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The progressive Christian coalition has changed

The progressive Christian coalition has changed

Jim Naughton writes in the Guardian about how the progressive religious agenda has moved since Jim Wallis began to speak up for a kind progressive evangelicalism that has also appealed to mainline Christians.


Sojourner’s rejection of an ad as mild as Believe Out Loud’s Mother’s Day message showed that the time is long past when one could advocate for social justice and work for civil rights while at the same time refusing to work for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians not only in society but in our churches as well.

Jim Wallis’s supporters, who are more liberal than conservative, believe he has had a knack for creating a safe space in which religious leaders who hold divergent views on issues rooted in sexuality can make common cause against hunger, poverty and war. His detractors believe that his is largely a ministry based on media attention, painting him as a skilful straddler and self-promoter, who convenes gatherings of less politically savvy religious leaders, and then emerges as their spokesman.

Whatever one’s opinion, the nature of Wallis’s achievement is undeniable. By talking a bipartisan game, he made room for the views of progressive religious leaders in debates about the nature of public morality – debates that since the Reagan administration were dominated by the newly resurgent religious right. Like Bill Clinton, he could speak the language of Bible-believing conservative while advocating the policies of a chastened liberal. And, like Clinton, he became a hero to Democrats who were tired of wandering endlessly in the political wilderness.

The radical conservatism of the Bush administration helped to burnish Wallis’s liberal credentials. He opposed the war in Iraq and argued annually that the federal budget was an expression of profoundly misguided moral priorities, emerging, in the process, as the face of progressive Christian resistance to a misguided presidency. In Barack Obama’s Washington, there is no more visible Christian leader than Wallis, who is sometimes described as one of the president’s “spiritual counsellors”.

But one cannot be both the left bank and the bridge. Either one is the face of a movement whose values one embraces and espouses, or one practises circumspection to play the honest broker, the great convener, the architect of the grand synthesis. Wallis still wants to be both, and this is now manifestly unhelpful to LGBT people and their supporters.

In an FAQ that went out many Sojourner’s subscribers, the organization said:

While we have significant areas of agreement with Believe Out Loud, Sojourners decided not to run the ad campaign because the Believe Out Loud campaign includes advocacy for gay marriage in the church. Sojourners has intentionally not taken a position on this matter but encourages civil dialogue within the church….

…Our mission is “to articulate the biblical call to social justice.” We focus on three primary issue areas: racial and economic justice, war and peace, and stewardship of the environment. We believe a central part of our calling is to bring together Christians around our primary issue areas, including people who might otherwise disagree on theological and biblical issues of interpretation around human sexuality and gay marriage. Our current campaigns focus on the federal budget, the war in Afghanistan, and just immigration policies. We understand and respect that other organizations have different focuses and priorities.

So, they argue that accepting the ad might have jeoparized the coalition that Wallis has built over the years. Polling seems to indicate that this is no longer the case.

Naughton wonders whether Wallis will lead, follow or get out of the way.

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tobias haller

Mark, I certainly didn't mean to suggest that Girard applied the principles he described! But for good or ill he has given his name to the concept. Certainly not as bad as Dr. Alzheimer's namesake! I mean, if you've got to have something named after you...

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Jim Naughton

Mark, my sense is that people who once felt that they were in no position to complain now realize that the tide of events is with them, and that their hand is strong enough to make a few demands. Public opinion has changed dramatically on this issue. Sojourners' has not. They are entitled to that opinion, but others are entitled to say that their unwillingness to change has repercussions.

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Mark Preece

Sorry, Jim -- the accusation of bad faith wasn't actually from the Cafe writer but from the article the Cafe piece highlighted, which said:

"I cannot help but think that this ultimately comes down to a fear of losing financial and communal support."

I misread it because I read it on a mobile device and the formatting wasn't clear.

Wallis and Sojourners are who they are -- they've always been clear on where they stand on issues, including the ones where they part ways with many progressive Christians (gay issues and abortion, mainly). I've never thought of them as representing me any more than I do, say, Commonweal magazine, which represents a voice from the Roman Catholic world I sometimes find compelling, but I don't expect to agree with me on everything. I just don't understand the sudden heat, or the accusations of bad faith (as in that piece the Cafe quoted.)

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Jim Naughton

Mark, I think the comparison you are drawing is ridiculous. If the religious left wants official Washington to realize that Wallis doesn't speak for its members on this issue, it has to say so. He enjoys a position of significant influence which he is seeking to preserve by silencing some of the people whom he purports to represent. He deserves to be called out on this point. BTW: if you are going to set yourself as the hall monitor of this debate, as you need to police your own conduct. No one who writes for the Cafe has accused Wallis of bad faith.

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Mark Preece

I'm not sure it's fair to Rene Girard to call this "Girardianism". It's not like he is in favor of this sort of social expulsion; it's just key to his cultural analysis.

And is it clear to everyone that this is more apparent in the way the Sojourners crowd is treating the LGBT community than in the way we progressives are now treating Wallis? Good grief -- last week Episcopal Cafe was floating the idea that Wallis wasn't mistakenly trying to hold a coalition together but cravenly trying to keep from alienating advertisers to his magazine! Based, as far as I could tell, on no particular evidence; based, rather, simply on the desire to express our anger using whatever mud came to hand.

I'm with you -- I disagree with Wallis's position -- but the assertion that he must be acting in bad faith if he disagrees on any aspect of the program was getting a little ugly, I thought.

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