When Faith Changes Politics
Arriving in Atlanta recently for a speaking appearance, I was happy. For any preacher, Atlanta is a wonderful place to be, a place where preaching is an art form. On this occasion, I returned to a favorite place — Ebenezer Baptist Church, the home congregation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The pastor, Rev. Joe Roberts, was about to retire, and he welcomed me back warmly, "You've been to the old Israel, but now you're in the new Israel" (referring to the old historic church on Auburn Avenue and the brand-new sanctuary across the street where two thousand people had gathered that evening).
I remembered. It was indeed the old place I'd been to before, on the occasion of the first annual national holiday for the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For their Peace and Justice service, Ebenezer had invited a young white preacher. I was excited, but very nervous. When I stepped into that historic pulpit, I froze. Dr. King had preached here, so had his father, "Daddy" King, and so had countless leaders of the civil rights movement and the leading black pastors of our time. What was a young white kid from Detroit doing in this pulpit? I was, you might say, a little tentative as I began. "Well, Martin Luther King Jr. was for justice and . . . p-p-peace," I stammered, " . . . and probably we should be too." It was something short of powerful.
But then, from the lower left side of the church, a voice boomed back at me. "Oh, help him, Lord, help him! C'mon young man, you're supposed to preach." So I started to — a little. "Aw, you're not there yet!" he bellowed. He, of course, was enacting the "call and response" tradition of the black church, which I have grown to love. The old man was the "amen corner" of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and he proceeded with a litany of "well," "yes sir," "mercy, mercy," "preach it now," and lots of "amens" until I was proclaiming, prancing, and sweating — preaching my heart out until I was thoroughly exhausted when I finally finished. Afterward, I rushed down to my amen corner, whose name was Deacon Johnson. "You just pulled that sermon out of me," I exclaimed, breathless. Standing tall, he put his hands on my shoulders and smiled at me. "Son," he said, "I've raised up many a preacher in my time."
Deacon Johnson has passed now, Rev. Roberts told me, but I will always remember him. Just as Deacon Johnson had pulled the best out of me, I reflected that night in Atlanta, that pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church (and the civil rights movement rooted there) had called out the very best from the American people. The truth is that we've got some bad stuff in us as Americans, but we've got some good stuff, too. Bad religion calls forth our worst stuff, but good religion calls out our best. I smiled as I remembered how Deacon Johnson had raised me up that night, and I climbed into the Ebenezer pulpit once again. It's time for some good religion tonight, I said to myself.
Two of the great hungers in our world today are the hunger for spirituality and the hunger for social justice. The connection between the two is the one the world is waiting for, especially the new generation. And the first hunger will empower the second.
Those on the Religious Right did it wrong, allowing their religion to become too partisan, too narrow, and too ideological. They were used by politics and did plenty of using themselves — using both people and issues to further their own agenda. But I believe their day is over, and we have now entered the post–Religious Right era. That's not just optimism, but a claim based on serious observation, as this book will point out.
Some people believe the alternative to bad religion is secularism, but that's wrong, too. The answer to bad religion is better religion — prophetic rather than partisan, broad and deep instead of narrow, and based on values as opposed to ideology. In America (and in most of the developing world), religion is here to stay. The question is not whether faith and spiritual values will be applied to politics, but how? Can faith enter public life in ways that are respectful of democracy, pluralism, and diversity? Could spiritual renewal supply the energy that makes social justice more achievable? Is revival necessary for reform? I believe the answer to all those questions is an emphatic yes, and this book will explain why.
One learns a lot crisscrossing the country for three decades, speaking (and listening) in every part of America and to a multitude of audiences and constituencies. Because much of my speaking is also preaching, I have been with almost every religious denomination and faith community in America, and have watched the relationship between faith and politics significantly affect the issues of society — for good and ill. I've also traveled extensively overseas and been an eyewitness to many of the greatest crises the world faces today, as well as the kinds of initiatives and movements capable of changing those realities.
I have been listening, and I'd like to report that many Americans, and in particular many people of faith in this country, believe we can do better with both our religion and our politics — and around the world, people are hoping that we do. Listening to people across America and throughout the world convinces me that it is time for a new kind of politics, and that a better public engagement by faith communities could help get us there. The good news is that many people are ready for both — better religion and better politics. In fact, we may be approaching a new "revival" of faith, one that opens the door for real solutions that transcend partisan politics and leads the way to concrete victories for social justice. I am suggesting that we need nothing less than a powerful movement of faith to renew American politics — one that effectively combines personal conversion and social justice. Personal transformation is necessary for social movements, and social movements are necessary to transform politics.
Excerpted from THE GREAT AWAKENING: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post-Religious Right America © Copyright 2011 by Jim Wallis. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne. All rights reserved.