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:

"I was 14. . . . I had these questions about, you know, why we lived the way we did in white Detroit and why life seemed so different in black Detroit. . . . I went into the city and I found the other church, the other evangelical church. The black churches loved the same Jesus, read the same Bible, sang out of the same hymn book, but made it sound so much better than we did. . . . I got kicked out of [the Plymouth Brethren] church, found my home in the civil rights movements and the antiwar struggles of my generation and came back to faith later on."

In 1970, after graduating from Michigan State, Wallis enrolled in the theologically conservative Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago. He soon dropped out, and he and several other disaffected divinity school students founded a commune of sorts. Starting in 1971, the group chronicled its own tumultuous history in the pages of a semi-regular publication originally called the Post-American, and later renamed Sojourners.

The first issue of the Post-American had on its cover a picture of Jesus wrapped in an American flag, over the caption " . . . and they crucified Him." Inside, Jim Wallis authored the manifesto of his movement, announcing what would remain one of his central themes: "The American captivity of the church has resulted in the disastrous equation of the American way of life with the Christian way of life." Over the years, his magazine would devote reams of copy to refuting that equation and proving that "to be Christian in this time is to be post-American." The early volumes are filled with earnest discourses on Christian pacifism, civil rights, anti-Vietnam protest, anti-Israel polemics, and all-around anti-Americanism, complemented nicely by Boogie Nights typefaces and an angry hippie aesthetic.

It was around this time, with liberation theology hot in leftist Christian circles, that Wallis performed the exercise that would form the basis for his subsequent career: He went through the Bible with a pair of scissors and cut out all of the passages pertaining to the poor, to show how little was left when these were removed. When he was finished making this "holey" Bible, he had found his ministry: Jesus cared most for the "least of these," and "so should America."

Wallis was eager to get started disseminating his new message, but things weren't going well at home. His post-American commune had suffered its first crack-up in 1975, and Wallis and about 20 others had transplanted what was left of the enterprise from Chicago to Washington, D.C. But community living didn't flourish in Washington either.

The January 1977 issue of Sojourners ran the transcript of a discussion of the community's evolution. A youthful, bearded "Jim" recalls the moment of "a real shift" in his worldview when the first commune was falling apart. "It first came, I remember, while speaking at a conference on global justice and economics." He realized that while their goals were admirable, rule-based communal living was not working out. The group's "discussions turned into arguments and real disagreements over what model of community we would choose. . . . [We] literally began to lose faith and hope." At the moment of his deepest despair, Jim recalled: "I frankly admitted to the group of people I was speaking to that I wasn't really sure I had anything to say to them at all."

So Wallis decided to tune back in and see how things were going in the outside world. His conclusion: Things were not going well at all.

The evil effects of American actions were all around. In September 1979, Wallis wrote of the Vietnamese "boat people": "Many of today's refugees were inoculated with a taste for a Western lifestyle during the war years and are fleeing to support their consumer habit in other lands," somehow managing to credit their desperate flight in fear of totalitarian oppression to the corruption of capitalism.

In Ronald Reagan's 1980s, Sojourners expatiated on the moral equivalence of the USA and the USSR. "We must refuse to take sides," Wallis wrote, "in this horrible and deadly hypocrisy." For "a totalitarian spirit fuels the engines of both Wall Street and the Kremlin."

Citing the demands of his Christianity, Wallis consistently blamed his own country, while readily praising Marxist revolutionaries. Castro he saw as "serious about basic reform." Of the Sandinistas Wallis wrote, "they have brought a measure of justice to Nicaragua that has never been known before." Their policies "are designed to benefit the poor majority of the country more than the middle and upper classes." After the poor majority of Nicaraguan voters repudiated the Sandinistas in the election of 1990, Wallis asserted mysteriously that "the gift of democracy to the Nicaraguan people came from the Sandinistas."

OVER THE DECADES, Sojourners has adapted and evolved, until today it's essentially a website and an email newsletter. The remnants of the commune have morphed into the nondenominational Sojourners church, which meets in the offices of Sojourners magazine in a residential neighborhood in Washington. Wallis is its pastor, and he still participates in its monthly services, along with a congregation of "a few dozen." He also worships at an Episcopal church (his wife is an ordained minister in the Church of England) and the evangelical Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland.

Through the years, Wallis has become a minor fixture of Beltway culture, at the spot where piety and liberal politics meet. In his own way, he is a "cause celebrity," of the ilk of, say, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund, or public television sage Bill Moyers. Another friend, U2's Bono, blurbed God's Politics, writing: "The Left mocks the Right. The Right knows it's right. Two ugly traits. How far should we go to try to understand each other's point of view? Maybe the distance grace covered on the cross is a clue."

Wallis's current project has a Clintonian ring: He's using his book tour--officially, the "God's Politics Movement Tour"--to foster a "national conversation." He sees himself as an itinerant preacher--"a 19th-century evangelical born in the wrong century"--and a "reformer" who thinks that, though "protest is good, alternatives are better." Now, says Wallis, is "the time for a new conversation about faith and politics in America," for real discussion of questions like whether God would want us to spend taxpayer dollars on missiles or medicine. Wallis's optimism about the power of "true, genuine, open dialogue" remains undimmed.

Besides, there's a special role for him. Up to this point, says Wallis, discussion of religion in politics has been unfairly dominated by the religious right. That needs to end before any progress can be made, and Wallis is doing his share to stop it. He's engaged in several dialogues with Jerry Falwell, for example, though the result isn't always constructive give and take. In their exchange on Hannity & Colmes on February 11, Wallis repeatedly informed Falwell that the "disrespectful monologue" he'd long enjoyed had come to an end:

Wallis: The good news is the monologue of the religious right is over, and a dialogue has finally begun.

Falwell: I think . . .

Wallis: Jerry--you know--Jerry--I didn't interrupt you, Jerry. Millions and millions of Christians, including evangelicals like me, want the nation to know that you don't speak for us. That your Jesus is pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-American, and your monologue is over.

For all Wallis's repeated denunciations of the monologue, an interviewer finds he has a certain penchant for the form. This tendency makes one-on-one conversation tiresome, but allows Wallis to better control what gets said, and so prevent unflattering quotations from winding up in print.

Thus, Wallis prefers to answer all foreign policy questions with a condemnation of American policy in Iraq. One issue he seems particularly anxious to dodge is Afghanistan. Asked about the routing of the Taliban, he holds forth on the disasters of the "uninvited American occupation of Iraq." Pressed, he becomes distinctly uncomfortable, shifting in his seat and fiddling with his reading glasses.

This is because Wallis is functionally a pacifist, and he knows that advertising that fact, far from shoring up the liberal side in a national dialogue, will alienate Republicans and Democrats alike. After much questioning, Wallis admits that he thinks "we should have pursued more alternative solutions" with the Taliban before we went into Afghanistan.

Wallis devotes a significant portion of God's Politics to the question of what constitutes a "just war." In chapters like "Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Winning Without War," "Be Not Afraid: A Moral Response to Terrorism," and the more bluntly titled "Not a Just War: The Mistake of Iraq," he frets about Bush's repeated failure to meet the criteria for just warmaking, and his lack of interest in solving problems by addressing "root causes" like poverty. "There is a certain kind of just-war theory where the game is to create conditions for war that can almost never be satisfied," says Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "Wallis plays that game."

MAINLY, THOUGH, what Wallis is up to these days is building his "movement for spiritual and social change" and arguing for optimism over cynicism. Previous theological agonies dispelled, Wallis fills his book with chatty anecdotes from his speaking tours, his time teaching at Harvard, his appearances on TV and talk radio, his travels at home and abroad. He closes the book with the self-congratulatory (and possibility heretical) declaration: "we are the ones we have been waiting for."

Sojourners, once the home of firebrand rhetoric, also seems peculiarly tame. It cheerfully reports increasing membership and good book sales. There is still some red-meat anti-Americanism, but it is offered sparingly, between tales of blandly gratifying encounters with fans, like this one from a Valentine's Day trip to Memphis. Wallis gives it the title "Beyond the usual":

I walked out of the Memphis Marriott to look for a cab that could take me to a local studio for an interview with Judy Woodruff for Inside Politics on CNN. The bellhop who rushed over to assist me was a young African-American woman who couldn't have been more than 23 or 24 years old. When she saw the copy of God's Politics I was carrying, she exclaimed, "Oh, that's the book all my friends are talking about! Is it good?" Two older bellhops I had met earlier were also standing there and poked the young woman playfully in the ribs. "He wrote the book!" they told her. The men were from local black churches and had cornered me earlier in the day to ask what text I was preaching on for the Lenten series at the downtown Calvary Episcopal Church, and we had a discussion about Ephesians, chapter6. The younger bellhop got even more excited. "Could you sign my book if I bought one and brought it in tomorrow?" she asked eagerly. I had to leave before she got in the next day, but I left a signed copy for her at the front desk. Those are the kinds of experiences that have encouraged me the most on the book tour. When a young African-American woman from the Memphis Marriott and her friends are talking about faith and politics, we are reaching beyond the "usual" audience.

Wallis, who has always prided himself on his "special spiritual connection" with black churches, is clearly chuffed, though it's not obvious in what sense these bellhops are new recruits. Black Protestants--about half of whom identify themselves as evangelicals and 83 percent of whom voted for John Kerry--are hardly newcomers to the liberal cause. And the 22 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Kerry aren't much of a voting bloc.

Mind you, if the "progressive evangelical" movement doesn't pan out, there's plenty to keep Wallis busy. There are books to hawk, television appearances to make, politicians to condescend to, and celebrities to befriend.

But you've got to feel just a little sorry for the guy. Because Jim Wallis finds himself in a familiar situation. He has a message. He's prepared to lead. But despite his best efforts, he has once again come up rather short on the most important ingredient for a sucessful movement--followers.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.