On God's Side

... [R]eligion has to be disciplined by democracy. That means you don't enter the public square and say I'm religious so I ought to win. Or God has spoken to me directly and I have the fix for Social Security. You say my faith motivates me. It shapes my convictions or it compels me to act on behalf of the poor, or peace, or whatever. – Jim Wallis, God's Politics

Christianity Today describes Jim Wallis as "an evangelical leader in the faith-based [l]eft and a frequent critic of George W. Bush." Is there any wonder BuzzFlash is drawn to him? Both preacher and down-in-the-trenches social justice activist, Wallis currently is touring the country as a New York Times best-selling author discussing and signing his book, God's Politics. Not surprisingly, Wallis' message of inclusion and involvement is reverberating with Christians who don't like the right wing's "holier than thou" approach to politics, with its narrow and divisive emphasis on abortion and gay marriage. BuzzFlash talked with Jim Wallis about progressive values, God, and good deeds.

BuzzFlash: The subtitle of your book, God's Politics, states, "Why the right gets it wrong and the left doesn't get it." What do you mean by that?

Jim Wallis: The right is very comfortable with the language of faith and values and God and faith. In fact, they think they own it sometimes, or almost own religion or own God.

And then they narrow everything to one or two hot-button social issues, as if abortion and gay marriage are the only two moral values questions. And those are important issues and they need a deeper, wider conversation – kind of a moral discussion on all sides. That's fine.

But did anybody really suggest or imagine these are the only two moral values issues? I'm an evangelical Christian and I find 3,000 verses in the Bible on the poor, so fighting poverty is a moral value too, or protecting the environment – protecting God's creation is a moral value. The ethics of war – whether we go to war, how we go to war, whether we tell the truth about the war – are fundamental moral and religious questions.

So the right wing narrows and restricts, and a broader, deeper conversation would really challenge the agenda of the right which values wealth over work, and favors the rich over the poor, and basically in foreign policy, sees war as a first resort and not a last resort.

The left, on the other hand ... well there was a Democratic Party a few decades ago that was vitally linked to a civil rights movement led by black churches. And every major social reform movement in America has been in part fueled by religion, by faith – abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, child labor law reform and, of course, civil rights.

But now, in the last several decades, the Democrats have become increasingly uncomfortable with the language of religion, faith – even values sometimes – and they sound very secular. They even sound, to many, hostile to religion. I know a lot of religious people who share the Democrats' social agenda – in fact, I'm more progressive than the Democrats often are – but they feel disrespected by Democrats for applying their faith or their values.

So Democrats have to recover their heart and their soul. They need to understand the separation of church and state does not mean the segregation of moral values and religious discourse – religious language, even – from public life. Where would we be if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had kept his faith to himself? He did it with a Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other hand, and had a moral discourse on politics in a way that he made everybody feel invited and no one got left out.

Let's move on to the issue of inclusion versus exclusion. If we look at the Bush administration and its fundamentalist supporters, they exclude anyone that they believe has not been "saved" by Jesus. In fact, you probably recall that both Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell indicated they thought the 9/11 horrific tragedy was a result of America having become a morally fallen nation. You [promote] the politics of inclusion – working with different denominations, and different religions. So, in a society where there is officially a separation of church and state, how does one work with different religions? And even though people pray to gods of their own religion, what brings the values together?

Well, having had two debates this week with Jerry Falwell, I want to tell you that he excludes me. Listen – religion doesn't have a monopoly on morality, and that should be clearly stated. What we're finding in this book tour and in my book signings – from Austin, Texas to Dayton, Ohio to wherever we go – the usual reading to 50 people sitting quietly in their seats has grown to be town meetings with 400 people sitting on the floor.

And they're not just large crowds, they're diverse crowds. You've got evangelicals who don't feel represented by Jerry Falwell. You've got Catholics who feel the bishops – the right-wing bishops who command them to single-issue voting only on abortion, and ignore all the rest of Catholic social teaching – they don't feel spoken for by them. You've got mainline Protestants who feel left out of the whole conversation and always disrespected. You've got black churches who feel like this is always a white conversation about religion. Latinos, Asian Christians, and a lot of Jews are coming out – rabbis and their congregations. A lot of the synagogues are having book studies on the book. And it's full of Mikah and Amos and Isaiah, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. And a lot of the Muslims who are looking for a better, more humane, inclusive religion are coming out to this, too, of course.

A lot of folks who are not religious but would call themselves spiritual are interested, and a whole lot of young people – a whole lot of young people who maybe saw me on Jon Stewart, on The Daily Show, and they are now saying we didn't know that Christians could care about poverty, the environment, or be against the war in Iraq. They didn't know a progressive religion option even existed.

And while that's amazing and sad, it's now heartening that they see that one does exist. So they're coming out in droves – high school kids and college kids and students. We're having these great town meetings, basically. What was going to be a book signing became a town meeting in all these bookstores. And of course we're having it in churches and colleges, too. The country is hungry – hungry – for a new conversation, a better dialogue, on faith, values and politics. And the one thing that's true – I can say after four weeks on the road here – is in regard to faith and values and politics, the monologue of the religious right is now over and a new dialogue has begun.

I'll paraphrase what you said on the Jon Stewart show. You said that Jesus, if He were here today and in the White House, wouldn't have begun His work by starting a war and lowering taxes for the wealthiest people in the country.

Well, it was really kind of funny. Jon, and I made a nice connection on the show – I just liked him a lot. He said, 'So, Jim, you want to apply religion ... to politics?' And I could feel like millions of his audience saying, 'Oh, no – Jon's got some wacky right-wing evangelical. It's going to ruin my favorite show.' And I said, 'Well, Jon, I hardly think that Jesus' two first priorities would have been a capital gains tax cut and the occupation of Iraq.' And the audience started to relax and think, 'Yeah!' and cheered.

At one point [in the show], my favorite – I cited the 25th chapter of Matthew, where Jesus says, "I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was naked. I was sick. I was a stranger. I was in prison. And you didn't come to see me. You didn't minister to me." And they say, we didn't know – "When did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, stranger, in prison?" And as He says, "As you've done to the least of these, you've done to Me." And so the audience – this young audience – cheered for Matthew 25. I thought it was great.

And then I said, "How did Jesus become pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-American?" And I'll tell you, the response from that youthful, pretty secular crowd of people in the audience and around the country has been just overwhelming. First of all, it shows you how many people watch Jon's show. Lots of people watch the show, and not just young people. But to have that conversation and break open the stereotype – this, in the cultural zeitgeist, the stereotype still is, religious equals right wing. And if this book helps to break that stereotype, I will be very happy indeed.

I'm looking at parts three, four and five of your book – "When Did Jesus Become Pro-War?" "When Did Jesus Become Pro-Rich?" "When Did Jesus Become a Selective Moralist?" Within the Christian denominations and certainly vis-à-vis President Bush and his fundamentalist supporters, there is a difference of opinion – a battle – over Jesus at this point. If you are a Christian, what are you to make of this?

Well, I think, you know, the real battle is not between being religious and being secular. That's the old battle. The real battle is between very different versions of faith, very different versions of what it means to be religious. I don't quibble with George Bush's piety, his personal faith. I don't think it's fake or fraudulent. But I challenge his theology.

And so basically we have a real debate about what faith means in the world. Like you said before, is it exclusive or inclusive? Does it support a prosperity gospel that basically says the rich are so because of God's blessing, and the poor are so because of their own failings and their own faults? Or is this a God who stands on the side of the poor, like the prophets do, and challenge the rich and powerful to change their ways and their policies?

Is this a God who is somehow an American God who has called America to lead a war on terrorism, and even the president to do that? Or as Jesus said, don't just see the [splinter] in your adversary's eye, but also the one in your own eye. Just to see evil in the faces of Sept. 11 is one thing. Of course, anybody who can't see evil in the face of Sept. 11 is suffering from some kind of postmodern relativism, I suppose. But to say they are evil and we are good is bad theology. It's simply bad theology and it leads to bad foreign policy.

I'm not quite sure of the implications of what you've said about moving from a secular to a a religious society. I regard a secular society as a society that includes all faiths or people who don't have faith. ... And it means, not that society is without religion, but that the government doesn't impose any one religion or religious interpretation ... on all the people of society because people have the right to believe in their own faith, or not believe in a faith. I just want to know if you are comfortable with that definition of secular.

Yes. I was saying that, when I was growing up, it was often viewed as a real battle between religion – us – and secularism – secular humanism. That's always the big fight. I'm saying no – within the religious community, the real battle is what kind of faith are we talking about?

There are different versions, different visions of faith that are really in a serious debate now, a serious dialogue. And in the religious community, there's a real debate about what they feel. I've had big debates, as I mentioned, with Jerry Falwell. We have very different visions and versions of the Christian faith – very different.

Now we live in a democratic, pluralistic, very diverse society in which we believe strongly in the separation of church and state. And that means the government does not establish religion, does not establish one religion over others, or doesn't establish religion over unbelief. There's no distinction between whether a citizen is religious or not.

In the public square, we have a moral discourse on politics. We don't vote for somebody who prays the most often or has learned the most Bible verses or goes to church the most often. We don't ask about the religiosity of a candidate. We ask about their moral compass – what is their moral sense of politics? And if faith shapes that, then it's fine to learn about how their faith shapes their moral compass, whether they're a Joe Lieberman or a George Bush or a John Edwards or Barack Obama.

But in the public square, religion has to be disciplined by democracy. That means you don't enter the public square and say I'm religious so I ought to win. Or God has spoken to me directly and I have the fix for Social Security. You say my faith motivates me. It shapes my convictions or it compels me to act on behalf of the poor or peace or whatever.

But then you say, here is my best offering on this question, and I have to persuade my fellow citizens. I have to persuade them that what I think is best for the common good – not that it's the best religious vision, but it's best for all of us. 

Martin Luther King had a wonderful vision of the beloved community, where everybody had a place at the table, and especially those who were left out and left behind had a front-row seat, you know? But then he said, now we need a civil rights law. And by 1964, he persuaded his fellow citizens and the Congress that this was good for the country. In 1965, we got the Voting Rights Act. So he had to persuade – he and all the civil rights religious leaders, they didn't say, you know, this should happen because I'm a Baptist or because I'm a Jew. They said this is best for the country. So religion has to operate under the democratic discipline and argue what's best for the common good.

You live in D.C., where you have devoted yourself to empowering those who are poor, to try to move beyond their poverty into mainstream society and become productive citizens and move up the ladder of economic opportunity. In your deeds, you carry out your religious convictions. Do you think that, at least with the Jerry Falwells of the world, and the Pat Robertsons, there is a disconnect between the language of theology – their religious assertions – and their deeds? Do they seem more concerned with criticizing people who don't share their interpretation of the Bible than in doing the type of deeds that you are doing from day to day, such as helping the poor in D.C.?

Well, in the New Testament, it says, "Faith without works is dead." So unless there are deeds – unless there is action to carry out faith, and even to show that it's real – then faith – that's a pretty strong word – is dead.

I was asked to do a national television interview with Brian Williams on Inauguration Day. They wanted my perspective because God is almost always invoked when a president is sworn in. But I said days like this remind me of the prophet Amos when he said, 'Take away from me the noise of your solemn assemblies, but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.'

So I think religion has to be taken to the street. It has to be real on the ground. And I also think Christians ought to be those who lead by example. Religious people – I mean, the best rabbis I know, the best priests and pastors I know, the best lay people I know, are the ones who just do their faith. You know, they don't just proclaim their faith, they do their faith. St. Francis once said, 'Always preach the gospel, and use words if necessary.' You know, so he's making your point. He's saying it's what we do. That's the key. And then people say, 'Why do you do all these things?' And I say: 'Oh, it's because of my faith, because I think that's what Jesus is calling me to do and I'm trying to be a follower of Jesus.' So I think putting faith into action is critical.

I also think the prophets had very strong words to say about kings and rulers and judges and employers and all the rest. They didn't hold back. But the people Jesus had the strongest words for were the hypocritical rulers, both religious and political, where people were just mostly saying what was wrong with somebody else. And I think religion has gotten into that too often, rather than calling us all to a higher standard. I always say the best way to find common ground is to move to higher ground.

Let me close by paraphrasing something Susan Jacoby brought up in an interview we did recently, a famous statement Abraham Lincoln made about the Civil War. He said, in essence, I can't say whether God is on our side, but my great concern is to be on the side of God. That seems to be emblematic of much of what we're discussing. President Bush says God is on his side. He has said he was selected by God to be president, that he was leading a Crusade, although he backtracked on that comment, and that God had chosen him to lead this war against Iraq, and that God is on his side. This is pretty definitive. As you say, perhaps he indeed believes that. Lincoln, on the other hand, said we must hope we are on the side of God, which is a very different emphasis.

Yes, you're right. These are the two ways of bringing God into public life. This is our American history. One is God on our side, and that leads to the worst things in politics. It leads to overconfidence and hubris – triumphalism – and often to bad foreign policy, often to wars, and in this case, now pre-emptive, unilateral war.

The other way about worrying – praying earnestly if we're on God's side – brings into politics the things that we're missing today, like humility and penitence and reflection, and even accountability.

Lincoln got it right. We don't claim God's blessing on our politics and policies. We don't claim that God is on our side. We worry, we pray, we just always examine ourselves to see if we are on God's side. And if Lincoln got it right, I think Martin Luther King did it best. With that Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other hand, he really didn't pronounce, he persuaded. He didn't shut people out; he invited everybody in to a moral discourse on politics. And he said we can do better. We can do better than this by our democratic values, by our religious values.

We have to ask what kind of people do we want to be, what kind of nation do we want to have, what kind of world do you want to leave for our children. And when every major progressive social movement in our nation's history was fueled and driven in part by religion, by faith, by moral values, we have a very powerful, prophetic and progressive religious tradition in America and around the world.

I think of my friends – Desmond Tutu in South Africa and Oscar Romero in El Salvador, the Archbishop there set against the junta and the U.S.-supported military dictatorship – and all these movements around the world where religion has been progressive.

I had a wonderful experience in Memphis recently. I wanted to get a cab, and a 23-year-old African-American woman who was a bellhop at the hotel was helping me find a cab. She sees the book under my arm and says, 'Oh, God's Politics, all my friends are talking about that book. Is it good?' Then the two older bellhops, who knew I was preaching in town, whispered to her that I wrote it. She said, 'Oh, I'm sorry.' I told her, 'Don't be sorry – that's great!'

And the technicians who worked with me before a TV appearance said to me, we saw you on this, we saw you on that ... we don't normally listen to the people we wire up, but we're all listening this morning. When ordinary people are having this conversation about what faith and values mean to our politics, that's just the best!

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