By now, it’s become gospel truth that the mobilization of religious conservatives won the 2004 election for George W. Bush. The grassroots base rallied around hot-button issues like gay marriage while the president conducted a more moderate campaign nationwide, and they provided a cushion of votes in the red states that drove up his popular vote total. Amid the flurry of activity on the religious right that preceded Election Day, what was the religious left doing?
Well, here’s a taste. On the morning of Nov. 1, the day before the election–a highly competitive presidential election–I opened my inbox to see a press release from the once-venerable National Council of Churches (NCC), an umbrella organization for liberal, mainline denominations. Religious organizations–like other non-profits–are subject to all manner of complicated rules regarding how political they can be, particularly in the weeks before an election. Even so, I expected a pre-election press release to have some bearing on the decision facing the country. I was wrong. “NCC Urges U.S. to Accept Responsibility for Uighur Chinese Refugees at Guantanamo,” read the headline. I have no doubt that advocacy on behalf of Chinese Muslim prisoners is a worthy cause; I also have no doubt that it confirms the irrelevance of the once-powerful religious left.
Which is why the recent emergence of Jim Wallis as the public face of the religious left has been such a welcome development for many progressives who are also people of faith. An ordained minister in the American Baptist Church, Wallis is the founder of Sojourners magazine and the progressive movement Call to Renewal. In the last few months he has faced Tim Russert’s queries on “Meet the Press,” chatted up Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show,” discussed poverty with Charlie Rose, and mused about faith and politics with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” And now he’s released his latest book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, which debuted on The New York Times‘ bestseller list and in the number two slot on Amazon.com. Wallis’s ambitions are grander than just writing a bestselling book–he wants to energize a religious movement in this country to rival the influence of the religious right. Can Wallis stop the decline of the religious left? Only if he wants to.
Whenever he is in front of an audience, one of Wallis’s favorite bits is to ask: How can you recognize a politician in Washington? He then licks his index finger and holds it up. “They’re the ones walking around with their fingers in the air to see which way the wind is blowing,” he says. For those of us who believe public service is a noble profession, it can be an annoying gambit. But it’s more than just an anti-establishment rant. Wallis’ point, he goes on to explain, is simple–Stop blaming politicians and start changing the wind.
God’s Politics is part argument for why the wind needs to be changed and part manual for how to change it. The book reads like a sermon by a minister who has learned that the best way to keep his congregation from falling asleep is to break up the theology with anecdotes and provide plenty of lists for parishioners to scribble down in the margins of their bulletins. Sprinkled among timeless lessons from the likes of Habakkuk and Amos are stories from Wallis’s time on the front lines of poverty–for 30 years, he has lived in one of Washington, D.C.’s most violent neighborhoods–and from his travels around the country to build a vibrant progressive religious movement, as well as his frustrating encounters with political establishments on the right and the left. The lists are meant to outline progressive religious principles: the Six-Point Plan for Iraq, Ten Lessons to Defeat Terrorism, Ten Lessons for Understanding and Surviving War, Eight Millennium Development Goals, and, as a conclusion, 50 Predictions for the 21st Century.
As a long-time advocate for the poor who was leading faith-based organizations decades before George W. Bush ever heard the phrase, Wallis has the street cred and moral authority to make his case. To liberals who believe that religion has no place in public life, Wallis argues that “God is personal, but never private,” citing Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Joshua Heschel, and other moral crusaders whose names warm the hearts of good lefties. To conservatives, Wallis says that their attempts to apply religious solutions to policy problems–from terrorism to Iraq to the economy to abortion–have betrayed Christian principles of justice, mercy, and humility. Both sides, he charges, have done wrong by religion. Republicans have hijacked faith in the name of divisive causes that fail to help the neediest, and Democrats have largely avoided discussion of religion altogether.
This is the main take-away point from God’s Politics, and in that respect, it is not terribly different from two of Wallis’s previous books, The Soul of Politics and Who Speaks for God? But–if the number of times I am asked by people from both parties how I can be both a Christian and a Democrat is any indication–it’s a message that bears repeating.
One of the reasons Wallis is just now attracting notice is that he’s hard to categorize. In a media world that thinks in terms of conflict and neat, tidy boxes, he doesn’t quite fit. Wallis is pro-life but anti-war. He challenges the role of Hollywood in promoting “coarse entertainment” and the role of Enron in violating a basic compact with its workers. On balance–particularly given his commitment above all to the elimination of poverty–Wallis’s sympathies are more in line with Democratic policies and values. But he does not, he stresses, want to become the liberal equivalent of Pat Robertson. “The media like to say, ‘Oh, then you must be the religious Left,'” he writes. “No, not at all, and the very question is the problem. Just because a religious Right has fashioned itself for political power in one utterly predictable ideological guise does not mean that those who question this political seduction must be their opposite political counterpart. The best public contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable or a loyal partisan.”
And he’s right. Politics and religion are both best served when religious leaders and communities maintain their prophetic independence. The role set by the Hebrew prophets, Wallis’s most oft-mentioned models, is a critically important one–“Who will uphold the dignity of economic and political outcasts? Who will question the self-righteousness of nations and their leaders? Who will not allow God’s name to be used simply to justify ourselves, instead of calling us to accountability?” Indeed, it’s hard to speak truth to power when your fondest wish is to rub shoulders with power at the negotiating table or cocktail parties. What’s more, history–including just the past few decades–is replete with examples of how a too-close relationship between the worlds of religion and politics can bring out the worst of both.
In an ideal world, religious leaders would maintain some distance from the world of politics. But this is not an ideal world. The reality of American politics today is that religious conservatives have inextricably aligned themselves with one political party. If religious progressives are not at the negotiating table, it’s not as if their absence is palpable–it’s just that much easier to ignore their concerns.
Religious conservatives understand this reality. For most of American history, conservative Christians focused primarily on the effort of saving souls, and made a principled decision to stay out of the realm of politics. “Preachers are not called upon to be politicians,” the Rev. Jerry Falwell explained in 1965, “but soul winners. Nowhere are we commissioned to reform the externals.” During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a perfect storm developed that changed the political landscape forever. Supreme Court decisions banning school prayer and Bible-reading from public schools angered conservative evangelicals, and convinced them that government would not remain neutral, allowing them to simply live as they wished. Similarly, many Catholics–who had largely stayed away from politics while assimilating amid anti-Catholicism–were outraged by the Roe v. Wade decision and developed into a politically active force. Both of these groups were embraced by Republican strategists who realized that they needed to form a cohesive electoral block if they were ever going to become a political majority.
At the same time, the religious left, once a powerful actor in liberal politics (think abolition, suffrage, the progressive era, civil rights), began to decline. The National Council of Churches played a central organizing role in the civil rights movement, but lost its way soon after, dispersing its attention over what seemed like 87 different policy issues–the plight of Chinese prisoners at Guantanamo just the latest of them. Many well-intentioned members of the religious left, not wanting to be associated with the nascent Christian Right, filtered religion out of their rhetoric and secularized some of their appeals. As groups like the Christian Coalition and Moral Majority became ever more vocal and visible, the conventional wisdom that to be religious and in politics was to be conservative hardened, and–with a few notable exceptions, such as Mario Cuomo and Bill Clinton–religious progressives stayed in the closet.
Conservatives have an important natural advantage. The tie that binds them is the belief that government should stay out of their lives. Although each constituency has its own specific hobby horses, for the most part they manage to stand united behind this one simple principle, which leads to scenes like the Christian Coalition lobbying for capital gains tax cuts (because, of course, the ABCs of moral concerns are abortion, buggery, and capital gains taxes). But while it’s relatively easy to bring people together to oppose something–particularly if you’re not above using scare tactics and telling them they are a persecuted minority–mobilizing organizations to support government intervention on a variety of fronts is much more difficult.
Wallis has been responsible for trying to coax religious lefties to wade back into political debate, and he’s been most effective when challenging the perception that “faith” is defined only as that practiced by George W. Bush or Ralph Reed. When, as a young congressional staffer, I read Wallis’s The Soul of Politics at the recommendation of my minister, I found for the first time someone who voiced my frustration–the religious right didn’t speak for me and the political left didn’t let me speak. I ended up in divinity school. Other readers have been equally moved–although with perhaps less dramatic results: This past fall, while conservative churches were busy turning over their membership directories to the Republican National Committee, Wallis raised $400,000 in two months for a campaign that ran full-page ads featuring the words “God is Not a Republican. Or a Democrat” in The New York Times during the Republican Convention and in the hometown newspapers of James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson.
It’s a start. In order to truly be heard, however, Wallis and his compatriots need to face what they’re up against–a conservative machine that uses two-way communication between religious communities and political institutions to coordinate policy and rhetoric. With the stakes high for issues they care about, religious progressives may have to set aside the pristine white choir robes for a time and get their hands dirty in practical politics. Wallis has written a splendid blueprint for a utopian faith movement, but it may mean very little if he and other progressive religious leaders maintain a chaste distance from the party inclined to act on their concerns. What they’ve chosen so far is the principled stand that protects religion. But if they want to protect the values they hold dear, and the country they love, they’re going to have to start fighting the good fight.