WHEN Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the
United States, his approval rating stood at 69 per cent. Since the
Second World War, no US President had enjoyed greater popularity,
except John F. Kennedy (72 per cent in 1961). Just over a year
later, he received a letter from Jim Wallis.
"I am very concerned about the deep disappointment I have felt
everywhere among those who be- lieved just over a year ago that
swift and sweeping political change was coming," Wallis wrote.
After acknowledging the "almost insurmountable odds" facing the
President, including the economic crisis and "a partisan intensity
not seen in Washington for many years", he advised: "You need to
lead the movement that elected you, over the heads of the special
interests and élites that now seem to run this country, and even
over the heads of the Congress and their leaders from both
The letter, published for the first time in Wallis's new book
On God's Side: What religion forgets and politics hasn't
learned about serving the common good, is warm but firm, with
an almost paternal air. It is the veteran of social-justice
campaigns (Wallis has, to date, been arrested 22 times for acts of
civil disobedience), reminding the younger man of his promise to
bring "change we can believe in".
Most of all, it transmits a disgust with the status quo on
Capitol Hill, the "failing incrementalism of cautious members and
leaders of Congress", and the need to "finally take on Wall
Street", where banks have shown "reckless and selfish disregard for
the common good".
AS THE chief executive of the justice-and-peace network
Sojourners, Wallis has always shunned the title of "spiritual
adviser" to President Obama, aware of how this might compromise his
independence. But they are old friends. During our interview at the
Greenbelt Festival, where he was one of the headline speakers, I
ask him if he has been personally disappointed by the President's
time in office.
"I think Barack Obama came to Washington, DC, with a real desire
to change a lot of things," he says. "He was very sincere in his
intentions as leader, and he's run up against how resistant the
system is to change. His people tell me they didn't realise how
broken the system was. They didn't realise how much money controls
everything. And so we are trying to provide the two things that he
needs: moral courage, and political space to do the right
Wallis says that they have had "rigorous" conversations. He
opposed, for example, the troop surge in Afghanistan. "I think he's
listening; I think he is showing more strength now in his second
term, and he is talking about poverty more. On immigration, he's
been very strong. I am more and more encouraged by what I see him
It is to immigration reform that Wallis turns when he wants to
challenge public apathy about the potential to mend broken systems.
He describes how, in June last year, a coalition of Evangelicals -
including the Southern Baptist Convention, and Focus on the Family
- descended on Washington in order to "stand in solidarity" with
the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US.
Three days later, he received a call from the White House,
informing him that the President would shortly announce that
illegal immigrants under the age of 16 would no longer be subject
to deportation. The lesson, he suggests, is that a groundswell of
"righteous anger" from the faith community remains a powerful force
THE book is full of stories that illustrate Wallis's argument that
"Change never starts in Washington, or in our legislatures, or
houses of governments; it almost always begins outside of
The picture it paints of politics in the United States is deeply
depressing: paralysis wrought by politicians seeking to thwart the
opposition at all costs; a £1-billion price tag attached to running
for the presidency; and a political discourse that has been
polluted by mud-slinging.
"Don't go right, don't go left; go deeper," he writes in the
introduction to his book. Find common ground, and set about seeking
"a better vision for our life together", making a priority those
whose voices that are drowned out in the din created by wealth and
What about Christians who want to run for office? "I think
Christians should enter public life because of issues, not so much
to advance a party, or even a candidate," he says. "Sure, a
Christian can have a vocation to be an MP. . . That is a vocational
question. But Christians are not primarily influencing politics
through being MPs.
"We made possible what Wilberforce did. What he did as a
parliamentarian was made possible by a revival in a social movement
to abolish slavery. . . Every major social movement in the US that
has changed things - every one of them - has had a faith community
at the heart of it."
In his letter to President Obama, Wallis wrote that the Left was
"not my main constituency". Although many associate him with the
Evangelical Left, he seeks to be evenhanded in the book. The best
"big idea" of the conservatives is personal responsibility, he
says. "Programmes of social uplift, without the ethic of personal
responsibility, often don't work, and can, indeed, turn into
situations and cycles of dependence." The best big liberal idea is
social responsibility: "the commitment to our neighbour, economic
fairness, racial and gender equality, the just nature of society,
needed social safety nets".
THE common good, he argues, combines both ideas. He extends this
synthesis to the Church. The conservative Church needs to remember
that faith is not private; that Jesus was a teacher; and the
liberal Church has forgotten that Jesus is alive today, reducing
the resurrection to a "metaphor", he says. "When we no longer
believe he is alive, all we have are inspiring words from someone
who lived a long time ago."
While its principles could be applied in the UK, the book is
rooted in the American experience of the past five years, including
the two wars that Wallis opposed. As we spoke, the British
government was formulating a response to a suspected chemical
attack in Syria. Is Wallis a pacifist?
"To me, the issue of pacifism and just war are sort of
theoretical questions to be debated in seminaries, but, on the
ground, what is most important is: how do you resolve conflicts?
How do we expand the number of conflicts that can be resolved
without violence? Jesus calls us not to be peace-lovers, but
"On Darfur, I remember a conversation I had with a British
general. I said: 'Could you intervene in a laser-like fashion, and
deal with the Janjaweed, who are killing so many people?' He said:
'Yes', and I asked: 'Why isn't it happening?' He said: 'Because of
the war in Iraq.' So, in that case, I would have been in favour of
a police action. A war is a different thing."
THE longest chapter of On God's Side is dedicated to
"healthy households". "I am more and more aware that how we live
and shape our households, how we relate to the people closest to
us, may do more for the common good than almost anything else," he
Wallis grew up in the Plymouth Brethren in Detroit. He recalls
"signing up" to Christianity at the age of six, after a visit from
a "fiery evangelist" from whom he absorbed the message: "If Christ
came back tonight, your mommy and daddy would be taken to heaven,
and you would be left all by yourself."
After progressing through the "usual Evangelical Church
pilgrimage", he left the Church as a teenager, after questioning
why it was not joining the fight against racism. ("Would you really
want your sister to marry one?" is one of the questions that he
remembers.) It was the discovery that the gospel was not just about
private salvation, but about changing the world, that brought him
back, and led to his joining the civil-rights movement and
protesting against US foreign policy.
Now 65 years old, Wallis was married relatively late in life, to
the Revd Joy Carroll, one of the first women to be ordained in the
Church of England, and a model for Dawn French's character in
The Vicar of Dibley (the two women remain in touch).
On God's Side resonates with his satisfaction with life
as a married man and father. He is clearly besotted with his two
sons: Luke, aged 15, and Jack, ten. ("My 15-year-old still wants to
talk before he goes to sleep at night, and, as long as that goes on
I'll be very happy.")
The book is shot through with glimpses of life an as ordinary,
all-American dad (he coaches Little League baseball).
HE HAS, recently it seems, shifted his stance to a desire to see
gay people also enjoy marriage's benefits, while couching this in a
challenge to liberals to bolster the institution itself.
"They shouldn't just affirm gay marriage, as liberals are prone
to do, but lift up the personal, spiritual, and social strength of
marriage for everyone, and then work to find ways to include
same-sex couples in those benefits," he writes.
Wallis was in the UK in August, belatedly. The book tour was
delayed after he was diagnosed with, and treated for prostate
cancer earlier in the year. He has described how the unexpected
diagnosis taught him about the "illusion of control". Today, he
looks fit and healthy, his deep voice booming out from Greenbelt's
mainstage on Monday morning as he leads the crowd in a "crash mob"
in protest against tax avoidance.
His letter to President Obama in 2010 concluded with a promise:
"Regardless of how you decide to lead, some of us will now begin to
lead in more prophetic ways." While this is not a threat, it
carries overtones of an Old Testament-style proclamation (Wallis,
it should be noted, looks impressive with his white beard). When it
comes to speaking truth to power, this prophet shows no signs of
turning down the volume.
On God's Side: What religion forgets and politics hasn't learned
about serving the common good by Jim Wallis is published by
Lion Books at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop