Jim Wallis is one of America's most prominent progressive Christians. But as a teenager, he wanted to leave the church for good.
Wallis grew up in Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s, gradually becoming aware of the city's complicated racial politics. His white church didn't acknowledge the struggles of the city's black residents, and he wanted to know why.
"An elder in my home church took me aside and said, 'Son, you have to understand. Christianity has nothing to do with racism. That's political and our faith is personal,'" Wallis recalled during his keynote address at the American Academy of Religion's annual conference on Nov. 18.
Wallis wasn't satisfied with that answer, so he separated from his childhood faith. As a young adult, he fought for causes in secular ways, protesting against racism, poverty and war.
Gradually, this activism drew Wallis back to Christianity, which he said nourishes and strengthens his social justice work. It also helped him find what he'd been searching for since that conversation with the church elder.
"I didn't have words for that elder back then, but I do now. God is personal, but never private," he told the crowd of theologians, religious studies scholars and writers gathered at the conference in Denver. God should inspire Christians to build a better world.
Today, Wallis, who is an ordained evangelical Christian pastor, serves as president of Sojourners, a social justice-oriented magazine and news website that covers faith, politics and culture. He's also published 12 books, including "America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America."
Before his speech at the American Academy of Religion conference, Wallis spoke with the Deseret News about his commitment to social justice and the complex relationship between religion and politics.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: What guides your activism? How do you decide which social or political issues to focus on?
Jim Wallis: I always go back to Matthew 25, which is what I call the 'It was me' text. It talks about the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee, the sick, the imprisoned. Jesus says, 'As you've done to the least of these, you've done to me.'
The (Bible's) prophets and Jesus all say the final test of discipleship is how we treat those who are poor and vulnerable. And that should be the test of a nation's leaders, instead of our gross national product, our unemployment rate or our military firepower.
Right now, we're dealing with tremendous moral issues, like how to treat refugees or immigrants. We've got a president who ran on claims about the danger of migrants coming to seek asylum.
The faith response should be clear. Jesus said, 'I know how you love me by how you welcome the stranger.' What's happening to our poor and vulnerable is what I'm paying attention to.
DN: But Christians don't agree on how to welcome the stranger. You're outraged by President Donald Trump's approach, while other support him. What's your message to Christians who disagree with you?
JW: In our faith communities, the guiding question should be 'What does the Bible say?' And it’s not. It's 'What do politicians say?'
If we just believe what we believe because we're white, we're middle class and we're nationalist Americans, then we're being sociologically predictable, not faithful. Our theology is supposed to trump our sociology, not the other way around.
If we say we should welcome the stranger and that diversity is a gift, we can reduce fear and serve the common good. If we don't, we're just letting identity politics take over. Identity politics is contrary to the politics of Jesus.
When the operative word in the phrase 'white Christian' is white, then we have a serious problem.
DN: When you were a teenager, adults in your church pushed back against your desire to focus on social justice issues. Does this resistance still exist?
JW: I think perhaps American white Christianity’s deepest heresy is the privatizing of faith. We only want a relationship with God, instead of relationships with our neighbors, brothers, sisters, enemies and the world.
White Christians are looking at what's wrong in the world and saying they have no responsibility for it.
I want Christians to do the right thing and be in the right places and welcome people and commit their resources to serving others.
DN: Is it possible for faith groups to devote too much attention to social justice? What if you become more of a political group than a church?
JW: I've done this work for a long time. You can't work and live and fight for justice without sustenance, without a foundation. You need something to get you through hard times.
At a time like now, when we're really up against political strategies based on fear and distrust and even violence, we have to go deeper into our faith and deeper into what sustains us.
Strategies to prevent violence or defend those who are targeted aren't enough. Our faith is what gets us through hard times and it's what will sustain us for the struggles ahead.
We have to bring our faith into our public activism and it has to be a real and deep and authentic faith. Otherwise, it won't matter. It won't change anything.
DN: What role should religion to play in the 2020 presidential election?
JW: There's a Religious Right, but I've never wanted to become the Religious Left. That's a politicizing of faith, and it's not helpful.
We need to look at the questions Jesus asked, like 'Who is my neighbor?' or 'Who is the greatest?' Those questions go to the heart of our crises today. They could bring us to something better.
We don’t need Christians to be chaplains for political parties or presidencies as we see now in Washington, D.C. Dr. (Martin Luther) King Jr. said it well: The church should not be the servant of the state or the master of the state. It should be the conscience of the state.
So how can we be a voice of conscience in these next two years for what’s important and who’s important? What’s at stake now is nothing less than the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith.