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This Week: XL: Of Ebola and Woo

Jim Wallis: America’s Most Prominent Progressive Christian is Less Progressive than Most Americans

 

When non-believers and skeptics point out the harm done by religious dogma, moderates and liberals tend to rebut us with a handful of names. Most often mentioned is Jim Wallis.  Wallis is the founder of a liberal-leaning evangelical Christian group called Sojourners and publishes a magazine of the same name.

In fact, he’s the only nationally known liberal religious leader that I can think of that isn’t primarily a political activist like Jesse Jackson or Barry Lynn.

Now, Jim Wallis and Sojourners aren’t nearly as big or influential as their countless fundamentalist counterparts like Pat Robertson’s 700 Club or James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, but they’re the largest progressive Christian group in the country. They like to bill themselves as a saner alternative to the Religious Right, taking far more moderate stances on civil rights and abortion. All of the Jesus with less of the pesky, fattening dogmatic hate.

So, one would think that he’d have jumped at the chance to sell advertising space to Believe Out Loud, an LBGT Christian group calling for greater acceptance of gays and lesbians in church congregations. I mean, Wallis does claim to be a progressive “social justice” guy, right?

Yeah, not so much.

Sojourners rejected the ads, saying that they’re “afraid [they]‘ll have to decline. Sojourners’ position is to avoid taking sides on this issue. In that care [sic], the decision to accept advertising may give the appearance of taking sides.”

Taking sides? Are you serious? Let’s take a look at these ads:

That’s it?

No demands for same-sex marriage rights? No demands that churches ordain gay and lesbian clergy?  No steamy same-sex makeout sessions? Just basic tolerance. You don’t want to be seen taking a side on that?

Let’s take a look at these “sides” Jim Wallis and Sojourners doesn’t want to take. In one corner, you have people who think that gays and lesbians should be afforded the same level of rights and respect as anyone else. In the other corner, you have people who believe that gay people are subhuman abominations who should not only be shunned and excluded, but denied any level of social or legal equality. This is the divide you want to remain neutral on, Sojourners?

Reverend Robert Chase is just as baffled as I am:

I called the folks at Sojourners and asked what the problem was, what the “sides” in question might be. The first response was that Sojourners has not taken a stance on gay marriage (the ad is not about gay marriage); or on ordination of homosexuals (the ad is about welcome, not ordination); that the decision, made by “the folks in executive” (why such a high level decision?) was made quickly because of the Mother’s Day deadline. The rationale kept shifting. The reasoning made no sense.

I’m so flabbergasted by Wallis’ moving rhetorical goal posts that I almost forgot to take a cheap shot at a religious leader’s reasoning not making sense.

His rationalizations didn’t get any better. In a statement, Jim Wallis explained that:

we chose not to become involved in the controversy that such a major ad campaign could entail, and the time it could require of us. Instead, we have taken this opportunity to affirm our commitment to civil rights for gay and lesbian people, and to the call of churches to be loving and welcoming to all people, and promote good and healthy dialogue.

So the best way to affirm your commitment to gay civil rights is to reject an ad calling for… gay civil rights? How was the Believe Out Loud ad anything but “a call to be loving and welcoming to all people?” How are the ads not promoting dialogue?  Can you even hear yourself speak?

Furthermore, Wallis says they rejected the ad in a move of respect for  “the major differences of theology and biblical interpretation in the church with regard to issues such as the nature of homosexuality, gay marriage, and ordination” and that these “are not issues that should be allowed to divide the churches ” and “that local churches should lead the way here, and that an honest, open, respectful, and, hopefully, loving dialogue should characterize the church on these very controversial questions.”

Controversial, to whom? In the latest polls, a majority of American now support marriage equality for same-sex couples.

This makes most of Americans more staunchly progressive  on gay rights than Mr. Wallis, who told Christianity Today that he didn’t support equal marriage rights, saying “I have never done a blessing for a same-sex couple. I’ve never been asked to do one. I’m not sure that I would.” He also said the Bible was clearly opposed to same-sex marriage, and that the thought of gay rights becoming a major topic of discussion in churches made him “nervous.”

But these ads -  again – weren’t even about marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples. This is about simple acceptance of gay membership in a church congregation. This was about being able to take a seat in the pews without people gawking at you like you’re a freak in a circus menagerie. When you broaden the discussion — not to marriage or ordination or adoption — but to basic tolerance, I have to imagine the sort of people who think that this is a deal breaker aren’t the sort that you should even want in your coalition.

Why is Wallis afraid to offend the very people he should be standing firm against? Sojourners is the premiere left-leaning faith group in the country, and Jim Wallis is supposed to be the world heavyweight champion of progressive Christianity.

He’s supposed to be their Hulk Hogan. When the loud theme music plays, Wallis is the guy who’s supposed to be running wild on all of  fundamentalism’s proverbial “Rowdy” Roddy Pipers and Iron Shieks, not sitting in the back and lamenting how divisive he’d look if he gave a bigoted pastor the Big Leg Drop.

When it came time to make a choice between affirming the humanity of gay people and protecting the tender feelings of bigots, Wallis has made his choice.

Do you know what a real progressive leader says when he’s told that a choice he’s made would burn bridges with the sort of reactionaries that could possibly be turned off by the Believe Out Loud advertisements?

“Good.”

The fact that this man is apparently the best national leader that progressive Christianity has to offer is a spit in the face of all the good and ethical people I personally know who wear the label of Christian.

While I cannot fathom why any LBGT person would ever want to be a Christian, it takes no effort for me to understand why anyone would want to be treated like a human being. Therefore, on behalf of the producers of  “Ask an Atheist,” I would like to inform the people at Believe Out Loud, that we would be more than happy to run your ads on our program. Despite our clear theological disagreements, we stand at your side in our shared belief in the total social and legal equality of gays and lesbians.

And if Wallis and progressive Christians groups like Sojourners can’t get behind a message like that, well, as Dan Savage bluntly put it, “gee, what the fuck good are they?”

About the Author: Mike Gillis

Mike Gillis is co-creator, and co-host of Ask an Atheist. He hosts the Radio vs. the Martians! and Mike and Pól Save the Universe! podcasts. He also enjoys comic books, the Planet of the Apes, and the band Queen.

Feedback and Commentary

7 Comments 0 Trackbacks
Dr Phlebas May 13, 2011 at 6:11 pm

Another great article Mike. Their refusal to take a position, shows their position. My word for the week is asshat, and these asshats are utterly spineless.

I actually have more respect for Rev Fred Phelps, no joke. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Phelps gang are great steaming piles of human excrement. But while Rev Phelps may be a bigoted hate-monger, at least he has principles.

Reply
Sean May 14, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Chris and Chris (LaTondresse and Stedman) have taken kind of a weird take on this. I think I can boil this down to a few points:

1. Sojourners supports most gay rights, which is way better than most Christian groups, and especially evangelically oriented groups.

2. Evangelicals are too bigoted to support equality for gay people, or even being too nice to them in a church.

3. Therefore we need a group like Sojourners to act as a “moderate” group pulling evangelicals to our side.

4. Therefore it’s bad for anyone to criticize Sojourners, even if they are actually wrong.

I can understand why a Christian might engage in this kind of apologetic exercise. After all, being LGBT or an ally and being religious, that’s a position that’s still not so easy, and you might be really attached to any organization that makes such a stance more mainstream, even if they do so with half-measures.

But it’s nonsense coming from Stedman! He supposedly is supporting Sojourners because they work for social justice within Christianity. Then they say that they are afraid to be seen to work too hard for social justice within Christianity. At the very, very least, I would expect Stedman to take these criticisms seriously, if he wasn’t making them himself. It’s bizarre that he is just waving them away like this.

*fumes a bit*

I know that Stedman has different priorities than I do, and I’m sure he does a lot of good things as a Humanist chaplain and all that. But LGBT youth are very vulnerable, especially within religious families, not just because of bullying and suicide (although those have been focuses recently), but also due to family rejection and depression leading to other self-destructive behaviors, and economic hardship and homelessness for LGBT (especially T) kids that are kicked out or abandoned by parents. This is a much bigger concern than he’s crediting it as being.

Okay, done ranting on my own tangent.

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Chris Howley May 14, 2011 at 1:26 pm

From being fortunate enough to meet Jim, I have every reason to believe that he personally is very committed to equality and understands LGBT issues. I wonder whether the issue here is not what this group stands for but rather than the manner in which they do it?

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Mike Gillis May 14, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Chris, I’m sorry, but that sounds like a giant cop-out. The things we do *are* the things we believe.

These ads are not produced by Sojourners, and they represent a message that Sojourners and Wallis — even in their rationalizations – claim to believe in.

The fact that there is such a divide between the way they talk and then the way they walk is a problem. It says to me that they’d much rather alienate the LBGT folks (who they say they want to foster greater tolerance for) than they would the sort of bigoted evangelicals who would be offended by an ad that says “gay people are human too and the church should welcome everyone.”

The feathers they’re afraid to ruffle belong to people who would likely never want to associate with Sojourners in the first place. Wallis seems to think he can have his cake and eat it too. That he can be dismissive of his gay supporters’ struggles and still keep them while trying to win over people.

At the heart of this situation is just how fucking innocuous the Believe Out Loud ads are. I could see them being controversial… in 1986.

Chris, the fact that Wallis in his statements seems to lump issues into two boxes: gay issues and Important Issues show s that he doesn’t understand LBGT concerns and issues.

Because if they way you stand for an issue is by acting dismissive of it, then you do’t really stand for it.

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Henry (from San Jose) May 15, 2011 at 12:40 pm

After reading a couple of Jim Wallis’ books, I’d describe him as a progressive and a christian, but not a progressive christian. His theology is very traditional. His value to the world is to remind people that it’s possible to be a progressive without getting all mushy on doctrine. A lot of people who honestly call themselves progressive christians are embarrassed to use the “G word” and are often ambivalent about calling anything “truth.” Wallis is not one of them.

On this topic, I wholeheartedly agree with Michael Shermer’s prediction that at some point within the next 50 years, christians will do a flip-flop on homosexuality the same way they flip-flopped on slavery, racism, interracial marriage, usury, divorce, etc. and decide that all credit for progress on gay equality should be given to christianity.

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Sam Wise Gingy May 16, 2011 at 12:52 am

Given that the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality in both the Old and New Testaments, and that the Church claims that the Bible is in some sense the word of their god, how could anyone expect homosexuality not to be a difficult issue for Christian.

Why not just eliminate God from you equation. Then you have no obligation to a book with a bunch of antiquated teaching that are just wrong.

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James Smith João Pessoa, Brazil May 29, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Is anyone surprised that a “liberal christian” is as much of a hypocrite as say, Pat Robinson?

But hypocrite and christian are semantically equal to such a degree that using them together is nothing more than a redundancy.

Reply

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