The Gospel According to Jim Wallis

By David Paul Kuhn
Sunday, November 26, 2006

JIM WALLIS IS PREACHING ABOUT A BIBLE TORN APART. Wallis tells the crowd at the Seattle Pacific University chapel that when he was in seminary, a fellow student took hold of an old Bible and cut out "every single reference to the poor."

"And when we were done, that Bible was literally in shreds. It was falling apart in my hands. It was a Bible full of holes. I would take it out to preach and say, 'Brothers and sisters, this is our American Bible.'"

Wallis pauses. "It's like someone has stolen our faith. And when someone tries to hijack your faith, you know what? There comes a time when you have to take it back!"

For nearly two years, Wallis has traveled across the country attempting to do just that. And some would argue that those efforts have begun to bear fruit, as demonstrated by gains in the recent elections. But Wallis, America's leading progressive evangelical, contends that the issue is far larger than any one election, that the Christian conservative movement has remade Christ in its own image. "What's at stake here is not politics or social action," he insists, "but the very integrity of the word of God."

Wallis's book, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, spent 15 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in 2005 and became the catalyst for his budding effort to revive progressive Christian politics. Throughout the book, Wallis argues that liberals have lost touch with the faith that defines much of American life. In the values debate, nearly all of which stems from differing perspectives of religion and moral absolutes, Democrats have traditionally been on the trailing end since the devout Jimmy Carter lost churchgoing voters to Ronald Reagan in 1980. Bill Clinton significantly narrowed the gap in 1992 by winning the Catholic vote, but even with his ability to speak comfortably about faith, by 1996, the gap widened again. Four years later, George W. Bush brought Catholic and Protestant regular churchgoers firmly into the Republican camp. Though the gap narrowed three weeks ago, cutting the GOP's advantage among regular churchgoers to 12 percentage points as concerns about the Iraq war rose to the fore, it's still uncertain whether those gains made up a trend or a onetime event.

It is not that America has become more religious. The Gallup Organization's polling demonstrates that as far back as Franklin D. Roosevelt, the number of Americans who said they attend church weekly -- religious Christians -- has remained roughly four in 10. But how religious Christians vote has changed. In 1960, seven in 10 Catholics identified themselves as Democratic or leaning Democratic. By 2004, that number declined to 44 percent. Between 1960 and 2004, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that white evangelicals went from favoring Democrats by a 2-to-1 ratio to favoring Republicans by about the same ratio -- 78 percent supported President Bush in 2004. Overall, voters who attended church at least once a week supported Bush by a margin of 20 percentage points in 2004. Furthering the divide, religious Christians turn out in presidential elections at a rate of about 10 percentage points higher than those who attend church less than once a week. By August 2006, about one in four Americans told Pew pollsters that Democrats are "friendly toward religion," down 16 percentage points from July 2003, according to Pew's annual report on religion and politics.

Over the past three decades, exit polls demonstrate that religious Christians have tended to become increasingly conservative, while the base of the Democratic Party has become more secular. The outcome is a religion gap unparalleled in modern American presidential elections, one based on church attendance instead of church denomination.

"Here's the facts," Wallis tells the crowd at Seattle Pacific University, "every major social movement in our nation's history -- abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, child labor law reform and, of course, civil rights -- was fueled and driven in large part by religion. And I want to say to the left, the progressive side: Conceding the entire territory of religion and even values to a religious and political right is the biggest mistake the left has made in years, and they must never make that mistake again."

Do the recent gains mean the Democrats are on the way to solving the problem? Not by a long shot, says American Enterprise Institute congressional scholar Norm Orenstein.

The core part of that Republican base, the Christian conservatives, was not as "ginned up this time," Ornstein says. "But does that mean they will not be ginned up in two years? Of course not."

For Wallis, the narrowing of the gap in the midterm elections was encouraging, but he emphasizes that a religion gap decades in the making can easily expand again. Presidential elections are far more contests of two characters, rather than the national mood, he stresses. In 2008, "it will depend on the Democratic candidate," he says, and "whether the discussion of faith is authentic."

THE LAST DEMOCRAT TO WIN THE PRESIDENCY with more than half of the electorate was also the last Democrat to nearly split the religious Christian vote: Jimmy Carter. Carter has been a devout Baptist for the whole of his 82 years. He lives today in the same town in which he was born and has spent the bulk of his life in the Bible Belt. He remains the pride of Plains, a diminutive town in the deep south of Georgia. To this day, political analysts chalk his 1976 victory up to his Southern heritage.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company