Jim Wallis was a Beltway fixture long before the 2008 presidential election, writing bestselling books articulating a liberal evangelical view of social justice and castigating the rich in the political press. His popularity as an author and speaker made Wallis the face of progressive Christianity in Washington. But President Obama's victory gave Wallis and his organization, Sojourners, new influence. His message of working beyond ideological lines resonated with the president's campaign rhetoric about transcending partisanship, and Wallis became one of Obama's spiritual advisers.
Now that status is in question, after Sojourners rejected a Christian group's ad with a gay-rights message that was intended for Sojourners' website and newsletter.
Some liberal Christians were baffled by the group's decision to reject the fairly innocuous one-minute ad, which features a young boy walking into a church with his lesbian parents and encountering cold stares before being welcomed by the minister. "We can imagine they partner with certain evangelical churches who wouldn't want to see something like that, but it's just really strange that they're so reluctant," said Daniel Schultz, a United Church of Christ minister in Wisconsin, who blogs about progressive religious issues. "Are they just that timid?"
The controversy spread quickly online, with liberal clergy members and bloggers writing that Wallis had " thrown gays and lesbians under the bus." Sex-advice columnist Dan Savage mentioned it on his blog.
Joseph Ward, director of communications for the New York-based Christian group Intersections International, which submitted the ad for its Believe Out Loud campaign, said Sojourners' rejection took his organization by surprise. Others were less shocked; after all, Wallis has never taken strong public stands on culture-war issues. In a statement posted online Monday, Wallis wrote that while Sojourners is committed to "civil liberties" for gays and lesbians, "these debates have not been at the core of our calling, which is much more focused on matters of poverty, racial justice, stewardship of the creation, and the defense of life and peace."
People inviting Wallis to policy briefings and White House meetings should realize that he “is far to the right of the people he’s allowed to speak for,” said Jim Naughton.
Sojourners has not articulated a position on gay marriage but has regularly spoken against the current of American evangelicalism, advocating the end of Don't Ask Don't Tell and addressing the issue of anti-gay bullying.
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."
Nevertheless, Sojourners' attempts to keep the discussion balanced has inflamed progressive Christians, some of who say it is time for their movement to reconsider letting Wallis do the talking in Washington. Jim Naughton, who was involved in the Washington diocese of the Episcopal church and now operates a small communications firm, said people inviting Wallis to policy briefings and White House meetings should realize that he "is far to the right of the people he's allowed to speak for." And now, when liberal Christians "are making progress by the second," he added, is a particularly bad time to hedge on the church's welcome of gays and lesbians.
Rev. Canon Susan Russell, an Episcopal minister and activist in Pasadena, California, said she considers Wallis an ally in opposing war and reforming immigration policy but that she believes the issue is a crucial one for his organization. "More disappointing to me was the statement from Wallis, who has stepped up many times for civil rights of LGBT people," Russell said. "The issue in the ad was, 'Is there room for a family in church on Mother's Day?' If [Sojourners] doesn't have a position on that, they need to re-evaluate."
Max Niedzwiecki, executive director of Integrity USA, a group that promotes LGBT inclusion in the Episcopal church, said his organization would "keep holding Sojourners' feet to the fire."
Whether liberal Christian groups will reconsider their partnership with Wallis is unclear. Daniel Schultz said the ad flap would probably have an effect at the individual level, prompting progressive Christians to think twice before giving Sojourners their money. The organization's magazine is aimed at an evangelical audience, but Schultz said he knows many mainline Protestants—generally more gay-inclusive than evangelicals—who subscribe. The magazine, he said, also depends heavily on seminaries for advertising, and seminaries tend to be the most gay-friendly Christian institutions. The ad kerfuffle could have repercussions in those circles, where Sojourners has been viewed as a lone ally in the conflict with the religious right.
That alliance is likely strong enough to withstand this controversy, especially on the vast number of issues where Wallis and his more progressive allies agree. Most of the Christian leaders I spoke with expressed more disappointment than outrage and were hopeful that Wallis would eventually take stronger stands on gay rights. "Wallis has been so fantastic on issues of poverty and war, and any time we get a strong voice on that is to be applauded to the high heavens," said Dr. Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary. "But he has such dominance over the vast number of progressive Christians who have more developed positions on these issues, and they are not being represented."
"I know there are people in Sojourners' organization and on its board who think it's time for them to be more brave," Russell said. "Maybe this is the moment for that."
David Sessions is a homepage editor at The Daily Beast. He has written for Slate, New York, Politics Daily and others. He also blogs about religion and politics at Patrol.