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The prophet with the President’s ear

13 September 2013

Jim Wallis is a career advocate, whose determination to speak out for justice is undiminished by illness and advancing age. He talks to Madeleine Davies


Say the word: Jim Wallis with Barack Obama at a Presidential forum on faith, values, and poverty in 2007

Say the word: Jim Wallis with Barack Obama at a Presidential forum on faith, values, and poverty in 2007

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 parties."

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 thing."

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 doing."

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 in Congress.

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 politics."

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 power.

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 peace-makers.

"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 says.

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 £8.99).


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