Next month one of Barack Obama's key advisors on religious and ethical issues, and a vocal supporter of the American president, will be in Australia as one of the keynote speakers at the Parliament of the World's Religions to be held in Melbourne from 3–9 December.
Since the early 1970s, Rev. Jim Wallis has been a prominent progressive Christian activist in the US, but throughout the Bush era, he was a voice in the wilderness. With the ascendency of Obama he has been brought in from the cold. (Continues below)
Wallis is one of the founders of the Sojourners Christian community, which commenced in the early 1970s and gave rise to the famous magazine of the same name. The organisation is based in Washington DC. Wallis is its president and CEO, and editor-in-chief of its magazine and vast website.
During Obama's election campaign, Wallis was an advisor on religious issues, and he now sits on the President's Advisory Council on Faith-based Partnerships.
He's running hard at the moment to support Obama's healthcare reform legislation, the centrepiece of which is the provision of universal health insurance. Currently, more than 45 million poor Americans have no insurance and very limited access to healthcare. The reform is one of Obama's central election promises.
Wallis recently organised a conference call with Obama on the issue, and a staggering 140,000 people participated. He's taken part in a round of media interviews lobbying for reform — the video featured here shows him on CNN's Face Off debating Tony Perkins from the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian think-tank also based in Washington. Sojourners has even partially funded a TV commercial promoting reform.
The key sticking points for conservative Christians are that the legislation may provide for government funded abortion and euthanasia, and that it compromises individual choice and freedom with regard to insurance and healthcare. Wallis is also opposed to abortion and euthanasia, but he argues that the central issue is that poor people in the world's richest country are suffering and not being cared for, and that this must be addressed.
Wallis' style and presentation are strikingly similar to Obama's. Both men are articulate, measured, reasoned, even avuncular, rather than combative and confrontational. Wallis and the Sojourners community, well known in America for their
social engagement, would have been an inspiration for Obama earlier in
his career as a Christian social activist. In their collaboration there has been a meeting of hearts and minds.
Obama was brought up in a non-religious household, but he embraced Christianity as a young adult when he was working as a community organiser in Chicago. As he expresses in his book, The Audacity of Hope, the black church he joined 'had to serve as the centre of the community's political, economic and social as well as spiritual life; it understood in an intimate way the biblical call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and challenge powers and principalities. In the history of these struggles, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death; rather, it was an active, palpable agent in the world.'
This is identical to what motivates Wallis and the Sojourners community. According to its website, 'the biblical metaphor 'sojourners' identifies God's people as pilgrims — fully present in the world but committed to a different order'. The focus of its activities has always been peace and justice issues, and it explains its mission as articulating 'the biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world'.
For those wanting to understand the deeper theology that's one of the forces driving current US government policy, Jim Wallis' speeches, writing and TV appearances, and the Sojourners' website, are good places to start.
Peter Kirkwood worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.