Jim Wallis, convener of Call to Renewal, has been calling on Christians to see political involvement beyond the perennial issues of abortion and gay rights. Wallis, a registered Democrat, is an evangelical leader in the faith-based Left and a frequent critic of George W. Bush. His profile has been raised as national Democrats have started to talk to him about how they can better reach out to values voters in the wake of Republican victories on November 2. The Democratic National Committee is meeting today in Washington to plot strategy. Wallis's new book, God's Politics, is on the New York Times bestseller list. Wallis spoke with Stan Guthrie, CT's senior associate news editor.
It appears that [former governor of Vermont and failed presidential candidate] Howard Dean will be the new head of the DNC. Is he someone you can support, given his evident lack of familiarity with evangelical issues?
Well, I don't get involved in supporting candidates for the DNC, one way or the other. I work with whoever's there. I've got meetings [today] on the Hill with Democrats and Republicans, at their instigation. I'll go and talk to them. So, if Dean's there I'll work with him.
Regarding Dean, I've said time and time again, the worst thing anyone can be is inauthentic when they talk about religion or faith. So if Democrats are people of faith they should speak as such. If they're not, they shouldn't. Same with Republicans. Some are and some aren't. So, Howard Dean shouldn't make the mistake again of saying his favorite book in the New Testament is Job. And if he's not religious, he should say, "I'm not very religious, but I respect those in the Democratic Party who are." And their concerns should be taken seriously.
Do you feel that there is some real respect coming from leading Democrats to people of faith, people of values? A lot of people see the Democrats as the party of the secular Left.
I think this idea that all the Christians, all the religious people are jammed in the red states and the blue states are full of agnostics is a bit overblown in the media. It's more complicated than that.
It's overblown, yes, but there is some basic truth to it.
Sure, there's a lot of basis to it. The Democrats, remember, a few decades ago were vitally connected to the civil rights movement led by black churches. And ever since, they have become more and more secular, so much so that they're being portrayed by Republicans as hostile to religion and uncaring about moral values. And I think that's a mistake on their part, and I've said that to them.
A mistake on whose part?
On the Democrats' part. I think they have ceded the territory of religion and moral values to the Republican side and been defined in very partisan ways, and so religion and values get used as wedges to divide people and not bridges to pull us together. So what I say to the Democrats is three things:
First, you've got to reframe policy issues in the values context. Start with values and talk about how policies flow from values. Start with principles and talk about programs that flow from principles, not the other way around.
Second, you've got to reconnect with the constituencies that you're disconnected from, which means listening to people who aren't listening to you.
And, third, you've got to rethink some of the big issues: economy, security, abortion, family, at least those four.
Where Democrats are motivated by moral values, they need to let those values shine through. And many Democrats are, and some aren't. Like the Republicans, some are and some aren't.
Some statistics suggest that about 40 percent of Democrats are pro-life. Is that your understanding?
Well, there are a lot of pro-life Catholics and evangelicals who would either vote Democrat or would like to vote Democrat but kind of stumble over the abortion issue. I know Catholic social action directors who run huge antipoverty programs who would vote Democratic on social issues or against the war in Iraq but really stumble on the issue of abortion, or they hold their nose and vote for the Democrat. It's important for the Democrats to change the way they talk about a moral issue like abortion, to respect pro-life Democrats, to welcome them in the party and to talk first about how they are going to be committed to really dramatically reducing unwanted pregnancies—not just retaining the legal option of abortion, which Democrats are going to do, because that's part of their plank.
They could do a great deal to not just talk, but to act on how, as Senator Clinton began to say this week, that abortion is always a tragic choice, never a happy choice. I thought her comments were good. We ought to work to make that choice less and less necessary for people. So how do you change, not just the language but the content of what you're doing and saying?
You've got [former Congressman] David Bonior from Michigan who's pro-life. [Senate Minority Leader] Harry Reid is, too. [Former Indiana Congressman] Tim Roemer, who ran for the DNC [leadership], also.
Of course, several prominent Democrats used to be pro-life, and then, as they worked their way up in the party, abandoned that position.
Jesse Jackson is a good example of that. And I think that's a mistake.
I had a young man in my class at Harvard, John Cranley. John has a Harvard law degree, a Harvard Divinity School degree, and is a pro-life Catholic. The Democrats ran him for Congress in Ohio [in 2000]. He was kind of a sacrificial lamb up against an entrenched Republican.
Well, he called me and said, "Hey, Jim, I'm John Cranley. I was in the fourth row." I said, "John, I remember who you were." He said, "I'm running for Congress. The Democrats in Ohio are telling me not to run on poverty but to run on middle class issues. I told them, 'No, I worked out the agenda in class last fall, and I'm going to run on it.'"
This kid almost won. He came within a hair's breadth of winning. And now he's on the city council in Cincinnati. He'll be in Congress before he's 30.
I know another guy, Roy Herron from Tennessee, a young state legislator, a Christian guy, a pro-life Democrat. He may take a shot at a Senate seat out there before long. He's really bright. There's a whole generation of pro-life Democrats coming up.
So you don't think the old pressures in the party are going to keep people from being vocal and active about their pro-life positions?
No. Look at what's going to happen in Pennsylvania. It looks like Bob Casey Jr., is going to run against [Republican Senator] Rick Santorum. That's going to be interesting. And as far as I can see, if he runs, he's running with the blessing of the party. Now his late father, I think was mistreated by the party. He wasn't allowed to speak [at the Democratic National Convention] in '92. But if the son runs with the blessing of the party, I think that suggests an openness and change.
You're advising Democrats to be more open about their values. A skeptic might say that you're just asking them to package their positions into more religious language.
I understand that, but I think this is wrong. Yes, there are Democrats who realize in failure and in defeat that they better change the way they talk about this because of demographics. Is that there? Yeah, I'm sure there are people who feel that. But I see some genuine soul-searching going on among Democrats. I have said for a long time that religious fundamentalists have too much influence in the Republican Party. And secular fundamentalists have too much influence in the Democratic Party. And I'd like to see both parties break the hold of those groups on their parties. I don't think the secular fundamentalists are going to finally prevail and prevent a new conversation among Democrats about moral values and about faith. I think it's going to happen now.
I am having enough conversations with people in the Senate and the House who are serious about this. As I say, there are people out in the country at the state level who are Christians, some of them are pro-life, and they certainly care about moral values. I'm hoping that there will be Republicans who don't want to narrow the whole conversation about faith and moral values to just one or two issues.
My hope is that Republicans can broaden their conversation about moral values beyond just abortion and gay marriage to poverty and the environment and the ethics of war. At the same time, [I hope] the Democrats can really find a new moral vocabulary and change not just language but the content of some of their positions to speak, to frame, and to envision their agenda in a way that is shaped by faith and values.
Do you think that a politician actually should be motivated by Christian faith? Or are you more concerned about a person's values and policies?
When you get to the public arena, you take a moral turn and basically engage in a moral discourse about politics. Some of us come there because of our Christian faith. Some are evangelicals, some Catholics, some Methodists, some Presbyterians, some Jewish. Then we have a moral conversation. Religion has to be disciplined by democracy, meaning, you don't win because you're religious. You don't win by saying, "I'm religious, so my position should prevail." Or, "God spoke to me and gave me the fix for Social Security."
No, you say, "I'm motivated by my faith; here's why." You don't have to be apologetic about that. Then you have to persuade your fellow citizens that this is the best thing for the common good, for all of us—not just for religious people, but for all of us. Then you have a debate about the ethics of a war in Iraq or the best way to reform Social security, or what the values of a budget ought to be. That kind of moral discourse about politics is open to Christians, to people from other faith traditions, and to people of no faith at all who come to it also with a concern about moral values. It's a democratic discourse about moral values, because all of us have an interest in the moral compass that our elected officials have, because that compass will shape their policies, direction, and leadership.
How would you respond to an evangelical Republican who is suspicious of the motives of people who have spent years ignoring or mocking religion but now seem to suddenly be finding religion?
How about suspecting the Republicans who view religion as a wedge [issue] and only talk about two issues and ignore everything Jesus said about poverty? The suspicion goes both ways. [The religious] right is a political seduction of religion. To reduce religion to two issues is not authentic religion. So, sure, there's suspicion on all sides, but … how can you distrust the faith of Bill Nelson? Bill Nelson is a senator from Florida, and he's an active member of the prayer breakfast group. Tony Hall was a Democrat in Ohio and was an active prayer breakfast leader with [The Fellowship's] Doug Coe. Now Republicans have no call to distrust the faith of such people or Catholic members of the House or Senate.
So let's talk about faith. There are Christians on both sides of the aisle.
How do you advise, if at all, people like that to vote when it comes to abortion? Where does abortion stand on your list of issues? How can you, as a Christian, support a party structure that is so stridently pro-abortion?
"Stridently pro-abortion" is a pretty strong statement. I don't think that describes all Democrats on the issue of abortion. No, none of us should be pro-abortion. The Democrats want to retain the legal option for abortion. Yet there are pro-life Catholic theologians who don't think a pro-life stance means that abortion should be completely outlawed in every circumstance, or that pushing poor women back into dangerous corners is necessarily the best way to create a culture of life. They would talk about changing the culture and changing the mindset and not just supporting constitutional amendments.
So [we need to have] a good discussion about what it means to be pro-life. But the Catholic bishops are against single-issue voting. Despite the behavior of a handful of bishops [against John Kerry's pro-choice stance], the Catholic bishops' political responsibility tract they put out every year is opposed to single-issue voting. The full range, the consistent ethic of life—as Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago calls it, the "seamless garment"—should be operative here, [to include] poverty as an issue, capital punishment, war.
The pope opposed John Kerry on abortion and opposed George Bush on the war in Iraq. The truth is, President George Bush defied the Holy Father on the war in Iraq. I'd like the media to report that, too. I like the Catholic bishops' stance, a consistent ethic of life, a seamless garment, so there isn't only one issue. Some of the most brutal dictators in the world have been against abortion. Some of the most horrific, rightwing political leaders have been against abortion. You can't run the economy into the ground, ignore the poor, carry out unilateral pre-emptive wars and be okay as long as you're just against abortion.
To be a single-issue voter is not the most responsible kind of Christian citizenship. I was at Notre Dame this spring with a room full of students and faculty. Most of them were very committed to the poor. They were against the war in Iraq, very pro-environment and pro-life. And they struggled with the Democrats on abortion. One young woman stood up and said, "Four thousand unborn lives were lost today. How can I vote on any other issue than abortion?" I let the question linger a bit, and then another student stood up and said, 9,000 lives were lost today to HIV/AIDS; that's a pro-life issue, too." Another student stood up and said, "Thirty thousand children died today because of hunger and disease related to hunger." It's what I call the "silent tsunami." How do we deal with that as a pro-life issue?
At the end of the conversation, these Catholics agreed that there was no consistent ethic-of-life candidate running in this election, neither George Bush nor John Kerry. George Bush is an ardent supporter of capital punishment, he fought a war in Iraq that the Catholic Church opposed, his stance on poverty is under a lot of criticism by Christians who care about poverty, and the budget [he has proposed] is going to make it much worse—and yet he opposes abortion. John Kerry could say nothing more about abortion than to again reiterate his commitment to a woman's right to choose.
Of course, you're not suggesting that the President must always obey the pope.
No, I'm saying that George Bush does not uphold a consistent ethic of life just because he's against abortion. That's not the only issue. Catholic social teaching makes that clear and the pope was opposed to the war in Iraq while George Bush prosecuted it despite Catholic bishops saying the war was not a just war. Christians can't say, "All we care about is someone's stance on abortion. I don't care what they do to the economy, to the poor, I don't care what wars they fight, I don't care what they do on human rights." It's almost like we care about children until they're born and then after that, they're on their own. We're cutting child health care, cutting child-care for moms moving out of welfare. No, you can't just care about a child until they're born.
The President's supporters might call that an unfair characterization of the administration's approach. They would argue that Bush cares a lot about the poor, but he doesn't necessarily agree with your methods.
Well, my methods are also the methods of Catholic bishops who support effective, concrete, public programs that are addressed toward the common good, that support not just huge welfare states and bureaucracies—that's a conservative sort of stereotype. You can't say that budgets don't matter, government priorities don't matter, and the faith-based initiatives are the only thing that counts for poverty.
So, yeah, let's have a debate and a conversation about that. I'm just saying that doing something for low-income families is as important as one's stances on abortion. I'm pro-life on abortion but I can't vote for a President who on every other life issue, in my judgment, is not … standing up for a consistent ethic of human life.
What are some areas of compromise, especially on abortion, that could be worked out if pro-life Democrats really do have an opportunity here? How can they work with Republicans and maybe see some common-sense restrictions?
First of all, we ought to work on really doing something about teenage pregnancy. That ought to be a real point of common ground. An awful lot of teenage pregnancies could be avoided. Second, adoption reform is crucial. And I've been supportive of Wade Horn and his efforts in HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services] to work on adoption reform and foster care. In fact, I've been at those meetings and Wade and I have talked a lot about it. Third, I think supporting low-income women economically always reduces the abortion rate. You saw the piece by [Fuller Theological Seminary professor] Glen Stassen before the election. That's a real issue, too.
Plus, I think you've got to talk about some reasonable restriction on abortion that I think people on both sides could agree to. There are a lot more restrictions on abortion in secular Europe than there are in the United States. Parental notification for 16-year-old girls is a good idea. There are issues about abusive fathers and so on, but those can be handled in court. There are ways to handle some of that.
I think waiting periods and late-term abortion restrictions are also some things that a lot of people can agree to. In England recently there was a change in the scientific notions of viability. I think they moved it back several weeks when they thought a fetus was viable. And right away the abortion law changed in England in response to the science. Here people would just stand in front of bulldozers to change that law.
It's so polarized, so your question is the right question. Where can we find some common ground that pro-life and pro-choice people could together agree upon? Now there are people on the left side and on the right side who probably won't join that common ground. But most Americans and most religious people in America are probably eager to find that common ground, which could actually save a lot of unborn lives.
Stan Guthrie is author of Missions in the Third Millennium. His website is www.stanguthrie.com.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Call to Renewal is Wallis's poverty fighting organization.
Christianity Today profiled Jim Wallis in Mr. Wallis Goes to Washington | The transformation of an evangelical activist. (June 14, 1999)
Wallis's book, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
Other recent Christianity Today political coverage includes:
Aliens in Our Midst | Attaining asylum in the land of the free is harder than you'd think—and it may be costing people their lives. (Feb. 10, 2005)
Q&A: John Thune | The Republican from South Dakota, who defeated Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle last November. Daschle had taken a leading role in blocking some of President Bush's pro-life judicial nominees. (Feb. 10, 2005)
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