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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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.