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Jim Wallis: Expanded Profile

By Jacob Laksin
Discover The Networks

A self-described activist preacher, Jim Wallis was born into an evangelical family in Detroit, Michigan. He has stated that his religious views initially drove him toward the civil rights movement of the 1960s. As Wallis relates the story, his opposition to segregation spurred him to break with his own community church and seek out a relationship with black churches of inner-city Detroit. “I would just go downtown,” he says, “and just begin walking the streets and you know the drug dealers and the hookers and the pimps and the street kids, figuring out what this white kid is doing walking around, and I went to black churches and there I found a kind of Christian faith I had never heard before.”

Wallis would subsequently join the raging ranks of the anti-Vietnam War movement; his participation in the protests and demonstrations of that movement nearly resulted in his expulsion from the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois, a conservative Christian seminary where he was then enrolled.  While at the seminary, Wallis founded an anti-capitalism magazine called the Post-American. The then-small publication sang the praises of wealth redistribution and government-managed economies, ideals which he said were essential ingredients in the quest for “social justice.” To match its seething disdain for the free market, the Post-American, in keeping with Wallis’ antiwar convictions, also railed against American foreign policy. Wallis has carried his reflexively anti-American mindset on to the present day. 

In the mid-1970s, Wallis and his Post-American colleagues moved their base of operation from Chicago to Washington, D.C., where they redesigned the magazine. In 1971, playing on the concept of Christian followers at odds with the larger Christian establishment – an accurate enough description of Wallis and his flock of fellow leftists – Wallis christened his new magazine Sojourners. I

n the thirty years that Wallis has served as its editor, Sojourners has never wavered from its radical roots. Seeking out religious cover for its unambiguously leftwing politics, the magazine, which today has a combined print and electronic readership of over 100,000, has consistently positioned itself in opposition to U.S. foreign policies, both foreign and domestic. Sojourners takes the position that the U.S. war against Iraq is immoral and unjustified, and that the ultimate solution to America’s domestic problems is bigger and more intrusive government.    

A number of the editorial positions taken by Sojourners over the years have come back to haunt Wallis. For example, in parallel with his magazine’s stridently antiwar position during the Seventies, Wallis championed the cause of communism. Forgiving its brutal standard-bearers in Vietnam and Cambodia the most abominable of atrocities, Wallis was unsparing in his execration of American military efforts. For all his rhetoric about the alleged need for greater levels of “social justice” in the U.S., Wallis maintained a willful silence on the subject of the murderous rampages of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. Sojourners, for its part, issued no editorials commiserating with the plight of massacred Cambodians. Very much to the contrary, several editorials attempted to exculpate the Khmer Rouge of the charges of genocide, instead shifting blame squarely onto the United States.  

Nor was this the most blatant instance of Wallis’ repeated willingness to support pro-communist ideals. As Ronald Nash, a professor at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, noted in his 1996 book on the religious left, Why the Left Is Not Right, Wallis, in the grip of his antiwar fevers, was not above vilifying the victims for the crimes of their Communist oppressors. Following the 1979 refugee crisis in Vietnam, to cite but one instance, Wallis lashed out at the desperate masses fleeing North Vietnam’s communist forces by boat. These refugees, as Wallis saw it, had been “inoculated” by capitalist influences during the war and were absconding “to support their consumer habit in other lands.” Wallis then admonished critics against pointing to the boatpeople to “discredit” the righteousness of Vietnam’s newly victorious Communist regime.

By no means blackening his credentials as a religious leader, Wallis’ presence in the radical antiwar left endeared him to the mainstream news media: In 1979, Time magazine hailed Wallis one of the “50 Faces for America’s Future.” That same year, the journal Mission Tracks published an interview with Wallis, in which the activist evangelical confessed his hope that “more Christians will come to view the world through Marxist eyes.”  

Wallis’ faith in Marxism would propel him to the front line of the Left’s unifying campaign of the 1980s: support for Communist dictatorships in Central America. Catalyzed by the U.S. military’s overthrow of a Marxist dictatorship in Grenada in 1983, leftwing activists mounted a grassroots effort to spare other Communist tyrants in the region from being similarly dispatched. To this end, Wallis embarked on an editorial crusade in Sojourners to undercut public support for a confrontational U.S. foreign policy toward Central America. Depicting as greatly overblown the threat posed by the spread of Communism in that region (as well as the threat posed by the Soviet Union), Wallis contended that the principal menace to international security and stability came from the Reagan administration’s defense buildup. Such was the argument put forth in a January 1983 Sojourners article titled “Crossroads for the Freeze,” wherein Wallis wrote that “[t]he Reagan Administration remains the chief obstacle to the first step in stopping the arms race.”

One year earlier, Wallis had written in a similar vein in Sojourners: “It is sometimes difficult to remember how the Russians became our enemy.” He also chastised the United States for its refusal to accede to the demands of the pro-Communist Left by giving the Soviet Union the benefit of the doubt during political negotiations: “At each step in the Cold War,” Wallis wrote, “the U.S. was presented with a choice between very different but equally plausible interpretations of Soviet intentions, each of which would have led to very different responses. At every turn, U.S. policy-makers have chosen to assume the very worst about their Soviet counterparts.”

Wallis published bitter denunciations of the American government’s sponsorship of anti-Communist Contra rebels against Nicaragua’s Sandinista dictatorship.  After visiting Nicaragua in 1983, in the company of the pro-Sandinista group Witness for Peace, Wallis and then-Sojourners associate editor Joyce Hollyday co-authored several articles in which they whitewashed the brutality of the Sandinista government while condemning the United States for waging an “undeclared war” against “the people of Nicaragua.” One representative issue of Sojourners from the time condemned the “suffering created by U.S. policy against Nicaragua,” and urged the “U.S. government to re-examine and change its policy toward Nicaragua, and establish a relationship of trust and friendship between the people of Nicaragua and the people of the United States.” 

In keeping with his enthusiasm for Nicaragua’s Communist regime, Wallis also criticized conservative evangelical leaders such as Pat Robertson for siding with the rebel opposition. “To allow political ideology to overshadow human needs and fundamental issues of life and death is to go seriously astray,” Wallis self-righteously remarked in one such attack.  

Under the sway of leftist evangelical movements like liberation theology, Wallis invited the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) – the public relations arm of the El Salvadoran terrorist group the FMLN – to take part in a number of initiatives with Sojourners. (That alliance did not prevent Wallis from attacking Christian supporters of the Contras as terrorist sympathizers. Insisted Wallis: "Christian support for terrorism, whether it be from the Right or the Left, is simply wrong.") Among these initiatives was the so-called “Pledge Of Resistance (POR).” In effect, the POR was a blueprint for mobilized protests and various acts of civil disobedience – to be carried out by leftist activists and their counterparts in the religious community – in the event that the United States launched an invasion of Nicaragua.

Details of how this was to be accomplished were supplied by Wallis himself in an August 1984 article for Sojourners called “A Pledge of Resistance: A Contingency Plan in the Event of a U.S. Invasion of Nicaragua.” In the article, Wallis sounded a number of leftist talking points, calling for opposition to U.S. funding of the Contras, and for a repeal of the embargo against Nicaraguan goods. He also spelled out POR’s ultimate bjective:                                         

“We hope either to prevent a direct U.S. invasion of Nicaragua or to make such military action so politically costly it will have to be halted. By announcing a credible and coordinated plan of massive public resistance, we hope to forestall an expanded war against Nicaragua. If the U.S. military undertakes direct action against Nicaragua, we will undertake non-violent direct action against it on the largest scale possible. In so doing we hope to bring the issue before the American people, pressure Congress to act, and demand an immediate end to the invasion and the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Nicaragua.”   

Wallis later expanded the POR to include opposition to any U.S. military action anywhere in Central America. It was not until 1999 that Wallis would admit to second thoughts about his unquestioning support for the Sandinista regime. In the course of an editorial decrying both the U.S. bombing campaign against Iraq and its sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s government in Baghdad, Wallis conceded: “The Sandinistas were responsible for serious mistakes and violations of human rights, which led to their downfall no less than U.S. aggression did.” Wallis drew the following lesson from this history: “It's a mistake only to criticize U.S. policy and refuse to criticize those on the other side of U.S. power.”  

But while he has recanted some of his pro-Soviet, Cold War-era politics, Wallis remains fiercely opposed to capitalism and the free market system. In many interviews, he has stressed his belief that capitalism has proven to be an unmitigated failure. “Our systems have failed the poor and they have failed the earth,” Wallis has said. “They have failed the creation.”

And while Wallis today concedes that Communism was not all he that and his Sojourners colleagues claimed it to be, he remains adamant in his insistence that capitalism is no improvement. According to Wallis, “both macrosystems, capitalism and Communism, have failed, not just one, not Communism only, but also capitalism.”  To replace these two systems, Wallis has called for the U.S. government to craft its policies in accordance with leftwing views on poverty and the environment. “There aren’t new systems,” Wallis says, “There are rather new ways that we will test and evaluate and hold systems, macrosystems or microsystems, accountable. For example, how well they serve the poor and the outcast is a primary religious test of any, of any of our projects and systems. How they are in harmony with the earth and the whole of the creation is a second. And thirdly, how they enable the participation of people in the decision-making, in the process. Those three criteria for me are absolutely essential.” 

It is to promote these policies that Wallis founded Call to Renewal in 1995. A congregation of leftwing religious groups, Call to Renewal’s members include Evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics, leftist black churches like the Progressive National Baptist Convention, and other local and national organizations inclined toward religious faith and left-leaning politics. Wallis serves as the group’s convener.

As diverse as Call to Renewal is, its members are united in one purpose, one long-championed by Wallis: to advocate, in religious terms, for a leftwing economic agenda. Thus, although Call to Renewal arrogates for itself a nonpartisan status (the group’s mission statement includes a pitch for universal healthcare and states, “We do not promote any particular ideological method or partisan agenda”), its policy preferences suggest that it is firmly in the leftwing camp. One 2003 Call to Renewal “analysis” of President Bush’s proposal to stimulate economic growth by cutting taxes is illustrative of the group’s predilection for tax increases and stepped-up government spending as the preferred solution to domestic problems. After asserting that cutting income taxes amounts to a government-sanctioned punishment of low-wage earners and the poor, Call to Renewal invoked its interpretation of scripture to chastise the President for rejecting the idea that “justice” can be best achieved by a powerful central government. According to Call to Renewal, “The President’s plan violates the Biblical notions of justice and looking out for our neighbors, specifically poor people. It also illustrates a neglect to use power to promote justice. This is a form of idolatry about which the Christian scriptures repeatedly warn. While great strides have been made in this proposal to help ‘the haves,’ little has been done to help, as Jesus said, ‘the least of these.’” 

More than a mere religious leader, Wallis is also an adroit political operative. To promulgate his political agenda, he relies not only on the message of the Bible but also on the gospel of veteran Washington politicians: the language of bipartisanship. It is this note of bipartisanship that Wallis has long sought to strike in order to propel his vision of “social justice” into the political mainstream.

The title of his most recent book, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, published in January 2005, is a case in point. Wallis, a registered Democrat, claims in the book that he disavows partisan politics. And this was not first time that Wallis has sought to portray himself as a neutral religious figure whose overriding allegiance is to God: Wallis made an analogous point in his 1995 book, The Soul of Politics: Beyond “Religious Right” and "Secular Left.”   

His supposed neutrality is a tactic he has routinely applied to sell his brand of politics. For example, during a 2000 appearance on Jim Lehrer’s news program, Wallis entirely dismissed the significance of such categories as left and right. “And the politics of left and right, which we’re hearing from you again tonight, are just dysfunctional,” said Wallis“They don’t work on the ground. We want what’s right and what works, whether it be canceling the corrupt debt of Third World countries, that shouldn’t have been incurred in the first place, or changing our own neighborhoods. So I don’t care about left and right, I care about finding answers.”

Similarly, in a November 28, 2004 appearance on Meet the Press, Wallis attempted to shirk political classification by stating that God has no political affiliation. “God is not a Republican or a Democrat,” he said. “That should be obvious. The values question is critical. The question is how narrowly or how broadly we define values.”

More recently, at a January 2005 speaking engagement in Michigan, Wallis informed his audience: “God is not partisan. He’s not a Republican or a Democrat. When either party tries to polarize God or co-opt religious committees to further political agendas, it makes a terrible mistake.” 

A review of Wallis’ record suggests that such talk amounts to little more than empty rhetoric. His incessant genuflection to the ideals of bipartisanship notwithstanding, Wallis has long used religion to justify his leftwing political agenda. Nowhere was this hypocritical tendency more in evidence than during the run-up to the 2004 Presidential election. As a longtime antiwar activist, Wallis was particularly pointed in his condemnation of the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Asked in a January 2003 interview with the Harvard Political Review about the then-looming war, Wallis stated that because the United States had previously supported undemocratic regimes, it had no right to preemptively oppose them in Iraq. “Saddam Hussein is an evil man,” Wallis said, “but so are many rulers around the world. Other human rights violators just as bad have been on the U.S. government’s payroll. I watched my government supporting and funding and keeping people like this in power for years: Somoza, Marcos, Pinochet, the Guatemalan dictators. We have a history here that isn’t very admirable.”

Wallis further warned that by warring against Saddam Hussein, President Bush would decisively alienate the American religious community. “If President Bush goes to war with Iraq, he will do so without the support of the majority of church leaders of this country,” Wallis opined. “The church leaders that he upholds and praises and wants to support are not supporting him in this war.”

In the same interview, Wallis revealed that he had met with the President in order to impress upon him his belief (one contradicted by considerable empirical evidence) that the underlying cause of terrorism was poverty. “I told him that until we focus that energy into overcoming poverty, both globally and domestically, we’re going to lose the war on poverty and the war on terrorism,” Wallis recounted. 

No sooner had the war begun than Wallis pronounced it lost a cause. Writing in the May-June 2003 issue of Sojourners, Wallis insisted that the conflict’s root causes were America’s allegedly unjust support for Israel and the evils of globalization. “Unresolved injustice—such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, feudal Arab regimes protected by oil, and globalization policies that systematically give advantage to wealthy nations over poor countries and people—remains a root cause of violence and will not be overcome by the imposition of American military superiority,” Wallis wrote.

Belying his own oft-invoked commitment to keeping religion free of political partisanship, Wallis further alleged that Christianity instructs its adherents to oppose the war. “Dissent in a time of war is not only Christian, it is also patriotic,” said Wallis. “A long and honorable record of opposition to war in church tradition and American history puts dissent in the mainstream of Christian life and American citizenship. Rather than acquiesce to the war, prayerful and thoughtful dissent is more important than ever.” 

Motivated by his antiwar views, Wallis applied his prominence in the religious community toward the task of undermining the perceived justness of the American cause in Iraq. Toward this end, Wallis brought together a number of noted leftwing religious and academic figures, including Princeton University professor Cornel West, to sign an antiwar petition. Among the positions endorsed by the petition was moral relativism, and a concomitant rejection of notions of good and evil. “The distinction between good and evil does not run between one nation and another, or one group and another,” stated the petition. “It runs straight through every human heart.” After complaining (incorrectly) that all opponents of U.S. foreign policy had been condemned by the government as “evil,” the signatories, in a less-than-subtle allusion to the President, charged him with heresy: “We reject the false teaching that those who are not for the United States politically are against it, or that those who fundamentally question American policies must be with the ‘evil-doers.’ Such crude distinctions, especially when used by Christians, are expressions of the Manichaean heresy, in which the world is divided into forces of absolute good and absolute evil.” (Wallis made a parallel plea for moral relativism in God’s Politics, writing: “To believe that your own nation is ‘the greatest force for good in history’ . . . and that those who oppose us are ‘evil’ is, indeed, a dangerous religion for the world.”)

The petition signatories expressed their disapproval of a U.S. foreign policy which, they alleged, dispensed with ethical boundaries to attack civilians and deploy weapons of mass destruction: “We reject the false teaching that a war on terrorism takes precedence over ethical and legal norms. Some things ought never be done – torture, the deliberate bombing of civilians, the use of indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction – regardless of the consequences.”  

Always with the disclaimer that neither major political party can claim to authoritatively represent the values of religious faith, Wallis passionately contends that Republican policies are immoral and godless. In a July 2004 op-ed for the Boston Globe, he mounted the argument that because of American foreign and domestic policies, “[a] misrepresentation of Christianity has taken place.” By Wallis’ reading, “Many people around the world now think Christian faith stands for political commitments that are almost the opposite of its true meaning. How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and pro-American?” Wallis declined to explain how being against the wealthy, against a war of liberation, and against the United States was more in line with Biblical teaching.

He did, however, dissociate himself from his previous rejection of the existence of absolute evil, expressed starkly in the aforementioned petition. Intent on lambasting the Bush administration, Wallis now decided to call evil by its name: multinational corporations. Wrote Wallis, “It is because religion takes the problem of evil so seriously that it must always be suspicious of too much concentrated power – politically and economically – either in totalitarian regimes or in huge multinational corporations that now have more wealth and power than many governments.” 

Just a month before the 2004 Presidential election, Wallis embraced a rabid partisanship that in form and content was indistinguishable from the venomous harangues delivered daily by the more animated Democratic Party loyalists. In an October 2004 anti-Bush diatribe for Sojourners called “The Religious Right Era is Over,” Wallis (after making his obligatory point that “God is not a Republican, nor a Democrat”) proceeded to make the case that religious believers should be deeply uncomfortable about voting for President Bush. Implying that the President was a liar, Wallis stated, “Truth-telling is also a religious issue that should be applied to a candidate’s rationales for war, tax cuts, or any other policy, as is humility in avoiding the language of ‘righteous empire’ which too easily confuses the roles of God, church, and nation.”

Wallis further held that if Christian voters considered the war from a theological perspective, they would find it—and, by extension, the President who chose to wage it—unjust. As Wallis explained in the same article, “War, of course, is also a deeply theological matter. The near-unanimous opinion of religious leaders worldwide that the Iraq war failed to fit ‘just war’ criteria should be an electoral issue for Christian voters, especially as the warnings from religious leaders have proven prophetically and tragically accurate.”  

This eagerness to enlist religion in the cause of bashing the Bush administration made Wallis a much sought-after interviewee in the days preceding the election. With an eye toward aiding the Democratic Party, Wallis told reporters that “progressive” evangelicals and “moderate Catholics,” which Wallis conjectured comprised 20 percent of the electorate, would prove a decisive force in turning the election’s outcome in the Democrats’ favor. After the election, Wallis revealed (to the surprise of no one) that he himself had cast a vote for the Democratic candidate, John Kerry

That the election failed to bear out Wallis’ projections did not diminish the fortunes of the preacher-activist. To the contrary, owing to the popular post-election consensus among Democratic Party members that their defeat could be attributed to their party’s disconnect from religious voters, Wallis became an overnight celebrity within Democratic ranks. Wasting no time, Democratic strategists and politicians turned to him as the man who could sell the Democratic Party to the coveted religious demographic. In January 2005, at the beginning of the Congressional session, Senate Democrats invited Wallis to address them in a private discussion. Meanwhile, some fifteen Democratic members of the House made Wallis the guest of honor at a breakfast confab whose subject, according to The New York Times, was devising ways to instill support for the Democratic Party into the hearts of the religious faithful. James Manley, a spokesman for the Senate Minority Leader, Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, acknowledged that Wallis was actively working with the Democratic political leadership to lure religious voters into the party’s fold. “He can help us communicate with the rising number of evangelicals in the country, which is right now a Republican constituency, but which Wallis argues could easily become part of the Democratic constituency as well,” Manley told the Times.  

Wallis’ influence could be discerned immediately. Mirroring many of the themes Wallis has stressed in Sojourners, Senator Edward Kennedy, who had spoken frequently with Wallis over the years, delivered a speech calling on the Democrats to “speak more directly to the issues of deep conscience.”

For all intents and purposes a Democratic activist, Wallis committed the months following the 2004 election to the cause of cheerleading for the Democratic Party. Appearing at Harvard University (where he had been a visiting Fellow in the fall of 2002, teaching a class called “Faith, Politics, and Society”) Wallis used the occasion of a November 2004 speech to a conference of black journalists to link his leftwing religious views to the Democratic Party line.  Appropriating a line of attack often used by Democratic detractors to condemn the Bush administration, Wallis averred that the Republican Party not only subscribed to the wrong politics—it believed in the wrong religion as well. “There is a theology and politics of fear we must counter with the politics of hope,” Wallis said.  

In January 2005, Wallis, though still contending that God was neither a Republican nor a Democrat, once more reverted to moral relativism. His aim, as per usual, was to denounce the Bush administration. Asked, just prior to the President’s inauguration, to give his opinion about Mr. Bush’s personal religious views, Wallis instinctively fired a broadside against the Bush administration’s foreign policy. “To say they are evil and we are good is bad theology and leads to bad foreign policy,” Wallis told the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

On December 14, 2005, Wallis organized an event where some 115 religious activists protested a House Republican budget plan's cuts (of about $50 billion over a five-year period) by refusing to clear the entrance to a congressional office building. "These are political choices being made that are hurting low-income people," said Wallis. "Don't make them the brunt of your deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility." Wallis called the budget plan "the real Christmas scandal," a reference to a campaign by some conservative Christian groups against the greeting "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Wallis and his fellow demonstrators were arrested for their actions. 

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