The Evangelical Left’s penetration of American evangelical culture accelerated with Sojourners chief Jim Wallis’s high profile appearance at the annual “Lifest” Christian music festival in Oshkosh, Wisconsin earlier this month.
Previously non-political and devoted to inspirational music and spiritual lectures for tens of thousands of American heartland Christians, Lifest seems to have crossed the threshold into the Evangelical Left orbit with Wallis’s entrance. Adding to the leftward slant was the less high profile but still significant appearance of anti-American pacifist preacher Shane Claiborne, a popular “urban monastic” who sinisterly equates America with ancient Babylon, the Roman Empire, and the Third Reich. (See my assistant Connor Ewing’s onsite report.)
Of course, Wallis loved the “firestorm” he generated. For the benefit of his supporters afterwards, he recalled: “A local Christian radio station, which had always supported Lifest, and a local pastor started circulating attacks against me, suggesting that I was a communist, a deceiver, and, worst of all, an adviser to Barack Obama.” According to Wallis, he was excoriated as an “avowed Marxist” who posed “spiritual peril” to evangelical young people. He ascribed some of this rhetoric to his favorite critic and bête noire, Glenn Beck.
Ostensibly, Lifest faced “intimidation” unless it cancelled Jim Wallis. So, America’s most prominent Religious Left prophet courageously confronted his main accuser directly, just like Elijah facing Ahab. He phoned the president of the Christian radio station that was urging Wallis’s cancellation. Reassuringly, as Wallis told it, he described to the recalcitrant bourgeois evangelical how he, Wallis, had “worked with the Obama administration” to protect religious freedom in hiring by government funded religious groups, had fought to preserve prohibitions against government funding of abortion, and was impartially advocating a two state solution in the Middle East that would benefit Palestinian Christians.
Evidently the radio chieftain would not retract his “wild and fabricated charges” against Wallis, despite Wallis’s direct application of cool reason. So the radio station boycotted the festival. The controversy and boycott amplified the spotlight for Wallis, predictably. And the Prophet arrived in Wisconsin under the scrutiny of television cameras and enveloped by “press interviews” and meetings with flocking supporters offering apologies for the backwardness of some reactionary Wisconsin evangelicals. ”Please come back again,” they purportedly pleaded to their Prophet.
Wallis’s talk at Lifest was “The Call to Jesus and his Kingdom of Justice,” reportedly arousing a “very enthusiastic response from the thousands of young people who were there – the crowd made even larger because of the controversy, of course.” Wallis recalled their cheers when he announced that “any gospel that isn’t good news to the poor is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.” He evidently did not more fully explain his view that the Gospel’s concern for the poor primarily entails the endless expansion of the welfare state, which is God’s primary instrument for the global salvation.
As recounted by my assistant Connor Ewing, who attended reports (see his onsite report), Lifest organizer Bob Lenz effusively introduced Wallis to the crowd. “I’ve read his books, I’ve studied with him, I’ve been on retreats with him,” he gushed. “This is my brother in Christ. I believe he has a message from God for the church today.” Wallis pandered to his crowd by hailing them as a “new generation” who are going to “save the church and the world” from the consequences of “bad religious fundraisers,…television preachers,…pedophile priests…[and] White House theology” (presumably referring to the Bush Administration and not to Wallis’s closer partners currently in the White House).
Wallis tried to sound evangelistic by recounting his return to the Christian faith by way of the civil rights movement. “I had been reading – I heard somebody around here thought I was an avowed Marxist. Well I’m not. But I was reading them when I was a student – Karl Marx, Ho Chi Min, Che Gueverra. But then I began to read the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus said, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’” Citing the Gospel’s command to care for the poor, Wallis exulted: “That’s how He knows whether we love Him or not. That was more radical than Karl Marx and Che Gueverra and Ho Chi Min. And I signed up to be a follower of Jesus.”
Almost always Wallis describes being a “follower of Jesus” in nearly exclusively political terms, when most Christians have a more transcendent understanding of their faith. Wallis had a good time denying supposed allegations of Marxism, without mentioning that he was an enthusiast for the Sandinistas and other Marxist “liberation” movements during the final years of the Cold War. Whatever his current politics or faith, Wallis is indisputably a statist, who views religious groups, especially evangelicals, as potentially ripe political followers for his promise of government as panacea.
According to Wallis, the protesters against his presence at Lifest were widely exposed as “pretty foolish,” thanks to Wallis’s own smash performance. He recounted that one Wisconsin newspaper quoted him, urging the replacement of “the gospel of Glenn, Rush, Sean, and Bill with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.“ Perhaps Wallis would have looked a little less partisan had he not made conservative commentators the exclusive focus of his unfavorable comparison with the Gospel writers. But in truth, Wallis does ultimately distill the Gospel into a message primarily about political power and coercive redistribution. Supposedly his religious veneer to the Left’s old statist power-grab is a deliverance from the “old arguments and divisions in the church,” as Wallis claimed.
Some youthful concert goers and naïve evangelical organizers may be seduced by Wallis’s throw-away lines. But most mature Christians understand that the Gospel is about considerably more than Wallis’s current brand of “White House theology.”