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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More recently, Wallis has partnered with Democrats to help the party reconnect with the so-called values voters who were key to the GOP's 2004 gains. His efforts have included building faith-based arguments for left-of-center policy ideas. "He was able to get our members to understand the issues they're voting for are faith issues," says House Majority Whip James Clyburn. "And to get them comfortable speaking in those terms."

Conservative groups say that work casts doubt on Wallis's claims that he, like most evangelicals, is socially conservative. "He's very eager to call himself pro-life, but I'm not sure how helpful that label is," says Ted Olsen, a Christianity Today editor who has covered Wallis for over a decade. "The way that term is generally applied, pro-life equals the abolition of abortions." While Wallis personally opposes abortion, he also opposes criminalizing it. He backs civil unions for gay couples, while polls show the vast majority of evangelicals are opposed.

For now, though, Wallis is less focused on arguing the orthodoxy of his views than on turning them into policy. A Washington veteran, he has learned that political power can be fleeting. His invitations to the Clinton White House ceased after he opposed welfare reform. President Bush consulted him on faith-based initiatives, but his team froze Wallis out for opposing the Iraq war.

Obama is the first president Wallis knew well pre-White House. In the 1990s, both participated in a years-long dialogue on community engagement led by Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam. "He was self-consciously Christian like I was," Wallis says of Obama then. "But we were progressively Christian in the era of the religious right." Now, Wallis is eager to partner with his old friend to prove that a new, progressive era for religion and politics has arrived.

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