Gospel for Both Sides of the Aisle

Times Staff Writer

On a recent rainy night, an evangelical Christian preacher held 900 people spellbound at a Pasadena church. He roared about evil and sexual morality. He quoted Jesus and the Hebrew prophets. He shared his story of conversion, recalling the fire-and-brimstone minister who first drew him to Christ.

But the Rev. Jim Wallis, 56, saved most of his thunder for matters not typically found in evangelical Christian sermons: poverty, environmental protection and peacemaking. To Wallis, such issues are dominant biblical mandates that deserve as much attention as abortion, gay marriage and other hot-button issues.

“What’s at stake is the meaning of being evangelical,” Wallis told the crowd at First Congregational Church. “The monologue of the religious right is over, and a new dialogue has begun!”


Stout and silver-haired, Wallis is a longtime social activist, author and executive director of Sojourners, a Washington-based Christian ministry best known for its monthly magazine on faith, politics and culture. He confounds stereotypes of evangelical Christians by arguing for conservative social morality but a dovish foreign policy and an economic agenda focused on helping the poor.

Urging common ground, he has chided the right for views that promote “pro-rich, pro-war and pro-American” policies and the left for bowing to “secular fundamentalists” who dismiss the public import of faith. In the past, his views had gained a loyal but limited following, along with criticism. But intensified national debate over faith and politics since the November election has propelled Wallis to the forefront as a possible bridge between left and right.

His new book, “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It” has become a national bestseller since its Jan. 18 release. His book tour speeches are drawing large and diverse crowds.

Senate Democrats invited him to their issues conference in January, and Senate Republican staff members consulted with him on the party caucus’ anti-poverty agenda unveiled March 2 by U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and others. The package includes tax incentives for charitable giving, welfare reform, low-income housing assistance and prisoner mentoring programs.

“He has a bridging capacity as a convener because he has credibility in both camps,” Mark Rodgers, staff director of the Senate Republican Conference, said of Wallis. Although some Republicans are suspicious of Wallis, a registered Democrat, Rodgers says that the preacher supports some of the same faith-based efforts that the GOP does and that Wallis would continue to be consulted.

U.S. Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) called Wallis a “breath of fresh air” for arguing for progressive policies with the language of morality. Both Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) credit Wallis with helping them shape ideas about how to talk about values, aides say.


In a March 11 Senate floor speech, Reid said the president’s budget was ignoring the Gospel story of the rich man who suffered in hell for failing to help the diseased beggar Lazarus. Using one of Wallis’ trademark ideas, Reid vowed to “turn this budget into a moral document.... “

Wallis is connecting with people outside Washington as well.

At All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, an estimated 1,000 people turned out recently despite rainstorms. One of them, Jewish Journal editor Rob Eshman, praised Wallis’ ideals in an editorial titled “My Evangelist.” Wallis’ Pasadena audience included liberals, fundamentalists and agnostics.

Martin Yuson, a 35-year-old Pasadena political independent and physical therapist, explained Wallis’ appeal. “A lot of evangelicals and Catholic Christians are tired of the right-left dichotomy,” Yuson said. “I myself can’t seem to fit in either side. I’m anti-war but pro-life. Jim Wallis bridges that divide.”

Phyllis Tickle, retired religion editor for Publishers Weekly, said the best-selling success of a book on Christian ethics is highly unusual, reflecting deepening public unease over the nation’s polarization.

“There is great concern about the differences between red and blue,” she said, referring to Republican and Democratic states. “Jim Wallis, in a way, speaks purple.”

Glenn R. Palmberg, president of the 110,000-member Evangelical Covenant Church based in Chicago, said Wallis “is giving voice to a sizable number of ... open-minded, generous-spirited evangelicals who say we don’t like what is happening to the word ‘evangelical.’ We don’t like abortion, but we see the connection to poverty. A lot of people are opposed to gay marriage, but we don’t see this as a threat to our marriage and have gay friends. Poverty and war are huge issues. We’re not one- or two-issue voters.”

Wallis said he aims to reach all sides and promote practical solutions. On abortion, for instance, he argues that adoption reform or more financial and emotional safety nets for pregnant women could reduce abortions more significantly than arguing about the legal right to them. He supports restrictions on abortion -- among them parental notification for most minors -- but opposes criminalizing the procedure, in part for fear that it would force women into risky back-alley abortions.

He bemoans the pervasiveness of “moral pollution” in the culture and calls people to greater personal responsibility. In the case of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman at the center of the right-to-die debate, he says that, in principle, it is always better to err on the side of life. But he says most people, including himself, don’t know enough about the case to render a judgment, and he criticizes the way it has been “blatantly and tragically politicized by people with other agendas.”

Of marriage, the preacher writes that the long-standing concept of it as a bond between man and woman should not be changed. However, he opposes a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages, and he emphasizes that he supports civil unions for gay couples.

Wallis cites the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a good life -- enough housing, food and work for all -- to argue for more government spending for the needy. He supported President Bush’s initiatives to give faith-based groups public funds to help the poor but criticizes his tax cuts as skewing toward the wealthy.

He opposed the war in Iraq but called for the removal of dictator Saddam Hussein through international legal processes. He argues for building international security through economic development and humanitarian aid, quoting Hebrew prophet Micah’s call to “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”

Wallis said he supports the church-state wall, including bans on state-sanctioned prayer in public school, but said faith-based values should inform public policy and action. Where would America be, he asks, if the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had kept his faith to himself?

“God is personal but never private,” he said. “The Bible reveals a public God.”

Wallis has plenty of critics on both the left and right.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, rejects most of Wallis’ solutions. Seventy-eight percent of evangelical Christians voted for Bush, he said, and most of them believe that peace requires military strength and that poverty should be solved through economic growth fueled by low taxes and small government.

Land also says Wallis is wrong to portray conservative evangelicals as what Land calls “Johnny two-notes” who care only about abortion and gay marriage. Various evangelical groups have worked on numerous human rights issues, he says, including religious freedom, human trafficking, prison rape and slavery in Sudan.

Still, he and Wallis agree that religious values should inform public policy, he said, adding that the success of Wallis’ book demonstrated that many Americans agree as well.

However, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Wallis marginalizes that separation and advocates regressive views on women’s rights by supporting restrictions on abortion.

“I think they’re going down a very dangerous road,” said Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “The idea of Democrats and Republicans having policy debates featuring battling Bible passages will be a very bad thing for democracy.”

A Detroit native, Wallis grew up in a middle-class family as the oldest of five children of Phyllis and Jim Wallis, who helped start their neighborhood Plymouth Brethren Church.

Wallis says he was just 6 when he first gave his life to Jesus. But when he was 14, he began reading about rising racial tensions and asking pesky questions in his all-white neighborhood: Why did blacks live apart? Why did so many lack jobs and good schools?

One church elder told him that “Christianity has nothing to do with racism. That’s political, and our faith is personal.”

That prompted him to leave his church. He began visiting inner-city congregations and homes to search for answers.

As a Michigan State University student, he helped organize protests against the Vietnam War and the killings of four students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio. He was arrested and tear-gassed.

But Wallis says the student movement failed to satisfy his deepest questions about life. He returned to the Bible. As he read the New Testament, he said, the Sermon on the Mount electrified him with teachings that the poor, the humble and the peacemakers were the blessed ones.

Matthew 25, he said, stopped him cold and reconverted him. The chapter relates Jesus’ teaching that the way people treat the needy reflects their treatment of him.

“It turned my world upside down,” Wallis said. “I’d never heard anything that radical in Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh or Karl Marx.”

In 1970, he enrolled in Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago. There, he and a group of friends decided to count biblical references to the poor. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it was the second most dominant theme after idolatry. In the New Testament, he says, the poor were also mentioned frequently, in one of every 16 verses. Then a friend cut out every poverty reference and ended up with a Bible literally full of holes -- a powerful metaphor, he says, for a faith that ignores the needy.

In 1971, he and six like-minded students launched a journal that later was renamed Sojourners, invoking a biblical metaphor for religious searchers. He left divinity school just short of finishing and moved the journal to Washington. He became pastor of the nondenominational Sojourners community; he still attends its now monthly services and also worships at an Episcopal church and the evangelical Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Md.

Today, Wallis wears a number of hats. He has traveled the globe organizing opposition to the nuclear arms race, apartheid and wars in Central America and Iraq. He is editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine and heads Call to Renewal, the anti-poverty coalition he founded in 1995. The coalition plans to roll out a national campaign to aid the working poor later this year, pushing for better wages, healthcare and housing, among other things.

Sojourners and Call to Renewal report that they pay him a combined annual salary of less than $80,000; Wallis said he earns more than that in speaking fees but turns all those over to the organizations to help support their combined budgets of about $3 million.

He lives in an inner-city neighborhood 20 blocks from the White House with his wife, Joy Carroll, an ordained priest in the Church of England, and two young sons, Luke and Jack. Wallis says he has lived through neighborhood drug wars, gang violence and even a mugging.

“I don’t want to lose touch with what it means to be poor,” Wallis said. “It keeps my priorities straight.”

On that night in Pasadena, Wallis kept going until past 11, signing books and talking with students. In the church sanctuary, two evangelical Christian students stayed behind to vigorously debate the points raised by Wallis.

“On social morals, he’s conservative, but he’s liberal on social activism,” said Maryada Vallet, a 21-year-old student in global studies and international relations at Azusa Pacific University. “I think that’s prophetic.”

“I don’t think it will succeed,” argued Aaron Collins, 25, a youth pastor and graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. “It will alienate both sides. The right won’t want to raise taxes and the left won’t outlaw abortion.”

Sparking such conversations, Wallis says, is precisely his aim.

“The nation is hungry for a deeper conversation on faith, values and politics,” he told the Pasadena crowd. “We need to move away from the politics of blame.... The best way to find common ground is to move to higher ground.”