Now that he no longer draws spiritual succor from Jeremiah Wright—the America-hating, racist demagogue who served as his pastor and spiritual mentor for twenty years—Barack Obama has turned elsewhere for guidance in the task of carrying out his political duties while remaining true to his religious values.
The most notable of his spiritual advisors today is his friend of many years, Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners organization. Says Wallis, “We’ve [he and Obama] been talking faith and politics for a long time.”
Who is Jim Wallis? According to The New York Times, Wallis “leans left on some issues” but overall is a “centrist, social justice” kind of guy. But a closer look at Wallis’s background reveals him to be nearly as radical, if better at disguising the fact, as Jeremiah Wright.
As a teenager in the 1960s, Wallis joined the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. His participation in peace protests nearly resulted in his expulsion from the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois, a Christian seminary where he was then enrolled. While at Trinity, Wallis founded an anti-capitalism magazine called the Post-American, which identified wealth redistribution and government-managed economies as the keys to achieving “social justice”—a term that, as educator/journalist Barry Loberfeld has pointed out, is essentially “code for communism.”
In 1971, the 23-year-old Wallis and his Post-American colleagues changed the name of their publication to Sojourners, and in the mid-1970s they moved their base of operation from Chicago to Washington, DC, where Wallis has served as Sojourners’ editor (and leader of the eponymous organization) ever since.
Advocating America’s transformation into a socialist nation, Sojourners’ “statement of faith” exhorted people to “refuse to accept [capitalist] structures and assumptions that normalize poverty and segregate the world by class.” According to Sojourners, “gospel faith transforms our economics, gives us the power to share our bread and resources, welcomes all to the table of God’s provision, and provides a vision for social revolution.”
As one of its first acts, Sojourners formed a commune in the Washington, DC neighborhood of Southern Columbia Heights, where members shared their finances and participated in various activist campaigns that centered on attacking U.S. foreign policy, denouncing American “imperialism,” and extolling Marxist revolutionary movements in the Third World.
Giving voice to Sojourners’ intense anti-Americanism, Jim Wallis called the U.S. “the great power, the great seducer, the great captor and destroyer of human life, the great master of humanity and history in its totalitarian claims and designs.”
In parallel with his magazine’s stridently antiwar position during the Seventies, Wallis championed the cause of communism. Forgiving communism’s brutal standard-bearers in Vietnam and Cambodia the most abominable of atrocities, Wallis was, by contrast, unsparing in his execration of American military efforts. He demanded greater levels of “social justice” in the allegedly oppressive U.S., but was silent on the subject of the murderous rampages of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In fact, several Sojourners editorials attempted to exculpate the Khmer Rouge of the charges of genocide, instead shifting blame squarely onto the United States.
Following the 1979 refugee crisis in Vietnam, Wallis lashed out at the desperate masses fleeing North Vietnam’s Communist forces by boat. These refugees, as Wallis saw it, had been “inoculated” by capitalist influences during the war and were absconding “to support their consumer habit in other lands.” Wallis then admonished critics against pointing to the boat people to “discredit” the righteousness of Vietnam’s newly victorious Communist regime.
Wallis blamed America alone for the political tensions of the Cold War era. “At each step in the Cold War,” he wrote in November 1982, “the U.S. was presented with a choice between very different but equally plausible interpretations of Soviet intentions, each of which would have led to very different responses. At every turn, U.S. policy-makers have chosen to assume the very worst about their Soviet counterparts.”
Actively embracing liberation theology, Wallis and Sojourners in the 1980s rallied to the cause of Communist regimes that had seized power in Latin America with the promise of bringing about the revolutionary restructuring of society. Particularly attractive for the ministry’s religious activists was the Communist Sandinista dictatorship that took power in Nicaragua in 1979. Wallis embarked on an editorial crusade in Sojourners to undercut public support for a confrontational U.S. foreign policy toward the spread of Communism there and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere. Moreover, he invited the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) —the public relations arm of the El Salvadoran terrorist group the FMLN—to take part in a number of initiatives with Sojourners.
Steadfast advocates of the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s, Sojourners activists maintained that a U.S. nuclear buildup was “an intolerable evil” irreconcilably at odds with Christian teaching, and that “[t]he Reagan Administration remains the chief obstacle to the first step in stopping the arms race.” While assailing Reagan’s defense buildup, Sojourners downplayed the threat posed by the Soviet Union, chastising U.S. policy-makers for their tendency “to assume the very worst about their Soviet counterparts.”
In 1995 Wallis founded Call to Renewal, a coalition of religious groups united in the purpose of advocating, in religious terms, for leftist economic agendas such as tax hikes and wealth redistribution to promote “social justice.”
To this day, Wallis remains fiercely opposed to capitalism and the free-market system. “Our systems have failed the poor and they have failed the earth,” Wallis has said. “They have failed the creation.”
Wallis continues to lament “all the bad stuff in America—the poverty, the racism, the human rights violations, and always the wars … the arrogance, self-righteousness, materialism, and ignorance [about] the rest of the world, the habitual ignoring of the ones that God says we can’t [ignore], the ones Jesus calls the least of these.”
More than a mere religious leader, Wallis, a registered Democrat, is also an adroit political operative, publicly portraying himself as a politically neutral religious figure whose overriding allegiance is to God. Always with the disclaimer that neither major political party can claim authoritatively to represent the values of religious faith, Wallis nevertheless contends that Republican policies tend to be immoral and godless. For example, he and his ministry reviled welfare reform as a “mean-spirited Republican agenda” characterized by “hatred toward the poor.”
At the same time, Wallis actively works to promote Democratic causes. According to a March 10, 2007 Los Angeles Times report, Wallis has recently sought to re-brand traditional slogans of the religious right, like “pro-life,” to refer to such leftist agendas as working with AIDS victims in Africa or helping illegal immigrants in America achieve legal status so they can continue to live with their U.S.-born children.
But Wallis’s most passionate advocacy concerns Barack Obama. Wallis likens the new president to the Old Testament prophet Nehemiah, someone who “carefully surveyed the broken walls of the temple, called the people together to start the rebuilding and to ‘commit themselves to the common good.’” The activist preacher further gushes that the Bush administration’s allegedly unenlightened national-security strategy will “now be replaced by the wisdom of the prophet Micah—that our security depends upon other people’s security,” thereby setting the stage for America’s “new relationship to the world.”
Immediately after Obama’s January 20th inauguration, a rejoicing Wallis told The Washington Times: “My prayers for decades have been answered in this minute.” Subsequently echoing Michelle Obama’s infamous 2008 declaration, Wallis reported that Obama’s electoral victory had enabled him to feel “proud of my country for the first time in a very long time.” The country, meanwhile, may be properly concerned that the president has sought spiritual counsel from a figure as removed from the political mainstream as Jim Wallis.