Evangelical Minister Jim Wallis Is in Demand in Obama's Washington

The progressive leader was an outcast for decades but now he's back.

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At a recent Senate hearing on the Employee Free Choice Act, a pro-unionization bill backed by organized labor, expert testimony came from the usual suspects: an economist, an academic, a lawyer. And then there was the Rev. Jim Wallis, an evangelical minister. Where his fellow panelists made economic and legal arguments for the bill, Wallis laid out a moral case. "From 1995 to 2005, average CEO pay increased five times faster than that of average workers," he told the senators. "That is not just an economic issue. That is a sin of biblical proportions." Packed with union members, the room erupted in applause.

For Wallis, who leads an antipoverty group called Sojourners, it was just the beginning of another long day of power politics. An afternoon interview at his Washington office was cut short so he could hop on a conference call with President Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Then he was off to dinner with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

In more than three decades in the capital, the 60-year-old Wallis has never been so much in demand. As a politically progressive evangelical, he had long been an outcast in both evangelical and progressive political circles. Agitating for a greater government role in fighting poverty and promoting world peace, he pushed an agenda that was at odds with the Christian-right leaders who purported to speak for American evangelicals. Wallis decried those leaders' fixation on fighting abortion and gay rights. His own politics lined up closely with the Democrats, but the party had little interest in consorting with evangelical pastors.

Now, all that has changed. Many evangelicals, particularly younger ones, have broadened their political agenda beyond hot-button issues to embrace causes like combating climate change. Many of the Christian right's top leaders have died or lost influence. And Democrats all the way up to the White House are now embracing religion's role in politics and are actively wooing evangelicals. Seemingly overnight, Wallis has gone from outside agitator, arrested 22 times for acts of civil disobedience, to inside player, talking with presidential aides a few times a week. "I've been 40 years in the wilderness, and now it's time to come out," Wallis says. "This is a new experience for me."

So far, Wallis seems to be navigating the transition just fine. He advised the Obama team on launching its Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and helped expand its mission from the George W. Bush years to include reducing demand for abortion. Wallis has long considered White House budgets "moral documents," and he's pleased with Obama's. It increases funding for many of Wallis's priorities, including food stamps, childhood nutrition programs, and a bigger child tax credit. "I was in tears," Wallis says, recounting a White House conference call unveiling the president's budget. "Some of the things I've fought for my entire life are in there."

At the same time, Wallis is known for reaching out to Republicans and Christian conservatives. He recently partnered with former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson to announce a bipartisan coalition on poverty reduction. The group's recommendations included government-created savings accounts for all citizens and a higher minimum wage. "We started every meeting with prayer, saying we are followers of Jesus first and Republicans, Democrats, and independents second," Wallis says. "It freed us to talk about what actually works."

The project drew criticism from the religious left, which has accused Wallis of selling out his progressive beliefs as he's grown more powerful. The liberal Christian blog Street Prophets knocked Wallis and Gerson's work as "proposals for making the poor more responsible."

But Wallis's lefty credentials are well established. In the early 1970s, he faced pressure to leave Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois because his anti-Vietnam War activism was scaring off the school's benefactors. Wallis left by choice and helped start a commune to live out his "kind of Marxist" beliefs, which included living close to the poor and pursuing social justice activism full time. (Wallis has since disavowed Marxism.) The commune disbanded after it moved to Washington to advocate on social justice issues. But the name, Sojourners, lives on in his current organization and its monthly magazine.