God's Politics: An Interview With Jim Wallis

The Right has been allowed to hijack faith and moral values, argues the editor of Sojourners. It's high time the Democrats got religion.

| Thu Mar. 10, 2005 4:00 AM EST

To say, as some have, that the 2004 presidential election was won and lost on "moral values" is probably an overstatement. It's nevertheless true that among church-going, God-fearing types who think the country has lost its moral bearings, George W. Bush enjoyed vastly more support than did his rival, John Kerry. Is there a lesson here for the Democrats?

Yes, there is, according to Jim Wallis, editor of the leftish religious magazine Sojourners, whose new book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, argues that Democrats, if they ever want to win an election, must learn how to talk about moral values, indeed, to talk the language of moral values, in a way that remains true to the party’s principles.

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The American Right has been able to define “moral values” narrowly, almost exclusively in terms of wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage. It doesn't have to be this way, Wallis argues. Drawing on more than 30 years of work combating poverty, as well as an intimate knowledge of the Bible, Wallis, an evangelical Christian, argues that moral values encompass actions and attitudes toward a host of issues, including poverty, the environment, criminal justice and war.

Through a conversational combination of first-person stories, news analysis, statistics and old fashion preaching (on the written page), Wallis paints a very different picture of what religion means than the one President Bush and many of his supporters have in mind.

His message seems to be resonating with Americans from across the political spectrum. Published by HarperSanFrancisco late in January, it is now fifth on the New York Times bestseller list. For more than a month now, Wallis has been traveling the country to promote God’s Politics. Speaking in churches, bookstores and on radio and television talk shows, Wallis says he is witnessing what could be the birth of a new movement that challenges the hold the Right has had on religion and morality for decades. In San Francisco recently, he dropped by to speak with MotherJones.com.

MotherJones.com: The subtitle of your book is “Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get it.” What does the Right get wrong?

Jim Wallis: The Right is comfortable with the language of religion, values, God talk. So much so that they sometimes claim to own that territory. Or own God. But then they narrow everything down to one or two issues: abortion and gay marriage.

I am an evangelical Christian, and I can’t ignore thousands of verses in the Bible on [another] subject, which is poverty. I say at every stop, “Fighting poverty’s a moral value, too.” There’s a whole generation of young Christians who care about the environment. That’s their big issue. Protecting God’s creation, they would say, is a moral value, too. And, for a growing number of Christians, the ethics of war—how and when we go to war, whether we tell the truth about going to war—is a religious and moral issue as well.

I think the Right has made a serious mistake in adopting a moral-values strategy, because they’re winning in the short run. [But] in the long run, they’re going to lose this debate because they won’t be able to restrict it to two issues. Once you open that door to a values conversation, it’s going to undercut a right-wing economic agenda, which values wealth over work and favors the rich over the poor, or resorts to war as the first resort and not the last. To quote the White House, when it comes to moral values in this discussion, I say, “Bring it on!” Let’s have the conversation, because the Right’s going to lose this debate in the end. But not if the Left doesn’t even get in the conversation.

MJ.com: Is that what you mean when you say the Left doesn’t get it?

JW: [Democrats] forget their own progressive history. Every major social movement in our history was fueled in large part by religion and faith. Abolitionism, women’s suffrage, child labor law, and most famously, civil rights. Where would we be if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had kept his faith to himself? Here’s a party that was vitally connected to the civil rights movement, led by black churches, now has driven so far [away], they’re successfully portrayed by the Right as a secular party hostile to religion.

I think people who are religious or, say, even spiritual, have not felt like there’s much of a home on the Left. That’s at least a huge political concern. Even those who aren’t religious need to respect people of faith. The connection the world’s waiting for is to connect the hunger for spirituality with passion for social change. Because spirituality, when it isn’t disciplined by social justice, in an affluent society, becomes narcissistic. We buy the books, we buy the tapes. We hear the guru speaker. Barnes & Noble has a whole wall of how to be spiritual, balanced, healed, whole. Spirituality becomes a commodity to be bought and sold. So spirituality has to be disciplined by social justice.

MJ.com: And the Left’s big mistake is that it has ignored that potential?

JW: Not just ignored; they’ve ceded the territory. They’ve ignored it at their peril and they’ve turned it over so that the Right gets to say, “Okay, we’ll define it our way. Abortion, gay marriage. That’s it. That’s all. Nothing else.”

MJ.com: What would you say to what you call in the book “secular fundamentalists” who say, “I don’t want anything to do with religion, and I don’t want my politics or my party to have anything to do with religion either?”

JW: I don’t call all secular people “secular fundamentalists.” At every book stop, people say, “I’m secular; I’m an agnostic. Thank you for making me included tonight. I feel spiritually inspired, but I’m not religious. But I care about moral values.” So, to those people I would say, “You know, you can be who you are, but just respect people who are people of faith and include [them] in the movement.” To the secular fundamentalists who want to exclude any religion, I would say, “Do you want to lose every election for the rest of your life? Get smart. Remember progressive history.” We all have an investment in our politics having a moral compass.

MJ.com: In the book you say that it’s not a matter of whether religion should influence politics, it’s a matter of how.

JW: Yeah. This is America. This is the most religious nation on the face of the earth. Religion will be a factor in our public life. The founders wanted to separate church and state not to diminish the role of religion but to strengthen it. Europe has a state church framework and religion has almost no influence. Here, where it’s separated, it’s more dependent and more vital, and stronger. The founders thought strong religion was a factor in the political health of the nation.

I say in the book how Lincoln gets this right, that you don’t invoke God’s blessing on the nation’s policies. You don’t say, “God is on our side.” That leads to all the worst stuff in politics: triumphalism, hubris, bad foreign policy. If you worry that you are on God’s side, that leads to humility and reflection, accountability, maybe even penitence—the missing values in politics.

King did it best: Bible in one hand, Constitution in the other. He never said, “I’m religious, so I get to win.” He didn’t said, “God spoke to me, and I have the fix for Social Security.” He said, “I’m motivated by my faith, but I’ve got to persuade the public on the basis not of religion but of the common good.”

MJ.com: And nowhere in the book do you say that people need to get religion.

JW: In a funny way, I say both parties need to get religion on poverty. This is the big issue on God’s heart, if we take the Bible seriously. Three million people living on less than $2 a day. Thirty thousand children dying every single day of what I call a silent tsunami—nobody pays attention to it.

The Right is attacking me for trying to help the Democrats get religious language so they can win an election. I say to Democrats when they call, “If you want Bible verses and cheap God-talk, I’m not really interested. This isn’t going to be a sprint for you, but a marathon. Not a forum, but a long-term conversation.” I’m interested in content more than language. What is the content of our politics? If getting religion means caring about poverty, then I want both parties to do that. [And for President Bush], I’d like to see some real serious commitment to poverty reduction both at home and around the world. I’d like to see him do the right thing. But so far, it’s faith-based initiatives over here and a budget over here and there’s no commitment to poverty whatsoever.

MJ.com: And that says a lot about this country, right? That we allow that to happen?

JW: I don’t hear people saying, “What about what the Bible says about the poor?" So if his religious backers don’t raise that question and the Democrats don’t speak ever about religion, then he gets to say, “I’m a Christian and it applies to this, this and this, but it doesn’t apply to my budget.” We ought to say, “Yeah, faith does scrutinize budgets, so let’s have a moral values audit of the budget.”

MJ.com: You mentioned in the book a poll that came out shortly after the election that said the majority of Americans wanted to hear about poverty.

JW: “What is the greatest moral crisis facing America?” is the poll. This is after the flawed exit poll. Sixty-four percent said either greed and materialism or poverty and economic justice. And I think about 16 percent, abortion, and 11 percent or less, gay marriage. So when the question was asked straight up, moral values, that’s what happened.

MJ.com: If that’s what’s on the minds of the American people, and at least in election years, candidates theoretically listen to their constituents, then why wasn’t that part of the discussion?

JW: Good question. Why didn’t John Edwards get listened to? He did by the voters; he didn’t by his own party. He became vice president and they put him on the shelf. John Edwards was speaking to this powerfully in the spring. Two Americas. Good language. And he was put on the shelf.

What if we had a candidate who spoke to the issues of economic justice as a moral value? I think there’d be a deep resonance among American people. Democrats haven’t made poverty a moral issue in years.

MJ.com: So you think it was more the party not heeding the issue than the citizens?

JW: Absolutely. I’m out in the country all the time now; this is a big, big issue. This is a big issue for religious and non-religious people. Poverty could be the thing that calls us together across our political dividing lines. But you need political leaders who articulate that and say why this is connected to our faith, our humanity, and our security. The line [from my book] that draws a great response every single time is, “Unless we drain the swamp of injustice in which these mosquitoes of terrorism breed, we’ll never overcome terrorism.” Everybody knows that. Most Americans know that you can’t defeat terrorism by killing terrorists. So the president says, “My response to terrorism is to kill terrorists.” And John Kerry says, “Yup. And my response is to kill even more of them.” That was our debate. It’s politically foolish and spiritually bankrupt.

[The prophet] Micah’s said that there’s no security apart from common security. Israelis aren’t going to ever be secure unless Palestinians are. Wealthy nations won’t be secure until poor nations are. That’s just true.

MJ.com: But our foreign policies won’t change until the leadership in the Democratic Party—or even the Republican Party—brings moral values into the discussion?

JW: John Kerry should have said in the debates when he was being beat up on abortion and Eucharist, “Mr. President, the Pope says the war in Iraq is wrong. The Pope says it isn’t a just war. Mr. President, why are you defying the Holy Father in Iraq? As a Catholic I must ask you that question.” Well, he couldn’t say that because he didn’t have a clear position himself on Iraq, John Kerry didn’t.

MJ.com: In the book you said the President didn’t meet with you or other religious leaders before the war. Tony Blair did. What do you make of the president using religious language to justify the war, yet refusing to acknowledge religious leaders?

JW: At first, he was genuinely open and had meetings with several of us about poverty and faith-based initiatives. The first time I met him, he actually said this very candid thing: “I don’t understand poor people, I’ve never been around poor people. I’m a white Republican guy who doesn’t get it. I’d like to. How do I get it?”

I don’t hear presidents talking that way very much. That made me hopeful. But then, he closed off after Sept. 11, and Iraq especially. He uses the language of religion but he’s not willing to be accountable to biblical faith, so he doesn’t want to listen to religious wisdom that might disagree with him. A moral response to terror is a complicated issue, and he should avail himself of all the wisdom he can find. He wouldn’t have to agree with it all. Just listen. Tony Blair listened for over an hour. And talked. Rigorous, good moral dialogue with Blair. And Bush—even his own Methodist bishops he wouldn’t listen to. That’s a mistake. It’s a political mistake. It’s a moral failure to not listen.

The majority of Christians throughout the world were opposed to the war in Iraq. That’s a fact. And the Christian president fought the war in Iraq. What does that mean about his perception of faith?

MJ.com: Well, what do you make of that?

JW: That we’re dealing with a religion that is more American than Christian. He changes the words of scripture. “The light shines in the darkness. The darkness does not overcome it,” he said at Ellis Island, the first anniversary of Sept. 11. Well, that’s [from the Gospel of] John. It’s not the American beacon of freedom to the world. You don’t change the words of scriptures. That bothers us evangelicals.

Or he changes hymnology: “Power, power, wonder working power.” When he said that in the State of the Union, he got 60 million people going, “I know that song.” But the wonder working power in the song is the salvation of Christ—not the faith and idealism of the American people. This is an American civil religion. This isn’t biblical faith. I think the president just doesn’t want to be accountable to biblical faith.

MJ.com: So Bush has a selective reading of the Bible. But for readers who may not know the Bible very well, which teachings of Jesus is Bush practicing and which is he not?

JW: My conversion text is the 25th chapter of Matthew, where Jesus said, “As you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me.” I don’t hear Bush ever talking about the Sermon on the Mount; I just don’t hear it. I’m hard pressed to think of teachings of Jesus that are being talked about in the White House.

Jesus didn’t speak at all about homosexuality. There are about 12 verses in the Bible that touch on that question. Most of them are very contextual. There are thousands of verses on poverty. I don’t hear a lot of that conversation.

What you really don’t hear [from Bush] is Jesus saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Or even more, how many sermons have we heard since Sept. 11 on the text, “Love your enemies?” It hasn’t been a very popular text since Sept. 11. Well, we should at least have a debate about what Jesus meant by blessed are the peacemakers and love your enemies in a world full of terrorism and tyranny.

I remember Bill O’Reilly one night was yelling at me about Iraq. I said, “Bill, what would Jesus do? Can you imagine him climbing into the cockpit of a B-52 and dropping a load of bombs over Baghdad?” And Bill said, “Well, Jesus would surely want to protect the American people.” And I said, “Really? What about the Iraqis?” “Well, well, them, too.” Once you start talking about this in a religious frame, it’s troubling.

The Republicans will not hold [Bush] accountable to the biblical prophets when they think all the issues are about abortion, and the Democrats don’t even know the language. He gets away with it. There’s got to be a progressive religious response to Bush that says, “We don’t quibble with your piety, but we challenge your theology.” There is no American exceptionalism in the Bible. The Gospel is uneasy with empire—except American empire?

MJ.com: And in your travels you’ve seen that kind of response to Bush growing up from the grassroots?

JW: It’s become a national town meeting. Folks who’ve been coming out feel that when faith is talked about in the media or the White House it’s not their faith. It’s always this narrow, either Religious Right or this White House religion, and I think people are finding their own voice and their own faith in the safe space of a discussion about a book. There are evangelicals, Catholics, mainline, black churches, Jews, Muslims, young people who say they’re spiritual but not religious, agnostics who say they’re secular but care about moral politics.

MJ.com: Yet even if there is all that energy, unless it’s organized and geared towards a goal ...

JW: Well, the conversation back around my shop is, “What do we do with this?” This isn’t just about selling books now. This is about how to build a movement on the back of a book tour. The story now is not the book, but the tour. Why are so many people at bookstores?

We’re getting 400 in Dayton, Ohio, and Austin, Texas, and Wichita, Kan. Also in Philadelphia and Boston. They’re sitting on the floor. In Los Angeles, it was pouring rain. A thousand people showed up. It’s this buzzing thing, which means that something is needing to be expressed.

I’m getting 30 new speaking invitations every day. There are a lot of young, articulate spokespeople who ought to be out in the churches speaking, so we’re going to create a speakers bureau and then move these invitations out to this new generation of young women, young men who have a lot to say.

I think it’s less about my voice than [the people’s]. They don’t feel their voice has been represented in the conversation. And this is a chance to be heard. The good news is that the monologue of the Religious Right is now over and a new dialogue is finally beginning.

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