On Being with Krista Tippett

Jim Wallis

The New Evangelical Leaders, Part I

Last Updated

November 29, 2007

Original Air Date

November 29, 2007

The first in a two-part series on influential leaders who are reshaping Evangelical Christianity from within progressive and conservative circles. Jim Wallis founded “Sojourners” and now advises presidential candidates and world leaders in what he calls the “post-Religious Right” era. He is determined to put poverty at the top of America’s “moral values” agenda.


Image of Jim Wallis

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine and author of several books, including God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It.


November 29, 2007

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, the first in a two-part series on a new generation of Evangelical leadership. We begin with Jim Wallis, a progressive Evangelical activist who is advising presidential candidates and world leaders in what he calls the “post-Religious Right era.”

REV. JIM WALLIS: There was always a more progressive Evangelical spirit. It was a growing kind of phenomenon. This new generation cares much more about the 30,000 children who died today globally because of totally unnecessary poverty and preventable disease, cares more about those three dozens kids than they do about gay marriage amendments in Ohio. They really do.

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Evangelical Christianity has no ultimate hierarchy. But it does have guiding figures in every generation. This week and next, we speak with a few who are changing imaginations within and beyond Evangelical Christianity about the priorities of this faith of over a quarter of the U.S. population.

We begin with Jim Wallis, a progressive Evangelical activist who is bringing his vision of religion and politics to a new generation of world leaders. He is determined to put poverty at the top of America’s moral values agenda.

From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The New Evangelical Leaders.”

The association of Evangelical Christianity with conservative politics is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was only in the early 20th century that biblically conservative Christians, who became known as Evangelicals, retreated from a 19th-century tradition of socially and politically engaged faith. The Religious Right of the 1980s marked their reemergence into the public sphere. But there has always been an active strain of Evangelicalism focused on social justice.

Jim Wallis has been in the vanguard of this for three decades. And after the 2004 election, many Americans, Evangelicals among them, reacted against what seemed a Republican appropriation of faith and a Democratic neglect of it. Jim Wallis’ book God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It dovetailed with this new national discontent. The book became a runaway best seller, and he became a player in mainstream political culture.

[Sound bite of Tucker Carlson show]

MR. TUCKER CARLSON: What is faith? The Democrats reclaim religion as a winning political issue. Joining us now for answers, a charter member of the religious left, the founder of Sojourners/Call to Renewal, the author of God’s Politics. We are honored to have Jim Wallis. Thanks a lot, Jim.

REV. WALLIS: Hi, Tucker.

MR. CARLSON: I want to put up a quote on the screen. This is from Barack Obama…

MS. TIPPETT: These days, Jim Wallis’ council is sought from Capitol Hill to the World Economic Forum at Davos. He co-hosted a first-ever Democratic forum on faith on CNN with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. So I wanted a deeper sense of who Jim Wallis is and what kind of influence he’s bringing to bear on American Christianity and politics. Once a radical student activist, he is now progressive in his politics, moderately conservative on issues of personal morality, and he quotes his Bible like a revival preacher. Now, 59, Jim Wallis was raised in Detroit by parents who, he says, were Eisenhower Republicans.

REV. WALLIS: Oh, I’m from the middle of Middle America. And my mom and dad started the church that was a place I grew up, little Plymouth Brethren assembly, very evangelical place. And it was our whole life, that we had no clergy. So lay leadership was what we had. My dad was an engineer…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

REV. WALLIS: …but he was kind of a chief elder. And so I kind of was a pastor’s kid, but he was kind of a real everyday work person. He’d got up every day at 5:00 in the morning to study his Bible for two hours, and then got us up for work and school. And it was that level of commitment and passion, and they both were like that. They were the leaders of the church, though, my mom was a woman, so she couldn’t publicly be the leader, but they were the leaders of the church, you know? And so…

MS. TIPPETT: And was it — Plymouth Brethren, I think…


MS. TIPPETT: …can be many things. Were they theologically conservative? Did they have a social justice…

REV. WALLIS: Oh, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: …mindset?

REV. WALLIS: No, it was very Evangelical in the usual ways back then. And I remember — I remember I was 6 years old and my parents were a little nervous, because, well, I wasn’t saved yet. And I was getting up in years, I was 6, you know? So there’s a fiery evangelist that was billed to be coming in a couple of weeks, and so I was kind of dreading the day because I heard he was pretty scary. And all unsaved kids had to sit in the first row. You know — we never wanted to sit in the first row, because I think the closer you are to a sermon, the more impact it will have in your life, you know? But he preached and he pointed his finger — it seemed right at me — and he says, ‘If Jesus came back tonight, your mommy and daddy would be taken to heaven, and you would be left…

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, gosh.

REV. WALLIS: …all by yourself.’

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

REV. WALLIS: Well, it got my attention. And so I asked my mother how to fix this thing. And to her everlasting credit, she told me about the love of God, not the wrath of God. And God wanted me to be his child. And so I signed up. It wasn’t deep, but it was, it was as real as it gets, you know, for a 6 year old.

Well, my second conversion was really the most important, because I’m 14 now, I’m paying attention in my home city, Detroit. I’m reading the papers, I’m listening to the news, and I’m asking questions: ‘How come we live the way we do in white Detroit? And life is so different in black Detroit, just a few miles or blocks away?’ ‘You’re too young to ask these questions,’ I was told. ‘When you get older, you’ll understand or…”

MS. TIPPETT: So where — what are we — what decade are we talking here?

REV. WALLIS: This is like early 1960s, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

REV. WALLIS: And so I didn’t get answers. So I went in the city to find answers, and I met the black church. And they loved the same Jesus and read the same Bible and sang out of the same hymnbook, made it sound so much better than we did.

MS. TIPPETT: Did you just walk into a black church?

REV. WALLIS: Yeah. I just started reading books and I read the autobiography of Malcolm X, and I…

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, so the civil rights movement’s bubbling along…

REV. WALLIS: It was…

MS. TIPPETT: …in the culture at large.

REV. WALLIS: Oh, yeah. And I’m hearing about this guy in the South, this minister named King, you know? What was he up to, you know? How come we never had any black preachers at our church? Never been to a black church. And so I came back with questions and — new questions and new friends and some answers. And an elder, one night in a very pivotal moment for me, said, ‘Jim, you have to understand Christianity has nothing to do with racism. That’s political and our faith is personal.’

And, Krista, I think that’s the night that I left in my head and my heart. And I was gone in a couple of years altogether and got — joined the civil rights struggle and the anti-war movement. I didn’t have words to go around it then, but I do now. And the words are that God is personal, but never private. And I have a privatized notion of faith that never touched the world.

MS. TIPPETT: So you left the church because you felt that the church…


MS. TIPPETT: …wasn’t meshed without that and couldn’t get — couldn’t make the connections you were making?

REV. WALLIS: To be honest, I felt kind of kicked out, because I was raising these questions and they really didn’t want them in the church. You know our favorite verse in those days was, “For God so loved the world,” John 3:16, “that He gave His only begotten son. And who so ever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The problem is, we only focused on the last two stanzas about everlasting life and not “for God so loved the world.” And the world was who I cared about is — was my world. I was a teenage kid; I wanted to change the world. And they didn’t care about changing the world. They just didn’t care about the world.

MS. TIPPETT: So when you went to college, Michigan State University, you weren’t a religious person?

REV. WALLIS: No. I was unsuccessfully evangelized by groups of students on campus. We could put 10,000 people in the street in two hours’ time in those days. We deployed students all over the state of Michigan like an army. We’re very well organized, and I wasn’t a Christian. I was — you know, I was pretty angry. I felt betrayed by the church. Though I never could quite get shed of Jesus to be honest. He was always kind of lingering and hanging around my head and my heart. But, no, I wasn’t actively a Christian at all. Pretty angry, pretty oppositional to the churches in those days.

MS. TIPPETT: So what pulled you back? Because I don’t — I sense that…


MS. TIPPETT: …a lot of your activism was around issues that you still care about today. So what pulled — drew you back to that — to faith, to…


MS. TIPPETT: …organized religion even?

REV. WALLIS: I was, in those days, reading Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara…


REV. WALLIS: …Karl Marx, like everybody was, you know? And I just didn’t think that what I was reading and what I was finding, sort of, on the left was an adequate foundation or basis for life, and it wasn’t deep enough. It wasn’t strong enough. So I went back to the New Testament on my own, kind of one last time, and I began to read in the Book of Matthew. Just on my own. And I read the Sermon on the Mount.

And amazingly, I had never heard a sermon in my home church on the Sermon on the Mount, which was the primary catechetical instruction for the early Christians. And I read it and I was just really, you know, fascinated. I was blown away by how radical it was. It was a change to everything — personal, spiritual, political, economic…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Take — tell me just a line or two that, you know, that struck you then as central, that strike you still as — because somebody is listening, who doesn’t know what this sermon — what’s in the Sermon on the Mount.

REV. WALLIS: Well, the Beatitudes…

MS. TIPPETT: And there’s a lot of there, you know — yeah.

REV. WALLIS: But the — you know, Blessed are the poor, blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the desire for justice, blessed are the peacemakers. You know, I was told my home church that that was for a different dispensation, they said, for the future, when we all get to heaven.


REV. WALLIS: When I was 14, I said, ‘I think we need that now,’ you know? Why would we need that in heaven, you know? But then I got to my conversion text, was later in the Book of Matthew, Matthew 25. And Jesus says, of course, famously, ‘I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was naked, I was sick, I was a stranger, I was in prison. You never came to me.’ “As you have done it to the least of these,” He says, “you have done it to me.” Here’s the Son of God sitting in judgment saying, ‘How you treat those who were left out and left behind is the way I’m going to regard you treating me.’

MS. TIPPETT: Evangelical social activist Jim Wallis. I’m Krista Tippett. And this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, the first in a two-part series, “The New Evangelical Leaders.”

In 1971, pursuing his renewed understanding of Christianity, Jim Wallis founded the magazine now known as Sojourners, which currently reaches 250,000 subscribers in print and online. But it was originally called The Post American.

REV. WALLIS: Our text was — this wonderful text in Romans 12, “Don’t be conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” In the one version, “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold.” And we were dealing with a totally Americanized notion of religion. So we said, ‘Let’s call our publication The Post American.’ Beyond, we’re Christians first and whatever else, second or third or fourth. Very radical idea.

And the first cover, Krista, you should see it. Here’s a sculpt of Jesus wrapped in an American flag. All right. And the line on the cover of our publication was “And They Crucified Him.”


REV. WALLIS: Way to start, you know, kind of building bridges…


REV. WALLIS: …to Evangelicals, you know? So that was like the first — it was tabloid newspaper printed by the same people in Chicago who did the Black Panther paper, you know?


REV. WALLIS: And on the inside, I counted, there were like 12 clinched fists on that first issue of the magazine. It was against the war, you know? And it was about poverty and justice, but it was also about how Jesus was the foundation and the answer. And it was — really, it was written, Krista, more to students like we had been. It was written to the activist, radical students who weren’t Christians, not to the churches. We thought — got a response from Christians around the country.

It was like putting a flag up a flagpole, and those on the ground couldn’t see each other but they could see that little flag of the flagpole, ran at the bottom of the pole, and that was the beginning of our constituency.

MS. TIPPETT: Sojourners is now a big influential organization. And, you know, it’s even a brand that’s seen on CNN during a presidential debate, right? And I wonder if many people know that Sojourners was not just a publication, not just a, you know, an organization, but a community…

REV. WALLIS: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: …a living community.


MS. TIPPETT: Did that begin when you moved to Washington in — when was that?

REV. WALLIS: No, it began…

MS. TIPPETT: Back on 1975?

REV. WALLIS: You’re exactly right. We say, we got to do this. We got to live this way. We got to — so first, we’re in seminary. And then we — in seminary, we got a house off-campus. And we began to organize and mobilize, and we had these worship celebrations every week. And they drew all the alienated kids in the community, all the kids who were doing drugs and all of life’s…

MS. TIPPETT: So you’re kind of a house church then?

REV. WALLIS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Uh-huh.

REV. WALLIS: And we did rock and roll and we, you know, preached. It was really kind of — and it drew just hundreds and hundreds of people. And then we began to organize in Chicago. And we went to the inner city and we started a community. We went to very toughest, poorest neighborhoods uptown in Chicago and began to live among the poor, work among the poor. And then came to Washington and did the same in what was really the Washington war zones. And this was — we moved in here, and there was gunfire every night, and cabs wouldn’t bring people to our neighborhood.

And we tried, you know, in our own fledgling, very human, very flawed way to live. So it was a publication, it was a community, and it was a movement right from the start. We’re traveling around the country and, you know, and — it is funny, now we’re, you know, CNN or whatever.

The experience for years, Krista, was speaking in a stadium without a microphone. And the way you do that is you talk to one section at a time and you keep moving around the stadium. I did that for years. And then you build up a constituency — very strong, very loyal.

Well, now, we have the microphone, but we’ve been in the stadium for years speaking without a microphone. But now, things have broken through in ways that we never really expected.

MS. TIPPETT: And you still live in that Columbia Heights neighborhood, right…


MS. TIPPETT: …with your — and now raising your family there.

REV. WALLIS: Yeah, yeah. I have a 4-year-old son and 9-year-old son.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. So as you said, you’ve been around doing this for a long time, in the stadium without a microphone. And you’ve been an Evangelical. You’ve been an Evangelical leader in some circles. You know, after the 2000 election, after the 2004 election, many Americans, many of my fellow journalists kind of woke up to Evangelical Christianity.

REV. WALLIS: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: As though it was almost a new phenomenon, or certainly new that it was so many Americans with so much potential power and actual power.

But I wonder if you would tell me your story of who Evangelicals have been and, you know, kind of the diversity of the Evangelical movement that you’ve represented for a long time in the same period of, you know, 30, 40 years that we’re talking about, before Evangelical Christianity was a political force in the way it is now.

REV. WALLIS: Well, I’m a 19th-century Evangelical, born in the wrong century.


REV. WALLIS: Because back then, Charles Finney, Lucy Stone, the Grimke sisters, Jonathan Blanchard — these preachers, revivalists were also abolitionists. They led the antislavery campaign. They fought for women’s suffrage. They fought for economic justice.

In fact, Charles Finney, who was the evangelist, the Billy Graham of to his day, really pioneered the alter call. And the reason he did was he wanted to sign his converts up for the antislavery campaign. So faith got directed right to justice.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. That is an incredible fact.

REV. WALLIS: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: So I want to hear Jim Wallis’ explanation, narrative, of how, when Evangelical Christianity burst on to the political scene in the early 21st century, poverty was not one of the watchwords.

REV. WALLIS: Well, what happened was, if you look back — and I’ve been just enthralled by this revival history, you know, these great awakenings. And the first one, the first great awakening led probably to spark the war, you know, the independence, and this new nation, this new sense of being a new people. The second one was Finney and the others about abolition of slavery and women suffrage. Third was William Jennings Bryan and the whole end-of-the-19th-century progressive movement — led to the New Deal and the Social Gospel.

I think the fourth one was the black churches and how they were the foundation for the civil rights movement. Then we had this period where, literally, some political operatives on the right, overtly political operatives, had some meetings in this town, in Washington, D.C., with some of the television preachers, Falwell and Robertson. And they strike up a deal. So this was, I think, more a political movement than a religious one. But they grabbed issues that were important to Christians, like the sanctity of life or the health of marriage. But they turned it into a narrow agenda about abortion and gay marriage, and that was very successful for a period of time.

But what people didn’t understand was that underneath all that, there was real uneasiness and real dissention. There was always a more progressive Evangelical spirit. And it wasn’t just Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo and Ron Sider. It was a growing kind of phenomenon.

This new generation cares much more about the 30,000 children who died today globally because of totally unnecessary poverty and preventable disease, cares more about those 30,000 kids than they do about gay marriage amendments in Ohio. They really do.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Progressive Evangelical leader Jim Wallis.

REV. WALLIS: We’re at the beginning of what, I think, could be a new great awakening. I think we’re at an edge of what could be a revival of faith that’s — I’m known more as a social activist, as you know. But I’m saying right now that, you know, we won’t get to social justice without a revival of faith, you know? The issues are too big. Too big to be left at just education or good organizing or the right program.

MS. TIPPETT: And I think that point you’re making that in your circles or in certain circles is new, because you talked about the fourth awakening, religious awakening, great awakening as the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, which had an incredible religious base. I mean Martin Luther King Jr.…

REV. WALLIS: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: …was a preacher…

REV. WALLIS: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: …and a theologian, first and foremost. But that got lost, as even people who carried that tradition forward, you know, the people who cared about that kind of social program and social justice…

REV. WALLIS: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: …detached it…

REV. WALLIS: Exactly. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: …from that religious base, or inspiration, or grounding.

REV. WALLIS: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: So what went wrong on the left, you know, that also played into what led to the religious right in…

REV. WALLIS: Well, the subtitle of my last book was Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.


REV. WALLIS: It was both. You’re right, the left became very secular.

Now, I want to say religion has no monopoly on morality. I want to say that every time I speak, I say something like that. But the left got very kind of — they became like secular fundamentalists, you know, distaining religion, religious people, people of faith. And it really created a situation where the right seemed to own God. God was a Republican, obviously. And the left and the Democrats were hostile to faith and secular. And, you know, the polls about churchgoing people vote Republican, and all the rest. Well, now we see what Time magazine is calling “a leveling of the praying field.” That was a nice phrase.

MS. TIPPETT: Uh-huh.

REV. WALLIS: Now, you have three Democrats running for president who happened to be strong and authentic people of faith. And we had — we hosted all three of them on our CNN forum. The Republican side, there isn’t a candidate who exemplifies a sort of, you know, conservative religious movement anymore.

So I think that’s good because God isn’t a Republican or a Democrat, and faith shouldn’t be on any parties’ political pocket. We should be the ultimate swing vote, if you would, holding both sides accountable.

So the changing agenda on the ground among Evangelicals, Catholics, mainline folks, the whole Jewish renewal that’s going on, I’m excited about. And I’m talking to a lot of — you are, too — young Muslims. So something prophetic is growing again around the country. And I think it’s going to change the whole political landscape.

Politics is failing to solve the big issues. When that happens, social movements rise up to change politics. And the best social movements always have spiritual foundation. That’s what revival is.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s a pretty big claim.

REV. WALLIS: And that’s one thing we’re going to…

MS. TIPPETT: That’s a pretty big claim.

REV. WALLIS: Yeah. I think that’s — they’re like mountains. I mean they’re like big mountains — 3 billion people living on $2 a day, 30,000 kids dying today. You say, how do we — these are too big for us. The odds are against us. How do we change that? Well, the Bible says, you got faith the size of a grain of a mustard seed, you can move mountains. But I think anything short of a revival of faith isn’t going to be enough.

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, there were cries of theocracy or impending theocracy with the…


MS. TIPPETT: …influence of conservative Evangelical Christians in the Bush White House.

REV. WALLIS: Mm-hmm. Right.

MS. TIPPETT: And some people say that what you’re talking about, while it’s coming from a different direction, is also playing with the separation of church and state, crossing lines that seemed to have been drawn more firmly 10 years ago.

REV. WALLIS: It’s a fair question. And I like to always answer because, you know, Martin Luther King Jr. had his Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other hand. And I — he never endorsed a candidate and I never have either. He made them endorse his agenda. And while he navigated the course of power, his base was outside of them. Desmond Tutu in South Africa, after the ANC, the movement for liberation won, and they were the government, he’d supported them, he stepped back and became a prophetic voice to the new government.

So I think it’s very important that we affirm the separation of church and state. That doesn’t mean the segregation of moral values from public life. But also, it doesn’t banish religious language from the public square as long as we are respectful of diversity and pluralism and democracy.

(Sound bite of music)

MS. TIPPETT: Evangelical social activist Jim Wallis.

(Sound bite of music)

MS. TIPPETT: Jim Wallis does not claim to represent the majority of American Evangelicals. But he does increasingly command an enthusiastic following among young Evangelicals. He attracted packed crowds at Christian colleges after the publication of his last book, God’s Politics. Over 2,000 students turned out to hear Wallis at the prestigious Evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois, a place that once banned him from speaking during the Vietnam War years.

Wallis noted in that speech that Wheaton College was founded by an abolitionist preacher, Jonathan Blanchard, a model of the 19th-century Evangelical impulse to social reform that he’d like to resurrect. Here are more of Jim Wallis’ remarks at Wheaton that drew a standing ovation.

REV. WALLIS: Jesus’ first sermon at Nazareth. I call it his mission statement. He says, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” it’s His Nazareth manifesto. “Because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” That’s what it says, “good news to the poor.” And so, I want to say, whatever else our gospel is, however else it changes our lives, and it does, it changes everything about our lives. Our families — it changes our lives. But if our gospel is not good news to the poor, it’s simply not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Conservative Evangelicals in America have created a Jesus who is pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-American. That, that is a distortion, a misrepresentation of the Jesus of the Bible. I’m doing an altar call now. Don’t worry, you don’t have to get up and walk down the aisle. An altar call to a new generation of young Evangelicals, who are 19th-century Evangelicals for a 21st century, who wouldn’t conceive of separating their faith in Jesus Christ from their passion for economic justice, I meet them all over the country. A new generation’s rising up. And I’m doing e-mail altar calls all over the country. If you care about this, I want your e-mail, to get you a part of the movement, to get you connected — it’s free…

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, Jim Wallis’ vision of how ending poverty could become part of the American Electoral agenda.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: In many ways, our radio program is just the beginning. We’re making our material more portable and inviting you behind the scenes. You can download MP3s of this program and my entire unedited conversation with Jim Wallis through our Web site, our SOF podcast, and in our weekly e-mail newsletter. Discover more at speakingoffaith.org.

I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.

MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, the first of two programs on new Evangelical leaders. Next week, we’ll speak with The Purpose Driven Life author and entrepreneurial pastor Rick Warren, together with his wife, Kay. She’s become a bridge-building force in the global fight against AIDS. The Warrens are a rising influence, primarily in traditionally conservative circles. My guest this hour, Jim Wallis, is influential primarily among progressive politicians, though both Wallis and Warren, in what also seems a sign of the times, are in collaboration across the partisan and cultural divides of recent years.

Jim Wallis is best known as the founder and editor-in-chief of Sojourners, which has long been a leading voice of progressive social justice Evangelicalism. And especially since the publication of his 2005 book, God’s Politics, Wallis has become something of a national celebrity, proposing a new agenda for religion in politics in what he calls the “post-Religious Right era.”

Right now, Sojourners is planning a series of justice revivals across the U.S. This is a merger of two traditions that formed Jim Wallis: the Civil Rights Movement and the mass public revivals of Billy Graham. Some see Wallis himself as a kind of Billy Graham figure for a new era, and he, too, has positioned himself as a pastor and spiritual advisor to powerful people. I asked Jim Wallis about this.

REV. WALLIS: Billy Graham was always very warm to me, always, always welcoming the new generation.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

REV. WALLIS: Agreeing with so much of what we were saying. He said the world would be surprised how much I agree with what you’re trying to do and say. And, and that tradition is powerful to me, but it’s the Finneyists, the ones who linked faith to social justice very directly, that really fire my heart. So, I think we want to build movements outside of the corridors of power, but then, you want to be able to speak to them.

Right now, I’ve — there’s these open doors — Gordon Brown, the new prime minister of Great Britain, has been a friend for 10 years. We’ve been having breakfast and talking for 10 years. Kevin Rudd is to become the prime minister in Australia. Catholic, very committed…


REV. WALLIS: …very smart guy. Five languages, he speaks. We’ve been having dinner and talking. I am friends with some of the ones running for president here. I think we’re going to have some open doors in some of the key capitals of the world.

MS. TIPPETT: And when you say open doors, open to what?

REV. WALLIS: Well, Gordon Brown once said over breakfast one day, he said, you know, for the first time in history, we have the knowledge and technology and information, and resources to end extreme poverty as we know it. What we don’t have, he said, is the moral and the political will. He looks across the table at 11 Downing Street and he says, ‘That’s your job, in the churches, that’s your job.’

MS. TIPPETT: And who was — was this when you met with, was this you or was this you and a group of other Evangelical leaders?

REV. WALLIS: Well, the first time he said that was to me over breakfast, just the two of us, but then he said that to — I brought a bunch of leaders back for the G8 in Britain and he said a similar thing to all of them. Brown, I think, is the head of state around the world right now. The one who has the deepest passion for an issue like global poverty. He has it deep in his soul. And I think we’re going to have a new generation of leaders now. I was just in Singapore, as I said, and the global south is rising up around the world, and there are some new leaders there too…


REV. WALLIS: …in the poorest countries. New, powerful political leader. And what I’m saying is that social movements will be necessary to make real progress on the big issues. And historically, those who generally had spiritual foundations.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. And, you know, I think I may have met you the first time, we were both attending a conference and it was in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I think it was a couple of months after that.

REV. WALLIS: Hmm. Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: I had a sense in those weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina and I sensed — I believe you spoke about this as well — that it had really woken people up in this country, and it was no longer possible to ignore poverty in that great American city and others, racial isolation in that great city and others.

REV. WALLIS: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: I don’t feel like that’s been picked up on. I’m so, I mean, tell me, how you experience that? Are there things you’re seeing out there that I’m not?

REV. WALLIS: I think you’re right about Katrina, where we saw the people who were left behind…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

REV. WALLIS: …had already been left out in American society. So natural disasters often reveal the great disaster of the way the world is structured. But I still think the teachable lesson from Katrina — and even 9/11 — is still there. It’s around, I see it all the time on the road, and I do think that the new altar call for the new revival is going to be, like the slogan in the movement in Britain a few years ago, called Make Poverty History. Poverty and human trafficking and HIV as an issue that reveals that the inequality of the world is really going to be at the heart of this revival.

MS. TIPPETT: But do we know, do we know how to eradicate poverty?

REV. WALLIS: Well, we have these three obstacles. One is, the poor have not been a priority. Two is, we have a debate about strategy. And three is the real one: We don’t know poor people. Liberals or conservatives don’t really know. Poor people are utterly segregated. They don’t live all over the country; they live only in certain places. And, you know, until poor people are our friends, not just the objects of our concern on the liberal side or the people who are to blame for their own misfortunes on the conservative side, how can anybody say that out of wedlock birth and family breakdown and addictions are not a causal fact of poverty? How can anyone say that not affording health care and having no affordable housing to — and having education that doesn’t educate aren’t causes of poverty?

MS. TIPPETT: I think what I hear you’re saying is that poverty, in fact, brings together both the issues of family life, right, and addiction…

REV. WALLIS: Right, mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: …that are in sanctity of life that are important to conservative Christians. And also the issues of policy and the social justice issues that maybe liberals traditionally would define as their moral values issues. Is that…

REV. WALLIS: Yeah. The biblical notion is that the truth about a society is much better known from the bottom of that society then from the top. We did this experiment way back a long time ago, as young seminarians, we found every passage in the Bible about poor people, about wealth and poverty, oppression, all that, and we found several thousand verses. It was the second most prominent theme in the Hebrew scripts, the Old Testament. And in the New Testament, the Synoptic Gospels, the first three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, one of every 16 verses.


REV. WALLIS: In Luke, it was one of every seven verses. And we took the Bible and we took a pair of scissors and we cut out of the Bible every single reference to poor people. And when we were done, the Bible was in shreds. It was full of holes, falling apart in my hands. I’d take it out to preach. I’d say, ‘Brothers and sisters, this is the American Bible. It’s just full of holes.’

I still have that old Bible now, full of holes, ripped to shreds. What’s happening now, Krista, is our Bibles are being put back together again by a new generation. This isn’t about politics or a liberal or a conservative. This is about the integrity of the word of God. There’s nothing as basic as this, how we treat the other, the vulnerable, the poor, the enemy. The one who’s not at the table is the one we’re going to be judged by.

MS. TIPPETT: Evangelical social activist Jim Wallis. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. This week and next, “The New Evangelical Leaders.”

In 2006, Jim Wallis’ Sojourners community merged with Call to Renewal, another organization he founded. This advocacy initiative brings a broad range of Christian groups together across the political spectrum to address poverty and the manifold dynamics that make it possible.

MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, I just want to push this a little bit more. I mean, Sojourners has been a pretty traditional social action urban organization. You know, you said that we’re seeing, we’ve seen the limits of politics, and I think we’ve also seen, you know, the limits of tactics.

REV. WALLIS: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: And so, you know, do you see new ways to really help people, not just care about these issues because I think…


MS. TIPPETT: …people do care, but often, they care and they just are, you know, overwhelmed by the idea that there’s nothing they can do about it.

REV. WALLIS: Oh, I think that’s right.

MS. TIPPETT: So, maybe you would talk about people you know about or projects, where those connections are being made in new and fresh ways.

REV. WALLIS: You work on these issues and — we’ve done all of it. We’ve done food coops and tutoring and we’ve done housing coops. We’ve run homeless shelters, all the stuff. It’s all good. And it changes us to start to change our lives.


REV. WALLIS: And finally, you can’t keep pulling bodies out of the river and not send somebody upstream to see what or who is throwing them in. You know, Salvation Army founders Catherine and William Booth, radical Evangelicals in their day. They said you can’t keep picking up bodies at the bottom of the mountain and not climb the hill and see who’s pushing them off the edge. Now, I think the line is not from service to just politics. The line’s got to be from service to movement. You saw that movie this year, Amazing Grace about William Wilberforce.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

REV. WALLIS: Very dynamic, charismatic parliamentarian. What it didn’t show was the “prairie fire” movement all through the U.K. of ordinary people who wouldn’t put sugar in their tea because the plantations were making sugar made by slaves, harvested by slaves, and the slave movements themselves, the rebellions in Jamaica.

What I — in D.C., you know, I often talk to people who are going to lobby on the Hill about this or that. And I say here’s how you recognize a member of Congress. They’re the ones walking around with their fingers up in the air. And then they lick their finger and they put it back up and they see which way the wind is blowing.

You can’t change a nation by replacing one wet-fingered politician with another. You change a nation when you change the wind. You change the way the wind is blowing, it’s amazing how quickly they respond. And so you look at Selma, Alabama, and how that led to a Voting Rights Act five months later. Johnson had told King just before Selma, it’ll take five years to get a Voting Rights Act. King said, I can’t wait five years.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

REV. WALLIS: He organized Selma. And we’ve got to now be wind-changers. Not lobbyists, but wind-changers. How do we — by our service, by our doing in our lives — how do we then join together and knit together a movement that holds politics accountable?

MS. TIPPETT: So if you were imagining, you know, what would your dream of the 2008 version of Selma be? You know, this is what we have to make happen in five months.

REV. WALLIS: Well, one thing we’re actually working on is for a long time, I was focusing on trying to put poverty on the agenda for this election in a way it hadn’t been before. And we’re making some progress. We’re now thinking of having something six months after the election where we invite the new president — whoever he or she is — to come and announce their bold plan for a serious poverty reduction that will involve all of us in the context of the faith community. I want to see national efforts — this nation, for example, is not very far away from the people saying do something about health care. I mean…


REV. WALLIS: …some polls show that people will even spend more taxes on their money to find health care solutions. And so…

MS. TIPPETT: And so, again — when you think…

REV. WALLIS: It’s leadership…

MS. TIPPETT: …is health care part of the idea of poverty?

REV. WALLIS: Sure. Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s a — it’s included in that. Now, so, I think there…


MS. TIPPETT: …has been some wisdom, some political wisdom in recent years that you can’t mobilize Americans around an issue like poverty the way you can mobilize them around issues of self-interest or personal interest. I mean, do you think that’s true?

REV. WALLIS: You know, I’m on campuses all the time. And you know, students I meet, I always hear back two words. We’re looking for meaning and we’re looking for connection. And I think it’s our need to connect with those that we’ve left out and left behind. I love the Isaiah text where it says that your healing — Isaiah 58 — your healing is tied up in your response to those who have been left out and left behind. This nation needs to be healed of our divisions, our deep inequalities, our — we don’t know each other and we’re diminished by that.

So I think it is something that at a deeper sense is in our best interest. Finally, to affirm the common good, the common good, which is a very biblical notion, is in our own best interest. I want my kids to be raised in a country that values the common good and not just the survival of the fittest.

(Sound bite of music)

REV. WALLIS: Sometimes I say the Religious Right has been replaced by Jesus, and I think that’s true. I think there’s something so compelling about the figure of Jesus. You go to any street corner and ask anybody there — whether they’re believers or not — what they think of Jesus. They’ll say, ‘Well, you know, He hung out with poor people and prostitutes and sinners and He was compassionate and loving and He was for peace.’ You always get that. Then you ask what they think of Christians. You get a whole different set of adjectives thrown evangelically.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

REV. WALLIS: It gets pretty nasty what you hear. And yet, this is the gospel of Jesus. Not the gospel about Jesus, but the gospel of Jesus that’s drawing people from so many places. So I see Evangelicals, a new generation and they’re just being drawn to this radical vision of Jesus and the kingdom. I see Catholic social teaching coming alive again. I see mainline churches, but I’m particularly seeing an immigrant church, I’m seeing a new generation of black Christians, you know, who aren’t content with singing the praises of the civil rights movement. They want to make their own history for justice.

Latino Christians, Asian-American Christians who don’t want the assimilationist ethic of their parents. They want to change their neighborhoods. They’re creating, I think, what I’d call a post-white church in America, where we’re beginning to look like the church of the global south. That’s where Christianity is growing in the global south.

And it’s deeply personal but it’s being applied to changing the facts of HIV, or climate change, or poverty. So I think, you know, something new is happening. And I think a particular narrow American view — going back to our first name in the magazine, Post American — that’s happening now. Globalization has inevitable logic, has no comparable ethic.

And so, perhaps, international communities of faith could help supply the ethics for globalization, the rules of a global neighborhood that come from the prophetic tradition that’s embedded in all of our great religious faith communities.

MS. TIPPETT: A great line, which was the first line of one of your books: “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.”

REV. WALLIS: Uh-huh, yeah. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: What were you thinking of when you wrote that? And how do you — have you lived into that sentence?

REV. WALLIS: When I was growing up, the choice was between belief and secularism. So…


REV. WALLIS: It was like there’s this monster called secular humanism. It’s going to eat your children, you know?


REV. WALLIS: That was the big choice. I don’t think that’s the big choice. There is a big choice, though. The big choice today for us is the one between hope and cynicism. Hope is not a feeling or a personality type. It’s a decision wherever change has come. It’s because some people believed in that possibility before it came to be.

It’s hope as a decision that makes change possible. And I think that choice for hope is the most important contribution the faith community has to make to the world, the promise and the power of hope. Things can change. They have and they will. And that’s always something that we insist upon because our God, finally, is bigger than all the things that we think are so big.

MS. TIPPETT: Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine. He’s the author of God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. His new book will be published in January. It’s called The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America.

We’d like to hear what you think. Contact us and share your reflections at speakingoffaith.org. And we’re making our content more accessible and portable. You can always download a copy of all of our programs free through our Web site, our SOF podcast, and our e-mail newsletter. And if you’d like to hear more of Jim Wallis, download an MP3 of my entire unedited conversation with him. And Speaking of Faith is now available on iTunes U, an enriching resource for teachers and lifelong learners. This free collection is organized by subject and features additional tools for learning. Let us know if you use Speaking of Faith in your courses. Your input will help shape our offering. Look for the iTunes U link at speakingoffaith.org.

The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck and Shiraz Janjua. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss. Bill Buzenberg is our consulting editor. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I’m Krista Tippett.


Subscribe to On Being with Krista Tippett