There’s a bit of a thing brewing over Jim Wallis of Sojourners and his response to an advertisement from Believe Out Loud — a movement “to unite Christians for LGBT equality in the church and beyond.” The always insightful Sarah Posner has an excellent and thorough overview of the dispute at Religion Dispatches.
(For some additional perspective and reactions, see Tony Jones’ “What Jim Wallis Might Be Missing;” Jason Pitzl-Waters’ “Jim Wallis and the Religious Left;” Christopher LaTondresse and Chris Stedmans’ “The Sojourners and Jim Wallis Backlash Misses the Point;” and John Shore’s “Mr. Wallis and His Big Gay Waffle.”)
Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners — both the magazine and the inspiring faith community in Washington, D.C. — is probably the most prominent “progressive evangelical” voice on the American scene these days. You may be familiar with his books, or with the magazine or the good work of his community there in Washington. He has been a longtime, forceful and persuasive voice on behalf of economic and racial justice, peace and care for the environment. As John Shore notes in the piece linked above:
[Wallis] has accomplished a great deal of good in the world. He has fought to free South Africa, to reduce nuclear arms, to stop the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to bring about global economic health, to pass immigration reform laws, and to bring an end to human trafficking.
That list of progressive causes on which Wallis has made progress could go on even longer.
But Jim Wallis has also, for all that time over the past several decades, defended some positions that are not so progressive. He opposes legal abortion and the full acceptance in the church of GLBT people. Those have never been his primary issues, and he seems to have avoided discussing them whenever possible, seeming to regard them as divisive distractions from his core message and the work that has absorbed most of his life. His take on both matters is also far more nuanced and far less strident than the usual American evangelical approach to them. Indeed, a central theme in his message for his fellow evangelicals has been that these issues should not be of pre-eminent importance to them and that they should stop obsessing about them and get busy instead doing the sorts of things that Jesus actually told them to be doing.
Yet the fact remains that Jim Wallis’ position on both abortion and homosexuality is such that he has remained in good standing as a mostly accepted member of the American evangelical community. His views on poverty, racial justice, peace and the environment may put him at odds with the gatekeepers of that community, who often characterize him as a dangerous radical, but in the final analysis they also regard him as One Of Us because, after all, he opposes abortion and the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals.
Now, it’s tragic and probably heretical that this is how the American evangelical community decides who is and who is not an acceptable and recognized member of the community. Wallis’ long demonstration of a passionate faith doesn’t count in this calculus. Nor does his personal testimony, his church membership or of his long track record as a Bible-soaked preacher of God’s Word. All that really matters is opposition to those two things: Abortion and homosexuality. All other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.
Meeting that two-part standard is both necessary and sufficient for anyone’s acceptance as One Of Us by American evangelicalism. We recently saw this demonstrated yet again in the brief surge of evangelical enthusiasm for Donald Trump’s candidacy for president. Trump is a relentlessly amoral and areligious person — and he’s also loony as all get out — but he had signaled his willingness to toe the line on abortion and homosexuality, and so he received the blessing of Franklin Graham and of Tony Perkins and other evangelical gatekeepers.
Because Jim Wallis complies with that same two-part standard he remains accepted as a member of the evangelical community. The same cannot be said for, say, Tony Jones or Jay Bakker or any of the other relatively younger evangelical leaders and writers who have, due to their full embrace of GLBT equality, come to be designated as “post-evangelical” — or, as LaTondresse puts it, as “recovering evangelicals” — with a nifty dual-meaning to “recovering” (and, yes, I suppose I would include myself in that category, which is why I wrote “relatively younger” rather than just “younger”).
These two pre-eminent issues — abortion and homosexuality — have become the crux of American evangelicalism (pun intended) in part due to the politicization of evangelicals over the past three decades, years in which evangelical Christians have come to be regarded, by both outsiders and insiders, as primarily a bloc of voters. A great deal of money was spent during those years to convince evangelicals to come to think of themselves in this way and that money has had its intended effect.
But the strange elevation of these two shibboleths to creedal importance above all else wasn’t exclusively a product of this political manipulation. They also became the cornerstone of evangelical identity because each is, in slightly different ways, a convenient surrogate for and signifier of what are regarded as essential evangelical attitudes toward the Bible and toward the rest of society. They are regarded both as the most glaring examples of the pervasive immorality that supposedly characterizes the ungodly and as shorthand litmus tests for acceptance of “the authority of the scriptures.” The latter point is much clearer with regard to homosexuality, for which the well-known “clobber verses” provide a binary test of submission to the authority of prooftexts and to a host of unspoken accompanying hermeneutical assumptions. The lack of such apparent prooftexts for opposition to abortion makes that a more complicated question, which I’ll add to the lengthening list of Things I Want to Get Back to in More Detail in Future Posts.
Here I mainly want to highlight the way that the shibboleth of a “stance” opposing homosexuality tends to be, for evangelicals, as much about hermeneutics and the Bible as it is about sex and gender. What I want to suggest here, and in the Part 2 post to follow, is that it’s that difference in hermeneutics, rather than the particulars of anyone’s “stance on homosexuality”* that really distinguishes evangelicals like Jim Wallis from “post-evangelicals” like Tony Jones or Jay Bakker. To try to explain why, I want to tell a story and, since it’s kind of a longish story, I’ll save that discussion for Part 2.
For now let me just reiterate what I’ve said above about evangelical identity in America’s evangelical subculture. It is marked, above all else, by the proper “stance” on homosexuality and abortion. Those who meet that test are regarded as insiders with a voice that will be listened to. Those who fail that test are regarded as outsiders (even if we stubbornly refuse to accept such a designation because we don’t regard this test as legitimate or as a meaningful definition of what evangelical Christianity is supposed to be about).
This is, again, a sad state of affairs. These things are not supposed to be the crux of Christianity and I would think that even those who pass this test — evangelicals in good standing who oppose legal abortion and equality for GLBT people — would acknowledge that. But though this is not how things ought to be with evangelicals, it is how things are.
Given that, this recent controversy between Jim Wallis and Believe Out Loud has for many raised the question of whether his response to the vehement importance given to this calculus has led him, in turn, to be calculating in his own statements. One can certainly see how he might be, but I don’t think he is. I don’t think that Wallis is a post-evangelical timidly masquerading as something else. I don’t think he’s being disingenuous, I think he’s just wrong.
And so, of course, I would like to try to persuade him to change his mind. We’ll get to that in Part 2.
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* Yes, evangelicals really say this all the time. And, yes, it still makes me giggle.