A Call to Liberals To Take Back the Light


By Jo-Ann Mort

Published February 18, 2005, issue of February 18, 2005.
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‘The separation of Church and State does not mean the segregation of religion from the public discourse,” Evangelical Christian Minister Jim Wallis said in a recent interview with the Forward. Wallis –– who lives in Washington, D.C., with his sons and wife, the Rev. Joy Carroll (the first woman to be ordained in the Church of England) –– is among the most sought-after thinkers in the Democratic Party and progressive circles. And his new book, “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It” (HarperSanFrancisco) is a best seller. These days, Wallis is being listened to like a modern-day prophet, as politicians and activists want him to explain the new surge of morality and religion in the public sphere, and seek his guidance on how Democrats can shed their image of godlessness.

Yet, while Wallis, who edits the magazine Sojourners and convenes the left of center religious coalition Call to Renewal, is being hailed as the left’s answer to Jerry Fallwell, he himself emphasizes that he is seeking out a politics of common ground and doesn’t see himself as the Democrat’s preacher. However, Wallis also asserts that “centrist Catholics and evangelicals are very much in play, and Democrats need a clue regarding how to speak to them.”

His new book is an amalgam of his search for a common ground and an attempt to take the legions of churchgoers who appeared to support a conservative social agenda in the last presidential campaign and harness this religious energy for a different issues set. “Personal and social responsibility are both at the heart of religion, and the two together could make a very powerful and compelling political vision for the future of our bitterly divided nation,” he writes.

Wallis, who is himself pro-life (he believes in the “seamlessness of life,” which means that he is both anti-abortion and anti-death penalty), wants to change the conversation in two arenas, while also seeking common ground on the divisive social issues. He wants to make the “secular fundamentalists” on the left less afraid of religious discourse and he similarly hopes to rouse the religious activists on the right to engage in a new issues set. Wallis wants to “challenge” the conservatives on their menu of moral values. His goal is to turn the conversation away from abortion and gay marriage and toward economics, poverty, war and peace. His objective is to build a domestic religious movement against poverty and a global movement that forces the rich nations to help the poorer ones.

“On the issue of poverty, George Bush believes in a God of charity, but not a God of justice,” he writes. “And after September 11, George Bush’s theology became much worse and much more dangerous.” Later in the book, he underscores this point: “To continue to confuse the roles of God and the church with those of the American nation, as George Bush seems to do repeatedly, is a serious theological error that some might say borders on idolatry or blasphemy.”

His models for how religion and politics should interact are the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was a religious authority known for his books and his teaching but was also a leader in the fight to end the Vietnam War and for civil rights for African-Americans. He says that King preached with a “Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other.”

While Wallis sometimes appears to conflate religiosity with moral persuasion — there is no doubt that America always has had politics enmeshed in the public sphere — historically progressive movements, from civil rights to abolition and women’s rights, have had religion in their favor. It’s only recently that evangelism and religion generally have moved to the right of the aisle. The Catholic Church, historically, has played a tremendous role in support of workers’ rights and lobbying for the poor. Wallis, who is greatly influenced by Catholic social teaching and the prophets of the Old Testament, thinks that he can put religion into the service of social justice once again, especially among the young, who “don’t know that progressive religion is an option. We need a broader, deeper conversation and the right needs to lose this discourse.”

There are significant thinkers on the left who distrust religion, and many of them are Jews who are fearful of a Christian orthodoxy. (Wallis recounts a talk he gave to a group of intellectual left-wingers in Boston, where one Jewish influential snapped, “What about the Inquisition?”) But Wallis underscores his belief in a plurality of religious belief; his fundamentalism, he says, is different from that of leaders of the Christian Coalition, who claim to have the only truth.

Whether progressives agree with Wallis or not, there is no question that he has tapped into something that is essentially American. The very fact that we have no established religion has placed religion much more in the public discourse than, for instance, in England or Italy, where there is an established church but little mention of God or faith in politics.

Wallis’s book is best read as a companion to an indispensable volume published in 2004, just before the November election, by The Brookings Institution from the Pew Forum Dialogues on Religion and Public Life, led by journalist E.J. Dionne.

Among the excellent essays are two by Jewish thinkers — Harvard law professor Martha Minow and Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin. “Religiously inflected arguments and perspectives bring critical and prophetic insight and energy to politics and public affairs,” Minnow writes. “There is something woefully lacking in any view that excludes religion entirely from the public sphere… difficulties arise if government actions cross over from reflecting religious sources of vision and energy to preferring one kind of religion over others.”

Kazin, who is completing a biography on progressive evangelist William Jennings Bryan, declares that “the Left has never advanced without a moral awakening entangled with notions about what the Lord would have us do. It is enough to make a secular leftist gag, before reluctantly acknowledging the power of prayer.”

Jo-Ann Mort is co-author of “Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today’s Israel?”(Cornell University Press, 2003).

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