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Interview: February 22, 2008

February 22, 2008

If religion and politics are the two topics you’re supposed to avoid talking about in polite company, then Jim Wallis is in big trouble. His book, GOD’S POLITICS, articulated the concern that many evangelicals felt about their faith being co-opted by the Religious Right. And now, as the 2008 presidential race heats up, Wallis is back with THE GREAT AWAKENING, a powerful work that challenges people of faith to speak out on issues of social justice, get involved and effect change.

In this interview,’s Cindy Crosby talks with Wallis about what has changed in the political landscape since he wrote GOD’S POLITICS, why he believes America should not be “a Christian nation,” the toughest issue for people of faith to embrace and how coaching his son’s Little League baseball team offers a few insights about life. How did you come to write THE GREAT AWAKENING after GOD’S POLITICS? What has changed in the three years between?

Jim Wallis: When people ask what’s changed, I answer: everything. GOD’S POLITICS said that when someone hijacks your faith, you have to take it back. Millions of people have done that now. This book isn’t about the Religious Right. It asks, “Now what do we do with our faith?” This is not a critique; it’s about applying our faith to addressing the biggest challenges we face in this country. The great news is: It’s happening.

BRC: Would you call what’s happening a revival?

JW: It’s not a revival yet, but change is in the air. We’re at the beginning of something new. The evangelical agenda is changing. Richard Cizik, vice president for Governmental Affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, calls it “an earthquake in slow motion.” The moral scandal of poverty, the degradation of the environment, the threat of climate change, the sexual and economic slavery of women and children, the exclusive use of war to fight evil --- all of these issues are on the agenda. That is the good news.

BRC: Some readers may be shocked that in THE GREAT AWAKENING you write that America “is not, and should not be, ‘a Christian nation.’”

JW: Our founders did not want the establishment of any religion, or to create a state church. Europe had done that. Rather, they wanted to free religion from the shackles of the state so it could flourish. Our founders also thought the contribution of religion was crucial to the social fabric of the nation. They wanted this contribution to be stronger, not weaker. And they were proven right. Look at Europe and its dead and dying state churches, whereas we have a flourishing religious culture. We are Jewish, Muslim and a mixture of other beliefs --- as well as Christian. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. could not have done what he did in secular Europe. He was able to invoke Jesus, Isaiah, Jeremiah ---- yet he didn’t say, “I’m religious so I win.” He had to argue why civil rights were good for not just Baptists, but for the whole country. 

BRC: In your new book, you write that “politics is broken.” Please explain.

JW: Politics is not addressing --- or resolving --- the biggest issues of our time. We have three billion people living on two dollars a day. This is neither just, nor is it secure and safe for our kids. Also, politics can’t solve the problem of climate change because politicians don’t dare suggest what is necessary to solve it. 

BRC: It seems as if “faith” has been hijacked for so many political reasons. Is it truly possible to integrate the two with integrity?

JW: It’s not that you integrate them, it’s that your faith causes you to go public. God is personal but not private. The kingdom of God explodes into the world. It affects life, culture and politics. The civil rights movement has changed the way we think. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that churches are not the masters of the state. Neither are we the servants of the state --- we don’t just clean up the mess of bad policy, or bandage the open sores of injustice. We are the conscience of the state. I think we have a prophetic role in politics. We’ve seen religion made partisan. I don’t want to see a partisan Religious Left, like the Religious Right became. When I talk, I talk about a moral center. I want us to go deeper, not left or right. 

BRC: You mention that many moral issues are beginning to get prioritized by the faith community, including war and peace, the environment, human rights, pandemic diseases and poverty. Which one do you believe is getting the most attention?

JW: Poverty is getting the most attention. I would include in poverty the issues of sex trafficking and vulnerable people, HIV-AIDS, anyone under assault or suffering. Alongside that is the planet, the creation, the environment. There is tremendous energy around the environment. The pillage of the poor, the pillage of the planet --- they are connected. 

Tony Massaro (senior vice president for political affairs and public education for the League of Conservation Voters) and his fellow environmentalists believe that the business community and evangelicals have entered into the debate over the environment, and that in their political judgment, these two groups could bring us to a tipping point on this issue. It’s interesting. We are seeing a greening of our churches. Here is a place we can lead by example in our neighborhoods and communities. 

BRC: Which moral issue that you mention in THE GREAT AWAKENING is the toughest “sell?”

JW: The hardest one is war and peace. This is where our cultural captivity is most pronounced. A lot of American Christians are Americans first and Christians second and third and fourth. Our cultural identity, our nation, our race and our class trumps our spiritual identity. 

Most Christians around the world --- and most evangelicals, the vast majority --- are against the war in Iraq. When I spoke in Singapore for the World Vision conference, 500 evangelical leaders from countries all over the world expressed their overwhelming opposition to Iraq and American foreign policy. We have to be Christians first and members of our tribe second. I love this country. I am a patriot, but not a nationalist. And nationalism is rampant in our churches. 

BRC: The problems are so overwhelming. If we had one take-away from your book, what would it be?

JW: Yes, the problems are huge. I take on seven big ones in the book, and they feel like mountains. How do you change the lives of three billion people living on two dollars a day? Then look at what the Bible says about faith the size of a mustard seed. Faith can move mountains! I think it takes that. That’s why every major social reform movement in the nation’s history could not have succeeded without people of faith. You have to have mustard seed faith to move the mountains. The slave trade was a mountain. Look at William Wilberforce --- he put his bill forward nine times to abolish slavery! We are in the mountain-moving business. 

BRC: Let’s talk about the new generation of evangelicals. What are they replacing the “Religious Right” with, and why? 

JW: The Religious Right is being replaced by Jesus. That is real progress, real progress.

BRC: Okay, I’m going to put you on the spot. Can you tell us who you’ll vote for in the presidential election?

JW: No. I know many of the candidates. I talk to them. I’m trying to help them get with the agenda they need to talk about. I’m not concerned about a candidate’s theology or doctrine, but I am concerned about their moral compass. Martin Luther King, Jr. never endorsed a candidate. God isn’t a Republican or a Democrat. The leveling of the “praying field” has now occurred…the evangelical agenda is changing. 

BRC: What agenda are you endorsing, then?

JW: The agenda I’m endorsing involves poverty. It’s a non-partisan issue, and I’m working with both sides of the aisle. We are making some headway on this question. It’s the vulnerable people who Jesus told us to defend. Whether that means the unborn, those trafficked in some way, the poor, the victims of climate change --- the nation’s integrity is based on how we treat those vulnerable people.

BRC: We hear you’re a Little League baseball coach. Do you have a few chances on the field to implement ideas about peacemaking and justice?

JW: I started with the kids on my team when they were five, four years ago; they are nine years old now. Back when they were five, I was teaching them to throw overhand. Last summer, we had an undefeated season. On the field, I’m just “Luke’s dad” and “Coach Jim.” I have a real relationship with these kids. If I’m visiting Luke’s class, and one of my guys is acting up in the classroom, I get his attention and raise my eyebrow. He straightens up!

I have three goals when I coach: That the kids will learn to love the game of baseball; that they will learn to be great teammates; and that they will have fun. If we win, that’s fun too. Some of the things you say to the kids on sidelines are like lessons for life: Pretend the ball is coming to you. Look alive! Take a deep breath. Smile when you are nervous.

Saturdays at our house are “sports Saturdays” --- the best day of the week, whether it’s basketball, soccer or baseball. I keep that time with my boys separate from the other stuff. We live in Washington, D.C., so someone walking by might say, “Hi Jim --- I’m the White House correspondent for the New York Times. Can I get a quote?” I always tell them, “Not now, call me on Monday.”

BRC: What’s next for you, writing-wise?

JW: Right now I’m putting the pedal to the metal on THE GREAT AWAKENING. But I have a very different book in my head to write after the political season is over. I’ve been intrigued by Gandhi’s seven deadly sins, and I’m going to do a book on it. Just seven chapters. And more about culture and values than politics.