Jim Wallis and the Religious Left

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 11, 2011 — 29 Comments

Way back in 2006 Martin Edlund at Slate.com wrote about a struggle for the soul of the religious left that pitted Tikkun’s Michael Lerner against Jim Wallis from Sojouners, between Lerner’s “cosmically big tent” and the “apparent moderation” of Wallis. Open-eyed about the political ascension of Wallis, I offered this take.

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Jim Wallis

“The problem with Wallis (and those like Wallis) winning the crown of the new “Religious Left” is that it sidelines other faiths into cheering on their favorite version of Jesus instead of crafting a multi-religious counter-message to conservative Christian talking points. That strategy may win more votes in the short term but it won’t build a long-lasting movement in the shifting sands of American religion. While the values of Wallis may be more in line with the “spiritual progressives” than with the conservative Christians currently in power, we shouldn’t forget that much is left unsaid when you replace a “conservative” evangelical with a “moderate” one.”

Fast-forward to the present day and it’s clear the “progressive” (read: moderate) evangelical Christianity of Wallis and Rick “Purpose Driven Life” Warren are the “in” group among today’s Democratic party. It was Warren who gave the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, and it is Wallis who was the visible face of a recent fast to protest federal budget cuts and has been described as a “spiritual advisor” to the president. For the most part this new status quo for the religious left (or “progressive faith coalition” if you prefer) was accepted, despite the fact that Wallis isn’t actually all that “left” or “progressive” on social issues. Now, a new controversy may have exposed just how flimsy this makeshift coalition is, severing the idea that Wallis represents any broad-based movement of believers.

The controversy stems from Sojourners rejecting an ad on its website that calls for the welcoming of LGBT individuals and families into Christian churches.

“So, you can imagine our dismay when Sojourners refused to run our ads. In a written statement, Sojourners said, “I’m afraid we’ll have to decline. Sojourners position is to avoid taking sides on this issue. In that care [sic], the decision to accept advertising may give the appearance of taking sides.” [...]  I called the folks at Sojourners and asked what the problem was, what the “sides” in question might be. The first response was that Sojourners has not taken a stance on gay marriage (the ad is not about gay marriage); or on ordination of homosexuals (the ad is about welcome, not ordination); that the decision, made by “the folks in executive” (why such a high level decision?) was made quickly because of the Mother’s Day deadline. The rationale kept shifting. The reasoning made no sense.”

From there, it started to seem rather clear that the fragile religious left coalition that had put up with Wallis as point-person was quickly crumbling away.

“The big tent collapsed this weekend, and it was Sojourners who yanked out the tent poles. Someone needs to alert official Washington that Jim Wallis and his minions no longer speak for us–if they ever did.” – Jim Naughton

“Perhaps this will all get swept under the rug like Wallis’ terrible positions on reproductive rights do. But from this point forward, it becomes increasingly difficult for Wallis to paint himself as a leader of progressives…”Daniel “pastordan” Schultz

For many, the emerging consensus is that throwing LGBT rights “under the bus” in the name of unity and political influence is no longer acceptable. As Dan Savage bluntly puts it: “If progressive Christians can’t unite behind the concept of welcome then, gee, what the fuck good are they?”

This controversy, and awakening, are a long time coming. The consequence of building a politically progressive religious coalition around a man who has never really claimed to be all that progressive on all sorts of issues (like, say, abortion). Why? Because it was (and perhaps still is) politically expedient to woo moderate evangelicals tired of culture war issues so that center-left legislation gets passed and center-left politicians get elected. Those “small but significant chunks of white evangelical voters” that helped propel Obama to the White House. If you want those “chunks” you have to woo Wallis, Warren, Cizek, and other moderate evangelicals who are socially conservative, but willing to build coalitions on environmental and economic issues.

I have no issue with political pragmatism and single-issue coalition building, but if taken too far it has a price some may not want to pay. For instance, with Wallis as the media go-to person for the religious left you aren’t going to hear much religious push-back against the current legislative onslaught against abortion rights. Nor are you going to get much in the way of religious diversity in the national spotlight when all the media focuses on is “lefty Jesus vs. righty Jesus” or even “lefty patriarchal sky father vs. righty patriarchal sky father.” A “multi-religious counter message” to conservative Christianity never really emerged. Instead, conservative Christianity has become only more strident, dominating the talking points, media, and debate on any number of issues.

The simple truth is that with religious minorities growing, and folks who don’t identify with any one religious tradition growing, progressive organizers could have spent the last five years building that coalition, especially since 12% of progressive activists labeled themselves as Unitarian-Universalist or mixed-faith (as opposed to only 10% who labeled themselves as evangelicals). Around 74% of modern Pagans voted for Obama in the last election, while Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims had similarly lopsided polling numbers. Lerner’s “cosmically big tent” may have seemed impractical, but it could have offered new thinking and new tactics to help break truly progressive religionists out of their seeming mainstream marginalization instead of enduring years of debate between moderate and conservative evangelicals to the exclusion of almost anything else. If this tempest heralds the end of a Wallis-led coalition, it couldn’t have happened soon enough.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • sarenth

    The more we push for our voices to be heard the more they will be heard. Even if the mainstream media never picks us up we can make enough noise to be heard. Keep fighting, Patrick McCollum. Keep fighting against the Wallbuilders, keep praising our Gods in the streets or in your homes or hearts, as you can. I'm not optimistic on much, but I do have faith that as people Pagans of all stripes, creeds, and paths can walk together to ensure our voice is heard, and ensure our freedoms.

  • 100,000

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/100000-to-get-Jason

    This page was made in response to David Barton's frighteningly bigoted stance against minority religions. In order to effectively respond to this, I feel it is necessary for the Pagan community to be able to pose a rebuttal in a public forum. Religious condemnation should NEVER be tolerated and should be exposed to the public as such.

    • Crystal7431

      Heck yeah!!!

      • Crystal7431

        How 'bout a letter writing campaign to the daily show to bolster the FB page?

  • Crystal7431

    I'm letting you in on a secret: Obama is not really progressive, for all the accusations to the contrary from our rabid right. I'm not even sure he's in the center at this point. He seems to be pulling quite a few Bushes, as a matter of fact.

    • embreis

      If Obama is "liberal," Eisenhower was a communist.

    • http://sari0009.xanga.com KarenAScofield

      That's what happens when "center" lies within a spectrum still on the move toward the religious right (corporatism, class war).

      • grimmorrigan

        ^ THIS!

    • http://norsealchemist.blogspot.com NorseAlchemist

      He might not be, but a lot of those surrounding him are self proclaimed progressives…..

  • http://sari0009.xanga.com KarenAScofield

    I'm convinced that as long as we have corporatism, the cultures war being a front for a class war, and a two party system, pretty much, the left will suffer and the spectrum will continue to shift right.

    The format of having two major parties is much too prone to the ravages of "The Forces of Good™ vs. The Forces of Evil™" dualism and resulting religious majoritarianism and Democrats will continue to misplace their balls, as it were.

    • Crystal7431

      Or spines.

      • Eileen Macholl

        One initiative that is underway to work to really build a coallition of progressives across faith and secular spectrums that is worth checking out is called Groundswell. More information is available at http://groundswell-movement.org/ This is exciting work!

        • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

          Groundswell is the brainchild of Valarie Kaur, who was distressed to hear that Osama bin Laden had been killed. She describes bin Laden, in her blog, as a "frail sick man", and she luridly predicts that bin Laden's death will unleash a wave of murderous violence in the US against anyone who "looks like" bin Laden. (See her blog post here.)

          I doubt that Kaur's hysterical fear-mongering Islamophobophobia will get her very far. We already have Michael Moore and Daisy Khan for that, and they do it much better.

  • grimmorrigan

    They usually want to conserve white supremecy and Christian domination. What thay call traditional values.

  • http://norsealchemist.blogspot.com NorseAlchemist

    Heck, we're just not wanted by anybody are we?

  • Ursyl

    I have a dear friend who is well hooked in that spiritual progressives or religious progressive movement, but I have never been able to shake that a more accurate label would be "Christian Progressives" or "Abrahamic Progressives." Because just about every thing I've seen from that part of the political spectrum is framed in Abrahamic or even outright Christian language.

    I get so very tired of "religious" being used as when in fact the movement under discussion is still very much almost exclusively Christian. As if all the rest are somehow not religions or the rest of us are somehow not religious or spiritual.

  • Anna

    The Christian Left is NOT moderate, nor is it "progressive" as most of us would understand it. It's actually a combination not usually seen these days Economic Radicals (if not out-and-out Socialist!) and Socially Conservative to Socially Moderate.

    These are the Catholic priests who get arrested for turning their churches into sanctuaries for illegal immigrants. These are the nuns who protest against the death penalty outside prisons. These are the Southern Evangelicals who care deeply about the environment and are often more radical in terms of their proposed solutions than the Mainstream Neopagan Community (whatever the hell that means, YMMV.)

    Pagans tend to be more liberal-libertarian then actually socialist. (Obviously there are exceptions.)

    Major pagan issues touch on civil liberties and keeping the mainstream culture out of our personal, sexual and religious lives. We will never overlap with the Christian Left on those issues. Some of us will not actually agree with them on their economic issues either … because WE are to the right of THEM, not the other way around!

    That said … it is prudent to develop alliances with them when we do agree.

    Most of the Christian Left (and actual Christian Moderates who are actually, you know, moderate) find that the Christian Right has hijacked their religion. Most don't agree with their radical interpretation of the 1st amendment (e.g. it only applies to Abrahamic religious or to Christianity per se.)

  • Ursyl

    Sorry about the poor editing.

  • Ursyl

    What a beautifully simple, and just beautiful, ad.

  • Dennis Nock

    tis a shame there doesn't seem to be a way to comunicate w/ them , or even have an acknowledged spokesperson for these ppl. as a pagan myself these moderate xtians could be a valuable allies on many issues . from my understanding the more radicals in that group , mostly the evangelicals, are a small minority , altho quite vocal . the moderates are the majority of xtians as a whole . someone needs to step up that can speak for all of them , otherwise the moderate xtians will be as splintered as we are. would be a real shame to not be able to use the political muscle of such a large group of people Mech

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

    What Dan Savage said.

  • http://norsealchemist.blogspot.com NorseAlchemist

    I wasn't aware that "progressive" could ever be counted as "moderate." That said, I can't say I'm all that surprised by this. Ever since "Dabblegate" I've known that the Democrats and Progressives weren't nearly as tolerant or accepting as they pretended to be in order to get the votes they wanted.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

    24% of Americans believe in reincarnation.
    25% believe in astrology.
    26% believe that spiritual energy is located in nature.

    Those numbers are all from a 2010 Pew study. These beliefs all contradict basic Christian ideas that are accepted by every major (and nearly every minor) Christian sect in the US. And yet many, probably most, of the people who believe in such things will still be counted as "Christian" in religious surveys.

    I wonder how many actual Christians there would be in the US if a serious, honest head count were ever done?

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Reminds me of the United Church of Christ ad on the same topic that caused so much furor a while back.

  • http://www.bryonmorrigan.com BryonMorrigan

    Again, you seem confused by political terminology.

    Merriam-Webster defines a "progressive" as, "one believing in moderate political change and especially social improvement by governmental action." Liberalism and Progressivism are ALWAYS going to be more specifically in favor of religious tolerance than Conservatism, which is defined as, "a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change." Conservatism favors keeping the status-quo, (or moving backwards), whereas Liberalism is about social progress, and above all: EGALITARIANISM.

    Just because some Democrats aren't as "Liberal" as they should be…does not mean that Liberalism itself is hostile to religious tolerance. It only means that some Democrats are just a little too "Conservative."

  • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

    What Apuleius said. Word.

  • Rose

    Rabbi Lerner and his Network of Spiritual Progressives welcome Pagans and other faiths. Starhawk works with him and has presented at NSP events. The more Pagans who get involved with NSP, the more chance we have of changing the predominate Abrahmic language used. Right now Rabbi Lerner’s voice is the only one that’s visible in the public eye because he’s famous/infamous in the Jewish community. Cornell West and Chidister are two cofounders, but I’ll be damned if I can find them actively involved anywhere with NSP. http://spiritualprogressives.org/newsite/

  • Ursyl

    Yes. Those came to my mind too when I was watching it.

  • http://norsealchemist.blogspot.com NorseAlchemist

    Okay Bryon, before we get into another one of our massive terminology arguments and how I don't know what I'm talking about again let me state this clearly:

    There is a difference between terminology and reality.

    Your dictionary may say that progressive is "one believing in moderate political changes and social improvement by governmental action." The reality of those who call themselves progressive and their actions, however, rarely strikes me as close to moderate in their nature. But that's my opinion on how I judge a "moderate" action