The Moral Terms of 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.
THE AMERICA WE SEEK
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."
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]
The Moral Terms of Jim Wallis | 11 comments (11 topical, 0 hidden)
The Moral Terms of Jim Wallis | 11 comments (11 topical, 0 hidden)