Jim Wallis, an evangelical author and speaker focused on social justice, was not surprised. He thinks it was only a matter of time until people who identify as Christians would begin to seriously question their allegiance to a political figure whose behavior and policies seem at odds with the words and actions of Jesus.
White evangelicals’ support for Trump has been dissected by journalists and pundits since his 2016 campaign, in which the former reality television star used harsh rhetoric to lash out at his political rivals and anyone who criticized him, including war heroes and their families. He also was accused by several women of sexual harassment and assault, bragged on tape about grabbing women’s genitals and made payments to an adult-film star to keep quiet about an alleged sexual liaison. Some evangelical leaders also have remained silent or defended the Trump administration’s harsh immigration tactics, including separating migrant families that cross illegally or seek asylum at the U.S. southern border.
Not all Christians agree with Trump’s behavior and policies, Wallis said, and he thinks it’s time for them to speak up. He has written a book, “Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus.” In it, he argues that too many Christians “have become disconnected from Jesus. We are not standing and acting in his name, with his values, action, and inspiration.”
About US spoke recently with Wallis, president and founder of Sojourners, a Christian organization focused on social justice. He has called for a more diverse representation of evangelical voices in this year’s election, which he said is vitally important to the future of democracy and religion.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You described the Christianity Today editorial as another crack in Trump’s evangelical firewall. What are the other cracks?
A big crack is evangelical white suburban women who in the midterm elections said things like, ‘I believe in life at the border, as well as life in the womb. The second group was young white evangelicals breaking over climate and LGBTQ issues. And the third impact was, I think, a growing impact on white evangelicals particularly younger ones, from evangelicals of color. Black and Hispanic evangelicals are having more influence with younger evangelicals, who are listening when evangelicals of color say things like, ‘Racial bigotry is a gospel dealbreaker and you can’t allow that.’
The evangelical right, those leaders — the Franklin Grahams, the Jerry Falwell Juniors, the Ralph Reeds — have made a transactional bargain, a Faustian bargain with this administration. … Mark Galli [the outgoing editor of Christianity Today] said, ‘I can’t accept this anymore.’ He can’t take the ‘gross immorality’ anymore in exchange for getting the policies that he wants. It gives evangelicals with similar concerns permission and cover to do the same.
We don’t have to win back a majority of white evangelicals. We just have to make a difference among white evangelicals in five or six states, and I think we can do that. There’s a crack in the white evangelical wall of support and that crack is growing bigger every day.
How has the Christian right come to dominate the conversation about religion and politics?
They don’t’ speak for all evangelicals, but they want you think that. They are dominant in the media, in part, because media does have an anti-religious bias. … I get attention, but given the attention that the right gets, the idea of progressive faith is not something the media does much about.
There is some data that suggests, if you add up the evangelical right, then add up what I would call progressive Christians — people of color who are Christian, progressive white Christians, young Christians — we have as many or more than they do. The media ought to be covering evangelicals of color, ought to be covering progressive Christians.
I want to change the narrative surrounding this election that Republicans don’t own religion like they want you to think that they do. Democrats need to be speaking about their faith. … But you should wrap your politics around your faith. Your faith should shape your politics. I don’t want a religious left where we’re just putting left-wing politics in our faith. I want to say nobody owns faith, nobody owns God. How does faith hold us accountable for things that sometimes challenge our political or partisan views?
During a recent book signing, you talked about the church’s need to acknowledge what you and others see as racist motivations in Republican efforts to pack state legislatures and the court system and to enact stricter voting laws.
They have a plan. Through gerrymandering, they’ve taken over the state legislatures. They’re against immigration reform, they engage in voter suppression and they’re taking over the judiciary. It’s white minority rule.
The core crisis here is deeper than political, it’s whether there’s a “we” going into the American future that includes all of us, or whether it’s always gonna be us versus them. In the chapter about the image of God, I said we have not yet decided if we are committed to a multiracial democracy. Because every time there’s progress, [opponents] double down. [In the United States,] our racialized geography shapes the churches. We are defined by our sociology not by our theology. Whether there’s a “we” the church needs to address, because the body of Christ globally is the most diverse human community on the planet.
What will you do and what do you hope like-minded Christians do to challenge Trump and his administration’s policies.
Seventy thousand people made the difference in three states’ electoral votes — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Seventy thousand people wouldn’t even fill the University of Michigan football stadium! Add the fact that many African American voters [in those states] didn’t turn out. The Sojourners is doing two big things: voter turnout and voter protection [in battleground states]. If the church can assist with voter turnout and protection, that could make a critical difference in this election.
This really is, 2020 really is, a test of democracy. This isn’t Republican or Democrat, left or right, this is a test of our democracy. This is a narcissistic dictator who has always been that in a small pond and he got elected, almost accidentally, and now he’s in the big pond, which is dangerous. I know this sounds rhetorical, but I really believe it: I don’t think democracy will survive another [Trump] term, another four years. This is also a test of faith because if, indeed, Donald Trump leads us into an American brand of fascism, we will lose a whole generation [of the faithful] forever, and I care about that deeply.