Meet the Press took on the topic of religious faith and political values this past Sunday. The Rev. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners Magazine, was a guest along with Jerry Falwell, Richard Land, and Al Sharpton. Those of us who attend church on Sundays don’t often get the watch the Sunday news programs, but I did read the transcript of this one. It was typical commercial television. Host Tim Russert and his producers picked religious spokespeople known more for their verbose speaking skills than their theological insights. Wallis was the only participant who offered more substance than soundbites. Here is one example of a pretty typical exchange involving Wallis:
MR. RUSSERT: The Sojourners newspaper took out an ad--the Sojourners magazine took a newspaper ad out, Reverend Wallis, in which this was the headline. "God Is Not a Republican or a Democrat. ...leaders of the Religious Right mistakenly claim that Mod has taken a side in this election and that Christians should only vote for George W. Bush. We believe claims of divine appointment for the President, uncritical affirmation of his policies, and assertions that all Christians must vote for his re- election constitute bad theology and dangerous religion."
REV. JIM WALLIS: Well, Christians voted both ways in this election. God is not a Republican or a Democrat. That should be obvious. The values question is critical. The question is how narrowly or how broadly we define values. So we say that poverty is a religious and moral value. So is the environment. So is the war in Iraq. These are moral value that require a lot of discussion. I welcome the moral-values conversation. I really do. It's the soul of our politics, the compass of our public life. But how narrowly or how broadly we define the values is the question.
In this election, there were competing values, so a lot of Christians voted both ways because we wanted to vote all of our values, not just one or two. I think the Democrats are often uncomfortable talking about faith values, when it's even about their agenda. The Republicans want to narrow, though, or restrict values to one or two issues--important ones, but one or two. I think the Democrats have to recover their heart and soul; Republicans need a broader and deeper agenda about values.
Wallis is one of those rare religious activists who have been known to be critical of both Republicans and Democrats. He is a pro-life advocate who voted for John Kerry in the last election. He also lead protests against Bill Clinton’s welfare policies in the 1990s and was critical of the former president’s personal indiscretions. Falwell’s comments sounded like old and tired rhetoric from a Republican Party political operative.
DR. FALWELL: Jim, let me ask you a question. Did you vote for John Kerry?
REV. WALLIS: I did vote for John Kerry.
DR. FALWELL: Now, he is pro-choice. How can you as an ordained minister--you are an ordained minister, right?
REV. WALLIS: Jerry--Jerry...
DR. FALWELL: How could you vote for some--I wouldn't vote for my mother if she were pro-choice.
REV. WALLIS: Yeah. You endorsing George Bush. That's fine. But you also called--you ordained him. You said all Christians could only vote for him. That's ridiculous. There are Christians who voted for deep reasons of faith for both candidates.
One of the problems with contemporary religious dialog is that it gets reduced to these brief exchanges in the national media. Those on the religious right are masters of this type of forum. Progressive religious leaders have shied away from both the media and the kind of grassroots organizing done so effectively by Falwell and company. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: those of us who are religious progressives need to be more engaged with issues of public concern. We need to creatively force the media into hearing our side of the debate. Our churches and leaders need to be better organized to promote an inclusive and progressive theological message.
That is not to say that we should imitate the Religious Right. They preach division and that is a perversion of the Christian faith. Our model for organizing should be Jesus who always spoke of an open table where all were invited to partake in the justice of God’s Kingdom. Wallis did a sound job of articulating that vision this Sunday.