ON SATURDAY, December 2, incoming-Senate majority leader Harry Reid asked Jim Wallis, the liberal religious activist, to give the Democrats' official response to President Bush's weekly radio address. It was a curious, odd moment--the equivalent of Republicans inviting Jerry Falwell to respond on their behalf to a Democratic president.
"The senator thought a non-partisan religious leader could speak to the moral values our nation needs," Wallis explained beforehand to his Sojourners constituency. Wallis, author of the best-selling God's Politics and a once angry-toned 1960s street activist has in recent years attempted to become the chief spokesman for the evangelical left. His radio stint in the place of congressional Democrats suggests he may have finally succeeded.
IN THE 2004 ELECTIONS, evangelical voters were the Republican's party's largest and most reliable constituency. Since then, Democrats have focused on peeling away the GOP's advantage among conservative Protestants.
Democratic efforts to refocus evangelicals away from gay marriage and abortion in favor of the environment and poverty seem mostly to have failed. In 2004, the Republican advantage among evangelicals was 74 percent to 25 percent. In 2006, it slipped only a few points, to 70 percent to 28 percent. (White evangelicals accounted for a quarter of the electorate in both 2004 and 2006.)
The Republican advantage among churchgoers as a whole slipped from 18 points to 12 points. Meanwhile, Democrats made significant gains among Catholics and non-evangelical Protestants. But evangelicals remained a pillar of Republican loyalty while the party lost ground among almost every other demographic group. Which is where Wallis comes in.
FOR HIS OWN PART, Wallis has made a show of declaiming the significance of his radio address. He said that accepting Reid's radio broadcast invitation, which is normally reserved for Democratic office holders, was a "difficult decision."
"I work hard to maintain my independence and non-partisanship, and didn't want to be perceived as supporting one party over the other," Wallis explained on his Sojourners website. "But it was an occasion to get our message to millions of people, so I decided to accept" and "act in a new way." Wallis insisted that he would have responded just as favorably to a Republican invitation.
Wallis's broadcast stressed his supposed non-partisan identity. "I want to be clear that I am not speaking for the Democratic party, but as a person of faith who feels the hunger in America for a new vision of our life together, and sees the opportunity to apply our best moral values to the urgent problems we face." He hit his usual notes about an "anti-poverty agenda" that reduces "the gap between rich and poor," about extricating U.S. troops from a "disastrous" war in Iraq, about protecting the "earth and the fragile atmosphere" from global warming, and about finding "common ground" to reduce abortions.
"The path of partisan division is well worn, but the road of compassionate priorities and social justice will lead us to a new America," he concluded. "Building that new America will require greater moral leadership from both Democrats and Republicans, and also from each and every one of us."
Wallis's rhetoric today is more soothing and mainstream than it was in 1996, when he denounced President Clinton for backing welfare reform. Clinton, Wallis then said, had "sacrificed" the most vulnerable upon the "altar of political expediency," unleashing what was sure to be a "hurricane of human suffering." But the hurricane never came and Wallis realized that '60s-style hyperbole was no longer politically viable. He shifted, at least rhetorically, from far left to center left.
Not wanting to antagonize evangelicals or secular liberals, Wallis now tries to navigate carefully around social issues. He warns against "scapegoating" homosexuals, while not specifically supporting same-sex unions. He wants to reduce abortions through enlarged social programs, without directly addressing proposed legal restrictions on abortions. He remains a pacifist but usually avoids mentioning that fact, instead condemning the Iraq war as unjust without broadcasting his view that all military action is unacceptable. When questioned by secularists who are distressed by Wallis's "evangelical" identity, he likens himself to 19th-century evangelicals who opposed slavery and child labor.
Of course, most of today's evangelicals do not define themselves by their social causes but rather by their personal faith in Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible. Wallis is more akin to early 20th-century Social Gospel advocates who rejected "fundamentalism" in favor of progressive social reform. Their spiritual descendants are now primarily the clerisy of declining, liberal mainline Protestantism, whose demographic implosion cleared the way for evangelical predominance.
Attempting to speak to seriously religious Americans, especially to the growing evangelical demographic, is smart for Democrats. Whether or not Jim Wallis--a former Students for a Democratic Society agitator--is the Democrats' best tool for this outreach, is a very open question.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.