Rev. Jim Wallis is becoming a celebrity. The self-described “progressive evangelical” and editor of Sojourners, burst onto the scene following the 2004 elections when he authored God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Just Doesn’t Get It. The book—delivered by a straight-talking, Bible-quoting man of the cloth, no less—tackled a contentious issue in America’s fractured electoral psyche, and in addition to landing him on every conceivable talk show, the book spent 15 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Two years after its release, Wallis, a registered Democrat, continues to tour the country expounding upon the views he expresses in God’s Politics, and he recently spoke with the Indy in advance of his upcoming Missoula appearance.
Indy: “Progressive evangelical” is a title that often gets pegged as an oxymoron. Why?
Wallis: It’s been known as a misnomer, but the misnomer is becoming a movement…There’s a long history of progressive evangelical constituency and action in this country, but in the last years we’ve been dominated by a religious right. They’re the ones who have diverted from the genuine evangelical tradition. They’ve become very much in the pocket of the Republican Party—very polarizing, very divisive.
The good news is the era of the Religious Right is on the decline now, and new dialogue has just begun.
Indy: How has the subtitle of your book—Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It—changed in light of the most recent elections?
Wallis: Things are changing dramatically. There is still a hardcore religious right that doesn’t get it. They say the only moral issues are abortion and gay marriage, that’s it. And yet evangelicals are leaving the religious right in droves because they now have a broader and deeper agenda. It includes HIV/AIDS, sex trafficking, global poverty, global warming, Darfur. A new generation of evangelicals has a broader and deeper agenda than just reducing all Biblical concern to two social issues that are often used politically and manipulated for partisan gain.
Secondly, I think the Democrats, some of them at least, are waking up to their own history. There’s a long history of progressive religion in every major social reform movement in our country’s past, whether it be abolitionist slavery or civil rights with Dr. King, most famously. Now, you have Barack Obama speaking very comfortably and authentically about his own faith, same with Hilary Clinton and John Edwards. It’s good because God isn’t a Republican or a Democrat and is not in the pocket of either party. There’s been a leveling of the playing field.
Indy: One of the more interesting points you make in the book is that it’s not a matter of whether religion should influence politics, it’s a matter of how.
Wallis: The U.S. is more like the rest of the world, particularly like the global south, than it is like Europe. We are a very religious nation. So, religion is going to be a factor. The question is how to do it in ways that are consistent with democratic values and religious pluralism, which I think can be done.
On the religious side, I always say to folks in churches that you have to be disciplined by democracy. Meaning you don’t say, ‘We’re a Judeo-Christian country, God told me this, and we get to win.’ You can’t do that here. King never did that. He had to win the argument, win the debate, persuade people that a civil rights law in 1964 and voting rights in 1965 were good for the whole country and the common good, not just for Baptists...
I’m sure when I come to Montana, we’ll have people who are not religious. They’re spiritual and not religious, or they may even say they’re secular. I don’t want them to feel kicked to the curb or not a part of this conversation because they’re secular. Politics should be a discussion about values—and religion is not the only place where you get your values, and religion has no monopoly on morality. So we have to get the religious side to offer their convictions in a way that’s respectful of democracy and the secular side to not be afraid of religion in the public square.
Indy: Your appearances are described as more like town hall meetings than a typical book tour.
Wallis: I’d say they’re even more like revivals. It just shows that there are a lot of people who felt unrepresented when the only choices presented in the media were two: you either had to be part of the religious right or part of the secular left. A lot of people didn’t fit. It’s become about a lot more than a book.
Indy: What’s your next project, book or otherwise?
Wallis: I’m writing a new book, Revival, on how social justice may require a revival of faith, a spiritual energy and engine to drive social change. I’m thinking hard about, praying hard about, doing justice revivals, as we may call them, around the country, city by city by city, that could really mobilize a constituency for social change among people of faith.
I think poverty has to be a nonpartisan issue and a bipartisan cause, and I talk with both sides of the aisle. I think the War in Iraq is a disaster and we have a major gathering March 16 in Washington, D.C., at the National Cathedral to raise a distinctly Christian voice against the war. We’re working on the issue of genocide in Darfur.
Basically, we’re trying to build a movement here. Name an issue that your readers care about…When politics fails to resolve all the big issues, which it is now doing, social movements rise up. And the best social movements are often ones with spiritual foundations. Social movements can change politics and move politicians and even alter history, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
Jim Wallis will give a presentation Friday, March 2, at 6:30 PM at UM’s University Center Ballroom. $20/$15 in advance/$10 students.