In the Rev. Jim Wallis' previous bestseller, "God's Politics," the editor, speaker and self-described progressive evangelical claimed that...
In the Rev. Jim Wallis’ previous bestseller, “God’s Politics,” the editor, speaker and self-described progressive evangelical claimed that the religious right had narrowed discussion of moral issues to a very narrow agenda, while the political left has shown disdain for faith and moral-values talk.
In his current book, “The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post-Religious Right America” (HarperOne), Wallis says the landscape has changed.
He argues that the influence of the religious right — while still powerful — has peaked and that the left has gotten more comfortable talking about faith and values.
He believes it’s the beginning of what may be the next great awakening: a revival of faith related to poverty, environment, human life and dignity.
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Wallis, 59, who is embarking on a 20-city tour to talk about his book, will be speaking in Seattle Friday.
We spoke with the Washington., D.C. resident and editor of the Christian magazine Sojourners.
Q: What are your general thoughts on the role faith has played in the presidential race so far?
A: The framework of religion and politics in 2008 will be dramatically different than in 2004. There are two things. First, what Time magazine called the leveling of the praying field. … Democrats have been doing much more faith outreach than they ever have before, and even more than Republicans are.
But if the agenda of faith communities haven’t changed, that wouldn’t be of importance. The agenda has changed dramatically.
I had six evangelical leaders — quite diverse — talk about what evangelicals want…. Rich Cizik (vice president for governmental affairs) of the National Association of Evangelicals talked about the quiet earthquake that’s occurred — a new evangelical agenda that’s beyond just abortion and gay marriage…. (They include) the scandal of poverty at home and abroad, environmental degradation, Darfur and human rights and genocide and sex trafficking….
(Survey data show that of white evangelicals), half are conservative, solidly. So half is in play this time. They’re not automatically liberal Democrats by any stretch. But whichever candidate speaks a moral language, addresses these issues, is going to have a resonance.
Relevant magazine did a poll among their readers — young white evangelicals. The highest response was for Barack Obama. There’s a new kind of conversation in politics where Democrats are not seen as hostile.
Q: You say the Democratic Party candidates are doing a better job of reaching people of faith. Give me some examples.
A: Barack Obama’s campaign had faith forums in Iowa and New Hampshire. Josh DuBois is running Obama’s faith campaign. Burns Strider in Hillary’s campaign is in the highest circle, running the whole faith and values campaign. … They’re getting endorsements from faith leaders. John and Elizabeth Edwards don’t have as big an operation in that regard, but both are committed Methodists. This is a big change for Democrats. I’ve never seen the Democrats do that before.
Q: So why do you think people talk so much more about Republican candidates’ faith?
A: You guys are. The media is the last ones to figure this out. For example, the exit questions of the primaries in New Hampshire and Iowa — they didn’t even ask Democrats if they were evangelicals. All the Republicans, they asked them if they were evangelical in the exit polls.
Q: Here’s a question from a part of the country that has a high percentage of non-church-goers: Is it a good thing for politics to be infused with the language of religion and faith? What are your thoughts on talking about values and morality from a non-religious perspective?
A: Religion has no monopoly on morality. … As one who has defended the role of faith in public life, … sometimes it does go too far, it crosses a line. In the public square, people should speak in moral terms and not religious terms. It should be accessible for everybody. For example, when Romney says religion needs freedom to exist, that’s true. When he says freedom needs religion to exist, that’s not true. …
And people of faith should not be in any party’s pockets, any candidate’s pockets. The religious right was a political party, not a religious one. There should not now be a religious left.
Q: But isn’t there the perception that you’re part of the religious left?
A: The media only sees that. The media thinks everything has only two sides. People are hungry for a moral center.
Q: You write and talk of the decline of the religious right. But Huckabee has been doing very well, it seems, largely because of the support of the religious right.
A: Huckabee is a sign that what I’m saying is true. Because religious right leaders don’t support him., I predicted Huckabee would rise because he speaks a language that reaches a number of his constituents. Huckabee doesn’t take the agenda of the religious right. Huckabee is an economic populist. He is an example of my second point — that the agenda is now broader. And he’s been attacked for it by the Republicans and the religious right.
Q: Would you call him an example of the moral center?
A: No. I think he is an example of the broadening of the evangelical agenda.
Whoever one’s favorite is — Barack or Hillary or McCain or Huckabee — will not be able to change the big things in this country unless and until there’s a big social movement pushing them from the outside. This book isn’t about who to vote for. This book is about the kind of social movement that’s needed to change the country.
Q: You’ve talked for several years about the religious right losing its monopoly on the agenda. But the religious left, for lack of a better term — or religious progressives — don’t seem to be as organized and galvanized. Is this more about what you want to happen rather than what’s actually happening?
A: I think we’re on the edge of a great awakening. I’ve wanted it for a long time. but now I see it happening all over the country. I can talk about huge crowds on the road. Megachurhces are supporting it. Willow Creek — the archetypal evangelical megachurch — and (senior pastor) Bill Hybels says “we evangelicals are one stir away from a real awakening.”
Rich Cizik and NAE have become pivotal (regarding evangelicals and the environment). It started at the grassroots level among younger evangelicals — projects, campaigns — the most visible ones like ‘What would Jesus drive.’…
Q: How do you reconcile all that with the fact that some of the fastest growing churches are quite conservative?
A: Are there conservative churches that are growing? Yes. That was the paradigm. But the paradigm is changing so fast that Rich Cizik calls it an earthquake.
It’s a mixed picture for sure. That’s why I don’t say the religious right is dead. But their monologue is over. The new conversation has begun