The Common Good

The Tavis Smiley Show - TV

Source: PBS
Date: February 8, 2008

Jim Wallis

original airdate February 8, 2008

A commentator on ethics and public life, Jim Wallis spent his student years in the civil rights and antiwar movements and founded Sojourners magazine as a Christian commitment to social justice. In '95, 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 offers regular commentary and analysis for radio and TV, and his columns appear in various major newspapers.

Tavis: Jim Wallis is the editor-in-chief of "Sojourners" Magazine and a best-selling author whose previous books include "The New York Times" bestsellers, "God's Politics." His latest book is called "The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith in Politics in a Post-Religious Right America." Jim Wallis, it's always good to see you, man.

Jim Wallis: A blessing, my friend.

Tavis: Glad to have you here. Let me start with a couple quick questions about the news of the week. I'm just asking, were you surprised with that split decision earlier this week?

Wallis: Well, change won this election already. The results are in. Change won and now they're competing to see who is going to be the agent of change. So that's a good sign because change is already in the air and I'm not surprised. It's going to be a tough race, a long one, but the terms of the election are not clear. People want a different direction.

Tavis: Speaking of faith in politics, this is still talked about on the internet. You had a major conference last year on faith and you are doing for those on the left what those on the right have been doing for some time, which is encouraging those in politics to be open about their faith.

So Hillary shows up, gives a speech. Barack Obama shows up and gives a speech. With all due respect, his speech is still being talked about that he offered at the "Sojourners" convention. Take me back right quick and tell me about both of their speeches and why his has resonated so much even these many months later.

Wallis: Well, he gave a talk about how religion and public life should connect. It was really almost a public theologian. He really understood that - you know, Dr. King did this with a bible in one hand and Constitution in the other hand. There are bad ways to do this and better ways. How do you bring faith in that respects the diversity, the pluralism and democracy of our society? He got that really well.

But he said, "You can't leave it out because where would we be without...," and the book talks about these great awakenings where, like the civil rights movement led by the Black churches. It wasn't just a political movement. It was led by Black churches. And we've had these great awakenings when faith comes alive and changes big things like the abolition of slavery and child labor law reform, women suffrage, of course, civil rights.

He invoked that history and he said, "We don't want to keep religion out, but it's got to participate in a democratic way." I thought after I introduced him and said afterwards, "This is the best speech on this topic," probably most important since Kennedy's speech in Houston decades ago.

Tavis: Give me the quick crib notes on Hillary's speech at that gathering.

Wallis: Well, she's a Methodist, you know, kid who got urban plunge in Chicago, her youth minister. She's a Methodist lay person and she talked about how her Methodism, her Christian faith, her concern about children, about health care, so she won people over with her authenticity. So they're both people of faith, authentic, comfortable, "Time" calls the leveling of the praying field (laugh), where Democrats now speak about their faith as Republicans have for a long time.

Tavis: I want to jump to the book here in just a second. Give me your quick take, though, on faith in politics where McCain and Huckabee are concerned, maybe even Romney because I think the postmortem on him has something to do with his faith. So give me your quick notes on McCain, Huckabee and Romney on faith in politics.

Wallis: Well, McCain, this is not as comfortable a topic. He's kind of looking at his watch in church. He's not as comfortable here. Huckabee is an Evangelical, but it's interesting. Even Huckabee talks about a wider agenda than just abortion and gay marriage. He talks about the environment and about poverty, so he's kind of an economic populist.

Tavis: But he still played best down south in that Bible Belt.

Wallis: He did, but it shows that even in the Bible Belt, people now want a wider agenda. The big issue here is the changing agenda of the faith community. There aren't just two moral value issues now. Now it's the moral scandal of poverty, the degradation of the environment, climate change, HIV-AIDS, Darfur, human rights and the exclusive use of war in fighting evil. These are now religious agenda items, so that's a big change from last time when the perception was so split.

Tavis: Let me just be direct and frank about this. To what extent do you think Romney's Mormonism has hurt him?

Wallis: You know, it should be a factor. I was in Michigan. His father was my governor when I was a kid. Never came up back then. There shouldn't be a religious litmus test for politics. We should be worried about not their theology or doctrine, but their moral compass. You know, what shapes their values, their leadership, their policy direction? That's the key thing now. So whether Romney is reliable in his moral compass, I think, is more the issue than his Mormon faith.

Tavis: You argue here, Jim Wallis, in "The Great Awakening" that being a Christian is itself being political.

Wallis: Well, you know, Christians have this. We've got an image problem, to be sure. We've got this image sometimes being narrow, partisan, divisive and judgmental. But the good news is, a new generation is applying their faith to all these wider questions now and they're going to be defined by compassion and social justice, more open, more welcoming, and the goods news as the dominance of the religious right (laugh) over our politics and our religion is finally finished.

They're still there; but their monologue is over and now it's new dialog. And now poverty is on the agenda and the environment; God's creation, we call it. What happens in Darfur. Racial justice is on the agenda, as it should be, as a religious matter. And our foreign policy, a disastrous foreign policy which has tainted our image all over the world. So I think the agenda is now wider and deeper.

That's going to impact the election, but beyond the election, because no matter who are favorite candidate is, when they win, they won't be able to change the big issues unless and until there are social movements pushing from the outside. Lyndon Johnson, as you know, wasn't a civil rights leader until Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks made him one. So politics is broken. Most of us feel it. When that happens, social movements rise up to change politics and the best ones always have spiritual foundations. That's what this book is about.

Tavis: Do you think that either McCain or Huckabee are open to the notion of getting caught up in a social movement?

Wallis: Well, I think politicians in D.C. - I use a metaphor in the book there - they're people who lick their finger, put it up in the air. Replacing one wet-fingered politician with another won't do it by itself. King knew that. You've got to, what I call, change the wind, change the wind. So if we can change the wind, it'll blow through that place and it'll affect whoever's there. But I think, you know, they're going to have to pay attention to what's happening on the ground.

I was at the State of the Union and, first time ever, I was in the balcony watching the pageantry down below with Barack and Hillary shaking hands, all that was going on (laugh) and they're all scurrying around -

Tavis: - not (laugh).

Wallis: Yeah, and I know a lot of these folks and I know of them all, but sometimes I think they think they're the center of things. History shows that things change more from grassroots movements, bottom up. Then that wind blows through, their finger is in the air, they feel it and they change. So I think, you know, it's time to build social movements.

I talk in the book about how it's happened before, powerful things, things that no one could imagine. It happened before. It could happen again. It's already happening. A new generation of pastors and students and social entrepreneurs and activists, but religion has no monopoly on morality. So it's never just people of faith. Every major social movement didn't succeed without people of faith being vitally involved, but it's never just them.

So there's a whole new crowd now called the spiritual, but not religious. I meet them all the time. They're big on the West Coast (laugh), but they're a part of this too. So I'm excited and very hopeful these days.

Tavis: I've gone through the book, so I know the argument. But for those who haven't had a chance to read it as yet, let me give you a chance to unpack this. How do you argue that America is on the precipice of another great awakening when I could conversely argue with you that Barack Obama's success this week notwithstanding, Hillary's success notwithstanding, I said on NBC the other night, on Tuesday in fact, that on that day, history and herstory were made. They both made history that day.

Wallis: That's right.

Tavis: With a woman or an African American as the candidate, I can almost guarantee you that we're going to have to wrestle very shortly here with the dark side, the night side, the underside of America because anybody who thinks McCain might not do it, Huckabee as the nominee might not do it, but a lot of other people are going to get involved in reminding us that she is a woman if she's the nominee, and he's Black if he's the nominee. We're going to have to wrestle with America's night side, with America's dark side. Having said all that, Jim Wallis is trying to convince me that we're on the precipice of a great awakening. It doesn't sound like it, Jim.

Wallis: Well, you know, I say in the book that white racism is America's original sin and we've yet to repent of that sin. It poisons the body politic. We got demons. You're exactly right. We've got some deep demons on race and gender and politics appeals to our better angels or are worst ones. I think we could go either way here, but I think there's a chance to go now in a different direction. A new generation is begging, pleading, for something new and we'll see.

I think the time has come to test and see whether this country is ready for something different and something new, but it won't really happen just from the top. It's going to be a bottom up movement, but it's got to wrestle with those demons. The demons are real and they've got to exorcised. They've got to exorcised. This nation in 2050, most Americans will trace their history to Africa, Asia or Latin America.

White Americans are not ready for their minority status. You know, they're going to have to be held by the hand and pastored a bit to move into a new America, but I think it's time to deal with that, to finally repent of our original sin and talk about, well, for me, this is a gospel issue. It's why I got kicked out of my little white church over this, as you and I talked about, a long time ago.

Tavis: What, twelve or thirteen years -

Wallis: - yeah, I was fourteen years old.

Tavis: Fourteen years old, you got kicked out of the church for what?

Wallis: Over the issue of race. They said, "Christianity has nothing to do with racism. That's political. Our faith is personal." That's the night that I left in my head and my heart and came back years later after coming back to Jesus. The religious right's being replaced by Jesus now and that's progress. But I think it's time to talk about God being personal, but never private.

The privatizing of faith has led to its being discredited, so how do we talk about a public God who cares about the world and I think at the center of this is the passage, "In Christ, there is no male or female, no Jew or Gentle, the bond are free." That's race, class and gender and the book talks about those three divisive, oppressive factors of the human condition and religion is meant to overcome them, not be a wedge to divide, but a bridge to bring us together.

Tavis: This book cannot be more timely, but I suspect Jim Wallis knew that (laugh), that we'd be in this place this year potentially with this race. There is a foreword to this book by Jimmy Carter, former president, of course. The new book from Jim Wallis is called "The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith in Politics in a Post-Religious Right America," perennial "New York Times" bestseller. Jim Wallis, good to see you.

Wallis: Keep the faith, my friend.

Tavis: Keep the faith, back at you.