Monday, May 9, 2011

Jim Wallis, The Religious Left, and the Dream of the Big Tent

There is a terrific article up at the Episcopal Cafe this week asking "What should progressives do about Jim Wallis?" in light of Wallis' publication, Sojourners, rejecting an ad from ecumenical LGBT group Believe Out Loud. The question is a vital, with ramifications reaching beyond the question of Wallis' position as nominal figurehead of progressive Christianity in the US to broader questions of how we, as members of the Religious Left, cope with pluralistic beliefs that can set our purposes at odds.

Let's start with the issue at hand. The current fracas began when Wallis' Sojourners publication refused to run an ad for a new Believe Out Loud campaign calling for one million religious individuals to "sign up" in support of full LGBT equality within churches and our broader society. According to Jim Naughton at Episcopal Cafe, "The advertisement took no political position, its only point was that LGBT people and their families should be made welcome in our faith communities. Yet Sojourners turned it down."

The official rationale from the Sojourners folks up to this point has been a desire not to "take sides." Now, as of this writing, it has yet to become clear precisely to which "sides" the folks over at Sojourners might be referring. Rev. Robert Chase, the Founding Director of Believe Out Loud's parent organization Intersections International, penned a follow-up article on the rejection for Religion Dispatches. Rev. Chases' article explains the wholly unsatisfactory answers from Sojourners about why the ad was declined:
"In a written statement, Sojourners said, “I’m afraid we’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? What are the sides here? That young children who have same-gender parents are not welcome in our churches? That “welcome, everyone” (the only two words spoken in the ad) is a controversial greeting from our pulpits? That the stares the young boy and his moms get while walking down the aisle are justified? I can’t imagine Sojourners turning down an ad that called for welcome of poor children into our churches. So why is this boy different?

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."
The failure of Jim Wallis and Sojourners to live up to the basic presumptions for justice of other progressive religious organizations and individuals illustrates the problems latent within the assumption of one person or ecumenical group as the nominal figurehead of the inherently pluralistic movement that is the Religious Left. While there is a good amount of overlap between Wallis' group and many other key players within the Religious Left - particularly on issues of economics and racial justice, for example - the fallout over the rejection of this ad has discredited Wallis in the eyes of many religious progressives who are now vocally questioning Wallis' credentials to style himself as such, never mind represent the loose-knit progressive Christian community in the US. Jim Naughton over at the Episcopal Cafe certainly falls into this camp:
It would seem to me that if you can't bring yourself to say that LGBT people shouldn't be chased out of our churches you have no business passing yourself off as a progressive leader, Christian or otherwise. In fact, based on recent polling on the far more sensitive subject of same-sex marriage, you have no business passing yourself off as a moderate leader, either.
Naughton's disappointment and disillusionment with Wallis prompted him to lament, "The big tent collapsed this weekend, and it was Sojourners who yanked out the tent poles." I want to push back on Naughtons' claim a bit, but in a way that will hopefully be encouraging. I consider the Religious Left's big tent to still be upright; we've just had to knock out some of the walls. As we've discussed on this site time and again, the internal pluralism of the Religious Left effectively precludes the possibility of a single, united front when it comes to the many and varied social justice issues against which the organizations and individuals who comprise the Religioust Left make (mostly) common cause. While we might agree on many issues, there are bound to be certain areas of potentially profound disagreement. 

To keep up the big tent metaphor, what we're working with is basically a whole host of overlapping rings within the big tent, with each ring representing an issue around which the pluralistic partisans of the Religious Left can unite. A sort of Venn diagram circus of progressive religion. But, as the Sojourners flap has demonstrated, sometimes a group's stance on a given issue puts them outside the big tent, at least in the minds of other religious progressives. And maybe that's fine. Maybe for all of the overlapping the rings do inside the tent, occasionally a corner pooches out somewhere. So how do we deal with these outliers? Can we invite those who fail to share our concerns, who will not join with us in a given ring, to do so? Certainly. Can we gently call these outliers to the same justice in certain matters that they espouse in others? Of course. Should we maybe be a bit more careful in the future about rallying too closely around specific organizations and individuals in the name of progressive religious political expediency? Absolutely.

But while the temptation when we're let down by a nominal ringmaster like Jim Wallis might be to load him into a cannon and launch him right out of the tent altogether (I know, I am getting Prius-good mileage out of this metaphor), we have to take stock of the still-significant overlap between the mission of Wallis, Sojourners, and the other goals advocated by religious progressives. For all of the apparent shortcomings of the Sojourners community on issues of gender and sexuality, their track record on issues of economic justice speaks for itself. 

Managing pluralism is a tricky business, especially when that pluralism highlights sometimes stark differences in the deeply-held beliefs and practices. This pluralism is either going to be the Religious Left's greatest strength or our downfall. Unless we find ways to embrace our commonalities, while still remaining true to the courage of our convictions when it comes to our differences, we cannot hope to advance the cause of justice for which we strive. The big tent that is the Religious Left is still standing. Jim Wallis, won't you come on back inside?


  1. Lovely, balanced article, Garrett.

  2. A question for anyone who has experience with this - how does (or would?) the religious left deal with members who have contradictory ideas about gender roles?

    For example, what would be (has been?) the response to a group who supports economic and social justice but strictly believes in complementarianism, male headship and that women cannot hold leadership positions in the church?