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Prayer Center

Let's not talk about sex.

It's 8 a.m. on a Tuesday, and Jim Wallis already looks tired. Rising from his cluttered desk in the rundown offices in the Northwest Washington, D.C., neighborhood where he has worked for the past quarter-century, the evangelical activist moves slowly. His voice is deep and drowsy, and there's a droop to his faded blue eyes that no amount of sleep seems likely to relieve. 

Not that Wallis has time for sleep. Since January, he has been feverishly amassing frequent-flier miles promoting his new book, God's Politics, which slaps both liberals and conservatives for allowing Christianity to become a political tool serving the "pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-American" agenda of the far right. In addition to the usual booksignings, Wallis has been spreading his gospel at churches coast-to-coast, in scores of op-eds and news stories, and on every political chat-fest from "The O'Reilly Factor" to the "Daily Show." More privately, he is providing politico-spiritual counsel to an electorally shell-shocked Democratic Party understandably charmed by his contention that the right's myopic obsession with abortion and gay rights is nothing short of "bad theology." And, all the while, Wallis keeps one eye on his day jobs as editor of Sojourners, the liberal Christian magazine he co-founded in 1971; president of Call to Renewal, the anti-poverty coalition he formed in 1995; visiting lecturer at Harvard, where he teaches a course on "Faith, Politics, and Society"; and father of two young boys, ages two and six. A man half Wallis's 56 years would be tempted to plead for a less punishing schedule, but the veteran activist embraces the current whirlwind as the providential opportunity of a lifetime.

Since his student days in the civil rights and antiwar movements, Wallis has been struggling to mobilize Christians against social problems traditionally identified as concerns of the political left, such as poverty and racism. But, in U.S. religious circles, such issues have long taken a backseat--especially in the political arena--to matters of personal morality like abortion and gay rights. Even Wallis admits that, despite years of sustained effort by Sojourners and Call to Renewal, the crusade to expand Americans' faith-based agenda has had limited success. "We'd be doing stuff, and I'd keep thinking, 'This is gonna really break through,'" he recalls. "But, the truth is, it has felt like a monologue of the religious right when it comes to values and politics and faith." Wallis harrumphs with disgust--his energy level rising along with his irritation--at how the left simply "handed over religion and values," a move he regards as "the biggest mistake progressives have made in decades." He marvels, "So then the right says, 'Thank you very much. Now we'll define religion in totally partisan ways. It will be a wedge and a weapon to divide and conquer for our partisan agenda.'"

But, according to Wallis, all that is about to change. Thanks to the prominent role "moral values" voters ostensibly played in reelecting George W. Bush, all of America is buzzing about the political power of religion. The mainstream press is suddenly fascinated by Christian culture, while panicked Democrats have vowed to shed their image as out-of-touch with--if not downright hostile to--people of faith. In turn, believers of all stripes are rushing to seize the moment.Even as the right wields its new electoral clout against gay marriage and judicial activism, members of what could loosely be termed the religious non-right are speaking out in an effort to change the public perception of what it means to be a Christian--and, more specifically, what it means to vote like one. These activists include not just liberals like Wallis, but more politically conservative players like Rich Cizik, vice president of governmental affairs at the National Association for Evangelicals (NAE), an umbrella group representing some 45,000 churches. The NAE's membership trends more Republican than Democrat. Even so, much like Wallis, the association laments the narrow agenda of the far right and has launched its own effort to steal some of the political spotlight and energy from the family values warriors. While it's fine for the religious right--"God bless 'em"--to focus solely on matters of personal morality, says Cizik, "I think we're ready to begin engaging on a whole plethora of issues." Or, as Wallis has taken to declaring--with the ringing satisfaction of a man who has labored more than three decades for this moment--"The monologue of the religious right is now over."

Maybe. But probably not. While Wallis is correct that the right's dominance of the values debate has been aided by the left's policy of disengagement (not to mention Democratic pols' distaste for, as a certain 2004 presidential candidate sniffed, "wear[ing] my religion on my sleeve"), the connection between evangelical religion and conservative politics in this country has deep and tangled roots. For reasons as much theological as political, white evangelicals (which is what people invariably mean when they talk about American evangelicalism) turned against systemic attempts to combat poverty and other societal ills long before anyone had ever heard of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or Ronald Reagan. More specifically, the right's fixation on personal piety, while arguably unbiblically narrow, nonetheless draws its resonance from a powerful combination of factors--evangelicalism's emphasis on personal redemption, the political realities of how to galvanize and sustain a mass movement, and the basic human fascination with sex--that aren't as easily applied to issues like tax policy and Social Security reform. As a result, although American evangelicals personally may be broadening their policy interests, the community's political activism, particularly on the domestic front, is unlikely to budge much beyond the same old "core issues" involving sex and school prayer. So, while it's tempting for those unnerved by the right's politicking to latch onto the idea that the moral high ground can be reclaimed--that poverty and pollution can be turned into the defining values issues of 2008--Democrats would be wise not to bet their political future on any divine, or even divinely inspired, intervention.

In many ways, Wallis's jockeying with the religious right is less interesting--and certainly less complicated--than the efforts of people like Cizik, whose constituents share much of the right's politics and passions. Founded in 1942 to help unify the evangelical community, the NAE has long stood as an alternative to the more liberal National Council of Churches (formerly the Federal Council of Churches), which represents mainline Protestant denominations like the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and United Methodist churches. The NAE's political profile and access fluctuated significantly during its early years, until Reagan's embrace of evangelical voters helped bring it into the big leagues. (It was at the NAE's 1983 convention that Reagan made his famous Evil Empire speech denouncing communism.) Also during this period, however, the NAE, and evangelicalism in general, came to be seen by many as synonymous with the spotlight-grabbing religious right and its quest to impose Christian virtue on the broader public--a perception that grew as the right loudly battled the Clinton White House on issues involving abortion and gay rights. Asked to take over the NAE's lobbying shop in 1995, Cizik saw the job as an opportunity to confront evangelicals' failure to forge a more comprehensive public theology. "Evangelicals had to get beyond the political hamstrings of our own movement and address the wider array of issues," he notes. To this end, Cizik has spent the past decade pushing the NAE, which now claims to speak on behalf of more than 30 million evangelicals, to expand its policy focus to include everything from combating aids in Africa to strengthening environmental laws here at home. In a symbolic culmination of this effort, last October, the association's board approved a 26-page statement of beliefs titled "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility." Endorsed by more than 100 evangelical leaders, the document urges Christians toward political engagement not only on traditional family values issues, but also in "creation care" (as many evangelicals prefer to call environmentalism) and working to shrink the gap between rich and poor.

While he respects Wallis's high-profile push to broaden the definition of "moral values," Cizik sees the NAE, by dint of its conservative constituency, as better positioned than liberal groups to effect change. "Republicans control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue," he reasons. "And evangelicals constitute 40 to 50 percent of the Republican base." Cizik notes that, in recent years, the NAE has enjoyed some legislative success with international affairs, pushing bills aimed at stemming religious persecution and child sex-trafficking. Now, he says, the moment has clearly arrived to make a move on the domestic front. Since the election, the association has been courting both lawmakers and the press, prompting a spate of publicity about its expanded agenda (especially in the area of creation care, a pet issue of Cizik's). On March 9, the NAE hosted a seminar at the National Press Club called "What is an Evangelical?" aimed at helping journalists see beyond the community's more colorful spokesmen. (Message: We are not all Jerry Falwell.) The next day, the organization gathered legislators and activists together on Capitol Hill to formally introduce its "Call to Civic Responsibility." "This is evangelicals' 'Here We Stand' document," gushes Cizik. "It may not be a magnum opus, but it's the best thing we've come out with yet."

But, even more than Wallis's campaign, the NAE's plans to expand the evangelical agenda risk being derailed by the fact that many of its most politically entrenched Christian brethren don't want attention diverted from hot-button life and family issues. Though even uber-conservatives pay lip service to the NAE's agenda, when it comes time to talk political priorities, the backpedaling begins. For instance, Focus on the Family's James Dobson was among the signatories of the "Call to Civic Responsibility." Since the statement's debut, however, Focus has repeatedly stressed that the primary interest of its ministry--and of evangelicals more broadly--is family values. Taking aim at the NAE's concerns about global warming, Focus Vice President Tom Minnery says disapprovingly, "That does not at all characterize the kind of issues that evangelicals are noted for being involved in. Marriage, family, judicial reform, and the various pro-life issues--those are the kinds of things that characterize evangelicals." Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, voices similar skepticism: "It would take a whole lot more than the leadership of the NAE to divert the evangelical and Catholic base from the core issues. As long as there's a baby being killed every 20 seconds, as long as the courts are trying to force action on gay marriage that two-thirds of the American people don't want, the base will insist that these issues receive great emphasis." Of course the right worries about dividing the attention not only of lawmakers but also of the grassroots, says Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center: "Life is full. People are trying to raise their children. How many issues can you have that much passion about changing the world?"

Cizik counters that a community of 50 million voters has enough "intelligence" and "human capital" to tackle more than a couple of policy areas at once. As for being undermined by the right, he defiantly points to the NAE's status as the largest organization representing evangelicals. But, in political terms, say folks on Capitol Hill, the NAE's constituency is a different creature than, say, Focus on the Family's. "The NAE was meant to have a top-down infrastructure. It was never meant to be a membership group," says Mark Rodgers, staff director for the Senate Republican Conference. "Its membership is made up of denominations and some individual churches, and its primary form of communication is the church-bulletin insert." By contrast, he notes, "Focus on the Family would have a direct mailing list of millions." So, while it's fair to say that the NAE represents a large constituency, says Rodgers, "They don't have the deliverables"--i.e., the ability to translate the general support of a constituency into tangible political pressure. And without deliverables, such as Dobson's ability to unleash his four million radio listeners on a particular bill or senator, it's hard to hold Congress's gaze for very long.

Recognizing this, both Wallis and Cizik emphasize that they are working on ways to communicate with their constituencies. The NAE is launching a massive education campaign, says Cizik, sending out books and resource guides to congregations and Christian organizations nationwide. Wallis, meanwhile, is exploring ways to launch his own syndicated radio show. But, even assuming such networks take root, it remains to be seen how much success the non-right will have getting voters as worked up about, say, health care as they do about gay marriage. It's not as though no one has tried before. Though less famous than activists on the right, there has long existed a community of Christian leaders preaching social justice. Evangelical political lefties like Ron Sider, head of Evangelicals for Social Action, and Tony Campolo, a professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University (and one of President Clinton's spiritual advisers), point to Christianity's history of championing social reform (nineteenth-century evangelist William Wilberforce's role in abolishing slavery in England is a favorite example) and frequently stress that the Bible has much more to say about caring for the poor than about eradicating sexual sin.

In modern U.S. politics, however, personal piety has proved the more compelling rallying cry for a variety of reasons--perhaps the most basic being that sex sells. "Sex always gets people's attention," says Marvin Olasky, godfather of compassionate conservatism and editor of the religious magazine World. Talk of sexual sin "goes to the gut," agrees conservative columnist Cal Thomas (who, in his younger days, served as vice president of communications for the Moral Majority). "It goes to the emotions, to feelings. It produces a visceral reaction." By contrast, issues like health care and homelessness, while arguably more pertinent to more people's lives, lack the same sizzle and, as such, are unlikely to capture the imagination of the grassroots, not to mention a drama-loving press.

As a bonus, says Thomas, opposing abortion and gay marriage generally has more to do with changing someone else's behavior than one's own. He points out that, as far as the decline of American culture goes, Christians are just as guilty as non-Christians when it comes to high divorce rates, out-of-wedlock sex, and rampant materialism. (Supporting data for this and similar trends can be found in Sider's book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.) But addressing this embarrassing reality would involve too much self-scrutiny, says Thomas. "People would much rather watch a video of someone else exercising than go to the gym and do the sweating themselves," he quips.

Similarly, issues like poverty and racial reconciliation don't lend themselves as neatly to the same good-versus-evil, us-versus-them political paradigm as gay rights or judicial activism, the right's latest bugaboo. Sociologist Tony Campolo (who recently conducted his own spiritual sit-down with Democratic lawmakers) likes to quote from philosopher Eric Hoffer's 1951 book, True Believer: "Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without belief in a devil." Hitler had the Jews, and the communists had the capitalists, says Campolo. "I contend that it's easy to rally people around opposition to gay people. In the minds of many, they have become the devil that must be destroyed if America is to be saved."

The uncomplicated, emotionally driven nature of the right's message gives it a fund-raising edge over the non-right."Big-time TV evangelists tell people, 'Send us your money so we can stop abortion, stop gay rights,'" snorts Thomas."If they were to go on and talk about how Christians needed to fix what's wrong in their own house, they wouldn't raise a dime." Moreover, if evangelicals seriously began pushing for tougher environmental regulation or higher Social Security taxes, it would strain the base's comfy relationship with the wing of the GOP that cares less about social than economic policy but that has, over the years, proved amenable to helping finance the crusade for personal piety. While many big-money Republicans may not share the right's passion for banning abortion, such a cause doesn't directly conflict with the party's laissez-faire, pro-corporate economic stance. Notably, neither do the foreign policy achievements cited by the NAE, such as legislation involving religious freedom or child sex-trafficking. Mucking around with domestic economic policy, however, such as calling for an increase in the minimum wage or for new pollution-control standards, could provoke intraparty rifts and put Republican politicians in a jam--yet another reason for the right to fight to maintain the status quo.

On a more spiritual plane, the non-right also has the theological tradition of American evangelicalism to contend with.To hear Wallis or Campolo talk, one might assume the religious right's broad-based conservative politics were forged by Falwell, Robertson, and Paul Weyrich sometime in the 1970s. ("Deals were cut," says Wallis conspiratorially."Robertson and Falwell were told, 'Give us your mailing lists and we'll make you household names.'") For certain issues, this may be true: Without question, the cultural upheaval of the 1960s--particularly the sexual revolution--sent social conservatives reeling with its celebration of what they still deride as an "if it feels good, do it" mentality that threatens the very foundation of our society. Civil rights clashes, meanwhile, fed Southern conservatives' sense that Big Government was not on their side. But much of the link between conservative theology and conservative politics in American evangelicalism stretches back considerably further, to a religious split that occurred in the early 1900s and sparked what is often referred to as "the great reversal" (so dubbed because, prior to the rift, conservative evangelicals were often active in progressive social causes). As historian George Marsden relates in Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, the progressive politics of the Roosevelt era (Teddy, not Franklin) "fostered a new wave of social concern in the churches and new types of proposals for social reform." Increasingly, progressive-minded Christians began insisting that believers should focus less on saving people's souls for the next world and more on redressing social ills in this one, a message referred to as "the social gospel." More theologically conservative Christians grew increasingly upset at what they saw as an attempt to supplant the message of salvation through Jesus's divine grace with a message of salvation through good works. They, in turn, responded by championing personal redemption and individual holiness over what famed revivalist Billy Sunday denounced as "this godless social-service nonsense." The polarization intensified such that, by the 1920s, the social gospel, with its link to progressive political ideals, came to be widely associated with, if not secularism, at least a nonevangelical brand of Protestantism more in keeping with today's liberal mainline churches than with evangelicals.

A century later, American evangelicalism's emphasis on free-will individualism, personal responsibility, and the paramount importance of one's personal walk with God predisposes many adherents to distrust government intervention in social problems like poverty. In researching their book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith found that evangelicals are more inclined than nonevangelicals to blame an individual's failure to thrive on personal shortcomings--say, a lack of ambition or character--rather than on any systemic disadvantages. By extension, write the authors, "Because systems and programs are viewed as obviating personal responsibility and not changing the hearts of individuals, they are ultimately destructive." Thus, "Welfare is seen as both terribly misguided and sinful, running counter to most things American and, in their understanding, most things Christian. It is far better, according to this [representative interviewee], to 'give them the basics of God and teach them about Jesus. That's going to bring them a whole lot more out of poverty than it is to give them a welfare check.'" Or, as Bush is so fond of asserting, the best way to tackle social problems is by changing "one heart and one soul at a time."

Theology aside, the political diversity of the religious non-right is likely to work against it as well. Wallis, for instance, opposed both the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, two positions that separate him from the bulk of the NAE's constituency. So, while the various groups may espouse similar broad principles, achieving any sort of consensus on what policies to push could prove nearly impossible. For all of Cizik's excitement over the "Call to Civic Responsibility," the document is intentionally devoid of policy positions. And, while it's nice of the evangelical community to express its theological opposition to poverty, such declarations don't do much to spur political action. (Remember: It's all about the deliverables.)

Indeed, there's some question even about how closely the various elements of the non-right would be willing to coordinate any activism. While he and Wallis have a history of signing one another's position statements, Cizik nonetheless expresses reservations about joining forces with "traditional evangelical liberals." Clearly, his cause would be ill-served if conservative colleagues wrote the NAE off, as they have Wallis, as part of the religious left. And Cizik already has grave doubts about Wallis's grassroots support and political effectiveness: "I would ask Jim--who's a friend--'Passed any bills lately? Have you succeeded with anything on the macro level?'" In contrast to the politically formidable coherence of the right, segments of the non-right could find themselves working at cross-purposes, struggling to organize parallel movements around conflicting proposals for a single issue.

But such devilish details are for another day. For now, the religious non-right is relishing its higher profile and dreaming of a not-so-distant future in which its leaders are as well-known and politically potent as the Ralph Reeds and James Dobsons of the right. The enthusiasm is particularly palpable in the scuffed, high-ceilinged halls of Sojourners, where Wallis's bright-eyed revolutionaries dash about making copies, answering phones, and organizing e-mail lists.Everyone looks purposeful, upbeat, and touchingly young, like student organizers of some generic campus sit-in. A twentysomething staffer sporting dark sunglasses, flip-flops, and a confident grin strides loosely through the building's front doors, headed for another day in the trenches. Watching him, one can almost picture a young Wallis, burning with the optimism and conviction that he and his pals stand poised to transform the face of U.S. policy and evangelicalism. But, 30 years later, for all of the recent buzz, the political landscape doesn't look that much more promising. No wonder Wallis seems so tired.

This article originally ran in the May 23, 2005 issue of the magazine.