The Magazine

God's Democrat

From the April 11, 2005 issue: The church of Jim Wallis.

Apr 11, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 28 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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IT TAKES A CERTAIN AMOUNT of chutzpah to write a book called God's Politics. But you have only to read a few pages of Jim Wallis's new bestseller by that name to discover that it isn't actually about the politics of an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful deity at all. Instead, it's 384 pages of Jim's politics, and Jim (with a couple of notable exceptions) is a pretty average, down-the-line leftist who, by the way, believes in God.

Wallis is a hot property lately on the talk-show, book-tour circuit and, more important, in Democratic party backrooms. Still smarting from their rebuff by "values voters" last November, Democrats are paying close attention to what he has to say. As Wallis notes, there's "nothing like failure to make you reassess." Some are wondering whether Wallis--who calls himself a "progressive evangelical"--could be the impresario of a religious left, a liberal Jerry Falwell.

Wallis, for his part, is eager to dispel the notion. "The Weekly Standard will do well if it doesn't paint the progressive evangelical movement as all the liberals who are religious," he stresses in an interview. Instead, Wallis presents himself as above the fray, a nonpartisan agitator following the truths of the Bible wherever they lead. "Religion doesn't fit neatly in the categories 'left' and 'right,'" he notes. "It should challenge left and right." He portrays himself as a man who can walk among the denizens of both parties and face down both.

What's wrong with this picture is that it squares poorly with the evidence of either Wallis's present or his past. Take the political program advocated in God's Politics. A liberal Democrat will find almost nothing here to challenge him, unless he balks at praise for "healthy, two-parent families"; a conservative Republican almost nothing to agree with. The obvious exception is abortion. Wallis is pro-life and forthrightly deplores the Democratic party's "highly ideological and very rigid stance on this critical moral issue." But his chapter "A Consistent Ethic of Life" offers a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down for committed pro-choice Democrats, pairing the case against abortion with the case against capital punishment. Pro-choicers will have no trouble shrugging off this breach in an otherwise nearly flawless leftist litany on poverty, war, the environment, domestic spending, racism, the Middle East, the evils of advertising, and the awarding of sinister contracts to Halliburton.

Asked to name a prominent Republican ally, Wallis mentions only Mark Hatfield, who retired from the Senate in 1997. Current Democratic senators, meanwhile, are fervent in their praise. Byron Dorgan calls Wallis a "breath of fresh air." Both Minority Leader Harry Reid and liberal patriarch Edward Kennedy credit Wallis with helping them figure out how to talk about values, aides told the Los Angeles Times. Reid has even borrowed from Wallis's editorials in the magazine he edits, Sojourners, for floor speeches, vowing to "turn this budget into a moral document."

One Democrat Wallis is willing to criticize is DNC chairman Howard Dean, whom he takes to task for the famous campaign howler of naming Job as his favorite book in the New Testament. "The worst thing," Wallis says, "is to be inauthentic." And on that score, Wallis throws a sop to the president: "From what I have seen and heard of George W. Bush (including in small meetings and personal conversation I've had with the president) I believe his faith to be both personal and real." The qualification that follows, however, is damning: The president "is often guilty of bad theology." As Wallis sees it, Bush and other Republicans want to make Americans believe that Jesus is--in a favorite refrain--"pro-war, pro-rich, and only pro-American."

That last theme, while a nasty misrepresentation of Bush's theology, makes perfect sense in the context of Wallis's 35-year history of effectively pacifist, anti-capitalist, pro-socialist positions. With the exception of abortion and family values, the political issues that animate him today are the direct descendants of those that launched him into a career of activism back in his student days, when he and his friends were being tear-gassed protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam, in the heyday of the New Left.

WALLIS IS NO STRANGER to fledgling movements. For starters, he was born into one. Wallis grew up in Detroit's Plymouth Brethren Church, an independent neighborhood evangelical church of which his parents were founding members. Asked about his adolescent religious development, Wallis, 56, tells the same story, nearly word for word, in most venues. Talking to Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air at the beginning of his book publicity blitz, Wallis said: