Author and activist Jim Wallis is no stranger to speaking out about faith and politics. As the founder of Sojourners Magazine and author of God’s Politics, Wallis has tacked issues including the importance of social justice, the role of faith in politics and educating others about problems like poverty and global concerns. In an interview with RELEVANT, Wallis spoke about his new book, The Great Awakening, why revival starts with action and how politically-savvy Christians are changing everything.
Since your latest book The Great Awakening has come out, how has the response been?
It’s been great. I’ve been really encouraged. God’s Politics was simply saying, when someone hijacks your faith, you’ve got to take it back. The good news is that the balance of the religious right over our politics and our nation’s perception of religion are finally over, and the better news is a whole new generation of young Christians are applying their faith, are using their faith to address the biggest moral challenges of our time—the moral scandal of poverty, the degradation of the environment, climate change, Darfur, human rights and trafficking, HIV, AIDS, all of that.
Do you think with the association of the “religious right” and evangelicals (and with some Christians getting frustrated with the political system) that faith and politics hit a tipping point recently
Well, the religious right is being replaced by Jesus, and that’s progress. I see evangelicals leaving the religious right in droves. Now I want to say, they’re still there, they’re not dead, not gone. In fact I worked with some of them. Richard Land and I worked together on Darfur. But the religious right’s monologue is over and new dialogue has now begun. That’s good for the churches; it’s good for the country.
Jon Stewart asks very good questions, and last week [while I was on The Daily Show] he said, “Last time you were on the show, you talked about this big block, this conservative block, and they were trying to turn religion into a partisan wedge and block and win the elections for one party, and you were trying to build an alternative … how’s that going?” And he said, “Do you want to create a religious left? Do we need that?” And I said, “John, that would be a mistake,” because the country isn’t hungry for a religious left to replace a religious right. They are hungry for what at least I call in the book a “moral center,” not a mushy middle. Don’t go left; don’t go right; go deeper, to the moral choices and challenges that lie right beneath our political debate. This new generation has come of age and wants to make their voice heard, but more importantly they want their faith to make a difference in the world.
One thing that you talk about in the book is how different “great awakenings” have shifted American culture, and most of those revolved around some sort of social action. Are we on the cusp of a new great awakening?
I did the research on this book, and I got really excited. It’s even better than I thought (and I knew more about [the great awakenings] than probably most people do). I mean there have been these times when faith has come alive and revival has led to significant social change—things like the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, child labor law reform and, of course, most famously, civil rights. The church historians make it clear that spiritual activity, spiritual renewal doesn’t get to be called revival until it has changed something in the society. So if your faith, your conversion, your spiritual transformation heals your addictions, that’s a wonderful thing. If it puts your marriage back together, saves your relationships, if it puts you on the right track again, all that’s wonderful, but until it changes something in the society, the church historians say it doesn’t get to be called revival.
So we’ve had these periods, and it’s significant. I say this in a secular context: Not one of these progressive social reform movements, not one of them has succeeded without the significant involvement of people of faith, without Christians in particular. And so, never has it happened that we’ve had a social reform movement that didn’t involve people of faith. At the same time other people are involved as well, and that’s a good thing. Religion has no monopoly on morality and so others get involved too. But it’s significant that none of them have succeeded without the involvement of people of faith.
The book talks about seven big commitments, not a laundry list of problems and doom and gloom, but here are issues that will do us in unless we can turn them around. So the way we’re going to reach Malcolm Gladwell’s “tipping point” on these issues is with the engine, the powerful engine of what faith can provide. And so each chapter ends with, what’s the personal commitment we can make here, in our lives, our families, our kids.
I tell people, if you’re not making a personal commitment on these issues, please don’t lobby Congress, please don’t. Unless you’re making a personal commitment, you really shouldn’t be lobbying anyone else.
It’s interesting because the scripture says, “Faith without works is dead.” It seems that the reverse is true too, that works without faith won’t succeed either.
You have to take care of your faith because you can’t be an activist for a long time unless you also become a contemplative. If the quest for spirituality isn’t disciplined, the quest for justice becomes narcissistic. It becomes another commodity to be bought and sold at Barnes and Noble. But the struggle for justice, not nurtured and rooted in spiritual soil can easily become worn out, tired, frustrated, angry, bitter, even nihilistic and violent, I’ve seen that too.
We have an emerging leaders meeting every year, and it’s a great time—200 under-30, faith-based activists. And I get to have dinner with them one of the nights of the program, and I don’t tell them, “OK, here are the issues. Here is the strategy,” or, “Here’s what the agenda should be.” Mostly what I say is the most important thing is to take care of your faith. Then take care of each other and begin to think movement.