Why I Think Jim Wallis Pulled the Plug on the Believe Out Loud Campaign

The “religious left” is abuzz–and of course aTwitter–re Jim Wallis and Sojourners’ decision not to support the recent Believe Out Loud (an LGBT group) ad campaign this past Mother’s Day.  This has produced the predictable horror in places such as The Lead and some glee on the right.

Back when I reviewed Wallis’ book The Great Awakening I noted the following:

His stance on same sex civil marriage–that we need same sex civil unions–may sound good to him but will not cut it with his LGBT friends, or at least their leadership.  One thing he will find out the hard way–as many North American Anglicans have–is that the message of the LGBT community to the nation and the church is the same as Ulysses Grant’s to Simon Bolivar Buckner: no terms except unconditional surrender.  I expect that, sooner or later, he will sell the pass on the Christian sexual ethic, as his Main Line counterparts have done, but that is something he will have to deal with.

Although this blow-up doesn’t directly relate to same sex civil marriage, Wallis’ attempt to take a nuanced stance on any LGBT subject was sure to land him in trouble sooner or later, and now we’re there.

I think there are two things he is trying to say here that his opponents on the left–and probably those on the right too–are missing.

The first is the simple fact that the advancement of LGBT rights, in society or in the church, aren’t, as any real Marxist knows, “economic equality” issues.  Relative to that he informs us of the following:

But these debates (over LGBT issues) 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 defence of life and peace. These have been our core mission concerns, and we try to unite diverse Christian constituencies around them, while encouraging deep dialogue on other matters which often divide. Essential to our mission is the calling together of broad groups of Christians, who might disagree on issues of sexuality, to still work together on how to reduce poverty, end wars, and mobilize around other issues of social justice.

Jim Wallis, like any other activist, acts on what’s important to him.  LGBT people remind us that they are ostracised and bullied, but even they know better than to attempt to demonstrate that same ostracism and bullying has resulted in economic inequality. Same inequality, and the “injustices” that lead to it (and we can argue whether all of the causes are injustices or not) is at the core of the issues that Wallis holds dear.   To a large extent, making the LGBT cause into the ne plus ultra of social activism is the product of same people being visible and comprehensible to the privileged “movers and shakers” on the left whereas, in our economically polarised society, those whom Wallis wants to speak up for are neither except as the household or landscaping help.

The second reason is that Jim Wallis knows just how divisive and energy-dissipating this issue can be.  As he notes:

We have also suggested that the major differences of theology and biblical interpretation in the church with regard to issues such as the nature of homosexuality, gay marriage, and ordination are not issues that should be allowed to divide the churches that local churches should lead the way here, and that an honest, open, respectful, and, hopefully, loving dialogue should characterize the church on these very controversial questions.

It’s a typically American habit these days to endlessly live in the subjunctive when we need to face the indicative.  The simple fact is that the last decade has demonstrated that it is a deeply divisive issue, as anyone who has followed the Anglican/Episcopal world knows all to well.   That saga additionally puts the lie to the whole premise of the campaign: that “the church” should pitch the traditional Christian sexual ethic and embrace the LGBT way of life as Biblical.  The blunt truth of the matter is that “the church” doesn’t exist in the United States; what we have is a plethora of religious organisations (not always well organised) where some agree on some things with some others but where all of them basically don’t agree on anything.  Some churches are going to embrace the LGBT way of life and some aren’t, and the ones where unity isn’t there will split.  When a divisive issue like this arises, what we end up with is division, personal and institutional.  Although I don’t want to put words in Wallis’ mouth, with his Evangelical background he’s probably in a better position to appreciate this simple truth than those who believe that the real church is directed by those who can claim apostolic succession.

I think Wallis’ moment of truth on this issue is coming at last, and it will be interesting to see how he ultimately comes down on it.  If he sticks with his guns on this, it will be a major shift on the left.  But I think the deck’s stacked against him.

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