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Partisanship, gay marriage, and the common good: An interview with Jim Wallis

Jim Wallis has released a new book on the common good. Here he shares his ideas and why he's changed his mind on gay marriage.

Jim Wallis, a powerful evangelical, says he now supports gay marriage.
Jim Wallis, a powerful evangelical, says he now supports gay marriage.

Jim Wallis, a powerful evangelical, is an advocate for the common good. He says he now supports gay marriage. Photo courtesy Moral Minority (

Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, has been named by Newsweek as one of the leading “faces of Christian politics.” But he’s also considered by some to only be a leader of the “Christian left.” I’ve been inspired by Wallis on many issues and particularly the way he always seems to keep his cool, but I’ve also found myself critical of some of his more partisan behavior.

In my book A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars, I said of Wallis:

An ordained minister in the American Baptist Church, you won’t find him behind a pulpit on Sunday mornings. He gave the Democratic weekly radio address after the 2006 midterm elections, and has written several books including, God’s Politics. Wallis has been accused of affixing Bible verses to Democratic talking points and is “an adviser to Democrats.” In the 2004 Presidential election year, Wallis’ magazine Sojourners published full page ads in publications including The New York Times that read, “God is not Republican . . . or Democrat.” But the message seemed to be “God is probably a Democrat.”

His new book, On God’s Side, attempts to find common ground between the left and right, and I found it to be helpful in thinking through many issues. Yet I still wanted clarity on some things he asserts and the question I raised in my own book, so I decided to take some time to dialogue with him. Here we talk about partisanship, immigration, gay marriage, and the common good.

JM: The subtitle of your new book is “What religion forgets and politics hasn’t learned about serving the common good.” The last phrase—“the common good”—is one that is increasingly being used by Christian leaders. How do you define it?

JW: Well, I found this wonderful quotation from John Chrysostom who was an early church father. He said, “This is the rule of the most perfect Christianity. It’s most exact definition, it’s highest point, namely the seeking of the common good. For nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.” John was born in 347, so this is way back historically. It’s language that has had some contemporary use, but it is language that goes back for centuries. It’s an ancient idea whose time has finally come.

For Christians, the foundation for it is when Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. He was asked questions by lawyers—I think they were probably Washington lawyers—about who is our neighbor. His answers are the spiritual foundation for the common good. It’s to love your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. Literally, that means it’s okay for me to love my 14-year-old and 9-year-old sons as much as I do, but if I take Jesus’ words seriously, I have to love others’ kids as much as I love my own. That’s a very transformational ethic.

What the common good is isn’t always clear, but the point is that this is the right question, this is the right framework. It’s a prerequisite to finding out what’s right and what works instead of what’s left and what’s right.

JM: You point out that one of the biggest hurdles to promoting the common good is the lack of civility in public debates. How do you believe Christians can recover the lost art of civil dialogue?

JW: The lack of civility at root spiritually comes from a lack of humility. The title of the book, On God’s Side, reflects my favorite quote from Abraham Lincoln: “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” He flips the question, and a problem of both religion and politics today is that we quickly claim God to be on our side. But as Paul says, we see through glass darkly sometimes. So to try to be on God’s side requires humility and grace and listening and sometimes conversion on our way of thinking. I think that the common good isn’t always clear and what is means to be on God’s side isn’t always self-evident.

JM: Many conservative Christians seem to believe that, in the words of Ronald Reagan, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” You speak in your book of “a servant government.” What is this, and why do you believe it represents a better understanding of the role government should play in our lives?

JW: When it comes to the role of government, which is a controversial and divided political question, I think we’re often asking the wrong question. I go to Romans 13 and other Biblical passages to talk about the role of civil authority. The right question is not about the size of government but the purpose of government. So what is the Biblical purpose of government? One thing is very clear: government is supposed to keep things fair. Courts and business and rules and regulations are supposed to be fair, and left to human nature and sin, things become unfair.

Secondly, government is particularly to look out for the poor and the vulernable and the marginal. Those who are apt to be left out. Those who Jesus called in Matthew, “the least of these.” Government has a particular obligation to them.

I haven’t done the math, but if we were to figure out all the things that government does and what it costs, and if we were to take out all of the things the government does that I don’t think it ought to do or it does poorly, I suspect the math would turn out that my view would be something smaller. But it would be much more focused on fairness and protection of the poor and vulnerable. It wouldn’t be a massive empire around the world or a subsidy culture for special interests.

JM: So would it be safe to say then that government, as you see it, certainly wouldn’t spend so much money on war and defense?

JW: Well it is not always defense. There was a general, Dwight Eisenhower, who later became president, who warned us against what he called the “military-industrial complex.” I’d call it the business of war. The business of war is not necessarily even in the interest of our national security.

Christians are at least called to be peacemakers first and should see war as a last resort if at all. We should be the first people who should question a military establishment that is larger than the next 15 nations combined.

And those who talk about abuse and fraud in government—and there is—often don’t speak of where it is the worst. Everyone knows it is the worst in the Pentagon and the Department of Defense. That is where corruption, abuse, and wastefulness are most grotesque. That is one area that I think Christians as peacemakers ought to question.

JM: After the President announced his support of gay marriage, Sojourners released a statement saying they support “equal protection under the law and full legal rights for all people regardless of sexual orientation.” What’s your personal position on the issue? Do you support same sex marriage?

Courtesy of Brazos Press.

Courtesy of Brazos Press.

JW: Well, of course this is very controversial, and the language is very divisive, and the images are very dramatic. Let me say we have always supported equal protection under the law. I’ve supported that in various places. I once had a debate at Focus on the Family and said, “It might surprise you to know that I believe the breakdown of the family is a fundamental crisis in our society. I lived in poor neighborhoods where there were mostly single parent families. We’re never going to overcome poverty unless we can reweave the bonds of marriage and parenting and family. I’m with you on that. But I don’t see how a primary cause of family breakdown is gays and lesbians or gay rights. Please explain that to me.”

After two hours, the Focus people said, “We can see that family breakdowns are due more to heterosexual dysfunction than to homosexuals.” That was a good conversation.

So I’ve always believed in equal protection. What that means is something that has to be worked out democratically. People are deciding what that means. And this issue is changing rapidly and dramatically. This is the quickest change I’ve seen on anything in a long time. And it is changing because of relationships that people have, and it is changing because of a younger generation. Young people have led on marriage equality. And I am listening to them.

But remember, we are discussing civic decisions. Churches need to have religious freedom to interpret and apply and practice marriage in the ways they think are most faithful to the scriptures. There’s got to be complete freedom.

I think the common ground could be that liberals and conservatives together could commit themselves to a recovenanting of marriage, a recommitment of marriage. We’re losing marriage in this society, among low-income people particularly and across the board. That is the most important question about marriage right now. How can we recommit to marriage, and then I would say, how to we find ways for same sex couples to participate in the benefits of that recommitment to marriage?

For Christians, that is going to take some serious Biblical work. There is some new work coming out. For me, something has to be Biblical. I’m an evangelical. Let’s look Biblically and all the texts and whether those texts are speaking of a civil commitment between same sex couples—they’re not. So Biblical work has to be done, and secondly, I think it has to be done in the context of marriage. People are afraid of this because it doesn’t feel Biblical and they are afraid of losing marriage. Those are two valid concerns. I say this as a parent, a dad, a little league baseball coach. What we do with our kids and our families is as important as anything in politics to the common good.

JM: It seems you’ve changed your view on same sex marriage. Just to be clear, do you now support it?

JW: I am particularly following the lead of younger Christians who have led on this more than many of us have. I think equal protection under the law is something that does support the idea of a civil, civic decision that provides same sex couples the same benefits and rights under the civil law as married couples have. That’s the direction we’re going, but what the church says about sacramental marriage is a larger, deeper question that has to be resolved over time. They need freedom to look at the scriptures and determine what is possible. People can have different views theologically and still support equal protection, which is inclusive more and more of marriage equality.

JM: You’ve long been credited with a less partisan approach to Christian public engagement. Your publication Sojourners even took out a major ad declaring God is neither Republican nor Democrat. But a lot of your critics attack you on this point. When you give the Democratic weekly radio address, when you accept funding from partisan Democrats, when it appears you find yourself partnering with Democratic politicians far more than Republican ones, isn’t the implicit message, “God is probably a Democrat?”

JW: No. On the contrary, I have pressed the Democrats and this White House very hard on issues of poverty, on immigration, on protecting the poor and vulnerable. Democrats haven’t always done well or been courageous. We’ve had to push very, very hard.

I’m not what The New York Times called me–“a spiritual advisor to President Obama.” He was my friend before he was president, and I said to him that my role is going to have to be to push and press and advocate for things the faith community has to stand for prophetically. That’s going to create tension, but that’s what it means to have a prophetic witness here. That’s what I’ve done.

And I gave a radio address once. I said what I wanted to. I challenged both sides in that address. They’ve never had a non-politician do it before. But because it was in that slot, I was criticized. And I’m not sure I’d do it again. Sometimes, like saying a prayer at a convention, you have to maintain your independence as much as you can in a context that is partisan.

When I’ve talked to Democratic groups, I’ve often talked about my views on life and abortion, which is very different. I’ve pushed them very hard on at least abortion reduction, which they haven’t committed to. I disagree with Democrats profoundly on their abortion stance, and they know that. On foreign policy, I’ve said that the troop surge in Afghanistan was the wrong approach, and I wasn’t listened to by this administration on that, and I’ve been critical of drone policies.

JM: You’ve been an advocate for some time of comprehensive immigration reform, an issue that is only now finding support among Christians on the right. Why do you think some Christians are reticent to, in Biblical terms, “welcome the stranger?” And how do you try to change their minds?

JW: I’m glad I can point to something where we can get it right. We’re not doing enough on poverty, and we’re not showing enough consistency on life. When I look at the budget battles, this is such a sign of our political leaders losing the common good. It’s about winning and losing, not governing. It’s about fighting for political space and ideological principles. But the very same leaders, on this issue, they are coming together. And we’re going to see a bipartisan solution to this broken system.

I’ve never seen the faith community play such an important role since the black churches of the civil rights movement. We can provide, at our best, moral courage and political cover for leaders to do the right thing. So now when they go after Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, which the right is doing, we’re able to organize evangelical pastors to do op-eds and radio ads to support Senator Graham on immigration. And with Rubio in Florida. Every social reform movement in our history has come from the outside and has had the faith community as its animating core. We were always there—whether it is trafficking or HIV or malria or gun violence or now immigration—it’s going to be the faith community that presses the leaders to not go left or right, but go deeper. To do what’s right and what works.

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