Jim Wallis’ “Startling Statements”

The Blaze is Glenn Beck’s website so I’m not too surprised at anything that appears there. Still, there’s a leading article up (which has drawn well over 500 comments) by Billy Hallowell that’s rather a sad reflection of how the contemporary Right has lost all sense of history or perspective. It’s about some relatively banal comments by the Rev. Jim Wallis–an exceptionally well-known religio-political figure who is simultaneously a symbol of the “Christian Left” and a source of chronic irritation to religious liberals who don’t share his conservative leanings on cultural issues like abortion and same-sex marriage or much appreciate his constant efforts to encourage the president to compromise on them.

But here’s what upsets Halloway and his readers:

In an interview that will air nationwide at Lifetree Café locations in the coming days, Wallis made some startling statements about America’s history and heritage….

“It’s not a Christian nation. It’s never been a Christian nation,” Wallis boldly proclaimed while speaking about America. “We set this up so that it would not be a Christian nation for any religious framework.”

But Wallis wasn’t done there. In a preview clip, he goes on to claim that America isn’t mentioned in the Bible as having a “special” or unique place.

“Where in the Bible is there a special place for America?,” he asks. “Where do we get that that’s bad theology…just bad theology.”

For Wallis, who considers himself part of the Anabaptist tradition which has for five centures rejected any contamination of Christianity by official sanction, this is about as predictable a comment as he could make. But beyond Wallis himself, it’s just bizarre that anyone, whether or not they agree with strict church-state separation, would find advocacy of this position by an evangelical minister “startling.” In the days of the Founders, it was evangelicals who most strongly urged Jefferson and Madison to take a hard line against any religious establishment, and indeed, it was in a letter to a group of Connecticut Baptists that Jefferson coined the phrase “wall of separation” to describe the ideal relationship of church and state.

One can only speculate why Halloway or anyone else would be shocked by Wallis’ truism–relevant or not–that there is no biblical sanction for “American exceptionalism.”

Sure, many Americans over the decades, believers or not, have thought of the country as a “Christian nation” in the common-sense meaning of that term–as a nation in which professed Christians were an overwhelming majority of the population. Its polemical use as a term promoting government sanction of Christian observances or tenets is a lot more recent, and its retroactive projection into American history by ideological warriors like David Barton is what I personally find most “startling.”

Any time the “Christian nation” dispute is raised, I think of a moment (unfortunately not linkable) back in the late 1980s, when the U.S. House was in one of those silly end-of-year around the clock sessions and a nearly empty chamber was being addressed by some conservative Member who was making a paen to America as a “Christian nation.” The junior House member forced to sit in the Chair at this ungodly hour happened to be Barney Frank, who interrupted the speaker to say: “If this is a Christian nation, how come some poor Jew has to get up in the middle of the night to preside over the House of Representatives?”

I’m sure Frank’s target was “startled,” but he shouldn’t have been, and nor should anyone be when this strongly traditional notion of church-state separation is articulated.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.