Rescuing Religion From the Right
The Rev. Jim Wallis says gay marriage and abortion aren't the only values-related issues religious people care about.
BY: Interview by Rebecca Phillips
During the 2004 presidential campaign, when the role of religion in politics became a hot topic, one voice in particular represented the religious liberal point of view. The Rev. Jim Wallis, editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine and a founder of the faith-based antipoverty organization Call to Renewal, appeared on countless TV and radio shows to debate religion and politics with leaders of the religious right. His new best-selling book, "God's Politics," further considers the topics he debated during the campaign. Wallis recently spoke with Beliefnet about ways to incorporate liberal religious positions into politics, the values-based issues religious people should care most about, and his outlook on the role of faith in politics during the next four years.
There was a lot of discussion after the election about the moral values vote. What values did people vote on?
It's funny-a flawed exit poll has shaped a national conversation. I call it flawed because one choice was moral values. The others were about issues like Iraq and terrorism and then the economy, health care, jobs. But if I was a religious voter who cared about the war, I would have checked Iraq, and it would have been a moral value. If I were a Catholic coordinator of a food pantry, I would have checked the closest thing I could find to poverty, which would have been jobs or health care or the economy.
So if you take the issues like war and terrorism and group them as values, that was about 33% as opposed to 22% for moral values. If the economy, health care, and jobs are all values, it was about the same. A Zogby poll about a week later confirmed that intuition. It asked, What was the biggest moral issue in your voting? Forty-two percent said the war in Iraq. Then they said, what's the greatest moral crisis in America today? Something like 33% said greed and materialism. And 31% said poverty and economic jobs. So that's 64% saying that poverty, greed, materialism, and justice are the greatest moral crises in America today. I found that very encouraging. And abortion was less than 20%-16% in fact-and gay marriage about 12%. It showed there's a broader, deeper, richer conversation to be had here. It's not just one value or two values; there are a lot more fundamental moral values that need to shape our political direction.
What's your prediction for the intersection of religion and politics for the next four years?
Religion needs to be applied in a way that can really criticize both left and right. It can't be made into a partisan issue or an ideologically predictable kind of thing, and I hope the administration doesn't do that. True religion, prophetic faith, does criticize both left and right-it challenges liberals and conservatives and always raises the fundamental issues of the poor, those who are left behind, left out, and have no voice. I think religion must talk about the environment as God's creation to protect and be good stewards of. And the issues of war and peace are fundamentally theological religious issues as well. [Religion must help us talk about] how we resolve our inevitable human conflicts and how we deal with the problems of terrorism and tyranny without resorting to the terrible cost and consequence of war, which often creates new problems while trying to solve other problems.
So issues like war and peace and the environment should be discussed in more religious terms?
Yes, because they are religious issues. I think the religious community's got to say: yes, abortion and family marriage are important issues, but those aren't the only issues. And then the political people, Democrats and Republicans, must have a much better and deeper conversation about this, so that we're voting
our values and not just one or two. Republicans are more comfortable with the language of faith and values, but they often narrow it to one or two issues. Democrats are less comfortable with the language. They often seem like they want to keep faith and values in the private sphere, but where would we be if Martin Luther King, Jr. kept his faith to himself?
Whoever wins the values conversation will shape the future of American politics. So I'm challenging the Democrats to start with values and then go to policies-to put policy issues like economic security and health care in a moral context. This is critical.
Many Democrats think the party is at a transformational moment. How would a move to the left affect the party's place in the values conversation?
Well, the Democrats are really reassessing. They're in conversation with lots of people, with each other, with religious leaders. And I don't think it's a matter of left, right, and center; those are political categories. It's more going to the heart of the moral questions. For example, I don't think to start really talking about poor families and how low-income families are just under terrible pressure, how they're working hard full-time and falling behind, not making it-that's not going to the left, that's talking about what's right and wrong. When CEOs are getting multimillion dollar packages and severance pay and bonuses and their workers are just struggling to survive, that's not left or right; that's right and wrong. When half the world's population lives on less than $2 a day-that's a fundamental issue close to the heart of God, and so we have to deal with those questions.