VOICES: 'In this crisis, we're going to figure out who we are'

Jim Wallis spoke at a recent No War With Iran rally in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Sojourners.)

Since the religious right emerged as a U.S. political movement in the 1970s, theologian Jim Wallis has been pushing back against it. In the early 1970s, Wallis founded the progressive Christian community Sojourners, whose stated 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." He writes regular columns for Sojourners magazine and for national media outlets, and he served as a spiritual advisor to former President Barack Obama.

In the Trump era, Wallis has become an outspoken critic of the president and his Christian supporters. His new book, "Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus," argues that many white Christians on both the right and the left have forgotten to factor Jesus into their politics, and that this failure is part of the rot at the center of U.S. democracy. Besides writing, Wallis leads several action-oriented movements bringing together Christians and other religious communities around the country and the world.

Wallis recently visited North Carolina to speak about "Christ in Crisis" at Southeast Raleigh Table, a multiracial church in Raleigh, and he visited Duke University in Durham to host a conversation on the topic of "Reclaiming Jesus." Facing South caught up with him to talk about the current political moment, the Christian church's racial divide, and how the nation's changing demographics are also changing religion. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In your view, what is the state of the Christian church right now, in this moment of national political upheaval?

In a crisis, vulnerable people are always the most vulnerable. After the [2016] election, my calls were from black pastors afraid of their youth groups being more racially policed. Younger guys saying, "We're not sure if we'll be home for dinner tonight." Most young people I know who are in the "nones" category, none of the above, most believe in God still. They're not anti-religion, they just don't see its relevance. Courage is what they're looking for. They're not interested in going to a religion that isn't making a difference. I think this is a great opportunity. I say don't go left, don't go right. Go deeper. Our democracy's literally at stake, I think, and the integrity of faith is at stake. In this crisis, we're going to figure out who we are. Trump didn't cause all this. He's just a consequence. He reveals.

How do churches work together in the context of America's original sins of slavery and racism? How do you find coalitions between white and black churches, between people of faith and people who are not people of faith, between people who have felt abandoned by the church or see the church as sort of something that stands for power at this particular moment, power that is not Christian?

When you've got white evangelicals doing a Faustian bargain with Donald Trump, a transactional politics — "Give us our judges and we'll ignore everything you're doing" — that's the will to power itself. I got on the phone with a bunch of evangelicals after the election. I have the white evangelicals saying on the phone, "Well, we didn't vote for him because of his racial bigotry, but because of other moral issues." And then a black evangelical woman says, "So racial bigotry isn't a deal breaker for you." And that was the end of the conversation.

Dr. King, who was a mentor for a lot of us, believed in the separation of church and state. And I do too. That doesn't require the segregation of moral values from public life. He didn't say, "I get a civil rights bill because I'm in a Judeo-Christian country." He had a debate about what's best for the common good, but he evoked Jeremiah and Jesus's names in making his argument. These aren't political issues; they're a lot deeper. They're moral issues, they're spiritual issues, they're biblical issues, they're Jesus issues. Jesus said "Be not afraid" eight times. Don't be afraid. They're running on fear. White nationalist politics is "be afraid all the time." But Jesus says, "Don't be afraid." So I'm trying to put those things together.

The black church has led so many of the movements for change in the South. And I think, speaking very broadly, the white church has had a really hard time. Not even just evangelicals, but mainline denominations.

White Catholics and white mainline Christians all voted for Trump too, the majority. All white Christians.

Right. So have you seen any successful ways of getting white congregations to work with black churches?

There's the woman [Lisa Yebuah] who's pastoring the church we're at tonight [Southeast Raleigh Table]. She was an intern at Sojourners years ago, a black woman, then was a divinity school student here [at Duke]. Now she's pastoring this church that's racially 50-50, and a lot younger. That's archetypal of the kind of leadership going forward: multiracial and led by a black woman. She's becoming a powerful American preacher, and she was just a kid in our internship program a couple decades ago.

I was in this church in Charlotte, the Myers Park Baptist Church, with a long history on civil rights. That's the Sojourners choir. [At our event in] Western North Carolina, people came out from all over the place. We didn't know each other. I had lunch with a whole bunch of young activists and pastors who have never had lunch together, but they're all out there. What I learned is, when the choir is feeling hopeless and helpless, it doesn't help anybody. They felt inspired by that Sunday morning last week, and now they want to do all kinds of stuff. They want to not just have a group reading a book, but two churches, black and white, doing Jesus conversations together.

I told them about our Lawyers and Collars, putting [clergy] in polling places with lawyers where elections are stolen. Voter suppression has become a very deliberate, intentional strategy for people whose goal is to prevent changing demography from changing democracy. They can't stop changing demography. But they want to keep them from changing democracy. And this country hasn't yet committed itself to a multiracial democracy. This is clearly America's original sin.

I think the religious right, the white religious right, white evangelicals, they might rise and fall with Trump. They could be the chaplains for what would be an American brand of fascism.

For a lot of us, what changed our lives was being places we were never supposed to be. My whole life has been changed by being places I was never supposed to be, or being with people I was never supposed to know. We are systemically kept apart from each other by deliberate racial geography; 75% of white people have not one significant relationship or family [with a black person] in their social circle. Why are we doing better on LGBTQ stuff? Because white people know gay people. And so we're building relationships. It's solidarity, it's relationship. It's joining together on stuff like voter suppression that will make a difference.

The demographics of the country, the demographics of the South, are starting to change dramatically, and two of the fastest-growing communities in the South right now are Latinx people and Asian Americans. I'm curious if you've seen any faith movements develop in those groups, and how you see faith and public life and politics intersecting there?

The only place any churches are growing anywhere — Baptist, Catholic — is immigrants. All white churches are declining, and they're getting older, and their kids aren't coming. But the immigrants, refugees — I was just in Mexico, seeing how in Tijuana, Mexican churches are taking care of thousands of Central American refugees. They're just doing what the Bible says, you know. But faith is strong, even young people, in those communities.

So it's shifting the church's view by shifting the church's demographics.

Exactly. The church's demographics are changing. The country, the right, Republicans, Trump, they want to not let changing demographics change democracy. But it's got to happen in the churches. And it is. Globally, the body of Christ, this global name of the church, is the most diverse on the planet. We're taking our young leaders' group to Nairobi, where the African evangelical association, 200 million of them, wrote and said, "Can we partner with you?" And we said sure. This is all long term, and it's a struggle, and there's lots of issues to resolve. But this to me is a far better way forward than just pitting left against right.

On that note, the South has a lot of conservative Christian governors and legislators. And it seems like there should be points of commonality between Christians, left or right, on things like caring for the widow, caring for the orphan. Are there issues where you see religion generally or Christianity specifically being a meeting point for people who otherwise would be on opposite political sides?

The text I talk about is Matthew 25 [on right action and how to treat the “least of these”]. That text changed me. We have a Matthew 25 movement around the country, and we were hosted in San Diego and Tijuana by the Mateo 25 group in Southern California. We now have a whole racial policing cohort going on, and one of the next ones will be in Raleigh-Durham. How are pastors combining to make sure that racial policing is stopped? It's multiracial pastors going to the police chief and saying, "We want fair law enforcement. We want to help, but we're going to watch what's happening." So the Matthew 25 movement, there are three parts: immigration, policing, and solidarity with Muslims. In particular areas, I think it truly brings faith back together again across boundaries of distance.

Where do you see the conservative evangelical movement going in the next years? What path is that part of the church charting for itself?

They have made a deal with the devil: Give us our judges for abortion, and we'll ignore everything else.

The [anti-Trump] editorial in Christianity Today Mark Galli wrote, that's a crack in the wall, a real crack in the wall. I was surprised. He's not a progressive, prophetic, or young. He's an old, conservative white guy who just couldn't live with this balance. Those are cracks in the wall. Republican evangelical suburban women in Texas drove their Lexus cars to megachurches during the last election with Beto bumper stickers. And their husbands and pastors got really furious, and the women said, "Well, life at the border is as important to us as life in the womb." There's some cracks in the walls. Young white evangelicals, raised in that world like I was a long time ago, are breaking. They're doing climate strikes on Fridays in their schools, or they're breaking on LGTBQ issues from their parents. So there are cracks in these walls.

But I think the religious right, the white religious right, white evangelicals, they might rise and fall with Trump. They could be the chaplains for what would be an American brand of fascism. It would be white nationalism — racialized authoritarian politics. History doesn't ever repeat, but it rhymes. So it wouldn't be like the Germans. It would be our brand. It would be racial. It would be based on the elephant in the room: By 2020 we're no longer a white-majority nation. That's the elephant in every political room. So can we [Christians] break with that? And if we don't, history will look back and say most of the white Christians supported this.

We're so polarized. How do you bring people back to some commonality, to some sense of understanding the other, of understanding each other as people with vocations and ideas and convictions, and not as simply political forces in the world?

One place where that happens is schools. My kids have always gone to multiracial public schools. After 9/11 my son Luke, who's now graduated college, was like 10 or something and they're doing a report and the TV guy talks about what Muslims are like. And Luke's just watching, and he says, "Dad, that's not true. Mohammed's not like that at all. Mohammed's not like that, what do they mean?" It's because he's in school with Mohammed.

The phrase "white Christian" — what's the operative word? Christian or white? In America, it's white. Making Christian the operative term? That's conversion. How do we get transformed? A lot of that happens with young people who are in situations where they become friends with people who are different. We are separated deliberately by racial geography that keeps us from ever having a conversation. We get culturally conformed. The Gospel turns that upside down.