2008 Election Year

Dear President Obama

 

A Two-Way Street
by JIM WALLIS

We haven't seen many good models recently, from either party, about how the White House relates to religious communities. We need to do more than merely having chaplains in the corridors of power, or religion functioning as a power bloc within a party to legislate its own narrow agendas, or mere photo-ops at prayer breakfasts for faith leaders at the White House.

Let me suggest another model: the "two-way street."

One direction of the two-way street is for the faith community to offer you its prayers and support. There will be times when you are going to feel an acute need for those prayers. On that same road is the support from people of good religion and good will, whether or not they voted for you. Your election was a historic milestone in this nation's life and history. Most of us in the churches, synagogues, and mosques are celebrating that achievement. Wanting the very best for our nation at this time of crisis, and for you and your family as you seek to lead, is a bipartisan religious commitment.

THE OTHER DIRECTION of the two-way street is what the faith community can say back to you, which previous administrations, from both parties, haven't fully availed themselves of.

For example, on the issue of poverty, you know that it is often people of faith who live and work alongside the poor in the worst neighborhoods in this country. People of faith best know the families, the kids, and the streets in our neediest communities, as you know from your own experience as an organizer. Street workers and leaders from faith communities often know a great deal about what will actually work to overcome the pain and misery of poverty in America. Let the faith community help you and even serve as your eyes and ears on the ground.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2009
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The Battle Over the 1960s

Even before his inauguration, Barack Obama has already made at least one vital and perhaps enduring contribution to American culture. His winning campaign for the presidency has gone a long way toward ending the stranglehold that the myths of the 1960s have held on our national imagination for lo these many years.

Obama is our first post-baby boom president. He came into adulthood in the Reagan era. And to reach the White House he has had to overcome one quintessential, cut-to-pattern boomer, Hillary Clinton, and a Vietnam warrior, John Mc­Cain, who tried to win by tarring Obama with the worst excesses of the 1960s countercultural Left, as personified by Weather Underground leader William Ayers. Along the way, Obama also had to make a painful break with his old friend and one-time mentor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, after trying to explain Wright’s angry rhetoric by noting that the minister was a product of the 1960s.

Wiping our national slate clean of the curse of the ’60s is important because the culture war of the past three decades has really been a war about the legacy of that decade. On the Right, the ’60s are viewed as the time when narcissistic white liberals and over-empowered minorities pulled the rug from under a traditional social order that was still serving us quite well. Many Republican careers have been made by tying every call for social justice, equality, and peace to that dubious era of “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.”

Meanwhile, to many in the baby boom Left, the ’60s were viewed as a lost Golden Age. It was a time of liberation from repressive social norms. It was the era in which African Americans finally won their full citizenship rights, millions of ordinary Americans acted to end an unjust war, and women began to take their rightful place in the public square.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2009
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A New Faith Coalition

As we approach the inauguration of President Barack Obama, it is worth a final reflection on the election that brought him (and us) to this point. Most elections are just power rearrangements; this one was a transformational moment in our history. First of all, this represents a watershed moment in the life of our country. Regardless of how you voted, our entire nation can celebrate the milestone of our first African-American president. We can all embrace this profound opportunity for deeper racial reconciliation and social justice.

This is also a moment to recognize that fundamental shifts are taking place in America— political, cultural, racial, generational, and religious shifts.

The leadership of African-American and La­­tino Christ­ians, along with that of a new generation of the faithful in white America, is ending an age of narrow and divisive religion. This new faith coalition voted for a broad new moral agenda for faith in public life. Racial and economic justice, creation care, peacemaking, and a more consistent ethic of life will be the keystones of this growing shift.

This changing face of religion in America was noted right after the election, when The Wall Street Journal reported, “A concerted effort since 2004 helped Barack Obama and the Democrats make significant inroads with religious voters. Reversing his party’s poor showing among faith-based voters in the 2004 presidential election, Mr. Obama won among Catholics, 54 percent to 45 percent, made gains among regular churchgoers, and eroded a bit of the evangelical support that has been a fixture of Republican electoral success for years.”

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Sojourners Magazine January 2009
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The Meaning of 'Life'

Joshua Hopping of Sweet, Idaho, helped put George W. Bush in the White House, and four years later helped keep him there. As an evangelical Christian, Hopping was part of the so-called “values voters” bloc that some pundits credit with Bush’s electoral success. But this year, Hopping isn’t a lock to support the Republican ticket. He says he’s open to consider which candidate best embodies his Christian values—and that very openness represents what could be one of the most significant shifts in this election season, because evangelicals, especially those under 30, are no longer a safe bet to vote for the furthest-right option on the ballot.

Why the loosening of party attachment? The questions that matter most to Hopping, 28, aren’t as narrowly defined as they used to be. He says he’ll be paying close attention to what the candidates are saying about the issues most important to him, which now include not only abortion and same-sex marriage but also the environment, poverty, and immigration—“and that’s not even counting the war in Iraq, health care, social security, and all those other things that are important,” Hopping told Sojourners. Looking at the records of the two parties on those issues, Hopping says, gave him pause about the unquestioned convictions he held in the past. “I said, ‘wait a minute,’ I want to take another look and see who’s out there, who actually cares about life beyond the womb.” Hopping says this line of thinking feels outside of his conservative comfort zone, but he cannot ignore his new convictions, particularly about the environment.

“Eight years ago, I began working in the environmental field, and it really hit me that God tells us to take care of the environment. The more I read the Bible, I see that the environment affects the poor, the young, and the old—the same people God said to go reach,” he says.

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Sojourners Magazine November 2008
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The Right Thing to Do

Sen. John Edwards came to New Orleans’ Ninth Ward to suspend his campaign for the presidency in January, returning to the city where he launched his campaign a year earlier. On the way to the event, Sen. Edwards stopped to talk to a homeless person, who asked him to remember her and her situation. “I say to her and I say to all those who are struggling in this country, we will never forget you,” promised Edwards. “We will fight for you. We will stand up for you.” Ending poverty continues to be the central theme of Edwards’ work, as it was of his campaign. He is currently director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina and chair of the Half in Ten campaign, a movement to cut poverty in half in a decade. Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis and editor Jim Rice talked with Edwards this summer at a hotel in Washington, D.C.

Jim Wallis: You’ve said in the past that your life vocation is to work to overcome poverty. How would you describe, right now, your vocation and your strategy?

John Edwards: Doing something to end poverty is central to my life. If you look at all the pieces of what I’m working on, they all come back to that place. I’m chair of the new Half in Ten campaign, which aims to cut poverty in half in America in the next 10 years. I have—both on the campaign trail and otherwise—been promoting this issue in every way possible. I’ve been meeting with both thinkers and activists on this issue all over the country. We still have the poverty center at the University of North Carolina, which I’m very proud of. If there is a tool out there available, then I want to take advantage of it.

Wallis: The word “vocation” for a lot of people has to do with a certain sense of “calling.” How has your faith molded or shaped that sense of calling?

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2008
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A Responsibility to Care

When thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina were headed to Arkansas, then-Gov. Mike Huckabee instructed state officials and volunteers to welcome the visitors the way they would want to be welcomed if they were in similar circumstances. This Golden Rule approach—and his willingness to support government programs to address social needs—didn’t win Gov. Huckabee friends among conservative Republicans, but he emphasized principle over party, telling a “values voter” gathering last year, “I do not spell G-O-D ... G-O-P. Our party may be important, but our principles are even more important than anybody’s political party.” Gov. Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, is currently a political commentator for Fox News. Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis spoke with Huckabee by telephone this summer.

Jim Wallis: What will it take to put poverty on the na­tional political agenda, and do you think that’s possible?

Mike Huckabee: It’s not only possible, it’s necessary. It’s a tragedy that in a country of extraordinary wealth, significant numbers of people every day go to bed hungry. Some people are oblivious to that reality in this country; it’s almost as if they think, “If we don’t see people, then they don’t exist.” That, to me, is one of the great tragedies—that many people who end up in the bubble of politics see only what is allowed into that bubble by the people who handle them. It’s one of the reasons I got involved—the frustration that many people in positions of authority were unaware of the very world that they were supposedly trying to lead.

Wallis: What are some of the key changes we have to make as a society to address the problem?

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2008
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Pledging Allegiance

Around this time four years ago, I found myself having conversations with Christians of many different political and theological stripes about why they were planning to sit out the 2004 election. Several prominent Christian scholars published thoughtful essays arguing that, as Alasdair MacIntyre put it, “the way to vote against the system is not to vote.”

I was, to put it simply, gob­smacked. Not voting? When so much was at stake? This struck me as irresponsible and perfectionist. I felt my interlocutors were saying, in effect, “Because I disagree with both candidates on some core issues, I will excuse myself from the messy contradictions of our electoral politics—but I will still, daily, reap all the benefits of being a U.S. citizen.” At the same time, I understood my friends’ dilemma: If voting is one way to realize the Christian’s responsibility to witness, then voting for a candidate who holds views that sharply clash with yours and those of your church community is difficult. Refusing to vote, in fact, is taken to be a witness itself.

This election season finds many of us having the same conversations. Some of the more thoughtful and provocative contributions to that conversation may be found in the slim volume Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting, edited by Ted Lewis. The nine essays included here—which are largely concerned with presidential elections and over which John Howard Yoder unsurprisingly casts a long shadow—raise a good question: When are the options so bad, and an electoral system so flawed, that Christians cannot in good conscience participate?

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2008
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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 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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