Changing the Image of Religion: The New Faith Coalition

By Jim Wallis 1-19-2009

The day after the inauguration, I will be joining with Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Christian leaders at the National Prayer Service for our new president. Each of us will look different, sound different, and hold different beliefs, but each of us will humbly offer words of hope and blessing for our country and its leaders. Pastors and their place in the inaugural ceremonies have made quite a stir over the past few weeks. Questions have been raised about beliefs, politics, symbolism, and representation. People on both sides of the aisle have been elated and enraged. The media, for the most part, has framed it as a left vs. right, conservative vs. liberal struggle, and has been quick to call winners and losers.

What this controversy has revealed and will soon become more clear is that the same old categories just don't fit anymore. No matter all of the differences that the religious leaders assembled might have with one another, there is a common ground that has brought us all together. This common ground is the common good -- for our country and our world.

A very new and, yet, very old role for religion is now emerging-the defense of the poor and vulnerable. A new generation of believers and trailblazing religious leaders are making sure that the agenda of the faith community is broader and deeper than it has been for several decades. Like the religious leaders for the inauguration, we don't all agree, but we have found a place where we can stand together.

This past election provided a picture of what some of this shift will look like, especially within the Christian community. Three factors are key to understand it.

First, the leadership of the African-American and Latino churches has come to the fore. We now see a surge of energy among black and Latino Christians who were galvanized by a campaign and a candidate who better spoke to their aspirations and values. They mark a growing shift within the religious landscape toward marrying social conservatism with a deep commitment to social justice.

Second, a new generation of white evangelical pastors and students cast a "post-Religious Right ballot" this election. For those Christians, sanctity of life now includes poverty, human trafficking, genocide, war, and even climate change. Healthy families are a top concern, but they don't think that gay and lesbian rights somehow cause family breakdown. They believe that the 30,000 children who die each day globally would touch the heart of Christ more than gay marriage amendments in Ohio or California.

Third, among Catholics and other people of faith, we've seen a broadening of the agenda with fewer single issue voters. "Pro-life" voters are realizing that their faith calls for a consistent ethic of life from "womb to tomb." For some, this means no longer pursuing a strategy of criminalizing abortion but a more pragmatic strategy of serious abortion reduction. It is becoming a common ground that could break the ideological deadlock of the past 30 years.

Christians of color, younger white Christians, "new evangelical" pastors and leaders, and progressive Catholics and Protestants from many denominations are now spending more time looking for allies than enemies. They are finding them especially among new voices and leaders in both Jewish and Muslim communities. They have learned many lessons from the mistakes of the "Religious Right" and aren't about to repeat them by simply becoming a new "Religious Left." When asked if they are liberal or conservative, many answer "yes," depending on the issue. They will be capable of both supporting and challenging, when necessary, a new president and administration. And because they don't easily fit the political categories of left and right, they could become bridge-builders, bringing a divided nation together on really big and politically transcendent issues like poverty, human rights, climate change, energy transformation, the dignity of human life, and the urgency of peace. This is just what the new president is calling for.

On January 21st, as I stand behind the pulpit at the National Cathedral and pray with a diverse group of religious leader with whom I can find common ground, I will also pray that all of this could change the image of religion in the United States, reflecting the changes already occurring in faith communities around the world. It may not even be too much to hope that religion could gradually change from the sectarian and divisive force that it all too often is, to becoming a catalyst for social justice and even a force for the healing of the nations-the way it was supposed to be.

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