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Jim Wallis is editor and founder of the liberal evangelical magazine Sojourners, the author of The Soul of Politics, and the head of "Call to Renewal," a faith-based anti-poverty organization. In this interview, he talks about why many Americans seem to fear evangelicals, how biblical teaching shows that to be evangelical means to be obsessed with seeking justice for the poor, and why he supports faith-based programs. Wallis also talks about the president's personal faith and how he is putting that faith into action. He worries that after 9/11, the president seemed to turn from being a "self-help Methodist" to a "Messianic American Calvinist speaking of the mission of America, and even of his perhaps divine appointment to be president at a time such as this." Wallis also criticizes the religious language and hymnology used in the president's speeches which is "often misused or often put in a different context and the meaning changed." This interview was conducted on Nov. 12, 2003.

Let's talk about the last 30 years and the shift that began to happen in America's evangelical community.

Well, our magazine Sojourner started in 1971. We were evangelical seminary students at the time. To be an evangelical and to be fighting poverty or to be standing against racism or be opposed to the war in Vietnam was like a voice crying out in the wilderness way back then.

[Bush's religious language]  is code language  meant to reassure a base, to tell them he's one of them and that they understand each other.

But now, all that's changed remarkably. Now the word "evangelical" is a good word, although it's got lots of baggage and people have all these images and fears. I understand all that, what people think it means, but the word harkens back to a wonderful biblical word, the "evangel," which means the good news. So it's supposed to be good news. The fact that evangelicals aren't often thought to be good news is part of the present problem, you see.

But good news -- what kind of good news? Jesus, in his first sermon -- his Nazareth manifesto, you might say -- said, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor." Good news to the poor. To be evangelical means to preach and live and act in a way that is good news to poor people.

I would say that if our gospel isn't good news to poor people, it isn't an evangelical gospel. That's what I believe. I think that's right in the heart of the true evangelical tradition, and of course, 18th-century Britain, John Wesley and Methodism.

… In traveling across the country, what I found is a wide range of thought when it comes to being evangelical. But I have met a lot of very conservative Republican evangelicals. Why is there a large population of evangelicals who are Republican and do support more conservative economic policies?

Well, it's difficult to understand how we [evangelicals] can be biblical in our politics, which an evangelical wants to be, and not care anything for the poor, or not talk about poverty all the time. This is the primary social issue in the Bible -- what God says about those who are left out and left behind, whom Jesus calls "the least of these."

Jesus says, "I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was naked. I was a stranger. I was sick. I was in prison. You didn't come to me. You didn't feed me. You didn't clothe me." And the people said, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and thirsty and naked and a stranger and sick and in prison?" He says, "As you've done to the least of these, you've done to me." That's Matthew 25 [verses 42-45]. That was my conversion passage. …

So this isn't for me a social action question. It's not a political question. It is impossible to be an evangelical Christian and ignore the vast teaching of the Bible about poor people.

… We haven't been doing good Bible study. We have been ignoring the Bible, and we have been conformed to our culture. Romans 12:2 says, "Don't be conformed to this world. Be transformed by the renewal of your minds," where one translation says, "Don't let the world squeeze you into its mold." Too many evangelical Christians are like affluent, upper-middle class suburban dwellers more than they are like those who love and cherish and follow the Bible.

Now, they think they are. They believe they are. They love the Bible. But they're not paying attention to whole vast areas of biblical teaching that call for economic justice. You can't be evangelical and associate yourself with Jesus and what he says about the poor and just have no other domestic concerns than tax cuts for wealthy people.

I mean, these are good people. But this is not biblical thinking. What's changing -- and it is changing all over the country -- is a new generation of evangelicals are discovering the poor in the Bible.

… When I ask people in more conservative places like Midland, Texas, about politics and political parties, their answer to me is, "The Democrat doesn't know bunk about religion or faith, so we really don't even have a choice. We have to go with the Republican Party, because at least they understand faith. The Democrats don't even talk to us in a language that we understand or care about."

… Well, I've said this to Democratic leaders -- they often seem to be clueless about religion or faith, or [are] dismissive or disrespectful. There are religious fundamentalists that we all know of and speak of. There are also secular fundamentalists, people who have a disdain for religion, and many of those voices are in the Democratic Party.

So religious people often feel alienated or disrespected by Democrats. I think that's very sad. I think political leaders of both parties need to respect religious people and their values and the tradition in this country.

I believe in the separation of church and state, absolutely. But I don't believe in the separation of public life from our values, our basic values, and for many of us, our religious values. One of them for me is this deep concern about overcoming poverty. That is a religious value for me, not just a political one.

You said something that I thought was interesting. You said that when people think of the word evangelical, they get worried. There are often bad connotations. But really, it's all about spreading the good word -- it's the good word, right? It's the good message. Why is it that there's so much fear around evangelicals?

I think it's because of the religious right. I think there is a fear among many Americans about the word evangelical, evangelicals, because they associate that term with the religious right, with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition.

I think that's a shame, because I don't think they're really in the evangelical tradition. They are American fundamentalists who espouse a kind of cultural American religion that doesn't have much to do, as I read, [with] biblical faith, with evangelicalism.

When I was growing up in an evangelical home, we knew about Falwell. He was a fundamentalist. He wasn't really an evangelical. He was kind of a backwoods fundamentalist. But he ascended to political power. The media's made him a household word.

I often think that Robertson, Falwell -- their role now is to be kind of ludicrous foils for the American media. Whenever the media wants somebody to say something stupid about religion, they ask Robertson and Falwell, and they get what they want every time. These are not good Christian leaders. They're right-wing ideologues. They're cultural fundamentalists. I don't think they're really evangelical. You'll get me in trouble, but I don't think they really are. I don't hear much of the good news. I hear a lot of bad news from them, not much good news about poor people. … But I think that's the fear.

Martin Luther King Jr. really understood the role of the churches when he said, "The church is not meant to be the master of the state." We don't sort of take power and grab the levers of government and impose our agenda down people's throats. We don't legislate Leviticus. "Nor are we meant to be," he said, "the servant of the state." [We don't] clean up the mess of bad social policy, [or] put a band-aid on the sores of injustice, [or] be just social service providers.

No, we are not the master of the state, said King. We are not the servant of the state. We are the conscience of the state. The churches or the religious community should be, I think, the conscience of the state. We're not just service providers. We are prophetic interrogators. Why are so many people hungry? Why are so many people and families in our shelters? Why do we have one of six of our children poor, [and] one of three [of these are] children of color? "Why?" is the prophetic question. …

What does the heart of God say about the poverty? What does the heart of God say about what justice in the Middle East would really be? That's what we ought to be raising. That's what it means to be an evangelical. …

I think to be evangelical means to be obsessed with that biblical imperative, to seek justice for poor people. That's evangelical. It's in my evangelical tradition to be committed fervently, passionately, to that biblical mission of overcoming poverty. So I want the president to be more evangelical than his domestic policy shows so far in terms of fighting poverty.

So I have no trouble with the faith. I want it to be applied. I want a faith that takes Jesus seriously in foreign policy. When Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers," what does that mean? This is what Jesus taught. He doesn't say the "peace lovers." Blessed are the peacemakers.

I think it's not credible to believe that Jesus' command to be peacemakers is best fulfilled by American military supremacy through the imposition of Pax Americana. Do we really think that's what Jesus meant by "Blessed are the peacemakers?" I think that bears some evangelical reevaluation, in regard to our foreign policy. …

Let's talk about President Bush and his personal faith. You have said that it's not that you question his personal faith and his belief in Jesus. It's that you question how it affects our domestic and international policies. …

… I'm often asked what I think about the faith of the President George W. Bush. I think it is sincere. I think it's very real. I think it's deeply held. I met the president when he was president-elect at a meeting in Austin. He spoke of his faith. He spoke of his desire for a compassionate conservatism, for a faith-based initiative that would do something for poor people. Afterwards, [when] he was talking to us, George W. took me aside and said, "Jim, I don't understand poor people. I don't live, never lived around poor people. I don't know [how] poor people think. Frankly, I'm a white Republican guy who just doesn't get it. But I'd like to. How do I get it? How do I understand?"

I said, "You need to listen to poor people, and people who work and live with poor people." In the inaugural address, which talked more about poverty than any inaugural in years, he said, "We have to listen. Most of us don't understand poverty," he said. "We have to listen to those who do."

I take that seriously. But when I met the president and began talking with him, and listening to what he was saying, I felt that he was sort of a self-help Methodist -- meaning, someone whose faith had made a difference in his personal life. Solved some drinking issues and some family issues, and changed him. Gave him purpose. That's part of Methodism. Always has been. Kind of a 12-step God -- you know, changing my life.

My hope was that he'd make a pilgrimage from being a self-help Methodist to a social reform Methodist, like John Wesley was. John Wesley talked about your faith changing your life, solving drinking problems, saving your family and your marriage.

But also he talked about the abolition of slavery. I wanted to hear George Bush talk not just about how personal behaviors cause poverty, but how structures and social oppression, and hardness of heart of the rich, and laws and lack of just laws cause and perpetuate poverty. So that'd be a pilgrimage from self-help to a social reform Methodist.

That was my hope -- that in this process of his faith-based initiative, we'd see some movement in the president's theology, deepening of his theology, where he'd understand that poverty's not just rooted in individual choices, but in social policies, practices, and behaviors.

Then Sept. 11 came. I think his role changed dramatically, his notion of himself and his place in history, and he became commander in chief of the war on terrorism. The self-help Methodist became now almost a messianic American Calvinist, speaking of the mission of America, and even of his perhaps divine appointment to be president at a time such as this.

This raises some deep and unsettling theological questions, I think, whether there's a confusion now in the role of church and nation -- the body of Christ, the Christian community, what its role is versus the role of the nation.

Hymnology is often used in the president's speeches, and his 2003 State of the Union. There's "wonder-working power" in the faith and values of the American people. Well, that's not what the song says. Those of us who are evangelical hear that song, "Wonder-Working Power" -- it's a hymn. "There's wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb," the song says, which means the salvation in Christ, not in the values of the American people. It's not what the song says.

Or Ellis Island, on the first anniversary of Sept. 11. He talked about how America stands as a beacon of light to the world, and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Well, that's in the Gospel of John. But the light there is the word of God, and the light of Christ, not the beacon of American freedom. So hymns are being altered and put in a different context. I think what you see now is more an American civil religion than evangelical biblical faith.

… That's bad theology. It confuses American civil religion and biblical faith. It confuses church and nation. It confuses God's purposes with the best interests for American foreign policy, so there's a confusion here. It's bad theology and bad foreign policy at the same time.

…We know that President Bush felt a calling to run for president that was based in his faith. He said this in his autobiography, that when 9/11 happened, he said he felt like he had a divine calling. This was why he was president. Can you talk about that a little bit? How a person might think that he or she has a divine calling?

Well, it's certainly very appropriate for any Christian to ask, to struggle with a calling, a vocation. I do it. Every Christian does. What is my calling? What am I supposed to do? I think running for office, public office, can be a [divine] calling. I mean, I've wrestled with that very question myself.

But when one believes that you've been appointed by God for a particular mission in history, you have to be very careful about that, how you speak about that. Where is the self-reflection in that? Where is the humility in that? Are we asking whether we are being accountable to God's intentions and purposes? Or are we asking for God's blessing on our activities? They're very different things.

I think when we are so sure that God is on our side, and that those who are not with us are against us, or even with the terrorists, that's taking another step. I believe God is in our world, in our history, in our lives, in our choices. To ask what God's calling is for me is a fair question, a necessary question, for any Christian. That's not a problem.

But when we place God on our side of things, that we are now ridding the world of evil -- that's very dangerous, that one nation has this role to rid the world of [evil]. What about the evil we have committed, that we are complicit in? The richest nation in this global economic system, in which 2 billion of God's children are poor [and] live on less than $2 a day?

Well, there are things to look at ourselves here, if we're presiding over that global economy. Does this language allow us to look at ourselves, or does it give us a kind of certainty, and a sanction, and even a sense of divine righteousness for our political position? Are we blinded to things that we're otherwise not willing to look at?

Every U.S. president has used God in their language when they speak to the nation. But you have expressed some concerns with President Bush's theological references. You mentioned "wonder-working power" as an example. Can you explain your concern?

… Evangelicals, like any group, have language that [its group members will] recognize, and that hymn is a very famous evangelical hymn. So every evangelical kid like me heard "wonder-working power," knew exactly right away what it was referring to, this wonderful old song. "There's power, power, wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb," which is about the salvation in Christ.

But now the president uses it for a different meaning. He says there is wonder-working power in the faith and values of the American people. Well, that's not what the song said. That's not what it was about.

So here are all these evangelicals, and they say, "That's our song. That's our language. He understands us." What it's now about is wonder-working power in us, in the Americans, in our vision, our values, our place in the world.

Well, that's bad theology, and it sounds like our religion. So the two problems are its code language for one constituency, and it changes the meaning of the words. …

Mike Gerson, President Bush's speechwriter, is a well-known evangelical who went to Wheaton College. He very much would know the back and forth of all these hymns. What is he doing when he writes these speeches?

… The speeches contain biblical language and hymnology, but often misused or often put in a different context, and the meaning has been changed. The meaning of the hymns and the meaning of that biblical text has been changed to serve another purpose. That's my concern, when all of a sudden it's supporting American foreign policy, when it wasn't about American foreign policy. It's about the light of Christ in the world. It was about the word of God in history. It wasn't about the American people and their values. So he's changing the meaning of the words, and that to me is disconcerting.

So can you summarize your general concern with the president using this religious language?

It is a code language that is meant to appeal to a base, to reassure a base, to tell them he's one of them and that they understand each other. But then when he changes the meaning of the words, it's even more problematic for me, because he's really turning the words to purposes which are in our national self-interest as he perceives it, but really are contrary to what their original meaning was.

See, I think those words, that biblical tradition, would critique our foreign policy, would challenge our sense of righteousness, would call our behavior into question, would not allow us to say, "Evil is all out there, and we are the good, and those who aren't with us are with the terrorists."

I don't think biblical faith can sustain that kind of point of view. In fact, biblical faith would challenge it. So instead, the Bible is being used to justify our policies, and not to call them into question.

That, I think, is the difference in civil religion and prophetic religion. Prophetic biblical faith would call the nation to account, call our policies into question, would cause us to [engage in] self-reflection and evaluation. But the use of language like this just becomes a way to sanction our behavior and our policies, and to appeal to a constituency that feels like they are being spoken to in a very unique and particular way.

… Can you talk about the religious element that also seems to be there in the rhetoric regarding America's foreign policy and role in the world, post-Sept. 11? ...

… When Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney talk about the necessity of American power and supremacy, military supremacy in the world as the only way to peace, I understand that as a foreign policy. I think it's not a wise foreign policy, but I understand it.

When President Bush adds God to their formulation and says God's purpose or intention is somehow linked with American military preeminence, that's a very dangerous thing. President Bush [and] the White House basically choreographed a liturgy at the National Cathedral. President Bush was a chief homilist. In the pulpit of the National Cathedral, he made a war speech. He called the nation to arms in the pulpit of the National Cathedral, and he claimed a divine mission for our nation to rid the world of evil.

That is not only bad foreign policy or presumptuous foreign policy -- I would say it's idolatrous foreign policy to claim God's purpose for that mission. And in the language that Mr. Bush has used, he does this again and again and again. Our role, and his role as president, this is acclaiming a righteous [decree] that Pax Americana is God's foreign policy. This is a very unsettling thing.

… President Bush and Tony Blair, these two men leading the war in Iraq -- it's interesting that they're both men of strong faith.

A few of us met with Prime Minister Tony Blair, American church leaders and our U.K. counterparts, and we talked with him for an hour. We talked about theology, about morality, about ethics and about politics. We challenged him on the war in Iraq from a Christian point of view. So both Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush had to deal with the fact that the churches in their nations, the church leaders, every single church body that spoke on the war in Iraq was against it, except the American Southern Baptists. They didn't all speak, but the ones who spoke were opposed to the war in Iraq, except for the American Southern Baptists.

Now at least Blair met with the church leaders. Mr. Bush wouldn't even meet with any church leaders that opposed him on the war, that just wanted to raise questions, even his own Methodist bishops. I think that was unfortunate. I think he should have at least met to discuss the disagreements; maybe not to agree, but to have a serious theological conversation. If the president is going to use so much language of theology and the Bible, then let's use that language for a serious discussion about the war in Iraq. And that was never done.

One thing that I thought was interesting, the more I talk to evangelicals, the more I understand that it is about action, taking a religion and actually building and evangelizing and doing these things in your community and actually being part of the world, instead of just your own private religion. So doesn't it make perfect sense that George Bush, as evangelical as he is, would incorporate his very deep religion into his actions in the world as president, and that he would think, as an evangelical Christian, that it was God's will that he was president of the United States?

Well, there [are] two issues there. … I think it's a good thing for a president or political leaders to want to put their values or their faith into action. Desmond Tutu did that in South Africa. Martin Luther King Jr. did that here. This is a good thing.

Then, a democratic society, a pluralistic society, has to evaluate whether you want that president, that political leader with those values to be putting them into action. That's democracy. So that's fine. That all can be done within the separation of church and state.

The question is how are we putting faith into action? Or are we? So when the president says, "My faith compels me to a faith-based initiative, to compassionate conservatism," but then there is no domestic policy, no domestic commitment to things that will benefit low-income people; when you can't get a child tax credit for the lowest-income working families; when the Catholic bishops say, "It would be the right thing," but somehow it's never done; when you can't get childcare for kids, working moms trying to move out of welfare; when there is no domestic policy commitment that really puts that faith into action or go to poverty -- we weren't saying he shouldn't put his faith into action. We're saying he hasn't put his faith into action when it comes to domestic social policy.

We wrote a letter to the president signed by evangelical, Catholic, mainline, [and] black church leaders saying, "Mr. President, you haven't done what you said you would do. You've, as we say, talked the talk, but you haven't walked the walk." There's been lots of talk, a lot of rhetoric, but no action here. Until there's a domestic social policy that benefits low-income families, then the faith-based initiative doesn't have any content, any substance.

You're asking us to make bricks with straw. You're asking us to somehow do something about poverty, when there's no commitment to doing that in policy. So when the only domestic social policy is tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthiest Americans, we say, "Where is faith being put into action here?"

So in foreign policy, putting faith into action I think would be a deep concern for human rights. Jimmy Carter believed he was putting his faith into action when he became so concerned about human rights around the world.

I applaud a commitment to overcoming the pandemic of HIV/AIDS in Africa or seeking peace and justice in the Sudan, [or] combating sex trafficking all over the world. But when 1 billion people live on less than $1 a day and 2 billion less on less than $2, I want to see faith being put into action in regard to those questions. The problem is not somebody putting faith into action. The problem is when they name the faith and don't put it into action.

Not all evangelicals are concerned about Bush. The National Association of Evangelicals' Vice President for Governmental Affairs, Richard Cizik, yesterday was saying to me that he feels that right now … evangelicals have the White House's heart. In other words, the two are working with each other. He's careful to say they are not getting everything they want, but they're able to get a lot of what they want. Can you talk about this a little bit?

… When evangelical leaders can persuade the president to be concerned about what's happening in Sudan, or sex trafficking around the world, or HIV-AIDS, that's a very good thing. I am completely supportive of that. But I'm an evangelical Christian leader, as well, and we haven't been able to persuade the president to do what is necessary on poverty reduction in this country or around the world, or to find a foreign policy that makes the critical linkages between economic justice and overcoming violence and terrorism.

So I think there's been some progress on some of those fronts. I'm glad to see evangelicals pushing for things like Sudan and critical human rights issues. But we want to talk about what a president could do in terms of domestic and global poverty, and that just hasn't been done. Bono sat with the president two weeks ago and couldn't get $1 billion more to fund the HIV/AIDS initiative. That is the president's own initiative, and he was totally of no capacity. A billion dollars every week for Iraq, $87 billion for Iraq. We can't get $5 billion for childcare over five years in welfare reform.

So a number of us in this country, as Christians, as evangelicals, are waiting to see policies that reflect the language and the intention of a faith-based initiative, or compassionate conservatism. We are not seeing policies that benefit poor people in this country or around the world. That, for us, is a religious concern; not just a political one.

You were saying that the assumption is that all evangelicals are going to vote for Bush. Talk about why that's a wrong assumption.

Well, there's this conventional wisdom in media and politics that evangelicals are all Republican and all are going to vote for George Bush, and of course that isn't true. Depending on your data, 35 percent, 40 percent of evangelicals voted for Bill Clinton. Many voted for Al Gore.

Yes, the majority of evangelicals voted Republican in the last election, and have for several years, because of cultural values, because of the Republicans seeming to respect religious people more than Democrats seem to. All of that's true. But there are evangelicals who care about other issues besides abortion and sexuality and family matters. These are important issues to Christians, a lot of Christians.

But there are very important issues, like economic justice. What's happening to poor people? Or, many Christians were opposed to the war in Iraq, and are very concerned about what's happening now in Iraq. So there'll be other issues on which evangelicals will vote this next time. You'll see evangelicals voting for the president, and evangelicals voting for whichever Democrat runs. There will be evangelicals voting for that Democrat because of other concerns, [like] the war, jobs, education, health care. These are all concerns that matter to evangelical Christians. …

Finally, President Bush's faith-based initiatives. Can you comment on this?

Well, I've been supportive of the idea of government partnership with faith-based organizations and other non-profit organizations to do the work of fighting poverty. We've done it for years, overseas and here. I think it needs to be done.

But not only [does] it fund religion, it's got to fund results. … I don't think we should discriminate against an organization or congregation because they're religious, if they're doing good work. But government can't subsidize proselytizing or worship or religious activity. It can't. It shouldn't. It's against the law. It's bad for religion, and bad for government when government does that.

But partnering with faith-based organizations, taking away barriers to cooperation between a mayor and a city council and a synagogue or mosque or congregation, I think that can be a good thing for a society. Mr. Gore would have done something like this. Bill Clinton was doing this. Tony Blair's doing the same kind of thing. There are good ways to do it and there are bad ways to do it.

There are ways to do it that respect the separation of church and state that respects other religious minorities. All the communities are respected and respect those who aren't religious and don't want to be. Their rights have to be respected as well. To not avail ourselves of the energy and commitment and resources of faith communities over poverty is a mistake. But how to do it in a way that is consistent with our best values is something that we're wrestling with. …

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posted april 29, 2004

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