Hearts & Minds

A New Moment Dawning

Forty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot down in Memphis, just as he was about to lead a new Poor People’s Campaign. King’s agenda had moved beyond civil rights to overcoming poverty in America, and he had just begun the new effort to challenge economic injustice.

At that time, in 1968, there were 25 million people in America living in poverty; 40 years later there are roughly 37 million people still living in poverty. In 1968, the minimum wage was worth $9.47 an hour in today’s dollars (using inflation-adjusted 2007 figures). The minimum wage today is $6.55. Forty-seven million Ameri­cans have no health insurance. In 2007, the number of home foreclosure filings rose to 2.2 million. The poor have lost ground.

But things are changing. God is on the move. Christians are rediscovering and embracing God’s concern for justice. The church is uniting across political and denominational lines around a shared commitment to fight poverty. A new moment is dawning.

Four years ago, Call to Renewal conducted a 12-day “Rolling to Overcome Poverty” bus tour to say that poverty was a religious and electoral issue. Despite our best efforts, the word “poverty” was rarely spoken in either campaign or in the 2004 presidential debates.

THIS YEAR, it’s already very different. For the first time in many years, poverty is back on the agenda. Two presidential candidates from both parties, Sen. John Edwards and Gov. Mike Huckabee, made poor and low-income working people a central priority in this election season. In Edwards’ campaign, he spoke eloquently about the reality of poverty in the United States and emphasized his commitment to cut poverty in the U.S. in half in 10 years.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2008
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A Visit to the ER

Healing is both a major subject of faith and now a global crisis with the breakdown of public health-care systems and the breakout of pandemic diseases. Megachurch pastors hold conferences on HIV/AIDS and malaria, while faith-based organizations are often in the forefront of responding to the world’s most lethal diseases. The grotesquely unequal access to lifesaving drugs and medical care has made death a social disease.

To guide our search for more humane and effective health care, we will need to establish some principles: for example, that health care should be a human right and not a commodity for sale, and that wealth should not determine one’s share of health in our world. We need to build consensus on principles and priorities if we are to address successfully the enormous challenges of public health in a world of massive inequalities. And until something is done to make universal health care a reality in America, millions of families will remain poor.

A few months ago, I had a personal experience that brought it all home. My wife, Joy, and I woke up early one morning to the sounds of our screaming 4-year-old, Jack, who was suffering from extreme abdominal pain. We tried to console and cuddle him, but to no avail. “Don’t touch me, it really hurts!” he cried when we tried to examine his sore tummy. This was not like him at all; he is not an overreactive kid.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2008
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An Evangelical Manifesto

Thirty-five years ago, I was one of a group of evangelicals who issued a call for the movement to become more involved in social action. The 1973 “Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern” pledged “to defend the social and economic rights of the poor and oppressed,” to “deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism,” and to “challenge the misplaced trust of the nation in economic and military might—a proud trust that promotes a national pathology of war and violence.”

It concluded: “As evangelical Christians committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and the full authority of the Word of God, we affirm that God lays total claim upon the lives of his people. We cannot, therefore, separate our lives from the situation in which God has placed us in the United States and the world. By this declaration, we endorse no political ideology or party, but call our nation’s leaders and people to that righteousness which exalts a nation.”

Ironically, the major evangelical social action since then has come from the Right. Galvanized by the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing abortion, the Right founded a succession of organizations, from Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority to Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. All were characterized by a priority emphasis on two issues—abortion and same-sex marriage—and by a close identification with the Republican Party.

As one result, the church has a serious image problem. A recent book, unChristian, by Barna pollster David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, reveals much about how Millennials, the emerging generation, view Christianity. An overwhelming majority see Christians as hypocritical, judgmental, too focused on the afterlife, and too political in the worst sense of the word. And that image is often particularly true of evangelicals.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2008
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A Generation Comes of Age

From mid-January to mid-March, I traveled to 22 cities on my Great Awakening book tour. The most compelling evidence I saw that we really are entering a “post-Religious Right America” is the shifting political agenda and theological emphasis of a new generation of twentysomething evangelicals. I met thousands of them on the road as they came out in large numbers for book events.

I travel with one of these young evangelicals, Chris LaTondresse, a missionary kid who grew up in the former Soviet Union and who recently graduated from Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. From the conversations he and I have been having with those in attendance at book events, churches, and evangelical college campuses, it’s clear that churchgoers growing up in conservative pews are finally coming of age with regard to peace and justice issues. This emerging generation is the leading edge of a new movement of progressive evangelicals.

In Boston, I spoke at the historic Park Street Church, where the premier evangelist of the Second Great Awaken­ing, Charles Finney, preached in 1831. The Billy Graham of his day, Finney called people to faith in Jesus Christ and then to enlist in the anti-slavery campaign. Finney actually pioneered the “altar call” so he could sign up his converts for the anti-slavery campaign. Another famous anti-slavery crusader of the time, the more secular William Lloyd Garrison, delivered his first abolitionist speech in the same church when he was only 23 years old.

On that weekday night at Park Street, I encountered a packed church of hundreds of young evangelicals who want to be a generation of new “abolitionists”—focusing on the most vulnerable people in our world today. They suspect that Jesus would likely care about the 30,000 children around the world who die each day due to unnecessary poverty and preventable disease.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2008
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Healing the Wounds of Race

Barack Obama should win or lose his party’s nomination for the presidency based on the positions he takes regarding the great issues of our time and his capacity to lead the country at home and in the world. He must not win or lose because of the old politics of race in the U.S. That would be a tragedy for all of us.

Race exploded into the center of the media debate about the presidential race this spring when cable news stations and talk radio played carefully selected incendiary statements from Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the retiring pastor of Obama’s home church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Obama, while affirming the tremendous work his church has done in his city, condemned the most controversial remarks of his pastor. But the whole situation points to the enormous gap in understanding between the mainstream black community in the U.S. and the experience of many white Americans. That is what we are going to have to heal if we are ever to move forward.

Here is what I mean. There is a deep well of both frustration and anger in the African-American community. Those feelings are born of the concrete experience of real oppression, discrimination, and blocked opportunities—opportunities that most of America’s white citizens take for granted. African Americans across the spectrum of income and success will speak personally to those feelings of frustration and anger, when white people are willing to listen. But usually we are not. In 2008, to still not comprehend the reality of black frustration and anger is to be in a state of white denial—which, very sadly, is where many white Americans are.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2008
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A Turning Point

The year 1968 was very significant in my life, and a decisive one for the nation. It was the year when the hopes borne by the social movements of the 1950s and ’60s were dashed by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

If Robert Kennedy had lived to become president on the inside (as he surely would have) and Martin Luther King Jr. had lived to lead a movement from the outside, the U.S. and the world might be very different today. But the most hopeful political leader of his time and the most important movement leader of the century were both struck down, and 1968 was the turning point when it felt like everything began to go wrong in America.

I vividly remember my feelings at the time. I was a student at Mich­igan State, actively involved in the civil rights and antiwar movements. King had been the leader of the movements that had captured my imagination and commitment as a young activist and Kennedy was the only politician who won my political trust. I was getting ready to take a break from college to work on his presidential campaign when he was killed, and I remember being devastated by the loss.

Since 1968, it has felt like the door has been closed to real social change in the U.S. Since 1968, we have been wandering in the wilderness. This marks 40 years of that wandering, a passage of time I have been pondering of late.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2008
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The Politics of Change

At the time of this writing, the primary elections are still in full swing. But already the early primary season has demonstrated clearly the limits of the pollsters’ predictions, the pundits’ prognostications, and the ability of politics to address our deepest problems.

The polls have gotten it wrong several times, on both candidates and issues. And the political commentators have wrongly told us what was going to happen or not going to happen so many times that many people have just stopped listening.

On both the Democratic and Republican sides, one candidate after another has been built up as the inevitable winner, only to lose the next primary. And the winners, who supposedly have momentum, have then confounded the pollsters by proceeding to lose. Candidates who were pronounced dead by all the political talking heads have won comeback victories.

Iraq was to be a big campaign issue, and then it faded. Health care was big early on, but not so prominent later. Then the fear of recession became the big issue: “It’s the economy, stupid” all over again. And all the pundits said the early front-loaded primary season would produce clear nominees by early February. Then they talked about what fun it would be for journalists to have nominations go all the way to the conventions. Maybe this is all about their fun.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2008
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Why I Wrote The Great Awakening

My book God’s Politics called on people to take back their faith, after it had been “hijacked” by the Religious Right. Millions of Christ­ians have done just that, and now the question is what are we going to do with our faith, now that we have it back? My new book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America, addresses that new question.

My friend E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post syndicated columnist, has read the new book and describes how it is different from the last one. “The Great Awakening is the perfect successor to God’s Politics,” Dionne says. “If the earlier book helped open our eyes to what had gone wrong, The Great Awakening ... provides an historical and theological foundation for a transformative public religion.”

When I am asked what has changed since God’s Politics, I reply, “Everything.” The subtitle of God’s Politics was “Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.” Well, the hard Right continues to get it wrong, but evangelicals are leaving the Religious Right in droves. Meanwhile the Left is starting to get the idea that politics should be about values and that religion has much to contribute to progressive politics.

Two things in particular have changed. First, we now see the “leveling of the praying field” as many Democrats are rediscovering their own reli­gious roots, with many coming out of the closet as people of faith. And their candidates are actively reaching out to the faith community. In recent years perceived as the “secular party,” hostile to religion and values, Democrats are becoming a much more faith-friendly party—that’s a real sea change.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2008
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A Real 'Values' Agenda

As we enter the 2008 election year, it’s time to start talking about Christian faithfulness and responsibility when it comes to exercising our voting rights. As Christians who seek to both live and vote by our values, we should all remind ourselves of what those values are and how they should affect our political engagement.

In October, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and I held a dialogue at a summit focused on the “values” for values voters, a gathering put on by an arm of the Family Research Council. In that dialogue, we found areas of real agreement and also healthy disagreement—and that is good. And there were lessons for all Christians that we discussed.

We agreed that the issue is not whether faith should help to shape our public life, but how.

I said I believed that Christians across the political spectrum might have more common concerns than people think—and potential common ground—on some critical issues. There are principles and policy directions that could bridge and even transcend our bitter partisan divides and move us forward.

First, there are biblical principles of the kingdom of God on which we can agree. Our faith-inspired vision of a “beloved community” should ground all of our efforts to transform our society.

Second, there are prudential judgments on policies where there is room for disagreement and deeper dialogue.

Third, we must make sure our faith trumps ideology.

For me, I told the FRC, that often means making sure that my faith challenges the Left. I suggested they probably don’t have that problem! But I encouraged them to make sure that their faith challenges the Right.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2008
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'Come Let Us Reason Together'

The public discussion between evangelicals and progressives has been dominated by too many false choices and too much mutual misunderstanding. It is time to work for common ground on some of our most critical issues. There is a compelling vision we can address to the many Americans who are actually more “purple” than “red” or “blue.” What could evoke their convictions, reflect their values, summon their commitments, and change America? What would a broader and deeper moral politics or values politics begin to look like?

To ground that new politics, we need a better understanding of the role of faith in public life. Political appeals—even if rooted in religious convictions—must be argued on moral grounds, rather than as sectarian religious demands, so that the people, whether religious or not, may have the capacity to hear and respond. Religion must be disciplined by democracy and contribute to a better and more moral public discourse. Religious convictions must therefore be translated into moral arguments, which must win the political debate if they are to be implemented. Religious people don’t get their way just because they are religious (in a nation that is often claimed to be a Judeo-Christian country). They, like any other citizens, have to convince their fellow citizens that what they propose is best for the common good—for all of us and not just for the religious. Clearly, the work to be done includes teaching religious people how to make their appeals in moral language and secular people not to fear such appeals will lead to theocracy.

This kind of effort could result in a new political agenda that doesn’t fit the standard right/left battles of American politics and is more consistent with our deeply held values. That new agenda would be good news for the majority of American who are alienated by the political extremes and are hungry—not for a soulless centrism—but for a new moral center in our public life.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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