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April 23, 2009

After Years of Rejecting It, Sojourners Claims the Religious Left Label (Updated)

Is the organization rebranding itself?

I received a surprising press release e-mail last night from Jason Gedeik, deputy press secretary of Sojourners:

I wanted to gauge your interest in the first big mobilization of the Religious Left in the Obama era - a signal of the shift in power dynamics. Sojourners is mobilizing over a thousand Christian activists and 70 religious and anti-poverty groups at a conference next week in DC to prepare a new poverty coalition for legislative battle this year. This is the Religious Left filling the hole created by the decline of the Religious Right but now we have the political power and ear of the White House - definitely a new trend and a "first" within this new political era.

What's fascinating isn't really the gathering of activists. That happens all the time. What's amazing is the repeated self-identification as "Religious Left."

For decades, Sojourners founder Jim Wallis has repeatedly argued that neither he nor Sojourners are part of the Religious Left.

photo of Jim Wallis

"There is a Religious Left in this country, and I'm not a part of it," Wallis told me last year.

And earlier this year, he told CT's Sarah Pulliam he didn't like the terms Religious Left or Religious Right. "I would not be happy with labeling anyone just right-wing. That's simplistic and reductionist," he said. "Labels are shorthand, sloppy ways to describe someone."

He told The Seattle Times in 2004 that there should not even be a Religious Left. "People of faith should not be in any party's pockets, any candidate's pockets," he said. "The religious right was a political party, not a religious one. There should not now be a religious left."

"But isn't there the perception that you're part of the religious left?" Times reporter Janet I. Tu asked.

"The media only sees that," he said. "The media thinks everything has only two sides. People are hungry for a moral center."

The Sojourners website has several other quotes from Wallis saying things like, "The alternative to the Religious Right is not the Religious Left. It's time to transcend the old polarities of our public life."

In fact, his most popular book was subtitled, "Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It."

So is Gedeik off message by using the phrase? Or is Sojourners rebranding itself?

Update (9:30 a.m.): I just got off the phone with Gedeik, who said the use of the phrase is strategic.

"Part of that was to grab your attention and make you guys think," he said. "Regardless of how we want to be branded, the media likes to use phrases that are easily encapsulated. Progressive is the word Jim likes to use, but for the media progressive and Left or liberal are somewhat interchangeable."

Next week's meeting, he said, will include groups like Convoy of Hope and World Vision that "have ties to conservative elements" of the movement. "But we are a progressive movement. We don't have conservative political principles. We might have conservative theological principles, but we don't have conservative political principles."

Conservative ties not withstanding, "the overall significance of next week's event is that it's the first mobilization of the progressive religious movement," Gedeik said. "It's definitely not the religious right or conservative movement. This is our first formal coming out party."

Gedeik said that regardless of branding, Wallis's political stances and focus on poverty are the same as they have been. " It's not like we're changing," he said. "The movement is growing because we're under a different political era and times, but it's not like the movement has changed or that our core concerns have changed. It's just that the backdrop is we have a political administration that is on the same page as this movement."

When asked about Wallis's repeated desire over the years not to be labeled as part of the Religious Left, Gedeik sdaid, "Where is the line drawn between the left and the right and the middle? The line is blurred, especially on certain issues. Labels are labels. And the media makes more out of it than there needs to be. ... I don't think it's that much of a story. The story is our meeting next week."

Update 2 (9:50 a.m.): Gedeik says last night's message was not a press release. He says it was an informal e-mail message. (It went to 153 editors and writers at various religious publications.)


Is this press release from The Onion? It approaches parody.

It seems a mirror-image of the religious right that these groups so dislike, with talk of "the shift in power dynamics" and gearing up for the "legislative battle."
"We now have the political power"--What is this!

It may be on the left, but it sure isn't the religion of the Jesus I know.

Unfortunately, using the label "Religious Left" will upset future attempts at bridge-building between two politically different but religiously similar groups. If your goal is to convince the other side to agree with your views, deliberately using dichotomous language is probably going to impede your efforts. Both sides are guilty of this, but it's particularly disheartening when it comes from someone who has claimed to see beyond political differences. In a way, it's almost as if the conversation was started not to bridge the divide, but merely as a means to an end. In other words, now that the "Religious Left" can get what they want, the conversation is no longer as important.

I wonder if Jim oked this "release"?..or is it "good cop bad cop" Come on guys! You know how important words are in this context. What's up? At least your actions seem to be speaking louder than your words. I pray for success in this endeavor...despite the confused PR. All glory to Him!

Would it be ungenerous to say that I feel vindicated? (See my column, "When Red Is Blue: Why I Am not a Red-Letter Christian," http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/october/33.100.html.)

After years of prideful "humility" in their deft and often insightful disection of the Religious Right, the very obvious hypocrisy that has lurked barely beneath the surface of the Sojourner/CampoloRed Letter movement has finally owned up to it's true nature.

Even more galling and revealing is their decision to adopt such a moniker in wake of the most left-leaning administration ever elected in American history.

Sadly, just as they finally find the traction they have been craving, they will watch their agendas of 'peace' and 'justice' flow through their hands like sand just as it did when the Church allowed itself to be co-opted by the Right.

I pray that their bewildered brothers and sisters on the Right demonstrate more grace than has been afforded by this movement in their zenith. Their once-prophetic voice will most certainly fade into the rhetoric and fabric of these most difficult days, just as they so correctly predicted the now-dimmed influence of their brothers on the Right.

Sad days indeed.

Abraham Lincoln warned us against corporations using our differences to divide the American people. Now we are alowing politics to divide Christians. It is not just the "red letter" part of our bible that admonishes us to insure fairness to the poor and out cast, the Old Testament has hundreds of scritpures saying the same thing. Very few scriptures about abortion, in fact I do not believe you can find the word abortion in the bible. A few secriptures about gay sex. The right wing in-the-Republican-bag churches build their complete doctrine around those two issues.

Here is an idea for both sides. Torture! Who whould Jesus torture? I may have missed it, but I have not seen one Christian Leader speak out to the 'king' against torture. I guess our grace is cheap and we don't need to stand up against Nazi like government actions.

No surprise. Wallis has been a liberal for years, while trying to claim the center and a moral high ground. I find him to be arrogant and self-serving,
not to mention hypocritical. So now at least he's a
little less hypocritical! Really, it's about time that he owned up to the leftist label. And for Randy T.,
abortion is murder and against the teaching of Jesus,
even if the word itself is not used. In the Old Testament, there were pagan people who made their
children pass through fire, which was their form of
abortion (a sacrifice to Molech, just as abortion today is a sacrifice to a form of paganism). Besides, abortion & homosexuality can destroy a society. I don't necessarily condone the torture of prisoners, but it isn't going to destroy our society.

What's interesting isn't so much that Wallis is now openly acknowledging what was obvious, that he's a part of the "Religious Left." What's interesting is that he (and his allies) think that they have an opening to employ the mantle of the "Religious Left" as a way of effecting their desired policy changes. Wallis has always sort of hidden his progressivism (in plain sight, one might say) behind the rhetorical facade of "centrism" or non-partisanship. It's an effective strategy for some (especially for college students). But if he thinks he can now dispense with that, that's pretty interesting.

Of course, I'm doubtful as to whether anything will come of it. There just aren't enough lefty religious voters to matter all that much and they already vote Democratic.

Honestly, is anyone surprised at this?? This is like saying Obama is a radical liberal which he is...duh...

Sojourners, Jim Wallis, Campolo, et al are on the left.....the former the hard left...in reality I would say that Sojourners is anti christ....

All the more we need to be praying for them!!

What next? Is CT going to admit that liberalism is inherently evil or that Islam is violent??? Wow...such 'revelations'....

Dev in Canada.

um, I think it's pretty obvious given the history of Wallis' personal statements--and the fact that this entire exchange took place with a *deputy press secretary* that this was a PR blip. the fact that Ted Olsen wants to play gotcha and keeps a misleading headline--"(update)" doesn't quite capture Gedeik's statements--says more about his agenda than Sojourners'.

what conservative CT editors and readers may be unaware of is that the *real* Religious Left hates Wallis for not being pro-choice and pro-gay enough for his stances on abortion and gay marriage. But whatever. While media and critics quibble over labels, the event is about poverty.

How long will it be until he stops claimimg to be an evangelical, also something that is obvious to the rest of the world?

What is it with you people. Have you all read your bible recently?

When will we all understand that God is not affiliated with anyone particular political party. How is it then that we as christians have this divide? Come on my brothers and sisters in Christ. We can do better than this!

I am disappointed by the shift in language here. I have long supported Sojourners and Jim Wallis, and I will be at the Mobilization next week.

That being said, let us not forget what the Mobilization is about- ending poverty! Please do not judge Jim, or anyone associated with this event based on labels. The goal here is to alleviate the pain and suffering afflicted by extreme poverty in our world.

Clearly something Jesus and the prophets stood for, and something we can all agree upon.

Sojourners: "This is the Religious Left filling the hole created by the decline of the Religious Right but now we have the political power and ear of the White House."

Translation: "From now on, we will be just like the Religious Right, except Left."

Yep, that's definitely cause to worry. The prophetic approach, Jim Wallis has told us until we're blue in the face, is about speaking truth to power. Well, now it's power speaking to power, and you know how that story always ends - hint: it's not prophetic.

This news disturbs me. I always wondered what groups like Soujoners would do once a leader more closely aligned with their goals was elected. I am a supporter of Obama politically, but I have always appreciated Sojourner’s desire to maintain a centrist position or at least offer a third “voice” to our political climate by being prophetic voice. I never supported Sojourners out of a desire to see a religious left; rather, I was attracted to their work because it gave voice to a larger, more holistic faith-based agenda that could not be defined by either right or left . It seems that Sojourners – like any other organization – is not immune from the lure of power and legitimacy.

Gedeik isn't Wallis...in case you haven't noticed. A largish movement can have an occasional person who's off message. And the religious-right is so extreme, that almost everyone else IS a 'leftest," even a militantly self policed moderate, such as Wallis attempts.

I like to think of myself as militantly moderate, I was raised a Methodist, after all, and that is my religious and cultural heritage, but many people seem to disagree with that self-assessment.

There is little, if anything, evangelical about Sojourners. Just ask them how they define the Gospel, and one will find it is always more about power and this world than about the promise of everlasting life through the atoning death of Christ. Don't believe me? Try to find the Gospel on their web site. It is not there. It just isn't important enough to them.

And what pray tell is truly evangelical about those who view themselves as being on "the right"

Why aren't we as Christians marching to our own drum instead of prostituing ourselves to political parties
Chris H wrote There is little, if anything, evangelical about Sojourners...."

It looks Wallis responded this week. He says, "I can emphatically say that he was “off message.” Ted, are you going to post an update?