© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pastor Jim Wallis Back To Being Political


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, March Madness 2013 is now a memory, but there's still one champion yet to be announced. Yes, we are going to announce the winner of our TELL ME MORE March Madness Challenge. That's just ahead.

First, though, it's time for Faith Matters. That's where we talk about matters of spirituality and faith. Today, our guest is someone whose name you know if you follow the politically active faith community. His name is Jim Wallis. He leads the progressive Christian evangelical group Sojourners. We often turn to him for perspective on issues where values and policy intersect, like immigration and gun safety. Well, until, well, we couldn't, because perhaps one of the most interesting things about Jim Wallis is when he chooses not to speak out. Most recently, that was in the first few months of the 2012 presidential campaign, when he chose to step out of the political fray.

He's back now, though, with a new outlook and a new book. It's called "On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned About Serving the Common Good." And Reverend Wallis is back with us once again in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

JIM WALLIS: Delighted to be back.

MARTIN: Forgive me. It may be sort of a - just a sign of the cynicism of the age that when somebody steps aside even for a time, particularly in a place like Washington, D.C., particularly at a time when there's a lot of interest in what he or she has to say, you assume it's for something bad. You know, you assume that something bad has happened. He's been disciplined by his denomination, and that didn't happen in your case.

WALLIS: I took a sabbatical to write a book.


WALLIS: I began with a week in a monastery, and then for three months, I would get up early and have some quiet, exercise, and I would think and read and write all day. And my discipline was not to speak or to write or do interviews on great shows like this. But then, at night, I'd watch the political news cycle, and the more I watched, the more depressing it was: the vitriol, the anger, the hatred, the polarization, paralyzation. I realized we'd lost something very important.

MARTIN: Well, let me just stop you just for a second, just ask just briefly again about why the idea of taking a sabbatical came about, and why at that time, because one might think that - if one is politically engaged, the beginning of a presidential campaign or, at that point, given the way things work these days, really, the campaign is in full swing, even though the election year starts in 2012 and by January, it's in full swing. That's exactly the time when you might want to be talking, because you want to sort of affect the dialog. But that's exactly the point that you chose to step aside. I just wonder why.

WALLIS: And I felt very tempted the whole time, and it was tough to step aside. Part of it was my team, my staff, my board said, to write this book, you need some time away to write, and not just try to put it on top of the rest of your work. That was good. But the more I got away and just listened, stopped talking, listened, the deeper my thinking, my feeling, my conversations went - and this idea of the common good goes back centuries, I discovered, and it's so timely right now.

And the simple idea that I realized more and more as I watched this news cycle, when we're just taking care of ourselves and our side and our party and our tribe and our group, we're all in serious trouble. But when we start taking care of each other, our neighbors and all of them, that's the beginning of the common good. And the foundation, spiritually, is the second commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself.

Now, for me, the more I wrestled with that, it meant that I could love my son Luke, a 14-year-old, and my son Jack, the 10-year-old, as much as I do, more than I ever thought I could love anything or anyone. But it means, if that text is serious, in all our traditions, it means I've got to love other people's kids like I love my own. That is a transformational ethic, and it was supposed to be.

MARTIN: So you had been thinking about this whole question of...


MARTIN: ...the common good, and you felt that the only way you could really think about it was to take a step back.

WALLIS: Right.

MARTIN: I want to just ask you one more question about that, though, that a lot of people who look to you as an advocate, look to you as an advocate in part because they don't feel they have anybody to speak for them. And I wondered, was there anybody who said - particularly as, you know, the campaign is unfolding and as storylines are developing and as political leaders are being called to respond to specific people and ideas - was there anybody who said, you know what? It's nice for you to take this break, but who's going to speak for us while you're doing that? Speaking for the common good.

WALLIS: Yeah. And it was - I remember whether to go down the hill from the monastery to see the results of the New Hampshire primary or not, because, up in the mountain, there's no Internet, no television and I'm just with the monks for a week. And it was tempting, and I heard that a lot. But I just realized, you know, we talk and talk and talk. Some of us do that for a living - at least, I do. And, you know, I knew I needed to go deeper, to go deeper here. And our political dialog that I watched then more and more taught me that we have to go deeper.

You know, in this town, we're always - both sides take a problem. They want to make us afraid of it, and then blame it on the other side. How do you get to solving the root causes of these problems?

MARTIN: So you're saying - what is your core message? Is it that people in public life, or all of us have forgotten about the concept of the common good?

WALLIS: I certainly think elected officials have forgotten. The checks have replaced all the balances in our public life. I have a whole section on democracy, how we have to restore it, renew it, find it again, about the economy. We've lost our trust. The un-economy - it's unfair, unstable, unsustainable and makes people unhappy. What does that mean to look at that? What the role of government is.

But outside of politics, I think, when we begin to think about the common good and act on it in our lives, that's what changes Washington. How we live in our communities, our congregations, our workplaces, our schools, how we choose to live is what can finally build the social movements that only can change Washington.

MARTIN: You know, that's one idea. The other idea that I think some people have is that the whole purpose of our system of government is for people to pursue their self-interest, and that if everybody's pursuing their self-interest, that's how it gets sorted out. What do you say to that?

WALLIS: And that's entirely wrong. It's against all of our religious traditions, and against even in our secular democratic traditions, the society of the common good. Ayn Rand was wrong. So this whole idea is - I love - here's Catholic social teaching on the common good: The common good is the whole network of social conditions which enable human individuals and groups to flourish and live a fully genuinely human life. Otherwise described as integral human development, all are responsible for all.

And that's throughout the book. Desmond Tutu said (foreign language spoken), the Catholic notion of common good. You can't be human in isolation.

MARTIN: How do you use that principle of common good to sort out a question like same-sex marriage? For example, you've long been a supporter of civil unions, but you've resisted the idea of extending marriage, per se, to same-sex couples. It's my understanding that you've changed your mind about that. Is that - do I have that right, or not?

WALLIS: Well, I got asked that question the other day, and they said, are you for marriage equality? I said, first of all, I'm for marriage. We're losing marriage, and that's a critical common good question. Monogamy, fidelity and, for many, it's parenting. The whole book talks about households and parenting. So that's the first question. And I think we can find common ground between liberals and conservatives to re-covenant, recommit ourselves to marriage.

Then the question is: Who gets to be a part of that? And for a long time, like a lot of folks that thought maybe civil unions. Let's - I believe in equal protection under the law. I've always believed that. But I've been listening to younger people, a new generation, and they've persuaded me that equal protection requires civil - a civic commitment to marriage equality. And so even people who aren't sure what they think about the larger issues and what the Bible says and theology, more and more people are saying civil equality is necessary here. So I said, yeah. I'm for marriage equality, for marriage, and also for same-sex couples being able to benefit from a re-covenanted notion of marriage.

MARTIN: The reason I'm asking about that is that there are lots of people who say, look, I have gay friends. I have gay family members. I just believe that, for the benefit of society, for the common good, marriage has to be reserved for men and women, because that's what's in the best interests of society. How do you reconcile people who have very different views of what constitutes the common good?

WALLIS: I think if we can come together around the need to restore and recommit, re-covenant to marriage, then the question is: What's really causing the problems? I think, you know, mass incarceration of men of color in urban communities is a big reason why we're losing marriage. The soaring divorce rate is a big reason why. I think, you know, often, male behavior in relationships is a big reason why, lack of wages that pay a living wage to support a family.

So those causes, for me, are more central than same-sex couples being the reason we're losing marriage. That just doesn't make much sense to me. The book has, on the cover, Abraham Lincoln - my favorite quote: "My concern is not whether God is on our side. My greatest concern is to be on God's side." So I try to apply that to the economy, to government, to all kinds of things. But I think that's the right question I think we need to ask. What is the common good? And, if it's a debate, let's have that debate.

MARTIN: Again, one has to ask, though, for people who truly believe in limited government - which you don't, but they root their view also - some do - many do - in godliness. I mean, their argument is that, when government plays - has too large of a footprint in American life, it deprives people of their own agency. It deprives people of kind of the moral ability to make their own decisions and they feel that they are acting in the common good. They feel that - so, again, what's your message to people who don't agree with you?

WALLIS: That framing that you just described, which is the right framing, is the wrong question. It's not government, big or small. It's what is the purpose and vocation of government? Let's look at our scriptures, our history. Romans 13 talks about that. And the purpose of government is about fairness - to ensure fairness procedurally in our court system and to - particularly, it says in the bible, to look after the least of these, the poor and the vulnerable, to make sure they're being taken care of. That's in the bible and those who say it's not government's role, that's not biblical.

So democratic - so let's look at what our traditions say and what democracy says and we're often asking the wrong question. I'm saying don't go left, don't go right. Go deeper and that often is something different than left or right.

MARTIN: Reverend Jim Wallis is the CEO of Sojourners. That's a progressive Christian group. His latest book is "On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned About Serving the Common Good." He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you so much for joining us.

WALLIS: And the best thing is now, off the sabbatical, I can come back to your show.

MARTIN: Well, absolutely.

WALLIS: It's been fun, as always.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.