In a handful of years, Jim Wallis has become a best-selling author, a sought-after pundit and preacher, and a high-profile spiritual adviser to powerful people. But for over three decades, he has been in the vanguard of social justice evangelicalism. He's been a kind of bulldog figure in leftist and recently more "progressive" centrist Christian social activism — annoyingly ideological to some, heroically prophetic to others. And he always insisted on being known as an Evangelical even when the Rev. Jerry Falwell, in his moment as the reigning Evangelical in America, disagreed.
I've resisted interviewing Wallis as he's risen to a new kind of fame, in part because he has had so much exposure in major media, from Hardball to Fresh Air. But now I've come to see in Jim Wallis' rise not just a story of individual activist becoming a leader, but of the world changing around us.
To know who Jim Wallis is, this year, is to have some insight into the spiritual and religious strategies of leading presidential candidates and the Democratic majority in Congress. It also provides insight into a new generation of world leaders who Wallis knows well — Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the UK, for example, and the newly elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Jim Wallis has their ears, and this week he also has mine.
Listeners may notice that I often begin my conversations by drawing out stories from a person's childhood and youth — even if we're aiming to talk about quantum physics — because those stories do shape our passions and identities our whole lives long. I enjoy the authenticity and passion in Jim Wallis' voice as he tells how he was shaped in the first instance by his devout Plymouth Brethren parents, who took their Bibles and their loving God seriously. As he grew older he was also captured by the Civil Rights gospel of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the vibrant Black Church in his native Detroit.
Jim Wallis left the church for a time and became a student civil rights and anti-war activist, seeing in the great social struggles of the 1960s an indictment of the Christianity of his youth. But the leader he is today was formed precisely by that tension. Quoting his Bible like a revival preacher, he has long proclaimed that Evangelicals and other Christians are not following Jesus Christ if what they are proclaiming is not "Good News for the poor."
There is plentiful evidence that younger people, including younger Evangelical Christians, share Jim Wallis's concern for the poor and the dispossessed, for inequities in global economy and ecology. Half of his audiences across the country these days, as he tells it, are under 30. He does not claim to represent a majority of American Evangelicals in his views and positions, but he does draw packed crowds of young Evangelicals at Christian colleges. He urges them to emulate the 19th-century Evangelicals who inspire him, some of whom founded today's Christian colleges — abolitionists and social reformers who took their Bibles and their God with the utmost seriousness.
After the rise of the Religious Right in the early 1980s, and again after the 2000 and 2004 elections, some prophesied that the U.S. was headed for "theocracy" — a takeover by conservative religious ruling elites. What is happening instead is what Time magazine has called the leveling of "the praying field." Conservative Christianity hasn't disappeared but it is increasingly met, and measured, by progressive and liberal religious voices in politics and beyond.
There are also conservative Evangelicals with a broadened political and social agenda and a willingness to form coalitions with diverse religious and secular others to combat urgent human crises. My guests next week, Rick and Kay Warren, in another leading wing of the new Evangelical vanguard, are more or less sidestepping politics as a response to the world's deepest problems and confusions.
What interesting times we inhabit. Stay tuned.