What should progressive Christians do about Jim Wallis?

Updated again: Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches quotes from this post in her story about Sojourners’ rejection of Believe Out Loud’s ad.

Updated with this link to Sojourners’ deeply unsatisfying response to the negative publicity that they have received in the wake of their decision to refuse the advertisement discussed below.

Here’s the crux of it:

Editors’ Note: Sojourners stresses the importance of dialogue amongst those on all sides of these issues. It is our utmost hope that differing viewpoints are not silenced, but are lifted up in a display of Christian and often interfaith sisterhood and brotherhood. It is for this reason, that we wish to engage first and foremost in dialogue on difficult issues within our editorial pages and we typically do not sell display advertising relating to issues amongst people of faith that have unfortunately and too often been reduced to political wedge issues.

Voila. The question of whether LGBT people and their families should be welcomed in churches is now a “political wedge issue.” And here I was thinking that it was just a question of good manners. Meanwhile, please see a release from Integrity on this issue by clicking Read more.


I was more or less in favor of the big-tent strategy pursued by progressive religious leaders in Washington in the wake of Barack Obama’s election as president. The thinking–as I understood–went that in reaching out to moderate evangelicals on a certain set of issues it might be possible to make legislative progress on behalf of the poor.

One upshot of that strategy was that Jim Wallis (not the Rev. Jim Wallis as one so often sees it) became the embodiment of the Progressive Christianity in the eyes of the Obama administration and the Washington media, despite the fact that he wasn’t necessarily progressive on issues like abortion and LGBT rights. Perhaps I should have been more concerned about this, but I don’t need a leader who agrees with me about absolutely everything, and the opportunity to pass some anti-poverty legislation seemed too good to pass up.

But last week, Wallis’s magazine Sojourners rejected an advertisement from Believe Out Loud, an organization that works for LGBT rights within the church. The advertisement took no political position, its only point was that LGBT people and their families should be made welcome in our faith communities. Yet Sojourners turned it down.

It would seem to me that if you can’t bring yourself to say that LGBT people shouldn’t be chased out of our churches you have no business passing yourself off as a progressive leader, Christian or otherwise. In fact, based on recent polling on the far more sensitive subject of same-sex marriage, you have no business passing yourself off as a moderate leader, either.

So here we sit, us religious lefties, with a movement led by a man who occupies a position to the right of Dick Cheney on LGBT issues. I am assuming people savvier and better connected than I am will understand that this situation is not tenable. The big tent collapsed this weekend, and it was Sojourners who yanked out the tent poles. Someone needs to alert official Washington that Jim Wallis and his minions no longer speak for us–if they ever did.

Integrity Challenges Sojourners to Walk Their Talk

Integrity USA stands with those calling on Sojourners to re-evaluate their refusal to run the “Believe Out Loud” ad encouraging churches to welcome all mothers on Mother’s Day. We challenge Jim Wallis and Sojourners to live up to their own mission statement and to walk the talk of social justice they purport to embody.

The Sojourners mission is “to articulate the biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world” and their Diversity Statement includes “Publicly advocate for civil rights and legal non-discrimination to protect the safety and dignity of all people” and the belief “ that unity in diversity is not only desirable, but essential to fulfilling God’s ultimate desire for God’s people, as expressed in scripture (Acts 2, Revelation 7:9), and thus an essential element of seeking God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.”

Given those articulated core values, it is incomprehensible to us that they would decline to run an ad that quite simply depicts a pastor modeling for his congregation that “all are welcome” as a lesbian couple and their son visit the church on Mother’s Day. The Sojourner spokesperson refusing the ad said their “position is to avoid taking sides on this issue” — reducing a family seeking a spiritual community to “an issue” and needlessly politicizing the call for a pastoral response. It is deeply dehumanizing to gay and lesbian families and antithetical to protecting the safety and dignity of all people Sojourners claims to advocate.

“Integrity is proud of its long history of building bridges of collaboration across differences with allies in the struggle for justice, said Max Niedzwiecki, Executive Director of Integrity USA. “We have through the years stood with Jim Wallis and with Sojourners on issues of poverty and peace – most recently in reflections on the death of Osama bin Laden and what it means to follow the Prince of Peace in times of war and violence. Today, we call on that long relationship and urge Wallis and Sojourners to claim this opportunity to be part of the solution – not a perpetuator of the problem – of homophobia.”

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  1. phballou

    Jim Wallis never spoke for me because of his lack of support for a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body. I wasn’t aware that anyone thought that he *did* speak for me. I was never asked. Sojourners’ anti-LBTG stance came as no great shock to me, either. They’re evangelical Christians, and I don’t think they’ve ever hidden that. Someone’s been assuming too much.

    Priscilla Ballou

  2. Bill Carroll

    I assume we should respond to Jim the same way that we do when we encounter folks like him in the parish. Love him, work with him when we can, and express our disagreements clearly. I’m not at all surprised by this move, and I never considered him a spokesperson for my position. I would hope that the Administration will continue to work with Wallis and keep him part of the coalition but not to assume that he speaks for the whole Church. I would also hope that Christians who believe as we do would work with secular LGBT organizations to ensure that Obama keeps his promises to the LGBT community and goes beyond them to move the country forward.

  3. Bill Nichols

    “I would hope that the Administration .. [will] not assume….” I agree that between ourselves & JW we should act as we otherwise would. I _disagree_ that we should merely “hope” the Obama admin knows he is not the voice for all. That kind of “hope” (i.e., assumption) is what created the opportunity for this situation.

    MOVHO is that an open letter from as many vested (in the stakeholder sense) people possible should go forth to *insure* the admin knows there are a lot more people involved than merely one prejudiced voice….

  4. Jim Naughton

    I should probably clarify. I am speaking of a very particular political problem. Whether Wallis speaks for you personally is more or less beside the point. The people who book television news shows, convene policy study groups on the hill and issue invitations to briefings at the White House think of Wallis as a progressive leader. His stature is elevated by their perception that he speaks for people whom he not only doesn’t speak for, but whom it is now clear he is happy to silence. That is a significant political problem for the religious left.

  5. Ecumaniac

    This is also what happens when one prizes access over principle. I don’t believe the Obama administration understands the progressive side of Christianity and, like so many of the other political elites, lumps Christians together in one pile and then caters to the edge of the pile most amenable to its own needs. We’ve gone along with that on the grounds that we get access–and you can see how far it’s gotten us.

    I would rather we speak clearly on the issues that metter to us and on the basis of values we hold dear rather than snuggle ourselves into coalitions that mute justice and inclusiveness.

    Gary L. Harke

  6. tobias haller

    Sojourners has pitched its tent according to politics, on the “safe” ground of the policy of gaining friends by excluding a presumed enemy. As Girard would say, “Voilà!”

    This should be called to their attention.

  7. TPeters

    “The people who book television news shows, convene policy study groups on the hill and issue invitations to briefings at the White House think of Wallis as a progressive leader.”

    He is a progressive leader. And I’d much rather see him in front of a TV camera than James Dobson.

    “His stature is elevated by their perception that he speaks for people whom he not only doesn’t speak for, but whom it is now clear he is happy to silence.”

    Pretty clearly, he won’t be seen as speaking for GLBT folks any longer. The media will simply turn to someone else to offer the “counterpoint” to the anti-GLBT position.

    Respectfully, the problem here is a lot bigger than JW not embracing GLBT folk. The problem is that there are only two types of Christians to most of the mainstream media: Catholics and evangelicals. The media turn to JW because he’s the only (or perhaps the most prominent) evangelical they can find that takes something other than hard line conservative positions on economic and social issues. Mainstream Christianity (the movement that has actually wrestled with these issues, and has largely come out on the side of LBGT inclusion) does not exist for the MSM.

    You want to win the media debate about GLBT inclusion? You first have to demonstrate that mainstream Christianity has something to say that worth listening to. That’s a much bigger battle. And until it’s won, we’ll continue to have to depend on others to argue our case to the media.

    Tom Peters

  8. Jim Naughton

    Tom, I am under the impression that we are winning the debate on LGBT inclusion. But I take some of your larger point. The media is under the impression, for whatever reason, that Jim Wallis speaks for large numbers of people and that the leaders of mainline denominations don’t. I don’t know that this is accurate, but there it is.

  9. Michael Russell

    I agree with Tom Peters. Those who are the best organized, or speak the loudest or spend the most money or occupy some unique position become the visible “voices” for various communities.

    JW and Sojourners, to be fair, have earned their street cred by organizing and partitipating in ministry in DC as well as writing about it. Sadly their position on GLBT issues has not changed in 30 years when they declared they could not see how it could be “God blessed”.

    That said, progressives have only ourselves to blame for being invisible in the media and the national forum. We haven’t organized, been loud, or spent money. We do not occupy any strategic position that requires we be heard. ONLY the LGBT community has organized with the passion and finances requisite to being heard. I applaud them for that. We have gone along for the ride on that issue but have not built as much vocal or organizational presence on other issues.

    Perhaps the Paul Ryan “Children killing, elder euthanizing, job killing budget” will galvanize us, but then again maybe not.

  10. As others have noted, what is needed here is not an either/or, but a both/and stance. It is predictable that in this toxic for-us-or-against-us political and religious culture, people are ready to drop Sojourners like a hot potato in the wake of this decision to reject the ad. As several folks have suggested, why not work with Sojourners on the issues of poverty and other issues on which we can agree and point out those issues on which we cannot? Unless, of course, one cannot share a table with those who disagree on GLBT rights. Sounds awfully familiar–much like some well-known African Primates…

    The point is that unless you want to add GLBT rights to Abortion as the litmus test upon which any association or accommodation is to be based, it is time to dust off your knees and keep going. Speak forcefully and clearly, but don’t take your marbles and go home.

  11. Jim Naughton

    I don’t hear anybody talking about taking their marbles and going home, Tom. The issue is that in official Washington, Wallis’s profile depends in significant measure on the perception that he is a leader on the religious left. Many of us feel that we have contributed to a credibility that is now being used against us. We have every right to make it clear that we are withdrawing out contributions.

    As it is, religious lefties make common cause with all sorts of people with whom we have all sorts of disagreements–the Catholic bishops, for instance. We should continue to do so. But no one mistakes the Catholic bishops for our spokesmen. That isn’t the case with Jim Wallis, and if we are going to get our message out, we can’t have a spokesperson who speaks against us. All I am suggesting is that some clarity about this role be brought to the attention of the wider public.

  12. tgflux

    unless you want to add GLBT rights to [right to choose] Abortion as the litmus test upon which any association or accommodation

    IF ONLY!!!! God speed the day…

    JC Fisher

  13. Eleanor Braun

    He has written a reply here: http://blog.sojo.net/2011/05/09/a-statement-on-sojourners-mission-and-lgbtq-issues/ He says: “We chose not to run the ad as this is an issue we want to openly discuss on and through our editorial pages and not through our ad space.” I don’t understand how being welcoming of all people in church is an issue that needs discussing. He also implies that other issues are more pressing.

  14. Bill Nichols

    Agree completely with you, Eleanor. How welcoming brothers/sisters is an issue, I just don’t get. And as far as making LGBT a litmus test, well, I’d say that particular item’s already been taken care of courtesy of JW & Sojourners….

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