Busted Halo
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July 8th, 2005

Busted: Jim Wallis

The well-known social activist and author of God's Politics talks with Busted Halo

 
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In the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election, the issue of faith—particularly how George W. Bush’s Christian beliefs influence his decisions and policies—became pivotal. While many cited “moral issues” as being important with regard to who they voted for, others felt as though President Bush, the Republican Party and even some religious leaders had hijacked a narrow religious agenda based on abortion and homosexuality and positioned the president as the only choice for voters concerned about morality.

Jim Wallis was a voice of reason and balance in that divisive debate, publicly encouraging the President, as well as Republicans, Democrats and voters in general to consider a broader range of issues—including poverty and the war in Iraq—as moral issues too. His most recent book God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get Itcontinues to address the issue of faith and its oversimplification in American political life by asking the provocative question: ‘How did Jesus become pro-rich, pro-war and only pro-American?’


In addition to being an author, Wallis is a speaker, activist, and international commentator on ethics and public life. He was a founder of Sojourners – Christians for justice and peace – more than 30 years ago and continues to serve as the editor of Sojourners magazine, covering faith, politics and culture. In 1995, Wallis was instrumental in forming Call to Renewal , a national federation of churches, denominations, and faith-based organizations from across the theological and political spectrum working to overcome poverty.

His columns appear in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and other major newspapers. He offers regular commentary and analysis for radio and television and teaches a course at Harvard University on “Faith, Politics, and Society.”

REV. JIM WALLIS: Great name, Busted Halo.

BUSTED HALO: Thank you.

JW: Are you referring to your own halo in particular?


BH: (laughter) Yeah, well we’re a site for spiritual seekers, young adults especially in their twenties and thirties so I guess none of our halos are in mint condition.

JW: Great.

BH: You have been an encouraging presence on the political landscape for progressive people of faith in the past few years, and you often claim that there are millions of people like you especially in evangelical Christian circles. I don’t really see any evidence to support that—it seems to me that the Bush administration’s view of Christianity is dominant.

JW: Well, I don’t think it is. I was at Calvin College [a Christian liberal arts college] just a few weeks ago and we had fifteen hundred people come out to our event. George Bush was coming two weeks later to do the commencement so before my event, I spoke to those faculty and students who were worried and wondered what they should do about the President’s visit. I expected twenty to twenty-five people to show up…there were three hundred! And they said “we are not part of the religious right.” The war in Iraq, poverty and the environment are important issues and they want the world to know that [people-of-faith] don’t all agree with him. So I told them to offer their message. They asked “but how will anyone hear it?” I told them: The President of the United States is coming to Grand Rapids with the entire National press corps. Give them something to cover! (laughter) I took out a full page ad in the Grand Rapids Press: a third of Calvin College signed it. A third of the faculty signed a statement saying “Mr. President, on the basis of our shared Christian faith, we really implore you to re-examine your policies and priorities – regarding the rich, the poor, the prosecution of an unjust, immoral war, the harming of the environment and creating divisiveness in American politics. As a result, a third to half of the coverage of the President’s commencement address was on the protest. Kerry got 21% of the white evangelical vote and that was 33% of Calvin who opposed the president so the idea that all the evangelicals are in the pocket of the Republican Party is not true. And the Democrats have given them nothing to vote for.

It’s like Catholics at Notre Dame. Last spring, it was packed with Catholic activists against the war in Iraq. They care about poverty deeply, care about the environment, about race and they are pro life and against abortion—and the Democrats don’t respect them, they feel. And so a young woman said “4,000 unborn lives were lost today. How can I vote on anything else?” And then, I let the question hover a bit to see what others might say, and sure enough, a young man says, “Well nine thousand died today because of HIV/AIDS.” Another one stood up and said “thirty thousand children died today because of utterly curable diseases, lack of food, and clean drinking water.” That group of Notre Dame students concluded together after an hour and half that there were no pro-life candidates running in the election—Democrat or Republicans. I a firm believer in the consistent ethic of life—Cardinal Bernadin’s seamless garment—[that is, that all life should be protected from conception to natural death, like a seamless garment] and if you value politics that way, you’re critical of both the left and the right. I think that there are a lot of moderate Catholics and evangelicals who really aren’t in the pockets of Democrats or Republicans and who want to critique both from a consistent moral ground.

BH: I think it’s a great point. I think many of us find ourselves at a time in American history when the divide seems so great. But how do you talk to somebody who believes when they meet their maker, He will ask them what they did for unborn life? In political discussions, it’s difficult to counter people who believe that this is the only issue.

JW: Matthew 25 describes the last judgment: the sheep and the goats are being separated, and they all feel that they are all followers of Jesus. The lamb of God is sitting in judgment and he says “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was naked, I was a stranger, I was sick, I was in prison and you weren’t there.” And they say, “When did we see you? And he says, “As you’ve done to the least-of-these, you’ve done to me.” He’s not asking them there about their theology of the Virgin birth or gay marriage or even unborn lives. Now I would include the unborn in the category of vulnerable, or the least of the least-of-these that he’s talking about there. But there are simply no biblical grounds, no theological grounds, for saying that abortion is the only or all-important issue. I’m pro-life, but I think it’s contrary to good Catholic Social Teaching to talk about the kind of single issue voting that a handful of rightwing bishops did. I was in St. Louis , speaking at St. Louis University – Archbishop Burke [of St. Louis] was there. They asked me a question and I said, I’m a Protestant, but I love Catholic Social Teaching and I want to say that any Bishop that says this is the only issue on which Catholics ought to vote is outside the mainstream of Catholic Social Teaching and should check their position with the Vatican and there was a standing ovation because a lot of Catholics couldn’t say that, but I could because I’m not a Catholic.

It’s bad Catholic theology and it’s bad Catholic Social Teaching. Plus, let’s be honest: I think there was a lot of direct collusion with the Republicans and the White House, which is wrong. When that kind of political partisan collusion happens with either party, it’s just wrong. I love the tough prophetic stance [the Bishops conference often takes]—every time I hear John Carr [director of the Department of Social Development and World Peace of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference] talk from the Bishops’ Conference, its tough, its non-partisan, it’s prophetic, it’s attacking both parties. Neither party cares about the poor, neither party shows much concern for the poor, neither party made Iraq a moral and political issue in the campaign. So let’s hold both sides accountable to the issues that come to us by way of scripture and good Catholic social teaching.

In the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election, the issue of faith—particularly how George W. Bush’s Christian beliefs influence his decisions and policies—became pivotal. While many cited “moral issues” as being important with regard to who they voted for, others felt as though President Bush, the Republican Party and even some religious leaders had hijacked a narrow religious agenda based on abortion and homosexuality and positioned the president as the only choice for voters concerned about morality.

Jim Wallis was a voice of reason and balance in that divisive debate, publicly encouraging the President, as well as Republicans, Democrats and voters in general to consider a broader range of issues—including poverty and the war in Iraq—as moral issues too. His most recent book God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It continues to address the issue of faith and its oversimplification in American political life by asking the provocative question: ‘How did Jesus become pro-rich, pro-war and only pro-American?’

Busted Halo: It’s obvious in your new book God’s Politics that you are a huge fan of Martin Luther King Jr. and the impression he made on your life was enormous. King was a man of great faith and clearly a religious leader, and yet he had very specific programmatic ideas. But like a lot of liberal thinking God’s Politics often relies on abstractions rather than programmatic change. What would you suggest, or do you feel it is not your roll to suggest programmatic changes?

Rev. Jim Wallis: As we’re talking, I’m just looking at the walls of my office: King is there, Dorothy [Dorothy Day was the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and is a candidate for sainthood] is there, Nelson Mandela is there, and Gandhi is there. But King and Dorothy are side by side on the wall and I often feel like Martin King is sitting on one shoulder whispering in my ear and Dorothy is sitting on the other shoulder whispering in my ear. Always from the same place. There’s a consistency: Dorothy talked about a way of living, a way of being, and a way of giving your life, and King talked about a movement and a program, and I think we should too. I’m an evangelical, so I would say the new altar-call is going to be around poverty. Charles Finny, the nineteenth century evangelist, invented the Altar Call, which we now know in Billy Graham days. But the reason he invented it was he wanted to sign up his converts for the anti-slavery campaign—he was taking names. In my book I talk about global poverty with the agenda of aid and trade and debt. Next week, are going to take a group of church leaders and faith based organization leaders to the G8 to meetings to put moral pressure on the G8 leaders around debt cancellation, increased trade, and fair and just trade policies (editor’s note: Wallis was interviewed just before the G8 summit began). At home, it means a living family wage for people who work hard, full time. It means health care, it means affordable housing, it means concrete things. The book has a chapter called “Isaiah’s Platform,” about Isaiah 65, which is about security and housing and work, and not working in vain and not raising your children through calamity. That’s all in Isaiah, so I think it’s very specific.

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The Author : Bill McGarvey
Bill McGarvey is co-author of Busted Halo’s Freshman Survival Guide. Bill was editor-in-chief of Busted Halo for six year. In addition to having written extensively on the topics of culture and faith for NPR, Commonweal, America, The Tablet (in London), Factual (Spain), Time Out New York, and Book magazine, McGarvey is a singer/songwriter whose music has been critically acclaimed by the New York Times, Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Billboard and Performing Songwriter. You can follow him at his website billmcgarvey.com or on Facebook.com/billmcgarvey
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