Busted: Jim Wallis

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

BH: Some of us perhaps might not be familiar with evangelical circles and certainly I think the reputation or the stereotype is of the preachers we often see on television. Can you define that broad category and where you fit in it? And if it has become stereotyped or caricatured in the past fifty years, why is that?

JW: Well I am a nineteenth century evangelical, born in the wrong century. Last century, evangelicals fought against slavery, fought for women’s suffrage, they fought for child labor law reform. The altar call was about slavery. And so it got privatized in the 20th century when it got all middle class, it got all Republican: it conformed to the world, you might say. And then some of us joined the Religious Right, but I think you’re going to see a new generation of now-young evangelicals that are winning the debate on Christian college campuses. We had one hundred fifty young people in an emerging leaders track in our big mobilization two weeks ago with Bread of the World [a Christian movement seeking to end world hunger]. We had two thousand people in the cathedral that night for convocation on hunger and poverty around the world. I think this is going to be the new issue and evangelicals will be at the center of it, along with Catholics, along with mainline Protestants and Black Churches. So I just think it’s time to build a movement now. Evangelicals are about the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible: those two things. Well in Jesus’ first sermon at Nazareth, what I call his Nazareth Manifesto, He says “the sprit of the Lord is upon me because he anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” Those are the first words out his mouth, and that’s what it means to be evangelical. Now the reality of TV preachers and all their wealth and extravagance and baggage and corruption is a far cry from Jesus. How did Jesus become pro-rich, pro-war and only pro-American? You know it has been stolen and I’m saying it’s time to take it back.

BH: You refer back in your own formation in the sixties to the civil rights movement, and, one of the things that struck me in the political discourse currently is that Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty in the mid 1960s and I can’t imagine a major political figure in this country declaring that same war today. That isn’t really part of the discourse; we don’t talk about it. The American voting populace seems to be over that notion, and it’s almost considered quaint. Do you agree with that? Is it just that the Great Society failed?

JW: Well, you know King talked about how they were subjugating our efforts to address the issue of poverty: it got overwhelmed by the war in Vietnam in terms of spending and priority and attention and resources. Gordon Brown [Chancellor of the Exchequer in Great Britain, like the Secretary of the Treasury in the U.S.] says it would take just $50 billion dollars to end extreme poverty as we know it in the world. We pay five billion in Iraq every month, that’s sixty billion a year. We give fifty billion in tax cuts to millionaires every year. So it’s a matter of choices here. Now it’s not just money. There’s personal and social responsibility here—they’re both needed. There are cultural issues, there are family issues—all that’s true. But it’s mostly a matter of moral and political will and that’s what I think the faith community has got to help create. And I think we’re going to. There’s a beginning of a movement out there in the country; I feel it every single night. I was in Wilmington, Delaware last night: the Church was packed. Every time, the Church auditorium was packed with people who want to join something, to be a part of something, want their faith to mean something–particularly young people. Every single time there are lots and lots and lots of young people.

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 (shown above in 2004 signing a statement by a wide spectrum of Christian denominations who agreed to make poverty their primary electoral issue) 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?’

BH: For of those us who aren’t old enough to remember the sixties and the Civil Rights movement do you feel there are any parallels now? It seems to me there was more of a clear enemy then, so to speak, or a clearer objective in some ways.

JW: Yes! Half of our shop here is under thirty, our senior staff twenty-seven, twenty eight, twenty-five. Yeah, my young political director will be taking on and organizing his own delegation to the G8. He’s a young African-American kid, just thirty. And there’s a direct comparison for him in what he reads about with SNCC and SCLC [The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, two prominent civil rights organizations]. He’s now in HIV/AIDS and poverty with that kind of energy and moral motivation and mobilization, and that’s what he wants to do with his life. And I find everywhere I go, the young of the world are all pouring out, because of their faith. Faith is supposed to change the big things and they want their lives to be about big things.

I gave three commencements this spring and I said every time what’s the big thing you’re going to do? Don’t live your life for a bunch of small things—change the big things with faith. And not just big things, but things that we don’t think can be changed, that will never change, where the odds are against us. That’s why we call it faith and that’s why faith-based, inspired people have always been the first ones to say this is the change we have to make, the change we can make, and the change we will make. And they imagine it at first and then they bet their lives on it, and it becomes a possibility.

BH: For religious seekers, Reverend, out there, the average American seeker who wants to make a difference immediately. Do you have a few things you’d suggest he or she do?

JW: Well, we have a whole lot of people coming out who say “I am spiritual but not religious.” Or “I’m agnostic but I care about moral values and I want to be part of this.” Like John Stewart, when I did his show, we had a great time, and afterwards, he said “I’m really drawn to this, but I’m pretty secular,” and I said “John, don’t write yourself off as being secular, there’s a spiritual, moral edge to what you’re doing. Trust it, listen to it, and follow it.”

And you know, I think a lot of people are secular because they are tired of TV preachers, pedophile priests, cover-up bishops and White House theology, all that. The e-mails I got from the Stewart show were like that. They said ‘I didn’t know you could be a Christian and care about poverty or care about the environment or care about the war in Iraq .’ They didn’t know. So I’m meeting all these people all over the country—like a desk clerk gives me an upgrade at the Comfort Inn because she saw [The Daily Show] and liked the book—all kinds of people that we didn’t get to before, we’re getting to now.

I think it’s about the choices you make between vocation and career. What you do with your life, the big difference between hope and cynicism. What you do in your own neighborhood, and how we raise our collective voice around the big issues to change the things we can change. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer from Great Britain, says: “For the first time in history, we have the knowledge, information, technology, and resources to end extreme poverty as we know it. We couldn’t do it before; now we could. What we lack is the moral and the political will.” He looks across the table and says, “That’s your job, the Churches, to create them,” and he’s right. A whole new generation of faith-inspired activists is going to make the difference here, and a lot of them are evangelicals. A lot of them are Catholics, a lot of them are faith-based, and some of them are just spiritually motivated, but what they know is they want to give their life for something big, something that makes a difference. They want to do more than just climb the ladder of success and collect all the stuff. That isn’t satisfying, and they want something more. They’re looking for meaning. They’re looking for connection. If they have faith, they want to put it into practice and they know if they don’t, it won’t mean anything. Discussing religion never changed anything; betting your life on faith sometimes has.

BH: That’s a good point. A lot of conservative Catholics seem obsessed with abortion, sexual purity and homosexuality. Do you see that wave?

JW: We can build some common ground on even those issues. Let’s come together around dramatically reducing unwanted pregnancies. It’s a scandal, this abortion rate. We can make a difference on that question. I care about strong families and parenting. I am a dad of a six-year-old and two two-year-olds. But you know, the issues in raising kids and healthy kids, and healthy marriage and families, the issue isn’t whether civil unions should pass or not. Let’s be pro-marriage, pro-family, pro-kids, pro-parenting. In a Democratic society, gay people should have civil rights, so let’s be pro-family and pro-gay civil rights at the same time. But those aren’t the only issues if we take the bible seriously or Catholic Social Teachings seriously. You’ve got three thousand verses in the Bible regarding the poor. I insist poverty is a moral values issue, protecting God’s creation, the environment, is a moral values issue. The ethics of war, whether you go to war, when, how and whether you tell the truth about it is a religious matter too. So how do you really broaden the conversation beyond a couple of hot button issues and how do you challenge the left, who seem to have a disdain, some of them, for religious values and faith. And we say “wait a minute, where would we be if King kept his faith to himself?”