For more than three decades, liberal evangelical leader Jim Wallis has been stubbornly preaching into the wind, telling fellow evangelicals that they need to do something about poverty and urging fellow liberals to partner with religious communities. Now, after years of being drowned out by the Religious Right, Wallis finds himself a most unusual position: he has the ear of the man in the Oval Office. Wallis was one of a small group of religious leaders who participated in the national prayer service that followed Barack Obama's Inauguration. (See pictures of Barack Obama behind the scenes on Inauguration Day.)
In his latest book, Great Awakening: 7 Ways to Change the World, Wallis lays out the challenges facing the new president, and explains how people of faith and their secular allies can come together to find solutions. In a new introduction written after the presidential election, he appeals to fellow "misfits," those who "are not satisfied with shallow answers or the easy faith of our time or the partisan reductions of faith to ideology and culture wars." Wallis talked to TIME about Rick Warren, the ongoing culture wars, and praying for the Obamas. (See the 25 most influential Evangelicals in America.)
Do you have any advice for the new president about working with religious communities?
The caricature has always been that the faith community wants to ram its agenda down people's throats or that we're just interested in our own issues, like religious liberty. What if we were looked to instead as a vital resource for overcoming poverty or converting the nation to a clean energy economy? Who knows the factions and conflicts overseas better than organizations like World Vision and Catholic Charities? Why not use us as a resource?
Okay, but aren't there risks involved when you work too closely with an Administration? Isn't there the danger of being co-opted?
It needs to be a relationship of both significance and substance. I think it could be both. Without naming presidents, sometimes in the past there were prayer breakfasts and meetings and photo-ops, but how much real engagement was there? Highlighting the role of faith communities is a good thing if done with integrity. But we need a two-way street. That means real prayer for this president and his family, and support even from people who didn't vote for him. He also needs to know that we're going to raise hard questions and challenge him when necessary. When we offer just one or the other, we're not doing our job. I think we have the guts to do that and this president has the capacity to have that kind of relationship.
Do you feel heard by this White House so far?
I'll say this: my relationship with past White Houses was that they arrested me for protesting. With this one, they've reached out to us to serve on transition teams. We're on the innovation and civil society team, the faith-based office, of course, but [we're also involved in] a lot of issue areas foreign policy and criminal justice. None of us want to go into the Administration. We're being faithful to our own religious and prophetic obligations to challenge the powerful. But they are reaching out to us. (See Who's Who in Barack Obama's White House.)
Obama has reached out to a lot of evangelicals, including Rick Warren. Was that choice worth the criticism it brought him?
It's very Obama-like to reach out and to cross boundaries to constituencies that didn't vote for him. Forming relationships with conservative evangelicals is a good and positive part of creating a big tent. This is a leader who isn't worried about what people think. He asked Gene Robinson to pray as well, he tapped Sharon Watkins to give the sermon at the prayer service. (See pictures of Reverend Billy Graham.)
You wrote before the election that a religious shift was taking place in the U.S.
The religious shift was certainly revealed in the 2008 election. The Religious Right isn't gone, but their influence and role is declining. It's apparent in their efforts to figure out where they're headed. And the possibility the book talked about looks much more possible now. I predicted a wider, deeper agenda, and it's happening now. When the National Association of Evangelicals fired Rich Cizik [who said he had shifted his views to support the idea of civil unions], they fired their future. The shift wasn't caused by the election, but it was revealed in the election.
But what about California's Proposition 8? Many people have worried that its passage means the culture wars are still here to stay.
I don't think gay marriage was as big an issue in the presidential campaign as it has been in the past. The referendum in California certainly made it a huge post-election issue. It's still a very divisive issue in churches on the left and the right. But here's where the shift is taking place: young evangelicals and Catholics don't see gay marriage as a life issue. They have gay friends and colleagues and they don't see homosexuality as the greatest threat to marriage and family. Now, they care about marriage and family this generation is really challenging the hook-up sexuality of their peers. But most of them favor some sort of protection for gay people and many are supportive of the idea of civil unions.
My hope is that people on both sides can realize that when 30,000 children die each day because of poverty and hunger, the closest thing to Jesus' heart might not be marriage amendments. I think we can find some common ground on these tough issues.