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Evangelical Works To Mend Divide On Abortion

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Evangelical Works To Mend Divide On Abortion

Evangelical Works To Mend Divide On Abortion

Evangelical Works To Mend Divide On Abortion

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President Obama says he believes common ground can be achieved in the debate over abortion, and evangelical leader the Rev. Jim Wallis agrees. Wallis, who is pro-life, shares his belief that conservative faith communities can work through their disagreements and take a more effective stance on abortion.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now, it's time for our weekly Faith Matters conversation, where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. For eight years, conservative Christians had a friend in the White House. Former President Bush championed the causes that matter to evangelicals, including strong opposition to abortion rights. But now, President Obama says he wants to break through the divide that increasingly falls along not just theological but partisan lines. So, we decided to call upon an evangelical leader who has also said that it's time to have a new dialogue around these issues, Jim Wallis. He is president of the social-justice organization Sojourners, and author of "The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America." He joins us from Davos, Switzerland, where he is attending the World Economic Forum. Reverend Wallis, thank you so much for joining us.

Reverend JIM WALLIS (President and Executive Director, Sojourners; Author, "The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America"): Great to be back, Michel.

MARTIN: Last week, President Obama lifted a ban on U.S. government funding for foreign health organizations that offer abortions, or talk about or educate about abortions. The ban is known as the Mexico City Policy. The president said that even though he was lifting this ban - and as you certainly know, that this ban has been in and out of U.S. policy since 1984 - but he also said it's time to find common ground around this issue. How did you react to the president's decision to lift the ban, and also his saying that there needs to be further dialogue around this?

Rev. WALLIS: I was hoping the president, as his first act as president on abortion, that he would reiterate his stance, his common-ground position, of abortion reduction. This is a possibility of bringing the pro-life and pro-choice sides together in a new conversation, a new common ground and a new test, which is, what really reduces abortion? So, I was pleased that on the day of the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the March on Life, instead of doing the partisan tit-for-tat of putting the ban on and off, on and off, he said, this is my position: I'm for choice, but I want to reduce abortion as the common ground. I think that's the possibility, the hope, maybe, of a new pathway here on a very divisive issue.

MARTIN: And as you and I have just discussed, just for people who don't remember the history, that the Mexico City Policy was first introduced by President Reagan in Mexico City in 1984, and then it was reversed by the Clinton administration. Then it was reinstated by the Bush administration. Now, of course...

Rev. WALLIS: Always on this day.

MARTIN: But do people really care about something like that? I mean, Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council condemned the reversal. Members of Congress proposed legislation to reinstitute the ban on government funding for foreign organizations that offer abortion or provide information about abortion, and clearly, you know, they're in the minority in Congress at the moment, but they seem to be saying, no compromise here possible.

Rev. WALLIS: Well, the issue is whether we want to keep having symbolic positions that we fight back and forth on and the abortion rate never changes, or whether we want to actually see some results, actually reduce the number of abortions in this country. And I think for the first time, we have that opportunity. President Obama is for choice, but he also said in his campaign, in the Democratic platform, that he wants to make abortion reduction a goal of his administration, and he wants to support women who make the choice to carry their child to term with health-care support and economic support and adoption services.

So, I think, especially a new generation is not looking for the old, symbolic battles over the law, which are not going to change; those aren't going to change in the near term. So, let's instead try to find some common ground on abortion reduction. I think a new generation wants to go in that direction, so we can talk about other issues as well, because hunger and disease and HIV and Darfur and the Congo and climate change, these are all life issues, too. A new generation doesn't want the religious conversation to only be about abortion and gay marriage. That's the old conversation, but a new conversation is now emerging and pushing the old one aside.

MARTIN: What evidence do you have, though, that there are those who would even agree to work together on these issues? I'm thinking about, for example, a story we covered where a Planned Parenthood chapter in Indianapolis offered, around Christmas time, gift certificates for people to buy health services, and a lot of the pro-life advocates in the area went crazy. They were - forgive me if that's such a disrespectful use of term - but they were very angry about it, made a big public issue of it, and the folks at the organization said that abortion services are a fraction of the services we offer. Most of what we offer are checkups, basic checkups, for people who don't have access to any other health care. So, to me, that sort of looked at the fact that many people just say, well, this is a bottom-line issue for us, and we cannot compromise on this issue; we cannot give - no ground on this issue.

Rev. WALLIS: Well, Michel, there will be people on both sides of the spectrum, maybe the extremes, who will stay in the old, symbolic battle. But a number of us want to work together on issues like women's health. This will be tested now by new legislation that will be coming in the Congress. Congressmen Ryan, DeLauro, others pro-life and pro-choice, will be putting forth legislation that will concretely support low-income women. You support low-income women, you really do reduce abortion. So, instead of the old battle and culture war, a number of us want to see some results and some steps forward. And this is what I think may be possible now. I'm hoping for that, praying for that, and time will tell.

MARTIN: Again, I just want to press this question now. Is it perhaps there's just deeply held convictions on both sides, that engage both sides? For example, Pastor Rick Warren being asked to give the invocation at President Obama's inauguration, there are a number of people who are very upset about this. I don't know that it's fair to characterize them as extremists but rather, that the center of gravity of their perspective is one way, and that the center of gravity for the other side is another way. Do you see my - the distinction I'm making here?

Rev. WALLIS: Sure, but I'm pro-life, too, and I think there are a number of pro-life people who really are ready to embrace a very pragmatic solution of abortion reduction, because the alternative is just to dig in your heels and say, you know, as long as the law isn't on our side, we're not going to work with those who want to reduce abortions. It makes no sense. If you want to save unborn lives, if you want to support women's health, then supporting the administration here, which is for choice but wants to reduce abortions, is going to be a middle ground, a new center, if you will, that a lot of people on both sides are going to support - not everybody, but a lot of folks are going to support that.

MARTIN: How will you know if you have - you and those who agree with you, like President Obama does - that it's time to move off of the old orthodoxies or that - sort of the walls that have divided these groups around some of these deeply held values? So, just how will you know if you've succeeded in changing the conversation and actually making some progress on this thing?

Rev. WALLIS: First of all, from our religious point of view, left and right are political categories, not religious ones. So, I say, don't go left, don't go right; go deeper. What are the moral issues right beneath our political debates here at Davos or back in Washington? What are the moral choices and challenges that we have to make decisions about? And I think there's going to be kind of a new moral center, a radical center, not a mushy middle or a soulless centrism, but really, a new moral center where we're trying to find solutions. We've had the politics of fear and blame in Washington; it's time for a politics of solutions and, yes, a politics of hope.

MARTIN: Author and commentator Jim Wallis. His latest book is "The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America." He was kind enough to join us from the World Economic Forum at Davos, where he is one of the speakers. Reverend Jim, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Rev. WALLIS: Great to be with you again, Michel. Great show.

MARTIN: We just heard one perspective about faith and politics from Jim Wallis. Next week, we'll feature Richard Doerflinger. He is associate director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. He'll have another view. Please tune in.

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