Progressive Christian: Wallis “No Longer Speaks for Us”

This post is being updated with additional reactions to Sojourners’ decision.

Over at Episcopal Cafe, Jim Naughton wonders whether the big tent rather broadly known as “progressive Christianity” has collapsed, after Sojourners’ rejection of the Believe Out Loud ad. “Lefties” like himself, Naughton writes in retrospect, were wrong to let Sojourners founder Jim Wallis become “the embodiment of the Progressive Christianity in the eyes of the Obama administration and the Washington media, despite the fact that he wasn’t necessarily progressive on issues like abortion and LGBT rights.”

But now, Wallis as de facto leader is no longer “tenable,” Naughton contends. “The big tent collapsed this weekend, and it was Sojourners who yanked out the tent poles. Someone needs to alert official Washington that Jim Wallis and his minions no longer speak for us–if they ever did.”

Naughton raises an important point: whether Wallis actually represents a movement that could be described as the religious left is highly doubtful. First, Wallis himself has rejected the “religious left” label. Moreover, many who would consider themselves on the religious left reject Wallis as their leader.

Still, though, Wallis’ knack for self-promotion, combined with a lack of imagination on the part of both politicians and the media, has led to Wallis being viewed as one of the preeminent figures on the not-right-hand end of the Christian spectrum. After all, he is against poverty (although who isn’t?) and his campaign to fast in order to pressure Congress to not to cut programs to the poor attracted the support of New York Times foodie Mark Bittman. He’s calling on the Obama administration to end the war in Afghanistan, a stance that would put him in the same camp as Code Pink or the editorial board of the Nation.

As Presbyterian Pastor Katie Mulligan notes, though, writing in response to Sojourners’ rejection of the ad: “It is entirely possible to do good work in the world and at the same time contribute to the ongoing bigotry and oppression of queer folk.”

It’s odd, then, that with the wide range of lefty religious voices on economic and foreign policy issues, as well as gender and sexuality issues, that Wallis has managed to win the attention of official Washington. When it comes to gender and sexuality, Wallis is downright conservative. These issues make him nervous. He describes addressing these issues as a distraction from his anti-poverty agenda, while many on the left, including the religious left, consider them essential issues, not distractions.

In a 2008 interview with Ted Olsen at Christianity Today, Wallis laid down not only his opposition to same-sex marriage, but even to entering the fray on LGBT issues at all:

I don’t think the sacrament of marriage should be changed. Some people say that Jesus didn’t talk about homosexuality, and that’s technically true. But marriage is all through the Bible, and it’s not gender-neutral. . . . I don’t have all the answers on homosexuality. Fifty years from now, when we understand more what’s going on, we’ll look back and we’ll ask: How did we treat gay and lesbian people? Did they feel like we treated them the way Jesus might have? And how do we treat each other in this conversation? When this becomes the defining issue of our time, I get nervous.

There, Wallis put up a straw man: that some undefined person or entity has made homosexuality “the defining issue of our time.” Who? That’s his way of depicting LGBT issues as divisive distractions from Issues That Matter. (He’s done the same thing with reproductive rights, an issue on which he has boldly claimed to speak for “the faith community.” It’s only laziness that would lead one to take him at his word.) 

The Believe Out Loud ad isn’t Sojourners first advertising controversy. In that same Christianity Today interview, Wallis addressed Sojourners’ decision to run an ad from the LGBT rights group the Human Rights Campaign, a decision he later regretted:

Advertising is always a difficult question. I had real mixed feelings about those ads. We probably wouldn’t do it again, because when you take advertising it implies you might be sympathetic to the advertising. But we don’t take a position on this except promoting dialogue. At Sojourners, we’ve decided to have a safe place for dialogue and even disagreement on our staff and in our constituency.

That’s interesting, since the Believe Out Loud ad could be best interpreted as . . . promoting dialogue.

Sojourners, so far, has been silent on the Rev. Robert Chase’s piece we published here. In the court of public opinion Twitter, erstwhile Sojourners supporters watch and wait: “still waiting for @ to respond to critics about its lack of ability to ‘take a stand’ on welcoming gay families to church,” tweeted Pastor Joelle Colville Hanson. Others tweeted that they were canceling their subscriptions to Sojourners. “Frustrated and ashamed,” was another refrain.

Seems like “people of faith” are walking away from the big tent.

UPDATE: At the Sojourners blog, the organization’s communications director Tim King has an oddly titled post, “Love Comes First” (really?), which begins as a disquisition about how “trying to figure out what it means to live out a biblical understanding of your faith while loving and supporting friends and family who are LGBTQ is difficult for many people.” King goes on to write how he has been “encouraged” by, among others, the Believe Out Loud campaign, for how it can help those people. Which makes it even more inexplicable as to why, at the end, Sojourners would add an editor’s note:

Sojourners stresses the importance of dialogue amongst those on all sides of these issues. It is our utmost hope that differing viewpoints are not silenced, but are lifted up in a display of Christian and often interfaith sisterhood and brotherhood. It is for this reason, that we wish to engage first and foremost in dialogue on difficult issues within our editorial pages and we typically do not sell display advertising relating to issues amongst people of faith that have unfortunately and too often been reduced to political wedge issues.

I’m pretty sure that characterizing inclusion of LGBT people at church as a “political wedge issue” will do little to assuage Wallis’ critics.

UPDATE #2: Wallis has issued his own statement, which includes the same note I quoted from King’s post, and also characterizes the decision not to run the ad as based on not wanting to distract from other issues:

Given the time Sojourners is now spending on critical issues like the imperative of a moral budget, the urgent need to end the war in Afghanistan, and the leadership we are offering on commitments like immigration reform, we chose not to become involved in the controversy that such a major ad campaign could entail, and the time it could require of us. Instead, we have taken this opportunity to affirm our commitment to civil rights for gay and lesbian people, and to the call of churches to be loving and welcoming to all people, and promote good and healthy dialogue.

Wallis, now embroiled in a controversy over not running the ad, is defending his decision by saying that too much controversy would have been generated by running the ad, distracting Sojourners from the other, non-wedge issues. Got it.

UPDATE #3: Via Naughton’s update to his post (in which he calls Sojourners’ response “deeply unsatisfying”), comes this statement from Integrity USA, challenging “Jim Wallis and Sojourners to live up to their own mission statement and to walk the talk of social justice they purport to embody.” The statement continues: 

[I]t is incomprehensible to us that they would decline to run an ad that quite simply depicts a pastor modeling for his congregation that “all are welcome” as a lesbian couple and their son visit the church on Mother’s Day. The Sojourner spokesperson refusing the ad said their “position is to avoid taking sides on this issue” — reducing a family seeking a spiritual community to “an issue” and needlessly politicizing the call for a pastoral response. It is deeply dehumanizing to gay and lesbian families and antithetical to protecting the safety and dignity of all people Sojourners claims to advocate.

UPDATE #4 (5/10/11): In an open letter to Sojourners posted on her blog, Julie Kennedy, a pk (preacher’s kid, for the uninitiated) and queer, writes, in reaction to the editor’s note on King’s blog post that she is “truly confused by this. If not shocked and utterly frustrated.” She continues:

With your dismissal of this ad I felt you dismissed the foundation of what I have believed SoJo to be. I’m trying to understand how an ad that says “welcome all” is bringing up “hot topic” issues. I have to wonder if the ad showed a homeless family coming into a church would you have published it? My gut feeling is that you would, but since it was a lesbian couple you backed a way.

I admit your decision made me feel as a queer woman let down by you. I have the expectation from you as a social justice magazine to defend the “under dog.” I admit I will always defend the under dog, but to be honest, this time I am (and other LGBTQ) are that. A simple ad that just challenged churches to be open, whether agree or not, to just be open and you shut it down. To be frank, I felt shut down. My struggle as a queer woman that wants to be a part of a gathering and what I work so hard for felt shut down from you. It broke my heart and it ticked me off.

And Dan Savage, although no fan of religion, writes that the ad made him “mist up a bit,” and wonders, “If progressive Christians can’t unite behind the concept of welcome then, gee, what the fuck good are they?” Savage cites John Shore, a progressive Christian who also has a sarcasm-laden open letter to Wallis, which highlights the contradiction between Sojourners’ diversity statement and its actions:

Anyway, just wanted to let you know that you might want to track down and correct whomever it is in your organization who is so egregiously failing to properly represent you and your wonderful work. (Hint: the person you’re looking for might be someone pretty high up in your organization; Believe Out Loud was told that the decision to refuse their video was made by “the folks in executive.” It’s almost funny, isn’t it?)

UPDATE #5: Kimberly Knight tweets at Sojourners: “Not good enough, you should be ashamed to keep sharing this as a legitimate response.” On her blog, she writes of Wallis’ “pasty white response” that “rings of white, hetero privilege.” She continues:

Jim Wallis – I am not an “issue” or simply a campaign of controversy.  I am a woman, a daughter, a mother, a sister, a friend, a writer, a Christian and a child of God.  I will not wait any longer for my rights in this country to equal yours.  I should not be afraid to hold my partner’s hand in my own city, neighborhood or church.  I should not be afraid to tell the doctors caring for our children that I am ALSO their mom – afraid that my daughter will receive less or no care in moments of critical need.  I should not have to worry if someone will take my children from me because I am too controversial right now.  I REFUSE to keep watching and reading of children taking their own lives because “good Christians” look the other way while their own children bully babies to death.

UPDATE #6: Via Believe Out Loud’s blog, Hollie at the blog Satchel and Tea writes to Sojourners about why she decided not to subscribe to its magazine: “you don’t share my values. As a straight woman and a mother, I don’t find families like this one threatening, and I’m not going to subscribe to a magazine that tells them that they are.”

UPDATE #7: Andrew Marin, founder of the Marin Foundation, which “works to build bridges between the LGBT community and the Church through scientific research, biblical and social education, and diverse community gatherings,” writes in response to King’s “love first” post:

No one is going to listen to “love first” when there is no tangible expression of unconditional love or equality in importance of issues in the group of people you align with that these issues are extremely important. It’s like they’re trying to justify their ability to pick and choose what they deem as proper progressivity. Sounds like an awfully privileged thing to do in my book. Then Jim released his own statement (see link above), which was worse than the original because he sets a hierarchy of what is “critical” in progressive issues. LGBT is not on that “critical” list. I also find it interesting that no LGBT people who Jim/Sojourners claim to be friends with have spoken up on their behalf.

Then Marin takes aim at the “progressive” contributors to Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog:

Out of those 41 people, I personally know 26 of them.

Out of those 26 people, I personally know that 17 of them are very LGBT affirming.

Out of those 17, NONE have spoken up to defend the LGBT community in opposition to Sojourners and Jim Wallis since this gaff happened.

UPDATE #8: On its Facebook page, the Beatitudes Society writes:

In the spirit of Jesus who invited ALL God’s Children to the banquet, please join with our colleagues at Believe Out Loud and join the Million Christians for LGBT equality. And let’s invite the crew at Sojourners to join the banquet, too.

UPDATE #9 (5/13/11): At Killing the Buddha, Becky Garrison, a contributor to the Sojourners blog, registers her dissatisfaction with the Sojourners decision. (Recall that Andrew Marin challenged Sojourners bloggers to stake out a position). Garrison notes that two fellow contributors — Brian McLaren and Nadia Bolz-Weber– have offered defenses of Wallis based on similar arguments: that Sojourners has a different mission entirely,that doesn’t include LGBT rights. Bolz-Weber, who pastors an inclusive church, expresses a desire to change Sojourners from within. And McLaren, who has also served on the Sojourners board, made one thing particularly clear: “look to others to take the lead on human rights and full inclusion of LGBTQ people, at least for the immediate future.” McLaren’s reasoning: Sojourners is trying to hold together an uneasy coalition of different kinds of Christians on poverty issues, and throwing LGBT in would break that up. He continues:

If I were to boil down messy contemporary reality to an equation, here’s what it would be:

- You can’t lead a coalition of progressive Christians without being an outspoken leader on LGBTQ issues.
– You can’t lead a coalition that includes mainstream Evangelical and conservative Catholic Christians if you are an outspoken leader on LGBTQ issues.

But the rejoinder to McLaren’s assertion, I think, would be that most of Sojourners’ critics aren’t asking (or even expecting) the organization or Wallis to be “an outspoken leader on LGBTQ issues.” I think many of them are clear-eyed in the knowledge that that is not about to happen — not because of a coalition break-up, but simply because that’s not something Wallis wants to do. (It’s hard to be an “outspoken leader on LGBTQ issues” if you believe the Bible does not permit same-sex marriage.) They’re saying, simply, that the organization acted in a cowardly way by rejecting the innocuous ad.

I’d add one more note to McLaren’s second part of the equation (“You can’t lead a coalition that includes mainstream Evangelical and conservative Catholic Christians if you are an outspoken leader on LGBTQ issues”): it speaks volumes about who is applying litmus tests.

Earlier in the week, in an interview with David Sessions at the Daily Beast, Sojourners’ communications director Tim King (author of the “love comes first” post), repeated the line that Sojourners preferred to blog about the ad (after it was called out about rejecting it) rather than run the ad itself:

Tim King, a special assistant to Wallis, told me that the group keeps several issues out of its advertising, including sexual orientation, abortion, and the Israel-Palestine conflict. “We decided that ad space on our website isn’t the best way to get our message out,” King said. “What we’ve found is that people tend to respond to the ads and fail to have productive discussions.” King wrote a blog post on Sojourners’ website describing his personal experience with a gay friend who was alienated by the church, and he endorsed the message of the Believe Out Loud video. Sojourners thought it better to promote the video that way—”in an editorial context.”

King’s original post has a pretty active comments section–much of it critical of Sojourners, some supportive. Although criticism–on or off its own pages–doesn’t appear to be pushing the group toward any capitulation, or, as McLaren makes plain, towards any activism on LGBT rights.

Mark Silk notes that while Sojourners is unabashed about speaking out for justice for the poor, on LGBT issues, it “has sounded an uncertain trumpet:”

Yes, Wallis has urged Christians to oppose the bullying of gay kids. He’s supported according same-sex partners certain legal rights. But Sojourners does not have a policy on same-sex relationships, nor is it prepared to say that churches should welcome gays and lesbians as members–or even to make room at the inn for those who do so.

UPDATE #10: Tony Jones offers the view that if Wallis is concerned about what conservative evangelicals might think of him if he were to adopt a stance that was or appeared to be pro-LGBT, he needn’t worry: “I think that evangelicals have already kicked him out.” (emphasis in original). Jones continues: “So, if (when) Sojourners does publicly affirm gays, I don’t think they’ll see any change…except maybe an infusion of donations.”

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email

  • Bill

    So you can’t be a progressive Christian if you are not an outspoken leader on LGBT issues, but LGBT issues are not the defining issue of our time. The tent is shrinking.