Losing their religion

Jim Wallis is on a mission to seize the true values and morality of his religion from the rightwingers who have hijacked it. He has already made a difference.

The Age, Australia/April 10, 2006
By Barney Zwartz

Jim Wallis has a radical religious proposition: if Jesus were setting American priorities, the first two would not be tax cuts for the rich or the occupation of Iraq.

This might come as a surprise to America's religious right, who solidly endorsed both policies, along with most of the Republicans' platform. But plenty of people are listening, among them British Prime Minister Tony Blair, heir apparent Gordon Brown, and probable US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, all advised by the dapper American reverend.

Jim Wallis is the evangelical Christian who has loosened the stranglehold of the religious right on American politics. He did it by asking loudly and often: how did Jesus become pro-rich, pro-war and pro- America alone?

These questions resonate with a much wider audience than just Christians, including all those who resent the way the right - religious and political - managed to hijack faith and reduce it to a couple of narrow issues.

"We've been able to change the conversation. Now it's a dialogue," says Wallis, who is in Melbourne this week to launch the Australian edition of his bestseller, God's Politics: Why the American Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It.

"The good news is that the monologue of the right is over. Everyone acknowledges that. The media doesn't just tell their story now. It looks at other voices too. That's good for society. Dialogue is always better than a monologue."

According to Wallis, moral or religious issues for Christians go far beyond abortion and gay marriage — the only topics the religious right allowed under that rubric at the 2004 US election. The environment (caring for God's earth) is a religious issue, so is war (Christians are called to be peacemakers), truth-telling, human rights (people are made in the "image of God") and, above all, poverty.

The Bible has several thousand verses on poverty. Clearly, it matters to God, and much more than some issues that the religious right prefers to talk about. Wallis charges that the religious and political right gets the public meaning of religion wrong, focusing on sexual and cultural issues while ignoring justice. The left, meanwhile, tends not to get the meaning of faith for politics at all, but dismisses spirituality as irrelevant to social change.

But the answer is not a religious left, to counter the religious right. "The country is not hungry for that, but for a moral counter where we find the challenges that lie underneath the debate. Don't go left or right, go deeper."

People accuse Wallis, who founded a Christian activist community called Sojourners, of being a left-winger. He sees himself as a theologically conservative evangelical who takes the Bible seriously. As a teenager, he campaigned for the black civil rights movement – Martin Luther King is his role model - and the anti-war movement. He has been preaching his message a long time.

It's been like speaking in a stadium without a microphone - you can reach only a section at a time. Now he has the microphone. And who's listening? Nearly everyone.

"We are having these town meetings disguised as book signings, and they are almost revivals in bookshops. There's younger evangelicals who don't feel the loud television preachers speak for them, who care about poverty, the environment, Dafur, sex trafficking. Catholics are coming who want to apply their social teaching to domestic and foreign policy. Mainline Protestants are coming, a lot of black church people who have a tradition of this, young Jews and Muslims are coming."

Last month Wallis launched his book in Britain, which is even more secular than Australia. He says BBC listeners were surprised and delighted to find an American Christian telling them he didn't think God was American or a Republican whose only agenda was abortion and gay marriage. Young people poured into bookshops to meet him. Non-Christians thanked him for making them feel welcome.

"There are two great hungers in our world today, one for spiritual integrity and the other for social justice. And the connection between the two is the one the world is waiting for," he says.

"The churches ask for the edges of people's lives, and that's what they get, the edges. A whole generation of young people are looking for an agenda worthy of their energy and gifts, something big enough to give their lives to."

What changes history, Wallis believes, are social reform movements, especially in the United States, and the best ones have spiritual foundations: slavery, suffrage, child labour, civil rights. All were built and driven by faith and religious values.

"There's a new social movement growing around the world committed to overcoming extreme poverty. The poverty we just accept will no longer be tolerable." Wallis is convinced that the values debate, including religious values, will shape politics for years to come. "We need a new moral discourse in public life. It's something we all need, and are all needed for," he says. Most people practise the "politics of complaint" about how things are, but the world is hungry for a vision that says we can change things.

"The religious right are more American nationalists than evangelical Christians. They talk about taking back the nation, I'm talking about taking back the faith. It's hard to find many references to patriotism in the Bible. ‘God bless America' is not in the Bible."

In God's Politics, Wallis describes how President George Bush - whose faith is deep and sincere, he believes - confuses the biblical message to build a theology of American empire. For example, Bush quoted a popular hymn in one speech, saying "there is power, wonder-working power in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people". But the wonder-working power in the hymn is the power of Christ in salvation, not the power of the American people. Another time he quoted the Gospel of John - "the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it" - then applied it not to Christ but the American ideal, "the hope of all mankind".

Bush should not claim God's blessing for America's policies, saying God is on America's side, Wallis says. That leads to triumphalism, self-righteousness and dangerous foreign policy. Rather he should seek, as Abraham Lincoln said, to make sure he is on God's side. The change in emphasis should bring humility, reflection and accountability.

Because the right is comfortable with the language of religion and values, they have come to own that territory, Wallis says. But they reduce it to abortion and gay marriage - and even there they get it wrong.

"If I'm an unborn child I should stay unborn. Once I'm born I'm off the radar screen of the religious right - no child care, no support for mothers. It's probirth, not pro-life.

"I agree there's a family crisis of breakups and kids falling between the cracks and high divorce rates, and parenting has become a counter-cultural activity in America. But all this has very little to do with gay and lesbian people. Caring for the family is the right thing to do, but this is the wrong circuit."

So how did the religious right capture the debate in the first place? It was a project of the political right, Wallis says. They met TV preachers and made a deal: give us your databases and we'll create this power bloc.

"People don't know quite how bad it is. The Republican national committee asks churches for membership lists. It's a very compromised relationship. They appealed to genuine concerns and grievances church folk have, or the banality of the moral climate. Then they turned that into wedge issues to divide people."

The Democrats, meanwhile, ignored religion altogether and allowed themselves to be seen as secular fundamentalists, hostile to faith. Wallis says the left needs to recover its progressive history and moral vocabulary, and not concede the whole territory of religion and values to the right.

If Jim Wallis has the ear of Tony Blair, Hillary Clinton and the Democrat leadership - in Australia his friends include Tim Costello and Peter Garrett - and if he constantly batters the right, doesn't he run the risk of being typecast on the left?

He agrees he has to be very careful not to let that happen. "The biblical prophets were in the presence of the king, but never in the pocket of the king. Yes, I talk to the people you mention, but I also talk to Republicans. I talk to gang leaders and welfare mothers and at-risk kids. You have to carry a conversation between the streets and the corridors of power."

And when he talks to Democrats, it's straight talk about their lack of moral content, he says. Martin Luther King never endorsed a candidate, he made the candidates endorse his agenda.

Following King's footsteps is important to Wallis. "The prophetic faith is the tradition I identify with. On the wall of my office are the mothers and fathers of my faith: Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Stephen Biko, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton. That's where my hope comes from."

And for Wallis hope, even more than faith, is the key. The biggest choice of our time, he believes, is not between religion and secularism but between hope and cynicism. "Cynics are realists, they see the world as it is, and are against the bad stuff.

But they get discouraged and believe the bad stuff can't change. Cynicism becomes a buffer against commitment."

Hope, in contrast, is not a state of mind or a feeling, but a decision you make. "And it's a decision that animates social change. Desmond Tutu used to say, ‘We are a people who are prisoners of hope'."

Wallis has helped bring many people hope. Thousands emailed him after he appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a political satire show that appeals to people under 30. "One kid at an airport shook my hand and said, 'You're the only Christian I see and don't throw up afterwards'." Now there's a tribute.

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