The Moral Terms of Jim Wallis
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Tue Jul 11, 2006 at 03:30:33 AM EST
Jim Wallis
"The good news is that the monologue of the Religious Right is now over and a new dialogue is finally beginning."  That's Jim Wallis's favorite sound bite.  He says it so often that Google finds his name plus that exact phrase about 13,000 times.  

Much of this "new dialogue" is devoted to poverty as a moral issue, a national discussion that is long overdue.  But no moral/political dialogue can ignore for long those twin bread-and-butter bogeymen of the Religious Right: full civil rights for gays and lesbians, and reproductive rights for women.  

As Dr. Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, correctly points out, "Jesus never said one word about homosexuality, never said one word about civil marriage or abortion."

Jim Wallis meets Dr. Edgar only half way, allowing at least that "Jesus didn't speak at all about homosexuality." But no, Jesus never said a recorded word about abortion, either. Although these days, Wallis does his best to avoid talking about abortion much at all.  

But before his elevation as an "evangelical progressive" celebrity, together with a Who's Who of the Religious Right that he now says "gets it wrong" -- in lockstep agreement with Gary Bauer, Charles Colson, James Dobson, Robert George, William Kristol, Beverly LaHaye, Richard Land, Bernard Nathanson, Frank Pavone and Ralph Reed -- Jim Wallis signed a lengthy document that said plenty about abortion, culminating in a call for a constitutional amendment to criminalize abortion entirely.  And to this day, adept as he is at dodging questions about his true position, Wallis has yet to repudiate a word of it.

Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice has taken Wallis to task for his refusal to get real about abortion in his current role as "progressive evangelical" adviser to Democrats in search of "values voter" support. Wallis maintains that President Bush "lets himself take credit for a hard-line stance on abortion that he has never really endorsed," and advises Democrats to "change the whole landscape" by moderating their party's position. Kissling worries about exactly what kind of position Wallis has in mind.

He is one of those religious leaders who set the teeth of feminist religious women, particularly Roman Catholics, on edge. He identifies himself as a progressive pro-life evangelical, but his heroes are ... the Catholic bishops. ... He claims to speak for "millions" of progressive Catholics who are eager to support the Democratic Party but balk at its stance on abortion. His pronouncements on Catholic teaching about abortion and what Catholics actually believe are firm and unshaken by facts.
Wallis' views are hard to pin down. Attempts by interviewers to get Wallis to go beyond his well-rehearsed and often-repeated sound bites on the issue are met with politician-like repetitions of homespun theology. He thinks abortion itself is morally wrong but does not want to see it criminalized. His reason for such generosity is classically patriarchal beneficence: He doesn't want poor women who are victims of poverty and injustice to suffer. There is no acknowledgment that a woman who is not a victim, but a thoughtful moral agent who could continue a pregnancy, might make a good decision to have an abortion.

In his attempts to seek "common ground" with others, Wallis focuses on the "too many abortions" argument. But his common ground is very shaky. It does not, for example, include contraception. Wallis has said he is in favor of contraception, but after a fairly extensive review of his writing and transcripts of speeches and sermons, I can find no reference to contraception as a common-ground means of reducing abortion rates.

This is what Jim Wallis himself says about where the Democratic Party needs to go on abortion policy in order to find what he calls "common ground" with "values voters."

Democrats must offer new ideas and a fresh agenda, rather than linguistic strategies to sell an old set of ideologies and interest group demands.
On the issues that Republicans have turned into election-winning "wedges," Democrats will win back "values voters" only with fresh ideas.

Abortion is one such case. Democrats need to think past catchphrases, like "a woman's right to choose," or the alternative, "safe, legal and rare." More than 1 million abortions are performed every year in this country. The Democrats should set forth proposals that aim to reduce that number by at least half. Such a campaign could emphasize adoption reform, health care, and child care; combating teenage pregnancy and sexual abuse; improving poor and working women's incomes; and supporting reasonable restrictions on abortion ...  Such a program could help create some much-needed common ground.

On the issue of reproductive freedom and abortion rights, there is no older "set of ideologies and interest group demands" than that of the Religious Right ... and, it seems, of Jim Wallis.  Yes, all of the above are part of Wallis' agenda - although he leaves out not only contraception, but his signed endorsement of a federal constitutional amendment to make abortion a crime in all 50 states.

Frances Kissling goes on to say, "While he repeatedly has said that Democrats need not change their position on abortion, just the way they talk about it (comments echoed by party chairman Howard Dean), Wallis is now out of the closet."  

If the position paper that Wallis and assorted self-professed abortion abolitionists from the Religious Right signed ten years ago is anything to go by, he's been out of the closet on reproductive freedom for women for a long time. Here is another favorite Wallis sound bite: "God is not a Republican or a Democrat. I want Republicans to talk about more than gay marriage and abortion. I want Democrats to talk about abortion and poverty in moral terms."

And here, courtesy of Priests for Life, are only a few of the "moral terms" - prefaced with the blatant lie that "abortion on demand ... is legal at any time of pregnancy, for virtually any reason, in every state " -- to which Jim Wallis has signed his name.


That America has the most permissive abortion regime among the world's democracies is a betrayal of the American promise of justice for all.
The abortion license hurts women. Some (including the narrow Supreme Court majority in the 1992 Casey decision) contend that the license is necessary to ensure social and economic gains for women. It is ever more clear, though, that women pay a huge price for abortion. By providing an alleged technological "fix" for unintended pregnancy, the license has encouraged widespread male irresponsibility and predatory male sexual behavior.
Fathers have also been harmed and dehumanized by the abortion license. ... Even when agreeing to support the abortion decision, fathers, like mothers, suppress their grief; deny their protective instincts, and otherwise damage themselves when they allow the killing of their own children. Abortion contributes to the marginalization of fatherhood in America, which many agree is a primary cause of the alarming breakdown of American family life.
The women of America do not need abortion to be full participants in our society. To suggest otherwise is to demean women.
[T]he abortion license cuts to the heart of America's claim to being a law-governed democracy, in which equality before the law is a fundamental principle of justice. ... Thus, the abortion issue is the crucial civil-rights issue of our time.
There are also disturbing signs of the corrupting influence of the abortion license in other professions. History has been rewritten to provide specious justification for Roe v. Wade. The teaching of law has been similarly distorted, as have political theory and political science. Such extremism underlines the unavoidably public character of the abortion license. The abortion license has a perverse Midas quality--it corrupts whatever it touches.
Our goal is simply stated: we seek an America in which every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life. ... [W]e bear a common responsibility to make sure that all women know that their own physical and spiritual resources, joined to those of a society that truly affirms and welcomes life, are sufficient to overcome whatever obstacles pregnancy and child-rearing may appear to present. Women instinctively know, and we should never deny, that this path will involve sacrifice.
Promotion of the pro-life cause also requires us to support and work with those who are seeking to re-establish the moral linkage between sexual expression and marriage, and between marriage and procreation.
We urge Congress and the courts to reconsider their ill-advised restrictions on the rights of pro-life activists.
In its 1992 Casey decision, the Supreme Court agreed that the State of Pennsylvania could regulate the abortion industry in a number of ways. ... A national effort to enact Pennsylvania-type regulations in all fifty states would be a modest but important step toward the America we seek.
We believe that Congress should adopt [abortion-restricting] measures and that the President should sign them into law. Any criminal sanctions considered in such legislation should fall upon abortionists, not upon women in crisis.
The right to life of the unborn will not be secured until it is secured under the Constitution of the United States. ... [T]he Supreme Court could reject central finding of Roe v. Wade. ... A more enduring means of constitutional reform is a constitutional amendment both reversing the doctrines of Roe v. Wade and Casey, and establishing that the right to life protected by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments extends to the unborn child. Such an amendment would have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states: a requirement that underlines the importance of establishing a track record of progressive legal change on behalf of the unborn child at the state and local levels.
Such a process does not, we emphasize, amount to the determination of moral truth by majority rule. Rather, it requires conforming fundamental constitutional principle to a fundamental moral truth.
The renewal of American democracy according to the highest ideals of the Founders requires us to stand for the inalienable right to life of the unborn.

A partial list of signatories includes such luminaries of the Religious Right as Gary Bauer, Family Research Council; Charles W. Colson, Prison Fellowship; Guy M. Condon of Care Net;  James C. Dobson, Focus on the Family; Clarke D. Forsythe, Americans United for Life; Wanda Franz, National Right to Life Committee; Robert P. George; William Kristol, Project for the Republican Future; Beverly LaHaye, Concerned Women for America; Richard Land, Southern Baptist Convention; Bernard N. Nathanson, MD; Richard John Neuhaus, Institute on Religion and Public Life; Frank A. Pavone, Priests for Life; Ralph Reed, Christian Coalition . . . and Jim Wallis, Sojourners.

One fairly recent exchange between Chuck Colson and Jim Wallis is sadly enlightening.

"Sorry, Jim Wallis, all issues are not morally equivalent. The first one, the right to life, is non-negotiable. It undergirds all others: Take it away, and the whole house of cards collapses."

"That's the message that is resonating around the country, Chuck," Wallis shot back. "Not that all issues are 'morally equivalent' but that, indeed, as you say, the 'first one, the right to life, is non-negotiable.' Perhaps the difference between us is that I believe that non-negotiable right continues after birth."

And that may be their only real difference of opinion on the subject.

When Jim Wallis led last winter's Call to Renewal protest in Washington D.C., many of the 114 who were arrested for civil disobedience while demanding a "moral budget" also bore placards emblazoned "Access Denied."  

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[Photo: Sojourners]

One can't help wondering whether all the women who held those signs knew that denial of access to safe and legal abortion care is exactly what Jim Wallis has said he wants.  And since he must know that in every civilization since the beginning of recorded time -- including pre-Roe America -- the only alternative to safe and legal abortion has been unsafe and illegal abortion, one can only conclude that Wallis is all right with that, too.

In his painfully honest account [pdf link] of his own visits to a clinic that provided abortion care, Catholic theologian Daniel Maguire said that while he knew that this experience would not give him a woman's understanding of the abortion decision, he hoped that it would "empty me a bit of my inculcated masculine insensitivity" and help him to "lie less" when he wrote about abortion.

One review of God's Politics deprecated the importance of Wallis' opposition to what he calls the Democratic Party's "highly ideological and very rigid stance on this critical moral issue." It was Katherine Mangu-Ward's opinion that "Pro-choicers will have no trouble shrugging off this breach in an otherwise nearly flawless leftist litany."

This pro-choicer has a whole lot of trouble shrugging off what Jim Wallis has said about abortion, and along with Mr. Maguire, most people in this country of all faiths -- or even of none -- would like to hear a lot less lying about it from both religious leaders and politicians.  

But the time for truth from Jim Wallis is now.

[Title image from World Security Network, in a story republished from the International Herald Tribune]

I expect more from religious leaders than I do from politicians ... or at least, I try to.

But Jim Wallis has some explaining to do.

by moiv on Tue Jul 11, 2006 at 03:43:28 AM EST

Jim Wallis has oft repeated the line that "The Bible mentions poverty more than 3,000 times." Well, I believe Wallis on that. But the Bible also fails to mention, as far as I'm aware, Nuclear power, antibiotics, automobiles, space flight, television, computers, the Internet, electric power, genetics, the typewriter, the printing press, condoms, modern contraceptive technology or stem cell research.

Merely noting that the Bible does not mention something does not constitute a clear position. Leaders of the Christian right have their reasons on why they want to criminalize abortion ( and, in some cases, many methods of birth control as well ). They work to see that their views get translated into legislation. In turn, politicians must decide to vote for or against such legislation.

Decisions must be made and and so it is not a viable position for Jim Wallis to merely skirt the issue. Wallis is not a legislator but he advises legislators, and unfortunately his style of avoidance has been adopted by the Democratic Party. Howard Dean and other Democratic Party officials have become fond of quoting Jim Wallis' "...3,000 times" times talking point, and for good reason - it draws attention to a central focus of the Bible and works to reframe Christianity as a religion of compassion and not hatred and anger. Well and good..

Now, if access to legal abortion and birth control technologies are deemed "off topic" issues by key Democrats, doesn't that suggest that the positions of the Christian right have in effect colonized the Democratic Party ? And, do the Democrats really want to become the "Conservative Biblical Values Lite" party ?

In terms of hard edged calculations, the Democratic Party may pick up "soft" pro life Democrats by waffling on abortion ( though it's unlikely to pick up any voters by not discussing efforts to restrict birth control ) and it may also  lose some voters who become disgusted about the party's stand ( or lack of it ) and just opt to stay home rather than vote.

The calculation seems to be that on the balance the Democratic Party will gain more voters than it loses by avoiding reproductive rights. Well, even if that is true in theory, in practice the gambit may well backfire : first, the Democratic Party stands to lose some of its most highly motivated activists if it waffles over reproductive rights and same sex marriage. Does it stand to pick up, on the other side of the equation, other motivated activists to compensate for the possible loss ? Probably not, and there's one wild card factor which likely does not get entered in to the calculations of analysts who advise the Democratic Party on shaping  its platform for vote maximization : character matters. As Talk To Action guest contributor Charley Blandy recently observed, voters often will opt for politicians who seem to show personal integrity regardless of stated positions:

it's a mistake to imagine that any particular set of policy positions will place the Dems in the midst of the largest clump of voters, and that therefore they'll win 50%+1. That's because wonky stuff, however nicely polled and focus-grouped, doesn't work on a national level: No one is smart enough to be able to evaluate policy positions one by one. And even if the proposals are popular, character (in the broadest sense) trumps all. All voters use professions of morality as a shorthand to evaluate how a candidate will act in office in general.

If leaders of the Christian right want to pass legislation against abortion and birth control, at the end of the day how will Jim Wallis advise politicians under his sway to vote ?  Waffling is fuzzy, but voting is binary. Yes, or no.

To the extent that Jim Wallis style of evasion gets enshrined as the sanctioned approach, voters may well perceive politicians who try such dodges as shifty. Would those voters be wrong ?

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Jul 11, 2006 at 07:29:36 AM EST

And thank you moiv for spelling out Wallace's views so clearly . As I've stated a number of times (at the risk of boring everyone) I think that Wallace has been a pernicious influence on the Democratic party. They certainly don't need any help in the waffling and weaving department. Kerry tried this approach in the 2004 campaign and took a hit for it - but they never learn.

It's also important to look at the polling stats on abortion. A significant majority of voters (65-66%) do not want Roe v Wade overturned. Close to 60% were against the S. Dakota amendment and among Dem's and Ind's the figures rose to 69 and 67%. When asked whether they would be more (46%) or less (33%) likely to vote for a candidate who supported keeping abortion legal, 19% said it wouldn't make any difference. So it looks like the old 1/3 are making all the noise - probably the 1/3 that still supports Bush. Most of these people are not going to be peeled off so trying to address their preferences is likely to be an exercise in futility.

We need to keep hammering this point home - not just on blogs but directly to the powers that be.

by Psyche on Tue Jul 11, 2006 at 02:00:05 PM EST

Its spelled, "Wallis."  ;-)

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Jul 11, 2006 at 03:11:06 PM EST

by Psyche on Tue Jul 11, 2006 at 04:08:51 PM EST

I basically wish he would be straightforward. There's no reason to be ashamed of that position. If he really, really believes that a fertilized egg is a human being that needs legal protection, I don't begrudge him for that.

For me, I believe there are more constructive ways to approach the abortion issue than making abortion illegal.

by johnfromberkeley on Tue Jul 11, 2006 at 02:07:28 PM EST

I respect those on the Christian right and everywhere on the political spectrum who have the courage to simply state their positions.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Jul 11, 2006 at 02:17:49 PM EST
I think it is a matter of honesty and integrity.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Jul 11, 2006 at 03:12:17 PM EST
I think those can take courage, but yes - it is a matter of honesty and integrity.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Jul 11, 2006 at 05:34:14 PM EST

In a world at six billion, three times the  population at the turn of the century and doubling about every twenty five years, sixteen years past the sustainable limit, anything but some form of birth control, be it the condom, the pill or abortion is absolutely critical.   Anyone who thinks differently should have the excess homeless people camp in his own back yard to feed and clothe in ever increasing numbers.

by Concerned on Thu Jul 13, 2006 at 12:43:15 AM EST

I've noticed that is a blind spot with the religious wrong even though so many fetuses are discarded yearly, not one is picketed or attacked. I wonder what Wallis has to say about that little discontinuity in their 'right to life' kind of theosophy? Stem cell research and cloning riles them more than that seems to. It is good to know what Wallis really thinks and what he defends as well as attacks. These are the most slippery and dangerous of the theocrats out there. The lamb that is really the wolf.

by Nightgaunt on Mon Feb 23, 2009 at 04:25:21 PM EST

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