but frame the debate differently and offer
a genuinely different plan for what we want America to be. And many people have
been waiting for that for a long time.
PULSE: Thomas Frank once wrote about meeting a young Republican candidate
who seemed like a standard corporate hustler, but as soon as he was being interviewed
he suddenly started talking like Billy Graham. To what extent do these people
who have taken over the government believe what they are saying?
WALLIS: I think there is a difference between the leaders and the constituency.
Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson are genuine theocrats, and they
do not want to see democracy take place. But a lot of their followers are just
concerned about what they see as the coarsening of society.
That is actually a genuine issue, but it shouldn’t be just a left or right
issue. Being pro-family should mean you support aid for the poor, or family
leave policies like they have in European countries, but when has the right
ever done that? As soon as they get away from complaining about other people’s
lifestyles, they are Social Darwinists.
There are a lot of people coming to these meetings from the conservative side,
from the religious right, and they see their party becoming so intensely Social
Darwinist that they can’t take it any more.
We are reaching and winning over such people. This movement is not just a religious
left—it’s much broader and deeper than that.
PULSE: By coincidence, as we write this, Republicans are trying to intervene
in the Terry Schiavo case. I can’t find another case of Congress to step
in to a medical decision like this, and most Americans oppose it but their evangelical
base supports it. Do you think they simply believe in their position that strongly,
or do these kinds of uncompromising stands help them in the long run?
WALLIS: There was a memo leaked to the Washington Post that “this
will energize our base. This will fire up our people. This will help us beat
[Democratic] Senator Bill Nelson in Florida.” Bill Nelson is himself an
evangelical Christian, but they don’t really care about that—they
just want to beat him.
know right now I’m going to be asked about Terry Schiavo, and what I tell
people is that this is a tragic personal story, and that almost none of us know
enough about the issue to be talking about it as loudly as we are. And it hits
home for me—my mother died of cancer—but we don’t know what
we are talking about in this case, and neither do Congressmen—they are
just using this poor family.
I was debating Randy Tate, former head of the Christian Coalition, and got him
to admit that family breakdown has nothing whatsoever to do with homosexuality.
I got a representative of Focus on the Family to admit, after an hour and a
half of debate, that “family breakup is due much more to heterosexual
dysfunction than homosexuality.” But, he said, “We can’t vouch
for our fundraising department.”
Most Americans recognize that the family is in a state of crisis, that family
breakdown is serious and that parenting is at risk. We have to be pro-family.
At the same time, most people—even most religious people—are willing
to accept some kind of legal protection for gays and lesbians. We can find common
ground, but only by going to higher ground.
I think a lot of people see that values are not supposed to be a wedge, but
a bridge between us. Almost all of us are in favor of doing something about
global warming. Last week a group of evangelical Baptist leaders met to hold
a national meeting on global warming. It was something political leaders should
have done a long time ago, but here pastors are doing it, and politicians in
Washington took notice.
I really think that progressive spiritual voices are coming into their own again.
It is a different kind of voice than anyone has heard for many years, voices
that people have been hungry for and have believed in, but may have thought
they were the only ones.
PULSE: Right now the group in charge is so extreme, and politics are
so vicious, that we think of this as a time when people are sharply divided—but
I’m always astonished at the extent to which we all agree. I saw a recent
article that asked Americans what kind of budget they would like to see, and
the results were amazing—everyone, Democrats and Republicans, wanted to
cut military spending and spend more on jobs and health care. The average person
wanted to increase spending on clean energy by 1,090 percent.
WALLIS: A friend of mine believes that 80 percent of Americans have
the same politics as we do. I’m
not sure I’d go that far, but I do believe there is at least a solid majority
of people who agree with moral values and protecting the family and what conservatives
talk about—but without scapegoating gays and others—and are also
economically populist and environmentalist and feminist, and believe in a foreign
policy based on international law and not unilateral invasions. And I talked
once with a Republican operative and asked him, “What would you do with
a candidate like that?” And he said, “We would panic, because we
would lose.” ||
Wallis will speak in Minneapolis Thursday, April 7 at noon at the Westminster
Presbyterian Church’s Town Hall Forum, an event the church has offered
over the last 20 years to feature speakers on ethical issues.
Broadcasts of the Forum can be heard live on Minnesota Public Radio stations
across the state, including KNOW 91.1FM in the Twin Cities. For more information
call 612-332-3421 or e-mail Susan McKenna at firstname.lastname@example.org. The town
hall forum is free and open to all.