2016-07-27
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 all 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.

We also have to deal with other issues like abortion. I want to see people start talking about solutions. The abortion rate is far too high for a decent, caring society. How do pro-life and pro-choice people stop battling over the symbols and litmus test of left and right, and instead talk about how to dramatically reduce the abortion rate in this country? Less teenage pregnancy, adoption, supporting low-income women economically-these things always reduce the abortion rate.

We can find real solutions to the problems of families. I think the problems of families are central; I'm very pro-family. I've got a 6-year-old and 2-year-old. Gay marriage is not the real issue for families. The real issue for families is not civil unions, but parenting. How do we support families and have family-friendly policies and help parents be better parents? When people list the real threats to families-things like infidelity, soaring divorce rates, and economic pressures on family-gay marriage is way down the list.

How does talking about these issues relate to the distinction you make between public, private, and personal faith?
The way I understand it is that God is personal, but never private. The Bible has a very public God; the prophets speak to that God, who gives commitments of justice and equity and fairness and compassion, particularly for those who are left out and left behind. So we see who God talks to-kings and rulers and landlords and judges and employers and who He's talking about-widows and orphans and workers and ordinary people. Clearly, the God of the Bible is a public God.

Even so, people think of God as a private thing. Is this why the use of religious language among public figures is controversial?
Well, I think that's part of it. I've spent part of my life fighting religious fundamentalists, but there are also secular fundamentalists, people who disdain faith and values and spirituality and want no mention of those in the public square. I believe in the separation of church and state-I really do. It's important. But it doesn't mean banishing faith and values from public life. The founders wanted to separate church and state, not to make religion less influential in society, but to make it more influential. Most every social reform movement in American history has been fueled and driven in part by religion, by faith-the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, and child labor law reform, and most famously, civil rights. As you can see in the book, I believe that social movements are what change history, and the best ones are the ones that have a spiritual foundation.

About 10% to 15% of Americans say they don't adhere to any religion at all. Where would more faith in public life leave them?
It's important for religious people to say that religion does not have a monopoly on morality. There are people in this nation who aren't affiliated religiously but who care deeply about moral values and about the moral crisis of the country, and they need to be part of this conversation too. Martin Luther King Jr. had a way of [including everyone]-it wasn't just the Baptists who were marching in the streets; it was Catholics and Jews and people of no faith. I think we can speak a moral vocabulary that isn't exclusively religious and is inclusive of people who aren't sure about religion or just are not in fact affiliated.

Are your ideas specifically Christian? How do you incorporate people of other faiths?
I speak out of my own tradition, that's what I know and I'm not an expert on other traditions, but I refer to them respectfully. My book is full of Micah and Amos and Isaiah-the Hebrew prophets are central to my formation. And I have imams that I'm in regular contact with and work with, and rabbis and people of other traditions. There are a lot of Buddhists in America, and in Vietnam they were the clear moral voice of conscience before, during, and after the war.

We're now in a very pluralistic Democratic environment. Figuring out how to navigate pluralism is critical. How do we have interfaith conversation?

You shy away from the term "religious left." Why?
"Left" is a political term, and I don't think religion fits neatly in the political category. The religious right is not critical enough of the political right and the Republican Party, and likewise people who are more progressive need to be very critical of-when need be-the left and the Democratic party. Religion shouldn't be ideologically predictable, nor loyally partisan. It should have the capacity to critique both sides. I like the word "prophetic" best of all. "Progressive" is OK, but it still sounds kind of like a substitute for "liberal."

I probably line up with the left on some issues. If the left is against war in Iraq, I'm against the war in Iraq too. But for theological reasons, I'm not with the left on other things. I'm an evangelical, my theology is quite biblical, I'm even conservative and pro-family, pro-marriage. I can be pro-family and still support gay rights, but I talk more about families and kids and marriage and cultural values and cultural pollution. The left doesn't talk much about that. I talk covenantal sexuality as opposed to recreational sexuality. The culture is preaching recreational sexuality; I believe sexuality is tied to covenant-loving relationships. Well, that's not usually a left-wing opinion either.

Why didn't we see more religious people on the left and right coming together around the nomination of Alberto Gonzales for Attorney General?
Well, I think you make a good point-is torture a moral value? Religion, left or right, center, across the spectrum, ought to agree that torture is simply morally unacceptable. That message did come from some in the religious community-I signed a letter signed by lots of other people. But I wish we would have heard more from the religious right on the issue of torture; they oppose torture elsewhere around the world, in China, in Sudan, but what about when it's done tragically and painfully at the hands of American soldiers, justified seemingly by memos written by high administration officials and even the new Attorney General? You look for real integrity when you see conservative religious people challenging their political allies [or] liberal religious people challenging their political allies. And when they're just acting in lock-step with their political allies, then the prophetic voice of religion has somehow been lost.

Is the religious left starting to mobilize for the 2008 election? What are the next steps for this movement?
Well, I'm not sure there are plans for 2008, but there certainly is more conversation, more collaboration, more coordination between progressive religious groups and people than I've ever seen before. During the campaign, that became more and more the case, and since then there have been meetings and conversations. Among Evangelicals, Catholics, the Black church, mainline Protestants, Jews, Muslims, I think there is more conversation now among progressives. Not that we all say the same thing on every issue, but conversation, coordination, mobilizing around issues of biblical justice and peace in particular, these are happening. I think that's a very positive thing.

And you think this will eventually balance the religious right's influence in politics?
Yes. The right won't be the only voice. I think that era is over. I give examples of this in the book, but even my book tour is going to be really a movement tour. It's not just about a book but about a whole progressive faith movement that is growing and coming together and having more public face and public voice, and will join in serious debate, serious dialogue with the religious right.


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