Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) and Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) both reacted quickly, saying reforming the law is fine, but cannot be a distraction from the end of the vote, removing obstacles for people who vote to begin with. “If you’re going to rig the game and say, ‘Oh, we’re going to count the rigged game accurately,’ what’s the point?” said Schumer then.
But for Wallis, one of modern American Christianity’s most influential progressives, improving even one part of electoral reform is a cracked door to make his biggest point: the right to vote is the moral cause of the American present.
“For me, it is the first book of the Bible. We were all created in the image and likeness of God. The suppression of voters based on skin color is a rejection of Imago Dei,” he said in an interview. “It’s a Bonhoeffer moment,” quoting the famous German pastor and anti-Nazi activist whom Hitler executed. “We have to bring this battle to a moral level. These are theological questions, not political ones.
Tackling a small game, in Wallis, is a reflection of hope and faith that the game will grow. Now, as a small group of bipartisan lawmakers work on legislation to reform the voter count law, Wallis is strategizing behind the scenes with other faith leaders, trying to pressure lawmakers to succeed.
At a transitional time in his life, the 73-year-old is back in a familiar role, working with people from all political backgrounds, trying to broaden political priorities within the Christian tent. But now the man who helped rewrite what it means to be a Christian in public life is watching another generation of progressive religious leaders rewrite the definition yet again.
A new, larger group of progressive religious leaders sees issues like voting, climate change and LGBTQ equality as too urgent to attempt to compromise with a Republican Party that continues to promote dangerous lies about elections and the pandemic. Republican leaders and conservative Democrats in recent weeks have ended White House efforts to pass a Voting Rights and Build Back Better bill, which included an extension of the expanded child tax credit and housing. affordable, among many other progressive priorities.
“I don’t know if it’s a newer style as much as a newer realization, that for too long white supremacy has been glossed over. We can no longer mince words or be polite about racism,” said Reverend Jennifer Butler, executive director of Faith in Public Life, one of many progressive advocacy groups Wallis has helped nurture. “Jim came of age at a time when bipartisanship was still possible, and now the party system is broken. Young people have the conscience and the foresight to be able to move us forward in a new way.
But Wallis and some of his allies think there is room for their less partisan approach. “When Jesus speaks of the ‘least of them’, we don’t fit into political categories,” he said in an interview. “Creating a religious left in response to the religious right is ultimately a mistake.”
“It’s all at stake here”
These days, Wallis does much of his work in an office behind parking spaces, down a few steps in the basement of a Georgetown University building, next to a door marked “telephone equipment room”.
For the first time in five decades, he leaves alone, in the fall starting a new business aimed at promoting a public policy focused on the most marginalized and vulnerable. From there, at what is called the Center for Faith and Justice in Georgetown, Wallis teaches, organizes and counsels, hoping to use his tent-tent approach to advancing suffrage.
It is a change of running the massive Sojourners platform he built. Sojourners, which has 50 employees, publishes a magazine with an annual circulation of 5 million and has a community of readers and supporters of more than 250,000, according to the group.
Sojourners stood out strongly in its early years of the 1970s and 1980s as the brand name of progressive evangelicalism. When political scientists and sociologists try to explain how American evangelicals, white in particular, have in recent decades become more anti-war and more supportive of universal health care, for example, the roads usually lead back to Wallis.
“Jim is the one who brought to the fore the reality that God is not a white Republican man. He changed the conversation in the public square about who owns God and the language of God,” the activist said. civil rights activist Barbara Skinner, a longtime Wallis aide who led the Congressional Black Caucus, among other groups.
“The moral voice he was trying to cultivate was a voice in the wilderness,” said Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, an evangelical minister and activist from North Carolina who has worked with and followed Wallis since college, and sometimes writes for the Sojourners magazine.
Today, however, in part because of Wallis’s efforts, many well-known religious leaders focus on causes such as poverty and racism, including writer and activist Lisa Sharon Harper, Texas pastor Frederick Douglass Haynes , Reverend Jacqui Lewis of New York, Reverend William Barber of the Poor Country and others.
Wilson-Hartgrove said the contingent has grown even larger since Donald Trump was elected in 2016. While Wallis represented a high-profile “moral witness” showing up in DC to speak out and challenge the powerful, the movement progressive religious today is more community-oriented. organization and a wider range of issues, he said.
And they’re more willing to get directly involved in political campaigns, while some religious leaders of Wallis’ generation may have “found it in bad taste,” said Mike McCurry, a veteran communications strategist who went on to taught public theology. “But I think that has gradually changed because they see what the consequences are.”
Wallis is always resistant to engaging in partisan politics and has always been willing to work with anyone on what he would call core gospel issues. An oft-repeated classic of Wallis is when he brought rock icon and social justice activist Bono to Capitol Hill to meet the late Jesse Helms, a longtime conservative leader in the Senate.
Wallis is also known for not speaking out in favor of same-sex marriage until 2013 and for promoting common ground of “abortion reduction” even as, as critics to his left have noted, anti-abortion groups were working to ban abortions altogether.
To some progressives, especially young people, this sounds like Wallis was ready to sell out women and LGBTQ people. For his supporters, he is an example of his generation and also his conviction to work with everyone.
Wallis told the Washington Post that all people are loved by God and should be welcome, but he doesn’t believe in litmus tests. Other observers argue that such intragenerational differences are nothing new.
“On many issues he is in the same place as the youngsters. But it’s not just Jim Wallis, but all leaders. There is always a tension between principles and political realities,” said Jim Simpson, the director of the Georgetown center.
“What Jim understood very well, in 50 years, is how to have a moral voice and a prophetic position and also given the current political realities? How do you move something forward in a positive way? This is the struggle now in the movement, and especially generationally. Young people who are newer to legislative work feel that “unless it’s exactly what we want, we don’t want it,” he added.
Wallis, for his part, is thrilled to be alone in Georgetown. He lined his office walls with images of his heroes, such as Dorothy Day, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela.
He spends his days working to create events like the center’s first, last fall, on suffrage, featuring Warnock and Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.). Wallis also continues to host long-running regular meetings of prominent progressive faith leaders, including one called the Circle of Protection that began around 2011 cutting the deficit to protect the poor.
When it comes to the failure of Build Back Better and potentially voting rights as well, some on a recent call to Circle of Protection said this moment was as disheartening as any in memory.
“It’s all on the line here,” Wallis said. “Democracy itself, not just the right to vote.” He thinks if he can frame the topic of election protection in moral and religious terms, it might bring even a few lawmakers back to the table on voting rights.
Among his partners on the project is Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who said his exposure to Wallis as a Republican student decades ago changed his life path and made him encouraged to reach out and focus more on the marginalized. “As Jim says, ‘Show me your budget and I’ll show you your values,'” he recalled in an interview.
And that, Coons said, right now may mean compromising and partnering with Republicans and opting for smaller pieces when big ones aren’t possible. “Leaders like him to me are spiritually, authentically literate and yet see the value in hearing people out, respecting and engaging those who have strong differences in certain areas but can work together.”