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.

Jason Pitzl-Waters