The Common Good

Jabbing with Left and Right

Date: September 9, 2006

Last year, when the Rev. Jim Wallis spoke in the Seattle area, he drew standing-room-only crowds of about 900.

These days, as the evangelical leader tours the country promoting the paperback edition of his bestselling book "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It" (HarperSanFrancisco), such audiences are expected everywhere.

But it's the changing nature of the conversation, not necessarily the size of the crowd, that gets Wallis most excited.

Since the hardback edition of his book came out in January 2005, he's seen more and more people talk about their faith and how it relates to issues such as poverty and environmentalism.

Prominent evangelical leaders, such as Rick Warren, author of the wildly popular "The Purpose-Driven Life," have talked about focusing more on issues such as global poverty and HIV/AIDS. The National Association of Evangelicals called on its members to pursue a "biblically balanced agenda" that addresses justice for the poor and care for creation.

Wallis, 58, a Washington, D.C., resident and editor of the Christian magazine Sojourners, talked about this perceived shift in a phone interview recently.

Q: First, what is the "it" that the right gets wrong and the left doesn't get?

A: The right is very comfortable with the language of moral values, faith, religion, God. ... But they reduce everything to one or two issues (abortion and same-sex marriage) and ignore those 2,000 verses in the Bible about poor people, ... ignore issues that God doesn't ignore. The left — for too long — has shown disdain for faith and people of faith and even moral-values talk. ... So you've got religious fundamentalists on one side that narrow everything to one or two issues. And on the other side, you've got secular fundamentalists who want to take any moral-values talk out of politics.

But the conversation about faith and politics has really changed significantly from when the book was first published. Back then, the religious right controlled this debate pretty much and had a monologue going. Now the dialogue has begun.

Q: How did that happen?

A: Lots of reasons. The right were able to narrow the moral agenda to two issues. [But recently] I was at Pepperdine University [which is affiliated with the Churches of Christ] talking to about 2,000 students. Darfur and poverty and war in Iraq were the issues they were interested in. Clearly, there's a broader, deeper range of issues now. ... Democrats are talking about faith and politics, and only Republicans were [doing so] in the last election cycle. And the most heartening thing: People who said their voices hadn't been heard before are coming out.

Q: Have they always been there, or is something new being created?

A: It's a combination of both. "God's Politics" revealed what was already there to some extent. ... Then there are a lot of people, especially younger people — something clearly is happening among the younger generation.

Q: Do you think it's becoming a movement?

A: It feels that way. The book signings have become town meetings. ... There are more and more voices in the media around these questions. There is more and more talk on Capitol Hill for sure. [Evangelical] churches are becoming engaged in these issues. I think, from this point on, what moderate evangelicals and moderate Catholics are going to do is going to shape American politics decisively.

Q: How could this play out in the upcoming elections?

A: With the elections coming up, discussion is turning back to values. Which is a good thing — I think moral values should shape politics. But who shapes what the moral values are? [Leaders on the religious right are saying] this fall they will remind religious voters what the moral values are: abortion, gay marriage. That language is interesting because it shows that people need reminding. But people now are saying the values are sex trafficking, the environment, global poverty....

Q: Is it appropriate for religious organizations — whether on the left or right — to get involved in politics?

A: Yes, if they focus on the issues and call politicians and political parties to account. Martin Luther King never endorsed a candidate. He made them endorse his agenda. That's a model I try to follow.

Q: What about those who say such involvement distracts faith groups from providing spiritual sustenance?

A: I think the two great hungers in our world are spirituality and social justice. The connection between the two is what the world is waiting for.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com