I’m grateful for books like this, the people who write them – and live what they write about …
Drawing on more than 30 years of work combating poverty, as well as an intimate knowledge of the Bible, Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian, argues that moral values encompass actions and attitudes toward a host of issues, including poverty, the environment, criminal justice and war. . . . Wallis paints a very different picture of what religion means than the one President Bush and many of his supporters have in mind.
His message seems to be resonating with Americans from across the political spectrum. Published by HarperSanFrancisco late in January, it is now fifth on the New York Times bestseller list. For more than a month now, Wallis has been traveling the country to promote God’s Politics. Speaking in churches, bookstores and on radio and television talk shows, Wallis says he is witnessing what could be the birth of a new movement that challenges the hold the Right has had on religion and morality for decades. In San Francisco recently, he dropped by to speak with MotherJones.com.
MotherJones.com: The subtitle of your book is “Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get it.” What does the Right get wrong?
Jim Wallis: The Right is comfortable with the language of religion, values, God talk. So much so that they sometimes claim to own that territory. Or own God. But then they narrow everything down to one or two issues: abortion and gay marriage.
I am an evangelical Christian, and I can’t ignore thousands of verses in the Bible on [another] subject, which is poverty. I say at every stop, “Fighting poverty’s a moral value, too.” There’s a whole generation of young Christians who care about the environment. That’s their big issue. Protecting God’s creation, they would say, is a moral value, too. And, for a growing number of Christians, the ethics of war—how and when we go to war, whether we tell the truth about going to war—is a religious and moral issue as well.
I think the Right has made a serious mistake in adopting a moral-values strategy, because they’re winning in the short run. [But] in the long run, they’re going to lose this debate because they won’t be able to restrict it to two issues. Once you open that door to a values conversation, it’s going to undercut a right-wing economic agenda, which values wealth over work and favors the rich over the poor, or resorts to war as the first resort and not the last.
. . . Every major social movement in our history was fueled in large part by religion and faith. Abolitionism, women’s suffrage, child labor law, and most famously, civil rights. Where would we be if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had kept his faith to himself? Here’s a party that was vitally connected to the civil rights movement, led by black churches, now has driven so far [away], they’re successfully portrayed by the Right as a secular party hostile to religion.
I think people who are religious or, say, even spiritual, have not felt like there’s much of a home on the Left. That’s at least a huge political concern. Even those who aren’t religious need to respect people of faith. The connection the world’s waiting for is to connect the hunger for spirituality with passion for social change. Because spirituality, when it isn’t disciplined by social justice, in an affluent society, becomes narcissistic. We buy the books, we buy the tapes. We hear the guru speaker. Barnes & Noble has a whole wall of how to be spiritual, balanced, healed, whole. Spirituality becomes a commodity to be bought and sold. So spirituality has to be disciplined by social justice.
. . . This is America. This is the most religious nation on the face of the earth. Religion will be a factor in our public life. The founders wanted to separate church and state not to diminish the role of religion but to strengthen it. . . . I say in the book how Lincoln gets this right, that you don’t invoke God’s blessing on the nation’s policies. You don’t say, “God is on our side.” That leads to all the worst stuff in politics: triumphalism, hubris, bad foreign policy. If you worry that you are on God’s side, that leads to humility and reflection, accountability, maybe even penitence—the missing values in politics.
. . . I don’t hear people saying, “What about what the Bible says about the poor?" So if Bush’s religious backers don’t raise that question and the Democrats don’t speak ever about religion, then he gets to say, “I’m a Christian and it applies to this, this and this, but it doesn’t apply to my budget.” We ought to say, “Yeah, faith does scrutinize budgets, so let’s have a moral values audit of the budget.”
. . . “What is the greatest moral crisis facing America?” is the poll. This is after the flawed exit poll. Sixty-four percent said either greed and materialism or poverty and economic justice.
. . . What if we had a candidate who spoke to the issues of economic justice as a moral value? I think there’d be a deep resonance among American people. Democrats haven’t made poverty a moral issue in years. . .
MJ.com: In the book you said the President didn’t meet with you or other religious leaders before the war. Tony Blair did. What do you make of the president using religious language to justify the war, yet refusing to acknowledge religious leaders?
JW: At first, he was genuinely open and had meetings with several of us about poverty and faith-based initiatives. The first time I met him, he actually said this very candid thing: “I don’t understand poor people, I’ve never been around poor people. I’m a white Republican guy who doesn’t get it. I’d like to. How do I get it?”
I don’t hear presidents talking that way very much. That made me hopeful. But then, he closed off after Sept. 11, and Iraq especially. He uses the language of religion but he’s not willing to be accountable to biblical faith, so he doesn’t want to listen to religious wisdom that might disagree with him. A moral response to terror is a complicated issue, and he should avail himself of all the wisdom he can find. He wouldn’t have to agree with it all. Just listen. Tony Blair listened for over an hour. And talked. Rigorous, good moral dialogue with Blair. And Bush—even his own Methodist bishops he wouldn’t listen to. That’s a mistake. It’s a political mistake. It’s a moral failure to not listen.
The majority of Christians throughout the world were opposed to the war in Iraq. That’s a fact. And the Christian president fought the war in Iraq. What does that mean about his perception of faith?
MJ.com: Well, what do you make of that?
JW: That we’re dealing with a religion that is more American than Christian. He changes the words of scripture. “The light shines in the darkness. The darkness does not overcome it,” he said at Ellis Island, the first anniversary of Sept. 11. Well, that’s [from the Gospel of] John. It’s not the American beacon of freedom to the world. You don’t change the words of scriptures. That bothers us evangelicals.
Or he changes hymnology: “Power, power, wonder working power.” When he said that in the State of the Union, he got 60 million people going, “I know that song.” But the wonder working power in the song is the salvation of Christ—not the faith and idealism of the American people. This is an American civil religion. This isn’t biblical faith. I think the president just doesn’t want to be accountable to biblical faith.
MJ.com: So Bush has a selective reading of the Bible. But for readers who may not know the Bible very well, which teachings of Jesus is Bush practicing and which is he not?
JW: My conversion text is the 25th chapter of Matthew, where Jesus said, “As you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me.” I don’t hear Bush ever talking about the Sermon on the Mount; I just don’t hear it. I’m hard pressed to think of teachings of Jesus that are being talked about in the White House.
. . . What you really don’t hear [from Bush] is Jesus saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Or even more, how many sermons have we heard since Sept. 11 on the text, “Love your enemies?” It hasn’t been a very popular text since Sept. 11. Well, we should at least have a debate about what Jesus meant by blessed are the peacemakers and love your enemies in a world full of terrorism and tyranny.
I remember Bill O’Reilly one night was yelling at me about Iraq. I said, “Bill, what would Jesus do? Can you imagine him climbing into the cockpit of a B-52 and dropping a load of bombs over Baghdad?” And Bill said, “Well, Jesus would surely want to protect the American people.” And I said, “Really? What about the Iraqis?” “Well, well, them, too.” Once you start talking about this in a religious frame, it’s troubling.
. . . The good news is that the monologue of the Religious Right is now over and a new dialogue is finally beginning.
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