Politics and Religion in U.S. Government
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This has been a year in which politics and religion have often intersected, from citing a Supreme Court's nominee's religious beliefs as a qualification to questioning the wording on the White House Christmas card. The Reverend Jim Wallis has been handling some of these questions all year. Mr. Wallis is an evangelical minister and founder of the Christian ministry group Sojourners. He's also had a best-selling book for much of this year: "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It." The Reverend Wallis joins us in our studios.
Thanks very much for being with us.
Reverend JAMES WALLIS (Author, "God's Politics"): Hi, Scott.
SIMON: First, the question that's been going on this season: How important is it to you to have the words `Merry Christmas' be attached to the feelings of this season?
Rev. WALLIS: There has been a scandal this year at Christmas, but I don't think it's at the retail stores and malls, where the debate goes on about whether to say `Merry Christmas' or `Happy holidays.' But rather, it was in the budget just passed at the Congress that cuts services for poor people, cuts taxes for the wealthiest and increases deficits for all of us and our kids. There's Mary's prayer that we cite this time of year--her Magnificat--starts by saying, `My soul does magnify the Lord,' and goes on to say, `He has put down the mighty from their thrones, exalted those of low degree, filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away.' This budget reverses Mary's priorities. It fills the rich with good things and sends the hungry away empty. So I think that is a scandal.
SIMON: Let me ask you something, though, because, of course, you know, as Lincoln once noted, each side often cites God when they're trying to win an argument, and there are people of religious feeling who don't accept the idea that by cutting some benefits they're necessarily harming the poorest among us so much as they believe that hard choices have to be made, and they believe there are private forms of aid that will step in and that enterprise and ingenuity will actually improve the lives of poor people.
Rev. WALLIS: Well, that's all true, but you know, government has its responsibilities too, and they're not just cutting for the poor. They're cutting taxes for the wealthiest. And the bulk of that goes to those who make a million dollars a year or more.
SIMON: When does an issue in your mind cross from being something that's considered in the political realm and what becomes to you not just a moral issue but a religious one?
Rev. WALLIS: Well, first of all, it should be said that religion has no monopoly on morality. We need a new moral discourse on politics, and religious values, moral values, spiritual values have a part to play in politics. We shouldn't be afraid of those values. We can't make a religious argument that we should do something because it's religious. We can be motivated by our religious faith to have a conviction about something, and then we have to win the debate. We have to persuade our fellow citizens of what's best for what we all call the common good. So in that sense, religion must be disciplined by democracy, by diversity, by pluralism. There's nothing wrong with saying, `My conviction is motivated by my faith.'
SIMON: Let me get you to harken back to the title of your book. What in your mind is it that the right gets wrong and the left doesn't get?
Rev. WALLIS: Well, the right is very comfortable with the language of religion, values, faith, even God--so much so it sometimes feel like they think they own the territory, maybe own God. But then they narrow everything to one or two issues as if there are only two moral values issue: abortion, gay marriage. That's a fundamental distortion of a broader deeper politics of God. The left too often disdain religion, people of faith, even spirituality. Were would we be, I often tell them, if Martin King had kept his faith to himself or Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great rabbi, or Dorothy Day or Desmond Tutu? There is a way to be a person of faith and committed to the democracy and inclusion and diversity and pluralism.
SIMON: Well, in addition to the names you mentioned, though, let me bring up the one of John Brown. I'm going to make a linkage here that no doubt you've heard. To people who were opposed to abortion, that is not a small issue. It's as important as slavery, and they will often point out, `Look, people like John Brown, who took it within their hands to forcefully violate the law and oppose slavery we now see as having been morally correct,' even if their means could obviously be disputed. And that's the way they feel about abortion, that murder is being committed every day, and even though it's legal they believe that they must use their wherewithal, the human resources, to oppose it.
Rev. WALLIS: Well, I think the sacredness of life also is a very important issue, but I talk about a consistent ethic of life where all the places where life is threatened are important to us. Thirty thousand children die every day because of hunger and poverty; HIV kills about 9,000 a day. I think all those areas are important to be consistent with. But I think humility is important here also for people of faith--maybe especially for people of faith. Lincoln was clear: We don't always know what God thinks about something. It's why, I think, non-violence is also important. John Brown didn't quite get that right. Dr. King did. He acted sometimes to dissipate a law, but always in a non-violent fashion.
SIMON: I remember being in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina and being struck by an evangelical group that was feeding--I forget--thousands of people a day. It was instinctive; it was impressive. What have we learned over the past year about the quality of human compassion and character in the wake of those hurricanes?
Rev. WALLIS: We've learned that there's a great deal of compassion in this country--in fact, private giving, I think, from Katrina was greater than anytime in history. But I think also there's a disconnect between the compassion of the American people and the compassion of the government. We need a compassionate government. And I think now there's a new altar call in our time: How did we let Katrina wash away not just property and cities and lies, but our public denial of how many people are poor in this richest country in the world? The connection between race and poverty's still in America. Re-establishing our relationship with people who are left out is always a religious vocation.
SIMON: Thanks very much.
Rev. WALLIS: Great to be here.
SIMON: The Reverend Jim Wallis, who's founder of the Christian ministry group Sojourners, and author of "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It."
And it's 18 minutes past the hour.