Unhappy Campers: Jim Wallis Does Not Own the Big Tent

While I agree that the Sojourners rejection of an LGBT welcome advertisement is a solid reason to repudiate Jim Wallis as the “the embodiment of Progressive Christianity,” I feel that this flap adds little to the ongoing saga of Wallis versus others who are left of the Christian Right—whether their top concerns are about LGBT justice or a wider set of issues.

First, Wallis’ tent has long been too small—and on more issues than simply LGBT justice and abortion rights. People on the religious left have often felt that he doesn’t speak for them, even leaving these two issues aside. Already in the 1970s and 1980s when Wallis became influential, he was standoffish toward many forms of liberationist theology.

When neoconservatives mobilized to demonize and defund ecumenical left networks centered in the mainline denominations and National Council of Churches, he tacked toward the center. True, he took up a place to the left of many politicians and evangelicals, especially on issues of peace and economic justice—but also well to the right of prospective “tent-mates” in the ecumenical world.  Differences were especially clear on a range of feminist issues, as well as Sojourners magazine’s coolness toward scholarly work in Christian thought and ethics that was critical for maintaining the strength and credibility of left-liberal Christianity in the universities.

Second, conservatives have done an all-too-effective job of framing LGBT justice as a wedge issue and trying to confine media attention to it—that is, to the one issue that does maximum mischief in disrupting left-liberal coalitions. Wallis has played his part in speaking for the rightward side of this wedge, but people on the other side sometimes play their roles too. Believe Out Loud seems to be trying to avoid this trap, at least as far as I can tell as an outside observer, yet the prevailing discourse is precisely that—a trap set for them.

Thus scholars who are trying to see a big picture—as well as activists who are thinking about longer-term strategies—may wish to pull back their focus and be careful to pay attention to a wider range of issues, in order to guard against functioning as the queerer wing on the other side of a wedge from Wallis. Insofar as there is a forced zero-sum choice on the Believe Out Loud ad—which sadly there now is after the Sojourners’ decision, although there need not have been—siding against Wallis strikes me as an easy call.  Even so, one can focus on maximizing “both/and” choices, as opposed to falling prey to wedge strategies.

In this regard, I (perhaps ironically) agree with one aspect of Wallis’ long-time strategy. I commend him for trying to imagine a sort of “tent” big enough to include people like Jimmy Carter and moderate Habitat for Humanities volunteers—people, let’s say, like my mother—alongside people who have never been comfortable in the tent he managed to create. (Here I echo Jim Naughton’s post on Episcopal Café.) The Sojourners stress on economic justice is no less important than LGBT justice.  Insofar as both are acknowledged as valid priorities—although this is exactly what Wallis failed to acknowledge in the current case, so that the two sides are not symmetrical—then many groups can do different kinds of good work.

If there is any room left for tent images after these suggestions, it may be best to imagine them in a campground—or perhaps a whole set of campgrounds, including some in which my mother might be happy and others that are more raucous and transgressive.  (Let’s be clear that the Believe Out Loud ad belongs in my mother’s section.)  Alternatively, if we must stay with “big tent” images, we need a gestalt switch: rather than Wallis in the big tent facing LGBT troublemakers who might not be allowed to come in—or who now wish to walk away—we should see the larger ecumenical networks as the big tent, with Sojourners as the smaller, more divisive, group that may not fit under the umbrella.  Only after such a gestalt switch—not before—does it makes sense to imagine Wallis kicking out tent poles.  It bears emphasis that it is not his tent to define.

Whatever image we choose for progressive Christians, it must be broader than Wallis’s version has ever been, and not solely on the LGBT front. Moreover, we should think carefully about people who might fit this image, so that when we look for them we are able to see more of the people who are now often lumped by pundits, not as some flavor of left-liberal Christianity, but in categories such as  “seekers,” or Unitarians, or even “non-religious.”  Arguably, many people in these groups have been shaped significantly by left-liberal Christianity, or at least are potential recruits—even though they may be standoffish toward the kinds of Christianity (including Wallis’s brand) stressed in leading media scripts.  Insofar as we can imagine a movement that includes the relevant parts of such groups in addition to Wallis’s constituency, a non-trivial part of the current perception of left-liberal weakness will dissolve.   If we try to imagine one overarching umbrella for all the above people, then the behavior beneath its canvas will seem more like a battlefield than a family happily sleeping together. So let’s shift the image to a decentered campground—in which one subgroup of campers with a known history of antisocial behavior has poisoned the well for everyone else. Sadly, “everybody else” is not very surprised.  Nonetheless, let’s try not to poison too much more water. Instead, let’s focus on keeping the troublemakers from driving away too many potential new campers.