Evangelical Leader Discusses Candidates

Jim Wallis, the editor and founder of Sojourners magazine, talks to host Andrea Seabrook about the evolving evangelical movement, Barack Obama's plans to continue and retool President Bush's office of faith-based initiatives, and what he hopes to see from the John McCain campaign.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

This election year defies conventional politics in a lot of ways. One of the most striking, a voting block that's been loyally Republican could be up for grabs - Evangelical Christians. Many Evangelicals have misgivings about John McCain.

In fact, most of the movement's leaders backed Mike Huckabee in the Republican primary. At the same time, Democrat Barack Obama is actively courting religious voters and talking freely about his faith. Last week, Obama said he would keep the White House office of faith-based initiatives and expand it. That sometimes controversial program was a pillar of President Bush's first term.

Jim Wallis was involved in that program early on. He's an Evangelical Christian preacher, but he's not a social conservative. Thanks for coming into our studio.

Mr. JIM WALLIS (Preacher): Great to be here, Andrea.

SEABROOK: Let's be clear from the beginning here for our listeners. You are not like most other Evangelical Christians who comment regularly on politics.

Mr. WALLIS: Well I would say that more and more Evangelicals are talking about the broader deeper agenda that has concerned me for a long time. There's no longer a focus on just two issues: abortion and gay marriage. Poverty is now an Evangelical issue. HIV/AIDS, Darfur, climate change, Iraq. And the changing of the agenda, particularly the emergence of a new generation of Evangelicals really will change the whole character of the conversation this year.

SEABROOK: Jim Wallis, have you endorsed a candidate?

Mr. WALLIS: No, I haven't endorsed - you know Martin Luther King, Jr. helps me on this. He never endorsed a candidate, but he always asked them to endorse the agenda of a movement. So we're trying to build a movement. We're asking both candidates to commit to cutting poverty in half in ten years, and supporting the millennium development goals on global poverty.

These are things we want them to do. And so we're pushing the candidates on these questions. I've known Barack Obama for 10 years. I would say we're friends, but we haven't - I haven't endorsed. And I think, you know, Lyndon Johnson wasn't a civil rights leader until Martin King and Rosa Parks made him one.

So I think no matter who wins the election, they won't be able to change the big things until there are social movements pushing and pressing from the outside.

SEABROOK: You wrote in your blog this week about Barack Obama's plan to continue partnerships between government and religious institutions. You sounded pleased.

Mr. WALLIS: Well, Barack Obama, one of the pundits said this is part of his outreach to Evangelicals. What they don't understand is that he was a community organizer on the south side of Chicago working with congregations. He could see the impact of the role of churches and synagogues and mosques in the community. And so he wants to make that even more powerful.

And I was pleased it wasn't this sort of - sometimes the Democratic habit of going secular. And Bush's faith-based initiative was disappointing so the Democrat might have said we're going to get rid of that and just say all we need's good public policy. You need a partnership. Civil society has to be involved.

SEABROOK: But one of your criticisms of President Bush's office of faith-based initiatives was that it ended up supporting organizations that mostly agreed with him politically. Why would you expect a President Obama's office of faith-based programs to do any different?

Mr. WALLIS: Well, that'd be a mistake. And if that happens, he needs to be held accountable by many of us who will be on the outside. But this shouldn't be politicized. Fighting poverty should be a non-partisan issue and a bipartisan cause. We need people on both sides of the aisle here, we really do.

SEABROOK: We've talked a lot about Barack Obama in this conversation, let's talk about the Republicans right now. So have you gotten any indication from John McCain or his campaign that he will pursue partnerships with religious institutions as well?

Mr. WALLIS: Well, John McCain hasn't spoken, I don't think, on this issue yet. I am hoping that he will. Bill Clinton, Al Gore and George Bush have all been for this. Now, Barack Obama is for it too. There's no reason why John McCain shouldn't also be in favor of a good positive faith-based initiative.

SEABROOK: Conservative Evangelical leaders met in Denver last week to try to rally around the candidacy of John McCain. The group sent him a letter urging him to choose Mike Huckabee, himself a Southern Baptist minister - to choose him as McCain's running mate. Would you happy to see a minister in the vice president's office?

Mr. WALLIS: Well, Ted Strickland, who I had breakfast with a few weeks ago...

SEABROOK: He's the...

Mr. WALLIS: Governor of Ohio, is a former minister. And I don't see him imposing his method of his faith on the people of Ohio. Somebody's who's been a minister shouldn't be, you know, disallowed to become an elected official. I like a lot of things about Mike Huckabee. I'm actually going to talk to him next week because we talked to both sides.

SEABROOK: We meaning your group, the Sojourners and Call to Renewal.

Mr. WALLIS: I'm talking regularly to Republicans and Democrats about how to focus the nation's attention on those who are poor. And this is for me a gospel agenda, but it also can bring political leaders together from both sides of the aisle.

SEABROOK: Jim Wallis is an Evangelical pastor and head of the social justice group Sojourners. Thanks very much.

Mr. WALLIS: Thank you, good to be here.

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