The Common Good
February 2008

The Great Awakening

by Jim Wallis | February 2008

Can a 21st-century faith revival change politics?

Something is happening. Faith is being applied to social justice in ways that we might have never imagined just a few short years ago. Spiritual power is being harnessed to address the greatest social challenges that we face today.

There have been other periods in history when faith tangibly changed things. Often called “Great Awakenings,” they are times when the “revival” of faith alters societies. In fact, historians say that spiritual activity isn’t called revival until it changes something, not just in people’s inner lives but in society. Revivals often occur when politics is broken, when it fails to address the most significant moral issues of the day. Social movements then rise up to change politics, and the best movements usually have spiritual foundations.

As I travel the country, I can see and feel a revival of faith that is directly leading to new calls and commitments for social justice. That rebirth and renewal of faith is being directly applied to the moral and biblical scandal of poverty around the globe and here at home, the crises of environmental degradation and climate

change that pose such a threat to God’s creation, and to the multiple assaults on human life and dignity that shame our world.

Many of the great social issues we face feel like huge, unmovable mountains: deadly disease pandemics that kill millions, massive inequality that imprisons half the world’s people in miserable poverty, human sexual and economic trafficking, dangerous climatic changes in the earth’s temperature, genocide that no one seems to be able to stop, so many threats to the sanctity of human life, endless violations of human dignity, and the alarming unraveling of both family and community systems.

Yet at the same time, many people, especially a new generation, are discovering a key insight from the Bible: If we have faith as small as the “grain of a mustard seed,” we can “move mountains.” That’s a good thing, because we have some real mountains to move in our world today—problems and challenges so big that they become a job for faith, for spiritual power applied to social change. Indeed, that’s why we call it “faith,” especially needed when our problems seem overwhelming and the odds are against us. It may be that only a revival of faith can really spark the necessary changes in public opinion and political will on the really big issues, and that a spiritual transformation is necessary for social change. It’s about changing hearts and minds on many of the biggest moral issues of public life that fundamentally challenge who we are and what we believe. Revival is always about what God can do through us and is now doing afresh, especially when people are adrift and society is in danger.

Such revivals of faith applied to our most significant social and public challenges also show the capacity to bring people together—even across traditional political boundaries and divisions—in order to find real answers and solutions. That’s because faith and spirituality can take us deeper than politics can, with a moral commitment that allows us to transcend our usual ideological debates. This is a moment filled with the opportunity for transformation—both personal and political. Indeed, they now depend on each other.

People I meet across the country are yearning for a moral center to our public life and political discourse, with a fundamental emphasis on the common good. But this is not merely another argument for more centrist politics, so much in vogue these days. The mushy political middle isn’t the answer, and a vague and compromising centrism that merely splits the difference on whatever the current political spectrum happens to be at the moment isn’t particularly attractive.

Rather, the people I hear from around the nation and around the world want to better understand the moral choices and challenges that lie beneath our political debates. They don’t want to just go “Left” or “Right,” but deeper. Seeking to find the moral ground on which new political consensus can be built and better decisions made is much more appealing than a weak and soulless centrism. More and more people want to see a common- good politics replace the politics of individual gain and special interests.

Politics is still broken, and most Americans feel it. I believe that politics can be changed to actually deal with the many crises we face—but it probably won’t happen without the energy, commitment, and hope that powerful faith and spirituality can bring.

It’s time to remember the spiritual revivals that led to the abolition of slavery in Britain and the United States, the centrality of the black church’s leadership in the U.S. civil rights movement, and the deeply Catholic roots of the Solidarity movement in Poland that led the overthrow of communism. It’s time to recall how liberation theology in Latin America helped pave the way for new democracies, how Desmond Tutu and the South African churches served to inspire victory over apartheid, how the Dalai Lama is keeping hope alive for millions of Tibetans, and, today, how the growing evangelical and Pentecostal churches of the global South are mobilizing to challenge the injustice of the global economy.

I believe that we are seeing the beginnings of a movement like that again, right here in America. I believe we are poised on the edge of what might become another spiritual revival or awakening that changes things—big things in the world.

Today, we see a new kind of politics growing around the country. It is socially “conservative” or traditional on matters of personal behavior and responsibility, rooted in strong moral values including the sanctity of human life, and deeply committed to the crucial bonds of family.

At the same time, it is also strongly populist in regard to economic fairness and justice, quite communitarian in its sense of social responsibility, deeply committed to environmental care, and increasingly anti-war in its stance toward foreign policy. At the heart of this new (and very old) option is the integral link between personal ethics and social justice, and the refusal to separate the two.

Not surprising, the commitment to a new kind of politicsflows quite naturally from the religious values of many Americans—integrity, fidelity, compassion, generosity, and a more global than merely national perspective. Even among members of Congress, we now see some newly elected officials who don’t fit the old molds. Socially conservative, economically populist, and anti-war are no longer mutually exclusive commitments.

It is possible to be committed to the sacredness of life without isolating those who are making desperate choices. While abortion is always a moral tragedy, the strategy of prevention, giving practical support for low-income women, and offering concrete alternatives may be a better response than condemnation and criminalization. It is possible to be strongly pro-marriage and family without being anti-gay rights. We are seeing marriages with real commitment to equality and mutuality between men and women and discovering that parenting is the ultimate test of family values.

It is possible to call for personal responsibility and social responsibility at the same time. It is possible to preserve the environment and turn back the threats against our fragile planet while also promoting the kind of economic growth that can lift people out of poverty. It is possible to love one’s country while admitting its mistakes, holding it to higher standards, and insisting that God’s blessings are not only bestowed on one nation. It is possible to take the reality of evil and the existence of enemies very seriously, but to also see the “logs in our own eye” and prefer the skills of conflict resolution and the requirements of justice over the habit of war. All these things are indeed possible, and could unite the best instincts of principled conservatism and progressive liberalism while balancing the values of both freedom and community.

Perhaps it is time to move beyond the old exclusive categories of liberalism and conservatism. Maybe what we need is a new paradigm altogether—we might call it “the conservative radical.” To be conservative means to be rooted—in a tradition, in faith, in core values. To be radical also means to be rooted (“radical” stems from the Latin word “radix,” which means “root”), which gives one a consistent perspective on the world. So these two—conservative radical—may not be contradictory but in fact deeply complementary.

What we need most are people rooted in “conservative” values and commitments but willing to be “radical” enough to apply those very values in the real world. To preserve the values (a conservative goal) of equality and justice, for example, they need to be radically applied to the needs of a broken world (a liberal goal). Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker, for example was a conservative radical—applying the values of her faith to life. It has been said that “she loved the truth enough to live it.” So were Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dietrich Bonhoeffer—all rooted in conservative traditions that made them radicals in the world.

Ultimately, we are known and judged by what we say “yes” to and what we say “no” to. We say “yes” to the conservative values that root us, and then say a radical “no” when those values require it. A conservative radical doesn’t neatly fall into any of our modern political categories and options but could help transform them all. And that might lead us to some real solutions, and perhaps even bring some peace to a political culture that is still at war.

We have to break the political impasses and public apathy that prevent us from finding solutions to some of the biggest moral issues of our time. These commitments, if made by individuals, congregations, and communities—and finally by our political leaders—might help us reach a “tipping point” on those great issues and break through to some real answers. And in the process we might even experience some healing of our broken political process.

Revival is necessary, because just having a new and better political agenda will not be enough. Getting to the right issues isn’t enough. Having the right message isn’t enough. Finding the right program isn’t enough. The real question is what will motivate and mobilize the kind of constituencies that will move politics to change. I believe that will require the energy, power, and hope that faith can bring. People acting out of their best ideas and values is a good thing, but people acting out of their deepest wells of faith can be even more powerful.

Imagine something called “Justice Revivals,” in the powerful tradition of revivals past but focusing on the great moral issues of our time. Imagine powerful preaching and music at night with marches in the streets during the day. Imagine linking the tradition of Billy Graham with the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. Imagine a new generation of young people catching fire and offering their gifts, talents, and lives in a new spiritual movement for social justice. Imagine such revivals taking place in the cities’ great convention centers but resulting in thousands of small groups for ongoing discipleship, training, and action in every neighborhood of those cities. Imagine disillusioned believers coming back to faith after many years of alienation, while other seekers discover the power of it for the first time. Imagine a revival of faith that didn’t result in sectarian warfare but rather respectful dialogue between our diverse religious communities and new interfaith collaboration in overcoming the social crises that confront us all.

Imagine politics being unable to co-opt such a spiritual revival but being held accountable to its moral imperatives. Imagine social movements rising out of spiritual revival and actually changing the wind of both our culture and our politics. Imagine a fulfillment in our time of the words of the prophet Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Just imagine.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. This article is adapted from The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post-Religious Right America (HarperOne, January 2008).

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