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Democracy & Religion, Part 1

Jim Wallis

     ...evangelical minister & social activist. At the intersection of religion and politics, Rev. Wallis is a public theologian who appears regularly on TV and radio, with columns in papers across the nation including the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe. Rev. Wallis is a preacher, teacher, founder and editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine, and Convener of "Call to Renewal." His seven books include the bestseller God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. He and his family live in inner-city Washington, D.C.


Religion must be disciplined by democracy, according to evangelical minister and social activist Jim Wallis. Bring your faith or values or whatever it is that motivates and mobilizes you to action to the public arena, Rev. Wallis urges. Say, “"I want to make an argument." Persuade you fellow citizens that what you think is best for the common good IS, indeed, best for the common good. That's appropriate. What is not appropriate, he says, is to say, "This is a Judeo-Christian country so we get to win" or "God spoke to me this morning and I've got a fix for Social Security."

Rev. Wallis is finding that the question most Americans want to ask right now, no matter their own tradition, is this: What is the moral compass for our public life? He and a growing number of like-minded people -- people of all religious persuasions and those not persuaded by religion at all -- are challenging a Christianity in which, he says, Jesus is pro-rich, pro-war, pro-American and a threaten to be the official State religion in the United States.

America's Founders separated Church and State not to diminish the role of religion, Rev. Wallis says, but to set it free to be more influential. Bring your good values to the political process, whatever their origins, he says. Engage in the lifeblood of democracy. It's that dialogue with lots of voices that enriches the democratic process, not the monologue which the Religious Right has owned, both figuratively and literally.

The Political and Religious Right, he believes, have over-stepped, causing a tremendous response from people who feel their own religious beliefs have been hijacked and those who simply fear too great a role of any religion. As Rev. Wallis goes across the country, he greets crowds with what he tells them is good news -- the monologue of the Religious Right is finally over and a new dialogue has just begun.

He's encouraged that his book signings across the country are turning into "revivals" -- mindful that it's only a revival when a spiritual experience has changed something about a society (so Billy Graham says his gatherings do not qualify). That's particularly appropriate for an evangelical minister and social activist who feels he belongs in the 19th century, alongside evangelicals who fought against slavery and child labor and for women's suffrage.

Hope is a decision to resist the paralyzing refuge of cynicism, says Jim Wallis. Cynicism, he says, is a buffer against the kind of commitment which makes one feel vulnerable. Vulnerability is part of being human, he reminds us. The response of people of faith, he says, is to trust God. When a government claims to erase our vulnerability, that government is flirting with idolatry, he says, claiming the place of God by saying "We are in control." The only way to be less vulnerable, he says, is to help make other people less vulnerable.

Choose hope, he urges, clear that it is a choice. Discussing religion never changes anything, he believes, but betting your life on faith sometimes does. Protest is good he says, nodding toward his own arrests protesting injustice. But alternatives are even better. Solutions are what people crave. Learn from young people weary of the Left-Right straight jacket. What they want is what's right. And what works.



[This Program was recorded May 26, 2005, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Jim Wallis tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell that poverty is today's slavery and outlines its dimensions. He faults the lack of political leadership when almost 2/3 of Americans believe the nation's most pressing moral crisis is greed & materialism, poverty & economic injustice. He recalls the powerful approach Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took to public life. 

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:49

Conversation 2


Americans hunger to replace the politics of blame with the politics of solutions, that of fear with hope, Jim Wallis reports. Young people, he says, don't care about the "Left/Right straitjacket," they want what's right and what works. Quoting Billy Graham's self-assessment that he is not doing revival -- it has not been connected to any kind of societal change -- Rev. Wallis asserts that to change a country, you change "the way the wind blows." He expands, then compares Constantinian Christians to Prophetic Christians and brings that idea into the present.

Reporting that his book signings have become a moral discourse on public life, Rev. Wallis says he is confident Americans want this conversation and that the United States needs it. The monologue of the Religious Right is finally over and a new dialogue has just begun among people of all moral persuasions, he declares, as people ask, "What is the moral compass for our public life?" He remembers religious leaders around the world rejecting America's invasion of Iraq, compares Tony Blair's willingness and George Bush's refusal to listen.


Conversation 1 RealAudio17:10

Conversation 3

Micah is his prophet for national security, Rev. Wallis says, contrasting the effectiveness of "swords into plowshares" to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s assertion that U.S. military domination is the only answer. Rev. Wallis compares terrorists to mosquitoes rising from the swamp of devastation, resentment, anger and the chaos of poverty. Too be secure, he says, we must drain the swamp, not buy more and more rifles with which to shoot at the mosquitoes. After September 11th, he says, America could have joined the rest of the world in knowing everyone is vulnerable, to which people of faith respond with trust in God. When a government claims to erase our vulnerability, he says, it flirts with idolatry, claiming the place of God. To be less vulnerable, help make other people less vulnerable, he counsels, providing examples.

"God Bless America” is not in the Bible, he points out, with examples of how religion must be disciplined by democracy. Jesus' top two priorities would not have been a capital gains tax cut and the occupation of Iraq, Rev. Wallis says, then recounts how young people respond when they first learn that Christians can oppose war, be environmentalists and care about poverty.


Conversation 1 RealAudio21:15

Conversation 4

In addition to being unethical, Rev. Wallis says, corporate scandals and abuse are anti-Biblical and perpetrators must be held legally as well as morally responsible. The separation of Church and State frees the church, he reiterates. Urging an emphasis on solutions, he says protest is good, but alternatives are better. He continues to promote nonviolence because he is pragmatic, he says -- war is not working. He pits hope against cynicism, declares hope the victor, and concludes that betting your life on faith can change things.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:10


For several years, we have worked to welcome Jim Wallis to our program. We thank Dr. Robert Franklin, Presidential Scholar and Professor of Ethics at Emory University and Acting President of The Regional Council of Churches of Atlanta, Inc. (RCCA) and Laina Adler, then at HarperSan Francisco publishing, for securing us a spot in Rev. Wallis' full schedule as he toured the nation with God's Politics in the Spring of 2005. We also thank Rev. Wallis' staff at "Sojourners" in Washington for their many contributions to this event.

Turning our recording date with Rev. Wallis into a significan public event (part of an even larger event!) in Atlanta, GA, and simultaneously inviting the world to join us via the Internet was an adventure that co-evolved along with a number of institutions, beginning with the RCCA. It extended the invitation and hosted Rev. Wallis for this two day visit. We thank Roy Craft, the RCCA's Executive Director, for his pivotal role and his boundless enthusiasm in making sure that all of Rev. Wallis' visit was productive and inspiring. Ethel Ware Carter, executive assistant at the RCCA, was, simply, wonderful, and Dawn Price, summer intern in the RCCA office, was also exemplary.

Pam Buckmaster, of Pam Buckmaster Associates, very much lived up to her corporate billing -- Helping Organizations Advance -- and did so with a big smile that never flagged through the long hours needed on short notice to maximize the effect of the entire occasion. She was joined by Reverend Jimmy Moor, Pastor, St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Midtown Atlanta, and Mr. Will Van Ness of Our lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, who were all splendidly responsive in turning themselves into radio announcers on short order. It was, finally, a pleasure to get acquainted with Terri Earls, of Ministry Consulting, and Angela Rice at the Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters in the course of pulling people together. Many additional people not included in this acknowledgement worked hard in this endeavor and we thank them all.

In the course of a gathering of like-minded people eager to optimize Jim Wallis'’visit to Atlanta, Bill (Russell) expressed our willingness to "share" Rev. Wallis. Bill's suggestion immediately caught the imagination of Dr. Michael Battle, President of the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC), a consortium of 6 pre-dominantly African-American seminaries (on whose Board Paula is honored to sit.) Dr. Battle proposed that we and a number of other groups might all join forces, producing our Show in the ITC's Franklin Auditorium on The ITC campus, a brand new, state of the art distance learning facility from which Dr. Battle invited us to produce a live video/audio webcast. Everyone's enthusiasm for this innovative addition to the schedule was tangible and everyone shifted into high gear.

At The ITC, we particularly thank Dr. Battle. It took virtually everyone at The ITC to make this work, we trust those not named know that we appreciate each special contribution. A special "tip o' the hat" to Dr. Edward Hale and Mr. Joe Cates and their staffs for rising to the occasion and winning at "Beat the Clock" as we inaugurated The ITC's webcasting capability. The team lead by Rev. Terry Walker that included Jane Jelks Jones, Pamela Cottrell, Rosanna Brannon and Yolanda Dowery were ably assisted by the indominable Mary Ann Clarke, Friends of The ITC. They made it all look easy (and it wasn't.) And esteemed ITC Board Member and CME Bishop Othal Lakey's participation was a grand "bow tie" on the occasion.

Everyone in the audience at the Robert and Cheryl Franklin Auditorium brought something remarkable and special to the occasion. We were particularly honored to have Christine Pappas, Canadian Consul for Political and Economic Relations/Public Affairs, and Michael Sage in attendance, and pleased to welcome friends old and new.
It was also good to work with other like-minded organizatoins in this endeavor. We were glad that Common Cause was also well represented.

Related Links:

God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It is published by HarperSanFrancisco.

You can find resources and guides that gives practical advise for ways to put the ideas articulated by Jim Wallis to work, find a schedule of planned events and book signings, discover ways to be connected with others working to create solutions in the United States and around the world, and more at the Sojourner's website.

The Interdenominational Theological Center (The ITC) invites you to visit them in person and at their website.

In Democracy Matters:  Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, Cornel West examines the current and historic relationship between democracy and Christianity.

The late Robert Funk founded the Jesus Seminar to better understand who Jesus was.

Both Jason DeParle and David Shipler have written excellent books on poverty in America.

Each in their own way, Bill Bolling (Second Harvest and the Atlanta Community Foodbank), Angela Glover Blackwell (PolicyLink) and Joseph L. Roberts (Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King's home church) have invested their lives in helping America's underclasses.

Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong (ret) has ministered from and written about Christianity in the modern world.

Kevin Phillips challenges the role of fundamentalists in American Theocracy:  The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century as does former President Jimmy Carter in Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis. Yale Law professor, Constitutional expert and conservative Christian Stephen Carter warns of the dangers of mixing politics and religion.

In Why the Christian Right is Wrong: A Minister's Manifesto for Taking Back Your Faith, Your Flag, Your Future, Pastor Robin Meyers frankly states that, despite their loud claims, many fundamentalist are NOT, by any definition consistent with Jesus' teachings, Christians.

Evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond points to the millenia-old, "unholy" relationship between kleptocracies and religion.

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