Right after Easter, the irrepressible evangelical-left activist Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine announced a new “spiritual battle” against cuts to sacred federal programs in the 2012 budget. Enlisting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the Salvation Army, Wallis proclaimed their “Circle of Protection” around federal poverty programs. Wallis himself had just completed a very public Lenten fast against any cuts in the 2011 budget, joined by two dozen Democratic congressmen.
The theme for Wallis’s 2011 and 2012 budget campaigns has been “What Would Jesus Cut?” The answer is that Jesus is aligned with liberal Democrats, opposing cuts to the welfare state, while desiring higher taxes and cuts in the military.
How does Wallis—the old Students for a Democratic Society agitator who touted the Vietcong in the 1970s and the Sandinistas in the 1980s, who denounced welfare reform in the 1990s as a betrayal of the poor, and whose funding by George Soros was exposed last year—enlist Catholic bishops and mainstream evangelicals in his endless political campaigns? “We’re frankly challenging leadership on both sides of the aisle on this one,” he recently told reporters. “If you’re going to come after the poor, you have to go through us first.” Famously a name dropper, Wallis mentioned his impending White House visit. He’d urged evangelicals to support Obama in 2008 and has carefully not burned bridges, despite passage of the ultimately bipartisan 2011 budget cuts against which he fasted.
Fifteen years ago, a more incendiary Jim Wallis furiously condemned as a “great national sin” President Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform agreement with Republicans. “By sacrificing hundreds of thousands of poor children to his bid for reelection, Bill Clinton failed the most serious test of his presidency,” Wallis warned. He prophesied: “We’re now about to experience a hurricane of human suffering.”
In the 1990s, Wallis began convening “Call to Renewal” events in Washington, D.C., that claimed “third-way” politics but bashed capitalism and religious conservatives. The Call originally featured old fixtures of the religious left like the Episcopal church’s top prelate. In one early stunt, Wallis and Call activists sought arrest in the Capitol Rotunda to protest Republicans’ Contract with America. Soon Wallis realized the old street theater wasn’t working and that appealing to evangelicals concerned about poverty and the environment was more politically viable. “God doesn’t mind prosperity as long as prosperity is shared,” he conceded in the late 1990s.
Initially Wallis was friendly to President George W. Bush, especially his faith-based initiatives. “My hope is that we will have a partnership,” said Wallis, who met with Bush before the Inauguration. In a flurry of op-eds in prominent newspapers, he allowed that his friends on the left were dubious about the new administration, but he had high hopes.
Wallis contrasted Bush with the Clinton administration, which had been “very solicitous” of Sojourners and the Call but didn’t offer “much content.” Both Clintons flattered Wallis with attention, he recalled, but he wanted more than photo-ops. Bill Clinton had “no moral compass,” Wallis complained, saying the administration dropped him after he denounced welfare reform.
Tired of the “same old people and the same old solutions,” Wallis reported traditional allies were concerned about his outreach to evangelicals. “The cold war among religious groups over the poor is over,” declared Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals at a Call rally shortly before Bush’s election. Cizik moved left during the Bush years, losing his job after endorsing same-sex civil unions and finding refuge with George Soros’s Open Society Institute.
Last year, World magazine reported that Soros’s philanthropy had funded Wallis with $325,000 during 2004-2007. It may be unfair to credit Soros, but Wallis, too, cooled towards Bush. He implored white evangelicals, who backed Bush by nearly 80 percent in 2004, to vote for Democrats because of their stands on poverty, the environment, and peace. In 2008, white evangelicals overall still sided overwhelmingly with McCain, but a larger slice of young evangelicals voted Democratic. Wallis’s activities generally echoed the growing evangelical-left elite on evangelical campuses.
Wallis featured Senator Obama at a Call rally and in 2008 effusively supported him for president, earning White House access. In 2009 Wallis hosted a conference call to energize religious support for Obama-care. “I’m going to need you to spread the facts and speak the truth,” Obama told listeners, complaining that “our religious faith” is inconsistent with America’s current health care system. He also insisted his plan would not fund abortions or facilitate “death panels.” Wallis interjected: “We are in danger of losing the moral core of the health care debate,” even as “many people are hurting from our broken health care system.”
Despite his embrace of Obama, Wallis has continued to insist he’s nonpartisan, and this has opened doors. In 2010, he addressed the annual evangelical “Lifest” in Wisconsin, which typically attracts 70,000 to its open-air concerts. One Christian radio station withdrew its support, protesting Wallis’s “unholy alliance between the church and government.” But the event’s organizer still introduced Wallis warmly as his “brother in Christ,” saying, “I believe he has a message from God for the church today.”
Wallis responded with humor, saying he’d heard some people around there thought he was “an avowed Marxist.” Well, as a student he’d read a lot of things, including Jesus’ command to care for the “least of these,” which was “more radical than Karl Marx and Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh.” And he’d “signed up to be a follower of Jesus.” The young audience, no doubt ignorant of the Marxist groups that once inspired Wallis, gave him enthusiastic applause.
To his credit, Wallis has been debating conservatives. Last year at Wheaton College with Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, Wallis reasoned that a “new generation is tired” of the “argument between big government and small government.” More important is “what is smart and effective government.” Having been arrested 22 times, Wallis insisted he is a “movement person” akin to Martin Luther King, rather than a promoter of either government or the free market.
This year at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, Wallis debated King’s College president Dinesh D’Souza over American “exceptionalism.” Wallis extolled “God bless the world” over “God bless America,” warning against a “kind of exceptionalism” that creates “self-delusion.” He professed love for America’s “values” but lamented, “I don’t love when we violate those values, . . . acting like an empire.” D’Souza countered that “American foreign policy has made the world much better.” Wallis pointedly mentioned his ongoing Lenten fast against budget cuts several times.
These days the angry rhetoric is mostly gone. White-haired and often sporting a black turtleneck, Wallis has become an elder statesman among religious activists. His Circle of Protection coalition with Catholic bishops and evangelicals testifies to his successful political transition into the religious mainstream, at least in terms of image. His essential message, however—that God favors big government and opposes American “empire”—remains virtually unchanged across 40 years.
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.