The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jim Wallis is on a mission to make voting rights the religious issue of our time

Jim Wallis left Sojourners, the progressive Christian advocacy group he founded 50 years ago, and is now heading the Georgetown University Center on Faith and Justice. He was pictured above at Dahlgren Chapel last year. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

In the collapse of voting rights legislation a few weeks ago, Jim Wallis thought he saw an opening for a Christian message of faith and hope.

After sweeping efforts by Democrats to protect voting failed, a small number of centrist lawmakers suggested a peace offering: What about tackling a smaller issue related to Jan. 6? What about reforming the 140-year-old law that allowed Congress to be involved in certifying presidential winners?

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) both reacted swiftly, saying reforming the law is fine, but can’t be a distraction from the voting end, removing barriers to people casting ballots to start with. “If you’re going to rig the game and say, ‘Oh, we’ll count the rigged game accurately,’ what good is that?” Schumer said then.

But to Wallis, one of modern American Christianity’s most influential progressives, an improvement to even one part of election reform is a cracked door to make his bigger argument: Voting rights is the moral cause of the American present.

“For me it’s the first book of the Bible. We were all made in God’s image and likeness. Voter suppression on the basis of skin color is a throwing away of Imago Dei,” he said in an interview. “This is a Bonhoeffer moment,” citing the famed German pastor and anti-Nazi activist whom Hitler executed. “We have to take this battle to a moral level. These are theological issues, not political ones.”

Tackling a small part, to Wallis, is a reflection of hope and faith that the part will grow. Now, as a small group of bipartisan lawmakers work on legislation to reform the Electoral Count Act, Wallis is strategizing behind the scenes with other faith leaders, trying to press lawmakers for it to succeed.

At a transitional time of his life, the 73-year-old is back in a familiar role, working with people from across the political spectrum, trying to expand what policy priorities fall under the Christian tent. But now the man who helped rewrite what it means to be Christian in public life is watching as another generation of progressive faith leaders remakes the definition yet again.

A new larger crop of religious progressive leaders see issues like voting, climate change and LGBTQ equality as too urgent to attempt compromising with a Republican Party still promoting dangerous lies about elections and the pandemic. Republican leaders and conservative Democrats in recent weeks shut down efforts by the White House to pass a voting rights bill and Build Back Better, which included an extension of the expanded child tax credit and affordable housing, among many other progressive priorities.

“I don’t know if it’s a newer style as much as a newer awareness, that for too long White supremacy has been papered over. We can no longer mince words or be polite about racism,” said the Rev. Jennifer Butler, executive director of Faith in Public Life, one of the many progressive advocacy groups Wallis helped nurture. “Jim came of age in an era when bipartisanship was still possible, and now the party system is broken. Young people have the awareness and clearsightedness to be able to lead us forward in a new way.”

But Wallis and some of his allies believe there’s a place for their less partisan approach. “When Jesus talks about ‘the least of these,’ we don’t fit into political categories,” he said in an interview. “To create a religious left in response to the religious right is ultimately a mistake.”

‘Everything is at stake here’

These days, Wallis does much of his work out of an office located behind some parking spaces, down a few steps into the basement of a building at Georgetown University, next to a door marked “telephone equipment room.”

For the first time in five decades, he’s off on his own, in the fall starting a new endeavor aimed at promoting public policy focused on the most marginalized and vulnerable. From there, at what’s called the Center for Faith and Justice at Georgetown, Wallis is teaching, organizing and mentoring, hoping to use his big-tent approach to advance voting rights.

It’s a shift from running the huge Sojourners platform he built. The 50-staffer Sojourners puts out a magazine with an annual circulation of 5 million and has a reader-supporter community of over 250,000, according to the group.

Sojourners powerfully stood out in its early years of the 1970s and 1980s as the brand name of progressive evangelicalism. When political scientists and sociologists try to explain how American evangelicals, White ones in particular, in recent decades became more opposed to war and more in favor of universal health care, for instance, roads generally lead back to Wallis.

“Jim is the one who brought center stage the reality that God is not a White Republican male. He changed the conversation in the public square about who owns God and God language,” said civil rights activist Barbara Skinner, a longtime Wallis collaborator who led the Congressional Black Caucus, among other groups.

“The moral voice he was trying to cultivate was a voice in the wilderness,” said Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a North Carolina evangelical minister and activist who works with and has followed Wallis since college, and sometimes writes for Sojourners magazine.

Today, however, partly because of Wallis’s efforts, there are many well-known faith leaders focused on causes like poverty and racism, including writer and activist Lisa Sharon Harper, Texas pastor Frederick Douglass Haynes, the Rev. Jacqui Lewis of New York City, the Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign and others.

Wilson-Hartgrove said that contingent has expanded even more since Donald Trump’s election in 2016. While Wallis represented a high-profile “moral witness” showing up in D.C. to speak out and challenge the powerful, the religious progressive movement today is more focused on community organizing and a broader range of issues, he said.

And they’re more willing to get directly involved in political campaigns, whereas some faith leaders of Wallis’s generation may have “found it distasteful,” said Mike McCurry, a veteran communications strategist who went on to teach public theology. “But I think that’s gradually changed because they see what the consequences are.”

Wallis still resists engaging in partisan politics and has always been willing to work with anyone on what he’d call core Gospel issues. An often repeated Wallis classic is when he brought rock icon and social justice activist Bono to Capitol Hill to meet the late Jesse Helms, a longtime conservative leader in the Senate.

Wallis is also known for not speaking in favor of same-sex marriage until 2013 and promoting a middle ground of “abortion reduction” even as, critics to his left noted, antiabortion groups were plowing forward on trying to completely ban abortions.

To some progressives, especially young ones, this feels like Wallis was willing to sell out women and LGBTQ people. To his supporters it’s an example of his generation and also his belief in working with everyone.

Wallis told The Washington Post that all people are beloved by God and should be welcomed, but he doesn’t believe in litmus tests. Other observers argue such intragenerational differences are nothing new.

“On many issues he’s in the same place as younger people. But, this isn’t just Jim Wallis, but every leader. There is always the tension between principles and political realities,” said Jim Simpson, the director of the Georgetown center.

“What Jim has, over 50 years, figured out very well is how do you have a moral voice and prophetic stance and also given the current political realities? How do you move something forward in a positive way? That’s the struggle now in the movement, and especially generationally. Younger people who are newer to legislative work, there is a sense that ‘unless it’s exactly what we want we don’t want it,’” he added.

Wallis, for his part, is fired up about being off on his own at Georgetown. He’s lined the walls of his office with images of his heroes, such as Dorothy Day, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela.

He spends his days working to build off events like the center’s first, last fall, on voting rights, featuring Warnock and Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.). Wallis also continues to run longtime regular meetings of prominent progressive faith leaders, including one called the Circle of Protection that began around 2011 deficit-cutting to protect the poor.

Looking at the failure of Build Back Better and potentially voting rights as well, some on a recent call for Circle of Protection said this moment was as discouraging as any in memory.

“Everything is at stake here,” Wallis said. “Democracy itself, not just voting rights.” He thinks if he can frame the topic of protecting elections in moral and religious terms, it could bring even a few lawmakers back to the table on voting rights.

Among his partners on the project is Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who said his exposure to Wallis as a Republican college student decades ago changed his life path and directed him to be closer and more focused on the marginalized. “As Jim says, ‘Show me your budget and I’ll show you your values,’” he recalled in an interview.

And that, Coons said, in this moment may mean compromising and partnering with Republicans and going for smaller pieces when the big ones aren’t possible. “Leaders like him to me are spiritually, authentically literate and yet see value in hearing people, respecting and engaging those who have sharp differences in some areas but can work together.”