The Common Good

Trapped in 1968

Date: December 31, 2007
This last year I sat in a United Methodist Church in downtown Charlottesville where the pastor preached about prophets. These spiritual heroes lived not just in the Old Testament but still live among us today, he told us, one of whom especially speaks forcefully for justice and moves among very important people. I cringed as the pastor revealed his nominee for modern prophet: Jim Wallis, long-time Religious Left activist and author of the 2004 book, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It.

Few in the congregation seemed to recognize Wallis's name. Wallis is a hero to many liberal clergy and religious activists, especially of the 1960s generation. These followers, including no doubt the gray-haired pastor in Charlottesville, helped to make Wallis's book a bestseller.

Biblical prophets focused on the future. But Wallis, the former president of his college Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), has never really left his campus protest mode of 40 years ago. For him, the Kingdom of God is always just a protest march or a sit-in away. The enemies are always a new reincarnation of Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon or J. Edgar Hoover. And the urgency is always about stopping "the war," as every war is simply a repeat of Vietnam.

In a recent column on his Sojourners website, Wallis quite frankly admitted that America, for him, peaked in 1968, the year of all years for protest politics.

"It was the year when the hopes borne by the social movements of the 1950s and '60s were dashed by the assassinations of, first, Martin Luther King Jr., and then Robert F. Kennedy," Wallis remembered. "Ever since 1968, the door has been closed to real social change in the U.S. Since 1968, we have been wandering in the wilderness."


AFTER 40 YEARS OF wandering, Wallis is still looking for the Promised Land. America has apparently been a desolate wilderness for the last four decades. But the dream lives on. Wallis recounted that he was recently asked in the class that he teaches at Harvard how often he had been arrested. The answer: 22 times. "That's what happens when social movements confront closed political doors," he told the students.


He's willing to do civil disobedience again if necessary. But Wallis is waiting for the right combination of social movements and "open political doors" to coalesce before he returns to the jail house. One of the last times Wallis was arrested was in 1995, when he and other Religious Left activists were arrested in the Capitol rotunda while protesting Republican budget "cuts," i.e. reductions in increases of social welfare programs.

Perhaps the large increases in social welfare spending under the Bush Administration have kept Wallis out of jail. Nonetheless, he denounces the "extreme and disastrous policies" of the current administration. "The wrong direction didn't begin with George W. Bush, but he has certainly demonstrated how absolutely wrong the direction of the U.S. now is," Wallis complains.

Of course, Wallis, who is a pacifist, has been stridently opposed to the Iraq War since before it began. But this war has not fueled the vast social unrest that first energized Wallis 40 years ago. Nor has it returned Wallis to routine incarceration. He is waiting for the right moment of social ferment.


WALLIS DOES NOT EXPECT the 2008 presidential election to launch any great social change by itself. "Remember that Lyndon Johnson did not become a civil rights leader until Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks made him one," Wallis reminds. "It was a social movement pressing on an open door."

Wallis hopes his Sojourners and Call to Renewal groups of religious activists will help build the required social ferment. He reports: "And the good news is that we see that movement already growing, more that I ever have since the fateful year of 1968."

He's already written a new book about it: The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America. It describes "great awakenings" in America's past that fueled social change.

His upcoming book tour may lead to a series of "mini-revivals" that will generate "dramatic change on issues like poverty, pandemic diseases, climate change, human rights, and war and peace." He opines: "It may even be that after 40 years, we might finally be ready to come out of the wilderness."


THE LAST 40 YEARS that Wallis recalls only as "wilderness" are remembered by most Americans as a recovery time from the chaos of the 1960s. Beyond the civil rights movement and the space program, it's hard for non-activists to recall most of that decade as historically anything more than a disturbing era of social disintegration.

Hardly wandering in the wilderness since then, America over the last 40 years has increased in population by 50 percent, become wealthier, healthier, cleaner, safer, less racist, and even more of a cultural and racial melting pot. After the ignominies of the Vietnam era, America went on to win the Cold War, largely end the impending threat of superpower nuclear conflict.

Now America presides fairly benevolently over a world that, with major exceptions, is far friendlier to American principles than 40 years ago. Good riddance to Leonid Brezhnev, Mao Tse-tung, Ho Chi Minh, Joseph Tito, Gamal Nasser, and the countless radical activists in the 1960s who romanticized those tyrants.

Sadly, the legacies of the 1960s that still survive today are unrestricted abortion, widespread illegitimacy, broken families, pervasive divorce and absent fathers, all of which originated in the collapse of sexual mores and in the expansion of the federal welfare state that the 1960s unabashedly celebrated. Wallis rarely addresses these issues, except to recommend an even greater welfare dosage of the Great Society.

Still, even these pathologies show some small signs of receding. And today's world, and today's America is far better than in 1968, thanks to the continued vitality of American democracy and of America's religious life.

A true prophet would recognize that.