Jim Wallis, national renowned theologian, author and preacher, began Sojourner in 1971. His enormously successful God’s Politics: Why the Right is Wrong and the Left Just Doesn’t Get It was on the New York Times bestseller list during the last presidential election. In his new book, The Great Awakening, Wallis is of the belief that the country is in the midst or beginning of another revival. He is speaking in Montecito on Friday.
At beginning of your book you do a rundown on past revivals and awakenings that took place. What sort of similarities do you see between here and now and the past to call this the next Great Awakening?
Well, great awakenings were when faith or the revival of faith led a big change in society. In fact, the church historians tell us that spiritual activity or spiritual renewal or conversion doesn’t get to be called “revival” until it’s changed something in the society. So it isn’t just kind of outbreaks of spiritual activity. It’s when it changes something in society. So these great awakenings led to concrete things like the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage and civil rights and child labor law reform - big things like that and now we’re facing some really big things again that are huge. They’re like mountains. They’re things that we don’t know what to do with. There are 2 billion people living on less than $2 a day. That’s half the world’s people. And as Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister of Great Britain says, “That is a world that is neither just nor secure” - and I would add, [not] safe for our children.
Then you’ve got climate change. You’ve got David Gergen saying on CNN the other night, “We’ve got a serious problem,” but yet it would be political suicide for any candidate to recommend the things that are clearly needed to reverse climate change. So there are huge issues that clearly politics by itself won’t solve, or just more education or just knowing the issues better or some sort of strategy. It’s going to take some changing of the environment of the engine. This change needs an engine it needs the energy and engine that faith has provided in the past for big changes.
And then I see a new generation. The story of this book tour has been everywhere we go there are young people everywhere, like Grace Cathedral. I preached in San Francisco two weeks ago and the press report in the paper said there was a much younger than usual crowd at Grace Cathedral on Sunday morning. And then at Fuller they ran out of chairs, there was no place to sit or stand. At Wheaton two nights ago it was the same thing. It was a weeknight, we put out several hundred chairs and several hundred more showed up, and there were overflow rooms and people sitting in the hall. People couldn’t get in the door. To me the new generation story is really that we’ve had this for three years in terms of the young crowds; it’s really clear to me the new generation is going to fundamentally change the agenda in the evangelical world and in the Catholic world. I think there’s a similar kind of set of issues that seem daunting and too much for us and faith seems to be a response to it. On the tour, with journalists and others, I’m getting no pushback on the issues. They’re not saying, “Ahh, 30,000 children dying everyday of disease and poverty isn’t important. Darfur isn’t important. Climate change isn’t important.” No one is saying that. What they’re saying is, “Jim, this is a really hopeful book. Can we really be hopeful? Is there really hope?” It’s almost wistful. It’s a longing question. I almost end up in a pastoral mode where I’m just calling people to choose hope, to side for hope because that’s what faith does in these critical moments. It’s not optimism, it’s a choice and because of faith we choose hope and that’s what changes big things. So it feels to me very, very palpable. The kind of feeling in the air, for example, at Parks Street Church, which is a historic evangelical church in Boston. I knew that but what I didn’t know was that William Lloyd Garrison gave his first abolition speech there when he was 23 years old and that George Whitefield during the first great awakening spoke there and that Charles Finney, my favorite second great awakening evangelist and abolitionist, on weeknights was preaching there, calling people to Jesus Christ and then enlisting them into the anti-slavery campaign. He used the altar call. He used the method of the altar call to sign up his converts for the anti-slavery campaign, and there I was on a weeknight again and the church was just packed with 20 something evangelicals who think they’re new abolitionists now and you can feel the electricity in the room.
So what do you think brought it on? Do you think it’s people being tired? Do you think it was the last election when people were getting sick of being told this is what you should vote for?
I don’t want to be too pietistic, but I do think these things, if and when they occur, really are movements of the spirit and are not just reducible to these three or four factors. But I think there are factors that contribute to this. One is the utter failure of the project called the religious right. Young people are leaving in droves, evangelicals are leaving in droves, young people who are on the inner circles of the staffs of some of the most famous leaders of the religious right. I’m not going to name these people, but these young people are coming to us like Nicodemus at night and saying they’ve lost their faith. Now they’re asking us to help them find their way back to faith. These are their own children, these are their own kids that they’ve trained and now they’re leaving.
Secondly, the rejection of this utterly partisan identification with a political party that the religious right has done has really offended a lot of people. It’s way too partisan. We shouldn’t be in the pocket of any political party, including the democrats. That’s just wrong.
And after that the failure of the Bush Administration. This is maybe the worst presidency in American history and a lot of people feel that way and a lot of people are embarrassed of this so-called Christian president and his policies, which have so damaged our image around the world. And so I think the failure of Bush, the failure of the Republicans, the failure of the religious right and the marriage of the religious right to the Republican party - basically it’s a failed marriage and a lot of evangelicals are suing for divorce. And the on top of that these issues are so big they just call out for the solution and the energy of faith. They’re becoming religious issues.
We’ve got these young kids from the inner circle of the religious right saying if they force us to focus on just these two issues-abortion and gay marriage-they’re going to lose the entire generation of us. Now these young people still care about the sanctity of life. I do too, I’m pro-life. I met this father of a Down syndrome child and he told me what this pilgrimage has been like for him and his wife. Every parent is asked to take a test to see if they’re child has Down syndrome. And Joy and I were asked to take the test because we’re older parents and we said, “We’re not going to take the test because there’s no reason to take the test because if we had a Down syndrome child we’re not going to abort it.” And they just thought we were nuts. All these liberal doctors said, “You might have a Down syndrome child.” Yes, that was possible because we’re older parents, but 90 percent of Down syndrome children are aborted-90 percent. And so a couple weeks ago up to the table bounces this young Down syndrome woman, this student named Bridget. She always comes to hear me speak in Chicago. She’s a seminary student. She’s bright and beaming and she says, “It’s me again. I’m back to see you again.” And she’s just an utter ray of light and joy. And 90 percent of [children like her] are being aborted in this throwaway culture. These are deep moral issues, but to focus on pro-life as only a constitutional ban to end abortion or the Supreme Court decision is a very narrow understanding of all that. And so how do we have a deeper more consistent life ethic, a sanctity of life ethic that cares for Bridget and that cares for Darfur and cares for the 30,000 kids that died again today because of what U2’s Bono called “stupid poverty,” an utterly preventable disease. A lot of young evangelicals suspect that Jesus cares more about them than he cares about gay marriage amendments in Ohio and it’s a big change.
I’ve heard you talk about the moral center. Can you explain that?
Well, Jon Stewart asks good questions and I was on The Daily Show again and he said, “Last time you talked about this block of conservative religious right operatives who are trying to win elections for one political party by any means necessary and you were trying to do an alternative to that and stop that,” and he said, “How’s it going?” he asked, “Do you want to create a religious left to counter the religious right?” I said, “Jon, that would be a mistake. The country isn’t hungry to establish a religious left to counter the religious right. They’re hungry for what I’m calling in the book a moral center - it’s not a soulless centrism or a mushy middle but it’s saying “Don’t go left, don’t go right, go deeper to the moral challenges and choices in life just beneath our political debates.” In that same chapter, I lay out an agenda called the politics of the common good-a notion of deep and Catholic social teaching. It’s in the black churches, in the public good tradition of the mainline protestant churches, in the Evangelical revivals, in Judaism, and, I discovered, in Islam, which I had known nothing about before. And it’s in our secular constitutional democratic traditions; you know, “We the people, to promote the general welfare.” Common good is a wonderful idea that could counter the individualisms of the right and the individualisms of the left and counter the selective morality speech. And I think that agenda could be very, very compelling in the future.
How do you think that would work the way politics are set up in America with a two party system?
We’re probably not going to move away from a two party system in this country, but we could move away from the terrible enforcement of just two sides to every issue - this polarizing, paralyzing notion that everything is left and right when many things are not. Left and right are not religious categories or moral ones, they’re political, ideological ones and we have to break through them or transcend them. On a number of issues I do think we need to find common ground by moving to higher ground and enlisting people in both parties, on both sides on some of the big issues like poverty and like climate change and like human trafficking and a more consistent ethic of life. I see democrats now talking about abortion reduction, dramatic abortion reduction, as a goal and not as a woman’s right to choose. Even if they don’t want to criminalize a desperate choice they saying we need to do something about the abortion rate, and that’s a very significant development.
What are your feelings on the three candidates in this current election, the remaining viable candidates. Specifically Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have this message of hope and change.
The results are already in and change won. And now they’re all competing to see who is going to be the best change agent. Even [John] McCain talks about himself as a maverick or outsider and certainly Huckabee does too. I think the country is hungry for change and hope and it’s really a holy hunger.
I don’t endorse any candidates, but I talk to them all. I’ve known Barack [Obama] for 10 years and I’ve known Hillary [Clinton] that long too, I’ve known her when she came to town, but him when he was a lowly state senator back in Illinois. So whoever one’s favorite candidate is, what I tell them is they won’t be able to change the really big things in this country unless and until there are social movements pressing and pushing from the outside. Lyndon Johnson wasn’t a civil rights leader until Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks made him one. And we have to do that again. Even if that candidate wants to change things, they won’t be able to without that kind of social movement from the outside. So I’ll work with them all and talk with them all and try to move on our agendas. But King never endorsed a candidate, he made them endorse the agenda of a movement and that’s what we try to do as well.
Do you think Jesus was a politician?
Of course not. But he had a vision of the Kingdom of God which was spiritual, personal, relational, social, economic, and yes, political, because it talked about allegiances and loyalties and authority and if Jesus was Lord, Caesar was not. His confrontation that he provoked in Jerusalem was with the religious and the political leaders. They saw him as a political threat. If they saw him just as a private pietist, why would they worry? [If he was] helping people get their lives together, helping their marriages, making them better parents and make them go to less Roman orgies and drunken parties, why would that have been a threat to the ruling powers? They regarded him as a threat. I remember I was at Wheaton College once and I asked this class, “Why was Jesus killed?” and they had no idea. They just couldn’t comprehend the question. And then one young student said, “Well, to save us from our sins.” And I said, “So you think Pontius Pilate was sitting there thinking, ‘How am I going to save these American evangelicals from their sins? I’m gonna kill this guy and that will do it.’” Albeit that our theological understanding of the cross and our redemption - I’m orthodox on all those questions, but he was killed because he was seen as a threat to the rulers both religious and political. In the book I talk about how Jesus confronted the major political options of his day. All four of them were there, they’re always there: One was collaborationist, one was pietist, one was withdrawn - you know, the kind of counter culture - and one was political insurrection, or revolutionary violence. He confronted them all, he rejected them all. There was a fifth option called the Kingdom of God, and that’s our option.
How have your goals with Sojourner changed from when you started it in 1971? Where are you now?
Our goal was to try to talk about an evangelical social conscience and to build a movement and we thought it would happen right away, but three decades later it’s not happening. So for three decades they’ve been saying, “You’re a progressive evangelical, that’s a misnomer.” Now they’re saying, “Wow, progressive evangelical, this is a movement.” So we’ve gone from misnomer to a movement.
Jim Wallis will speak at Westmont College’s gymnasium on Friday, February 29, at 7 p.m. For info, contact one of the following churches: All Saints-by-the-Sea (969-4771); El Montecito Presbyterian Church (969-5041); Montecito Covenant Church (969-0373); or Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church (969-6868).