Sojourners president-CEO Jim Wallis

The longtime activist dissects his new text, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good.

Public theologian Jim Wallis is president and CEO of Sojourners, a national Christian organization committed to faith in action for social justice, and editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine. His activism evolved from his student years in the civil rights and anti-war movements, and, in 1995, he helped form Call to Renewal, a national federation of churches, denominations and faith-based organizations across the political spectrum working to overcome poverty. Wallis teaches at Georgetown University and has taught at Harvard's Divinity School and its Kennedy School of Government. He's also a best-selling author of 10 books, including On God's Side.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Jim Wallis, who heads the progressive Christian evangelical group Sojourners has never shied away from controversy, insisting, despite opposition from some quarters, that faith and politics should go hand-in-hand.

After taking a sabbatical to reflect his priorities, he’s written a new text called “On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good.” Jim Wallis, good to have you back on this program.

Jim Wallis: Always a delight to be (unintelligible).

Tavis: (Unintelligible) Why the sabbatical?

Wallis: I needed to take a break from the political narrative, so I went away and I got up every morning, had some quiet and some exercise, and then I read and wrote all day. At night, though, my discipline was not to comment on the news cycle, to be interviewed or write or speak, but then I watched it at night, and I’ll tell you, it was more and more depressing the more I disengaged.

The shallowness of the media in politics, the vitriol, the polarization, the kind of anger, even hatred. So we’ve lost this ancient idea called the common good, which goes back centuries and is so timely now. We’ve got to regain that somehow, and so that’s why I wrote the book.

Tavis: Who is, to your mind, primarily responsible for advancing this notion of common good in our society?

Wallis: Well, to be honest, I think we are.

Tavis: And who is we?

Wallis: Well, we, as you know, the common good comes last to Washington, D.C., last.

We’ve got to make choices in our lives. It was really millions of decisions that people made that made the civil rights movement succeed and come to Washington. So our decisions for the common good create the social movements that make change possible.

So yeah, I want to hold the politicians accountable – Democrats, Republicans, the White House. I do and I try to push real hard. But finally, I’m telling you, they won’t do it unless – they’re like people with their fingers up in the air to see which way the wind’s blowing. We’ve got to change the wind if we’re going to change Washington.

Tavis: So the “we” that you’re talking about is the demos. I’m trying to figure out how that works in a contemporary moment, when most of that demos, if I read the surveys and polls and studies correctly, the overwhelming majority of that demos thinks that Washington is broken, thinks that Washington is dysfunctional, doesn’t have much trust in those institutions that we once had trust and faith in.

So I’m just trying to figure out where the momentum to generate the movement that you referenced a moment ago, where’s that come from? You don’t get a movement without some momentum.

Wallis: That’s the right question. I’m doing 18 cities, 40 events, and what I hear every time is what you just said. They’re cynical about Washington. Now skepticism is warranted.

Cynicism, though, is dangerous. Cynicism is a buffer against our commitment. So John Lewis and I were in Birmingham last week to a symposium on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 50 years.

Finally, the white churches wrote a response. It took 50 years. So John and I got to speak at the opening of that, and John talked about what it takes to – he was in Birmingham. He was almost killed in Selma.

But in Selma, we changed the way the country thought, and so Abraham Joshua Heschel went down, Marty went down to march with King, and that changed the wind, and we had a Voting Rights Act in five months after that, not the five years Johnson had predicted, as John Lewis talked about.

So it’s a matter of us deciding what we’re going to do. But I think cynicism is a dangerous thing, particularly for secure people, because as you know, as you – hats off to you and our brother Cornel – in this country, one of every six Americans is hungry. Highest poverty rate in 50 years.

They’re cynical, but they don’t have the wherewithal. So how do we, with people, act not cynically but responsibly and change Washington? That’s going to happen from outside. Immigration reform is one place where it’s happening, not from within, it’s happening from outside.

The faith community has been a game-changer in all of that because we’re finally getting them to pay attention to 11 million vulnerable people stuck between those two signs at our border: “No trespass” and “help wanted.”

Tavis: What most of us are up against, for those of us who fundamentally want to change the dysfunction that is run amok in Washington, what you’re up against more than anything else, even with cynicism on that list, and with skepticism on that list, I think what tops all of that is money.

Wallis: Money.

Tavis: Exactly. So how is it, particularly on this side of Citizens United and the Republicans haven’t done anything about it; quite frankly, the Democrats, Mr. Obama, hasn’t done anything about it. They’ve participated in this cycle the last time around. So how do you push back on the money?

Wallis: On the sabbatical what struck me most was how, watching the election, how the checks have replaced all the balances in our public life. I’ve got senators who tell me they’ve got to raise $20,000 every day to get reelected. Who do you talk to? Who’s your lunch with?

So there’s a whole chapter in there called “Redeeming Democracy.” So what we saw (unintelligible) democracy, all it was at first was white landed men got to vote. That was it. Then all white men; finally, all white women. Not until 1965 did African Americans get to vote, and now South Africa and Nelson Mandela.

But do we think we’ve got one person, one vote? You’ve got three pharmaceutical lobbyists for every member of Congress. That’s one industry. So while Chuck Todd says the election was a demographic time bomb, and he’s right. It’s probably true that just white votes won’t be enough anymore, but the demographic that runs the country has not changed. Not even close.

So how do we change the demographic of power in this nation, not just election results? That’s going to take a real movement, and I think the new generation all over the country, being 60 and having half the audience under 30 is a great blessing, but they know money has to be changed.

It’s control (unintelligible). If we don’t change that, we’re not going to get very much done.

Tavis: So since you went there, I’ll follow you. Tell me more, at least from your prism, from our perspective, about this coming clash between the folk who run the country – that is to say the moneyed interests -

Wallis: Right.

Tavis: – and those who make up the demos.

Because this is, as I say all the time, the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever. The last election, to your point, the influence of the Hispanic community, there are certain patterns, back to Chuck’s point, this demographic time bomb, it went off in the last election.

Wallis: Right.

Tavis: But the residual of that, the shrapnel, if you will, from that explosion, is going to be felt for years to come now.

Wallis: Right.

Tavis: So talk about this coming clash between the moneyed interests, the elite who run the country, and those who make up the demos.

Wallis: Let me be very specific. Until we break the power of money over politics, we won’t be living in a democracy. It’s a plutocracy, it’s not a democracy. A couple of weeks ago we had, on the mall, we planted religious symbols for all those who had died from gun violence since Newtown, and crosses, crescents, and Stars of David. We had to plant 3,264 of them. It was a powerful visual image.

I told “CBS News” every senator should have to walk by those crosses and symbols before they voted, you know? We had 90 percent of the American people – 90 percent – favor background checks, and we lost it in the Senate. Now, because the money from the gun lobbies for them comes from gun manufacturers, I’m going to call these guys gun-runners.

Gun-runners thwarted democracy in Washington. I was out traveling around, and people are really upset about that. So, but it’s going to be parents and pastors. Children should bury their parents, not the other way around. Pastors, as you know, our vocation is to bury older congregants, not teenagers.

When that gets turned around, something has gone wrong. So parents and pastors, long-term, may change this, but Washington, D.C. is bought and sold. It is bought and sold, and that’s not hyperbole, that’s just a political fact. So social movements are what changed things.

This book is about how we can make personal decisions in our lives, our families, our congregations, our neighborhoods, and that (unintelligible) build social movements to make the common good more possible. Even Washington has to deal with the wind changing, so we’ve got to be the wind-changers here.

Tavis: Your response to the following. My sense is that parents are more engaged, that parents are more outraged, that parents are more activist these days than pastors. The goal these days is to pastor a mega church in the vanilla suburbs, to get your television ministry off the ground, but there’s no, there are no Martin Kings.

I shouldn’t say there aren’t any, there are some. But there is no, there’s been no growth of that kind of prophetic, progressive witness, because everybody wants to do, as I said a moment ago, so that I see parents are much more engaged on these questions today than I see pastors engaged.

Wallis: You know, you will recall that Dr. King said the church should be not a thermometer -

Tavis: Thermostat.

Wallis: – but a thermostat, and we’ve got a lot of thermometer churches. We just reflect the culture. But a younger generation that I’m meeting out on the road, they want to be thermostats, and so the pastors that we have, and clergy, we’ve got rabbis, imams, and pastors on the mall with us, and they bury teenagers.

They’re tired of – when you’re burying a teenager, you don’t think about the Second Amendment. You think about the straw sales and the trafficking, and background checks would have helped that. So I’m finding a new generation of young believers.

In fact, some of them are the “none-of-the-aboves,” the largest, but the none-of-the-aboves still believe in God, they’re just not affiliating with religion for the reasons you’re suggesting.

What happens when we actually, when people of faith do and say the things that our faith says we should say and do? Two things happen: it surprises people, and then it attracts them. I hope this book can be to the none-of-the-aboves, that this really can – Jesus said, the second commandment, you love your neighbor as yourself.

That’s the foundation for the common good. It’s in all our traditions, Islam, Judaism. The none-of-the-aboves get that. They want that, and young people want to give their lives for the common good. So I think we’re at a time now, we’re looking away from Washington to change Washington, and it’s going to have to be a challenge for parents and pastors of a new generation who want to make a difference.

I think they do, and I meet them all the time, they’re on the street. So these book tours, I’m having people who are on the street come in and be part of the conversation. I want to lift up their voices. They’re doing the job.

In Chicago, where we’ve lost more people to gun violence than in Afghanistan in a year. So I think the new generation has to do this. This tries to how do you inspire the common good, and then how do you apply it to the economy, what I call the un-economy, unfair, unstable, unsustainable, and making people unhappy.

Or the role of government to our household life, to how diversity in America is not something to be managed. That’s what the corporate folks do. It is fundamentally, in the scriptures, it is the intention of God that there be a diverse creation to be creative. This is what our asset is, and I say the beloved community welcomes all the tribes, and that’s what it does, and King talked about that.

Behind Montgomery and Selma there was a vision for a beloved community, and that, again, has to come back.

Tavis: The new book from Jim Wallis is called “On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good.” Jim, good to have you back on the program.

Wallis: Good to have a show about the common good.

Tavis: Glad to have you here, man. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching us. Until next time, keep the faith

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

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Last modified: May 13, 2013 at 1:40 pm