The Common Good
April 1994

Not In Polite Company

by Jim Wallis | April 1994

Not in polite company. That’s where you were not supposed to talk about either politics or religion. Remember?

Not in polite company. That’s where you were not supposed to talk about either politics or religion. Remember? Perhaps it was because these two subjects were too important and would interrupt the small talk. Or maybe because they were potentially so divisive that they might spoil the party.

Well, that has changed over the years. Both politics and religion are hot topics these days. But now the discomfort seems to be discussing them together.

I recall, painfully, being an evangelical teen-ager who was told by my church that Christian faith had nothing to do with either racism or war. (In truth, most of the good church people quietly supported both, succeeding in keeping their religion separate.) But my heart was rising to the moral challenge of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war.

The intuition that my faith did indeed have something to do with "politics" was the principle cause of my separation from the little church that had nurtured and raised me. Now in exile, I found a new home in the black community and among the black churches. There I learned what the relationship between the two forbidden topics in polite white society really was.

The civil rights movement was built on the foundation of the black churches. The illuminating oratory of Martin Luther King Jr. and the other preacher-activists of the movement made the integral connection between faith and politics clear.

THE TOPIC HAS BECOME more complicated. The evangelical folks I grew up with finally became involved in politics, and now insist that faith indeed has real political implications. The issue that drew them in was abortion and the cultural breakdown of American society.

Their political involvement became quite alarming to many liberal Christians who had long insisted on the rightful relationship between religion and questions of public policy. It was one thing to support the religious call of black ministers to the barricades of civil rights. It was quite another to accept the "Religious Right" mobilizing on behalf of the unborn.

In his provocative book The Culture of Disbelief, Yale law professor Stephen Carter reflects on this thorny problem. Carter contends that a prejudice against the influence of religious commitment upon political issues now characterizes many sectors of American society, including the media, academia, the law, and the corridors of political power.

Religious conviction is trivialized and becomes quickly suspect when it seems to be affecting matters political. While disagreeing with many of the conclusions of the Religious Right, Carter defends their being "religious" and seeking to impact politics from their faith perspective.

An African-American and a constitutional lawyer, Carter claims that the American doctrine of the separation of church and state forbids the establishment of any religion by the state, but not the influence of religious values in the public square. Along with others, such as Garry Wills, he suggests that religious faith has always helped shape American politics and that such influence can be very positive as well as negative.

Emory University Scholar-in- Residence Eugene D. Genovese recently remarked on the same subject. Genovese, a widely respected Left intellectual, said, "Liberalism is over. The Left is dead. Politics will be principally shaped by religious communities. The only question is, will they be repressive and totalitarian religious communities or lucid, progressive ones."

In an equally surprising development, the left progressive Z Magazine declared in its January issue, "It is long past time that the American Left re-evaluated its judgment that religion is unadulterated superstition." The article goes on to describe the historically religious roots of today’s progressive egalitarian movements and the radical character of Jesus Christ!

Z’s writer suggests that progressive Christian movements could be "the salvation of the secular left. Only a religiously based radicalism can succeed in winning a major sector of American sympathy ... The American people will not sacrifice their lives for a secular utopia that does not fulfill their emotional and spiritual needs."

That faith should influence our perception of and participation in politics was a founding principle of Sojourners. But while religion belongs in the political world, religion and ideology are not good partners. Stephen Carter warns against reaching conclusions on political grounds and afterward finding religious justification for them, instead of letting genuine religious conviction shape honest political judgments.

Perhaps the best test of the religious integrity of our political commitments is their predictability or unpredictability. Religious perspectives on political matters must not be predictable on the basis of prior ideological biases. We have seen enough of that on both ends of the political spectrum. To be honest, most of us have fallen into such predictability from time to time, especially during the height of the contentious Cold War years.

But this is a new time. The spiritual nature of the many crises we face is increasingly clear to many people. The failure of ideology on all sides, and the now dysfunctional character of old political categories, is also increasingly apparent. If discerned truthfully, Christian faith will not be squeezed into predetermined positions of Left, Right, or Center—or whatever new ones may emerge in the changing world of secular politics. At its best, religious perspective and conviction will transform categories by bringing independent moral values and social conscience to the public square.

Sojourners pledges to try our  best to do just that. As the cover of this issue suggests, we believe that faith does make a difference. In our commentary and coverage, we hope to articulate and demonstrate that difference.

Why "Hearts & Minds"

The new name of this column, which will appear in this space each month, reflects what is most important to me -- a change in our hearts and minds.

I first hear the phrase when the American government promised to "wing the hearts and minds" of the people of Vietnam. They failed and, in their brutal attempts, lost the hearts and minds of many of their own children. We've now grown up and a new generation has come of age after us. Together we must embark on a new journey at a critical moment of American and world history.

The crisis we face cries out for our conversion, in the ways we see, feel, and think about our lives and the world. This column will explore ho we might open up our hearts and our minds.

Just a Word of Thanks

For 20-something years, our readers have always come through for Sojourners. You just did it again, and I want to say thank you. As we neared the end of 1993, Sojourners was facing a financial deficit of $65,000. The situation was serious and approaching critical. But while I was concerned, I wasn't deeply worried. Because this has happened before, I've learned to trust our friends.

I know our readers realize that we don't have much money around here and are never too far from the edge. You know we don't get large sums from advertising, foundations, or denominations. It's been the price of our independence and freedom to say and do what we believe is true and necessary.

But we have always had two things going for us. First, we've tried very hard to maintain a serious commitment to editorial integrity. And second, we've always been blessed with the faithful support of our readers. I've always been convinced that the two are closely related.

I was renewed in that conviction this week when our short-term deficit was literally wiped away by your response to my January appeal letter. We really can't thank you enough.

So many people I met on the road the last few weeks said things like, "Your letter sounded serious, but the work you described with the churches and young people in the streets is so important in stopping violence. I sent what I could to help." Lots of you did, and it made a real difference. Every contribution, large and small, was needed and greatly appreciated.

I just returned from the national meeting in Chicago that I mentioned in my January letter. Sojourners helped organize this gathering of church leaders and grassroots practitioners -- including black church leaders, Catholics, evangelicals, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, Pentecostals, economic development consultants, and civil rights activists -- to address the spiritual crisis of violence. People there expressed how they felt "summoned" to the table -- how this mission had chosen them, instead of the other way around.

We left the meeting with a national network and strategy in place. You will be hearing through the magazine about he plans being made and work already under way in several cities. Soon we will be offering help and resources for churches who are willing to become involved in their own communities.

In Chicago we prayed often throughout the two days. As we prayed, I gave thanks for all of you, because without your support we just couldn't be doing this. Thank you.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)