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Religion should be political bridge, not wedge, activist tells parishes

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
[Episcopal News Service]  There is a battle going on in the world today between "good religion" and "bad religion," author Jim Wallis told the opening session of the 21st annual conference of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes on February 23.

Wallis is the founder of the Sojourners organization, a Christian ministry which describes itself as called to proclaim and practice the biblical call to combine spiritual renewal and social justice. He is most recently the author of "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It."

Wallis said bad religion confuses religion with certitude and draws out fears, hatred and divisions. The answer to it is not secularism but "better religion."

"The big choice that we have is between hope and cynicism," he said. Cynics begin by really wanting to see things change but are disillusioned and their disillusionment "becomes a buffer against commitment." Hope, on the other hand, "is a decision we make because of faith" and faith is "believing in spite of the evidence and then watching the evidence change."

People are longing for spiritual and integrity and social justice, he told the gathering. Young people are at the forefront of this yearning and "wants an agenda worthy of their energy, their gifts and their commitment."

"They don't want our cynicism. They want us to run alongside of them," Wallis said.

"I want to tell you, a whole generation of young evangelical college students cares more about poverty than gay marriage," he said.

He called the activism of young people a new version of the altar call—which originated as a way for preachers to get people to sign on to the abolition movement.

Wallis said that some evangelical Christians are moving away from the religious Right's concentration on what he called its "core issues" of abortion and gay rights. He pointed to a recent full-page ad in the New York Times for an evangelical initiative on climate change, signed by more than 80 evangelical leaders. The signers resisted great pressure from the religious Right not to run the ad, he said.

After traveling for more than a year promoting his book and his approach to religion and social justice, Wallis said he could report good news. "The monologue of the religious right is finally over and a new dialogue has just begun," he declared to loud applause.

"This country is not hungry for a religious Left to counter a religious Right. The nation is hungry for a moral center," he said. "I don't mean, by the way, a mushy middle. I mean a moral center to our public life. Don't go left, don't go right, go deeper."

Religion should not be a wedge to divide us but rather "a bridge to bring us together on the really big stuff," Wallis said.

Using religion as a bridge can bring Christians of all leanings together on basic issues of justice rooted in Scripture and can move the country away from "White House theology," he said. For instance, fighting poverty, going to war and telling the truth about why we go to war are moral-values issues.

Those on all locations along the political spectrum who oppose abortion can work together to form a consistent ethic of life that will value and care for children and thus greatly reduce abortions "without criminalizing this desperate choice," he said. Gay marriage is an issue that appeals to conservative fundraisers but many different people support strong family values. "You can be pro-family and pro-gay civil rights at the same time," Wallis said.

The Left in the United States "so often forgets its own history," he said.

"For one incandescent decade the heirs of slaves taught democracy to America in the name of Jesus, Isaiah and Jeremiah ... Every major social movement in this nation's history ... was led and driven in large part by religion," he said, citing abolition, women's suffrage, child labor-law reform and civil rights.

"Pulpits have shaken nations and changed history," he said.

"The biggest mistake that the Left has made in decades is conceding the entire territory of religion and values to a religious and political Right. It's a mistake we must never make again."