The Rev. Jim Wallis offers a faith-based perspective on the fight for social justice — explaining how religion, rescued from the deadly grip of the Christian right, can help counter the hatred and fear generated by social media.
Politics has become our new religion. It’s the one thing now that gives many people a tribal connection and a sense of belonging. It doesn’t seem to matter how objectively good or bad the ideas or the outcomes may be. Belonging to something larger than themselves, forging a strong connection with like-minded individuals, makes people feel safer. This is a role that used to be played by community or family or faith — before it was co-opted by the toxic mix of politics and religion known as the Christian right. The result is a nation of anger, anxiety, and despair.
My guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, the Rev. Jim Wallis, has another approach to the value of religion. He is the founder and longtime editor of Sojourners — a print and online publication devoted to articulating the call to Christian social justice. He’s now taking up a new role at Georgetown University as the inaugural chair in Faith and Justice, at the McCourt School of Public Policy — a new center dedicated to the “intersection of faith, public life, and the common good.”
Wallis talks of the existential problems we face that have given rise to fear, hatred, and violence. At a time when the future of our democracy is at stake, he reminds us that the real “big lie” is racism and Christian white supremacy.
He argues that, throughout history, faith communities have been an animating core for social change. He believes that the current crises of dysfunctional democratic institutions and an inequitable justice system are essentially tests of faith, and that, seen in this light, they have the power to change hearts and minds. We are in real trouble, he says, if our future discourse only comes down to a battle between Fox News and MSNBC.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Without comparing one historical era to another, suffice it to say that we live in a nation of anger, despair, and at best, anxiety. Our ideological, economic, and cultural divisions have infected every fiber of the public square. And all of this is happening amidst loss of faith in our once valued institutions both public and private. A loss of faith in facts and truth, and in the fundamental founding principles of self-governance, and a sense of fairness and selflessness.
Into this miasma, politics has become our new religion. It’s the one thing that now gives us a tribal connection and a sense of belonging. It doesn’t matter how objectively good or bad the ideas or the outcomes may be. It is after all the same reason people join gangs and cults. To belong, to be part of something that connects them to others. A role that used to be played by community, family, and faith.
My guest Jim Wallis has devoted his life to looking at this intersection of faith, public life, and the common good. For almost 50 years, as the founder of the magazine and organization Sojourners. And now by taking up a full-time post at Georgetown University, as the inaugural Chair in Faith and Justice at the McCourt School of Public Policy. It is my pleasure to welcome the Reverend Jim Wallis, here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Jim, thanks so much for joining us.
Jim Wallis: It’s great to be back. Nice to talk to you again.
Jeff: Well, it’s great to talk to you again, it’s been way too long. Years ago when we talked, you talked a lot about and wrote about how religion was being co-opted really by the evangelical movement. And it was being co-opted by right-wing politics, in particular, and from some fundamental Christian ideas of social justice. As we look at the past 25 years or so, in some ways, it’s gotten so much worse. And certainly, it jumped the shark entirely with respect to the Trump years. Talk a little bit about the 30,000-foot view of what you’ve seen happening over these years.
Jim: Well, I would frame that to say that the evangelical world from which I come, was taken over by political operatives. It was taken over by politicians, taken over by ideological forces in the Republican Party. So it’s been a political takeover of the evangelical world. Evangelical didn’t always mean what it’s now associated with. It’s very — in a very narrow private faith, but it’s politically been just co-opted, captured by the political right. But I think we’re in this deep crisis now that we need to bring theology and spirituality to bear on. This new position in Georgetown, which is a great blessing for me, it’s inaugural Chair of Faith and Justice. The two words that mean most in my life, faith and justice. So now I’m the chair of both of those words, which I love. But also, Georgetown University Center on Faith and Justice.
Picking up on those words, what’s the connection? I was in a meeting in Georgetown last week with somebody who’s very interested in social media, who wants to create an alternative to Facebook and all the rest. And he made an interesting point. He said, “I’ve been married for 40 years, and my wife and I have learned what triggers each other and not to do that, not to trigger each other.” Afterwards I talked to him and said, “Well, picking up on your story about you and your wife, what social media does, it triggers us. It triggers us deliberately, purposely, and for-profit it triggers us.” That’s what Facebook does and they all do.
And basically, I would say it this way. Social media now is triggering our worst demons in this country and not triggering our better angels. And the battle is between now our worst demons and our better angels. And social media, Facebook, and the rest have a profit algorithm, and all they’re interested in is making money. And they do so by triggering hatred and fear. And historically, fear leads to hatred, leads to violence. So we’re in a situation now where democracy is literally at stake. And until we can find really a theology and spirituality for democracy, we’re in some trouble here, because our worst demons —
Trump didn’t start any of this. He exacerbated it. He mobilized it. He used it for his own benefit. But now there is an engaged, triggered movement in this country that’s growing. I always say, the big lie that the election was stolen, there’s a bigger lie beneath that. The bigger lie beneath the big lie of the stolen election is racism, is white nationalism, is white Christian nationalism. That’s the bigger lie. White Supremacy is a lie. The nation was founded on that. I wrote a book called America’s Original Sin. Isn’t just a political issue, it’s a sin. It’s a sin against God. Sin against what the bible says about us all being made in the image of God. It’s a sin.
And repentance is going to be more than just feeling bad and guilty. The word repentance in our tradition means turning around and going in a different direction. So my course, I teach at Georgetown, I love it every week with these university students, it’s called race, faith, and politics. And I put the three together, race, faith, and politics. Students have never seen those three put together before, but that’s what we would do in the class every week. And so there’s a spirituality for social change, and every movement in history has had to fight.
Jeff: In this era of technology and social media, is the only way to create a countervailing force to find a countervailing force that appeals to people’s emotions? Because when we look at what social media does, what Facebook does, the kind of hate speech that you’re talking about, that what it appeals to, what it triggers is an emotional response. It’s the reason more people will go see a horror movie than a documentary, to put it bluntly. So that any countervailing force has to find a way to make not just an intellectual and spiritual appeal, but an emotional appeal in some respects.
Jim: Well, I would say, this is where the role of faith comes in. Because faith does, can, has, motivated us in our lives. And every major social movement in our country’s history. From abolition of slavery to women suffrage to civil rights, of course, in Black churches. Every single one of those has had faith communities as an animating core. Now, it’s also true that faith has been manipulated, has been captured. As in the religious right, as I’ve said before, has been taken over. So people use faith, try to use and abuse and distort faith, for their own purposes. Emotion, yes, I think that’s true, but there’s a deeper thing here about faith. And so I often say, “Don’t go left, don’t go right, go deeper.” And we won’t get through all this if we don’t go deeper. This is just a confrontation between Fox and MSNBC. We’re in trouble.
So how do we go deeper? And I think deeper to emotion perhaps, but I’m saying deeper to faith. How do we engage faith? How do we make people understand that the threat to democracy is a test politically? It’s also a test of faith. How do we see democracy as it comes right out of our faith? First book of the Bible, Genesis 1:26. It says, “God says, ’Let us make them in our own image after our own likeness.’” And so God made us all beings in God’s image and after God’s likeness. And that’s the foundation of democracy.
Jeff: Where does a sense of social justice fit into this equation then?
Jim: Well, it’s just all over the bible. I would say the bible says. It’s all over the bible. In fact, the word righteousness in the Old Testament, Hebrew Scriptures is synonymous with the Hebrew word for justice. And Jesus said at his opening talk, his inaugural address, what I call his Nazareth manifesto, at the little town of Nazareth. He said in announcing his vocation, he said, quoting Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me. And has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to set liberty to those who are oppressed,” and so on. And interesting, the word good news there, in the Greek is evangel, from which we got the word evangelism and evangelical.
So the first use of that term, people say, “What does it mean to be an evangelical?” Well, Jesus said that at the outset is to bring good news to the poor. So any gospel that isn’t good news to poor people from the text, I would say is not the gospel of Jesus Christ, period. So this is core to everything in the Bible, about the whole person, the gospel of changing lives and changing nations and changing our communities and the world around us. So a holistic gospel changes our lives so that we can be enlisted to change the world around us.
Jeff: You talk about the importance of faith and going deeper into that faith as a countervailing force to these forces that are at play today. To what extent are faith organizations and institutions a part of that?
Jim: Well, my job, my vocation at Georgetown is to answer that question by saying, to make a core, to make that core our vocation. For example, there are bills coming up right now in Congress. We’re having a call this afternoon, the circle of protection. That’s comprised of groups across the Christian family spectrum. The Catholic bishops are part of it, Catholic Charities, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the National Council of Churches, all the major denominations. Salvation Army, Black churches, Hispanic churches, Asian-American churches. The whole family is gathering today to talk about these bills.
One is about physical infrastructure, roads, and bridges. The other is about human infrastructure, families and the need for childcare and family leave, and a Child Tax Credit, CTC, that will cut child poverty literally in half. And so this has united us across all of our — as I named those organizations, these are not left-wing organizations, this is not some kind of a liberal wishlist. The Salvation Army and the National Association of Evangelicals came out with an op-ed in The Hill, a publication here in Washington, in favor of strongly supporting the Child Tax Credit because this changes the lives of poor families. More than anything in my lifetime, this is unprecedented, it’s generational, it’s transformational. So that unites us.
So how do we get the attention? We’ve got probably nine heads of communion churches who have made personal videos about these bills and how critical it is to pass them. This isn’t left or right. This is about what our obligation is to those who are poor and oppressed right out of the Bible. So my hope is that we can — there has been in the last week, I hear, not sure when this podcast will air, but this is going to be timely for the next four to six weeks. We’re going to be facing these bills. And I want there to be a faith factor, I guess. So I’m saying a faith factor, not just a political factor in these bills.
This is about trillions of dollars in numbers that we can’t even comprehend, nor is it about just polarization, Democrat, Republican, or even moderates versus progressives. That’s all the media talks about, either numbers or polarization. It’s about needs, needs that parents have for safe and reliable, affordable childcare for them to go to work and be good parents. And it’s about the need for making these funds available to our poor. The Child Tax Credit just changes lives. It means affordable housing. It means healthcare, which health and healing are biblical values. It means healthcare being extended to people who desperately need it now.
So these bills are about the human family infrastructure of the nation. And so I think to your question, this really can and should unite us across all of our theological boundaries.
Jeff: One of the things that we’ve seen is it has become increasingly more difficult to separate policy from politics, separate good ideas, good legislation. Needs as you say, from the toxic stew of our politics today. Why do you think this is a way in? That through faith and through the kinds of organizations that you talked about, that this is a way into perhaps breaking that log jam?
Jim: Well, that’s my hope and prayer, because all these organizations I just named in our circle of protection, our constituencies vote differently across the political spectrum. But we’re saying that 90 percent of the members of Congress in the Senate say they’re Christian, 90 percent. So in these bills, which will impact the poor and vulnerable more than anything in years, if we don’t get behind that, if we don’t support that, I would call that a Christian failure, not just a political failure, but a Christian failure. Because to support those whom Jesus called the least of these.
Now, my conversion text that brought me back to my faith was Matthew 25. I called it the “it was me” text. Jesus says, “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was naked, I was sick, I was a stranger, I was in prison and you weren’t there for me. You didn’t show up.” And they say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and thirsty and naked and a stranger and sick and in prison? We didn’t know it was you. Had we known it was you, we would have reformed the Social Action Committee or something in our church.” He says, “Well, as you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me.”
That’s very powerful, very direct. It brought me back to Christ after being kicked out of my own church as a teenager, over the issue of racism. It brought me back to Christ. And so how we treat the poorest and most vulnerable is how we treat Christ himself. That’s a pretty big deal. So my hope is that that text can bring us back into a relationship with the people who are suffering the most in society. And that wouldn’t be an ideological commitment, but a discipleship commitment, if you will. And it’s also interfaith. We’re working with Jewish rabbis and imams and people from no faith tradition at all, but who feel compelled by moral conscience.
And issues like voting rights, which is coming up soon after, these bills now in the House and Senate, you’ve got efforts to literally prevent people of color or making it harder for people of color to vote. And in many of these new laws coming up, more than 45 states have these new laws, literally giving legislatures the power to overturn the results of local elections they don’t like. Now, this is being done by a political party. A Republican Party is denying the results of the last election, which all of the evidence shows that the election was fair, wasn’t stolen, but the next two elections are planned to be stolen.
Now, this isn’t just a political issue, this is a faith issue for us. It’s an imago Dei, image of God issue. To deny voting rights to people because of their skin color, which is what is indeed going on here, or they’re young or older, it’s an assault on the image of God. It’s no less an assault on the image of God, it’s not a political issue or Democrat, Republican who always will fight for their own self-interest, that’s true. But this for us is an imago Dei issue. So the more we can help people see their faith in these issues, the more we’ll have the kind of pressure and hopefully the movements that we so desperately need in this country.
Jeff: It’s certainly good to be optimistic and to hope that this is a way through some of the crises that we face today that we talked about at the outset. But what if it goes the other way, if it is not successful, what does that mean for the faith efforts in this country first of all?
Jim: Well, we face a real challenge and a real enemy to the gospel in what I’m going to call white Christian nationalism. This notion of a white Christian nation, this notion of the assumption of whiteness that we’re facing just demographically right now. Changes in the country that by 2040 or so, will no longer be a white majority nation. That’s already true in many places around the country. But as a nation, we’ll be a nation of a majority of minorities. That’s a fundamental shift in our identity, our population. And to put it quite simply, there are people whose strategy now is, and I can say in a sentence, to prevent changing demography from changing our democracy.
I’ll say it again: It’s a strategy to prevent our changing demography — which people can change that, it’s happening — prevent that from changing our democracy, by making it harder for people of color, for immigrants. It was a court case in North Carolina where voter suppression laws were on trial. And the court’s ruling was these new voter restrictions, the court’s language said are surgically aimed at Black voters, surgically aimed at Black voters to keep them from voting. Now, that’s not just a political problem. That’s a sin, an assault on the image of God and Black voters. Pulling Black Christian voters.
Until we see these as faith issues, we’re just going to be polarized politically about them. And I want to transcend to politics or go deeper than the politics and try and change our hearts and minds. Now if that doesn’t happen. As your question asks, we’ll be finally overwhelmed and overrun by political polarization. And people will care more about what your politics are in your church than what your faith says. And they won’t want people who have different political views and there’ll be more and more segregated, polarized churches where white Christians want to stay white Christians.
And the problem with that phrase, white Christians or white evangelicals, is that the operative word in the phrase is not Christian or evangelical. It’s white. White is the operative word. That’s the problem. So that’s what we’re up against here. That’s what’s at stake in this country historically right now. And where are we going to land on this? Where are we going to come down? Where are particularly white Christians going to come down on these questions? Because I’ll tell you, if this battle over voting rights, which we’re about to enter into very deeply in these next five years. This battle over voting rights if white Christians don’t come down with, on the side of, alongside of, in support of Black Christians and their voting rights.
If white Christians don’t come down on the side of voting rights for Black Christians and Black citizens, two things will happen. One is we will lose our relationship with Black churches and Black Christians. And Black pastors tell me now all the time. If white pastors and Christians don’t come down on the side of voting rights for all Americans, if they don’t come down on that side, we’re not going to relate to them anymore. I hear that all the time. We’re not going to relate with them anymore on anything. So you’d lose the relationship with Black churches and brown churches, Spanish churches.
Secondly, you’re going to lose a whole generation of young people. A whole generation will say, “If white Christians show themselves to be more white than Christian and are not even going to support voting rights for Black people, I’m done with the church. I’m done and I’m gone.” We’re going to lose a whole generation of young people. But young people, what they’re looking for is moral courage. And people will need to do the right thing and stand up against their own tribe, their own white tribe and defend the voting rights of all God’s children. A whole lot is at stake here. The integrity of the church, the integrity of the gospel, and our relationship to a whole generation that are watching us very carefully.
Jeff: We’ve been talking about this with respect to the US, but talk about it in a global sense because certainly some of these same issues are taking place around the world. Democracy is not on the march. In fact, the opposite is true. Talk a little bit about how you see it in a global perspective.
Jim: It’s interesting, the Body of Christ, the global church to your question, the Body of Christ globally is the most racially diverse community on the planet. The Body of Christ around the world is the most racially diverse human community on the planet. That’s who we are, and that’s a wonderful thing, but we’re stuck in this American racialized tribal Christianity, which is more white than Christian. But around the world, the Body of Christ is resonant, particularly in the global south where our numbers are much greater now than in Europe or North America.
Christianity is growing in the south. It’s dying in the north, both in Europe and in the US. It’s on the decline. All of our churches are in decline except for immigration, except for immigrants joining our churches, are in decline. So this goes right back to me, the text in Galatians 3:28, “In Christ, there is no Jewish, Gentile, slave or free, male or female, we are all one in Christ Jesus.” That’s an amazing text. And what I’ve learned is that text was used at all the baptisms of the early Christians for 300 years. They’d use that baptismal text. And baptism is where we take our faith public. That’s what baptism is.
And so in effect, you had early Christians saying to the world of the public, “Okay, here we are, this little community, and we’re trying to overcome those divisions.” And if you look at what those divisions are, they’re race and class and gender. That’s what Galatians 3:28 is about, about race and class and gender. The three most human divisions are divisive and violent. And were trying to overcome those divisions because of Christ who’s bringing us all together. They were in effect saying to the public around them, here’s what we do. We overcome these divisions. That’s core to who we’re about.
So if you don’t want to be a part of the community overcoming those divisions, you better go somewhere else. Don’t join us. If you want to perpetuate these divisions, you should go somewhere else because that’s not what we do. That’s an amazing thing they were saying. Imagine if the churches were saying that today in America. We are overcoming these divisions. If you want a tribal religion, you better go somewhere else. That’s not what we’re known for. And I’ve just learned recently to my astonishment, that that Galatians text was an early creed in the Christian Church, in Christ, no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. It was a creed.
And maybe from what I’m learning in my checking out these scholars, one of the earliest creeds of the Christian faith. That we are overcoming the divisions of the world. That’s an amazing thing. And that’s theology, that’s no politics. That’s not left-leaning or right-leaning, it’s theology. I want to go back to theology here, I want to go back to the Bible, go back to what our spirituality teaches us.
Jeff: And finally, talk about how you want to do this within the context of this new center at Georgetown that you are the inaugural Chair of?
Jim: Well, we’re just getting set up. It’s at Georgetown, it’s called the chair, it’s at the McCourt School of Public Policy, which is the only, I’m told, the only Chair of Faith in anything in any policy school in the country. But it’s also a center, it’s called the Center on Faith and Justice at Georgetown University. There’s a website, email@example.com. And the website’s there, and we’re just staffing right now. We’re opening this up. We’re going to have faith and justice forums that will be live-streamed and broadcast live. I’ve got a podcast that people can check out called The Soul of the Nation. That will be based there. It’s already ongoing with conversations with very interesting people who can help us figure out that relationship between faith and justice.
This is a center and a chair, and we’re developing a list of people. And my email, it’s just firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s a typical university, the university of georgetown.edu. That’s how to reach us, and websites up there, faithandjusticegeorgetown.edu. We’re reaching out to lots of people, lots of people reaching out to us actually wanting to collaborate. We’re not one faith-based organization like Sojourners. I’m still very supportive of Sojourners completely, but now I’ve got a new venue, a new forum. It’s an academic institution, very credible. And we’re trying to put faith and justice in the action from our new center at Georgetown.
Jeff: Jim Wallis, I thank you so much for spending time with us today.
Jim: Oh, my pleasure.
Jeff: Thank you. Appreciate it.
Jim: Bless you all. Take care.
Jeff: And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.