Jim Wallis, Sojourners, the LGBT Ad, and the Trials of Progressive Christianity

Hey, it's a good week here at the blog. Please welcome our new contributor Brantley Gasaway! Brantley is an assistant professor in the Department of Religion at Bucknell University. His book on the history of the progressive evangelical movement since 1965 is under contract with UNC Press and should appear in 2012. Brantley's post below concerns the recent controversy over a progressive Christian stalwart and the LGBT community. Welcome to Brantley! We look forward to many more posts from him.

Why Jim Wallis and Sojourners Rejected the LGBT Ad

Jim Wallis is no stranger to controversy. As head of
the progressive Christian organization Sojourners, Wallis has been the leading representative of evangelical progressivism over the past four decades. Throughout his career, Wallis has insisted that his "biblical" and "prophetic" political engagement is neither conservative nor liberal--a position captured in the title of his 2005 best-selling God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. Nevertheless, his more liberal politics and refusal to prioritize culture war issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage have long drawn the ire of the Religious Right. Because Wallis has attempted to promote an evangelical alternative to their movement, his most sustained and strident opposition has come from Christian conservatives.

But not this week.

Wallis and Sojourners are facing a hailstorm of criticism from religious and secular liberals for refusing to run a video ad from Believe Out Loud, a group describing itself as "a trans-denominational movement that promotes LGBT-inclusion in the Christian church." In the video, a lesbian couple and their son enter a church but face silent hostility from the congregation as they search for a seat. Yet the minister at the front of the sanctuary greets them with a warm "Welcome--everyone" and helps seat the family. The ad concludes with the words: "Open Your Heart. Break the silence." In a written statement explaining their rejection, Sojourners stated: “I’m afraid we’ll have to decline. Sojourners position is to avoid taking sides on this issue. In that care [sic], the decision to accept advertising may give the appearance of taking sides.” Religious and political progressives are responding with incredulity, disillusionment, and outrage (see the coverage here and here at Religion Dispatches). Many have charged Wallis and Sojourners with hypocrisy for claiming to represent progressive causes and to promote justice but refusing to take a stand for LGBT rights.

Yet even prior to this present controversy, Sojourners' responses to homosexuality (and abortion--but that requires separate treatment) have made them uncomfortable and on occasion unwelcome partners with more liberal Christians who otherwise share their vision for social justice. Sojourners magazine did not address homosexuality as a matter of either Christian ethics or public policy until 1982, over a decade after its inception as the Post-American. In an editorial entitled “A Matter of Justice,” publisher Joe Roos outlined the magazine’s interpretation of homosexuality as a civil right but religious wrong. “While we do not believe that Scripture condones a homosexual lifestyle,” Roos explained, “we do believe that homosexuals, like anyone else, deserve full human rights” that are not “conditional upon agreement over sexual morality.” Churches can privilege heterosexuality within their own communities, he argued, and thus Sojourners welcomed but did not affirm gay and lesbian Christians. But within “the public arena,” Roos insisted that “the first Christian duty is to love”—an act that need not entail approval but “must always include justice.” And justice, he concluded, required Christians to defend the full civil rights of gays and lesbians.

In 1985, Sojourners reiterated this position. Despite confusion that stemmed from empathetic relationships with gays and lesbians, the editors remained convinced that “a clear biblical word” did “not condone homosexual practice.” Yet they rejected any "attempt to deny them their God-given humanity and their civil rights.” The editors endorsed an accompanying article by popular evangelical author Richard Foster in which he wrote that the Bible clearly "views heterosexual union as God’s intention for sexuality and sees homosexuality as a distortion of this God-given pattern.” While Foster acknowledged the reality of a homosexual orientation, he compared such orientation to “clubfootedness”—a “distortion of God’s intention” that deserved empathy rather than condemnation from Christians.

A backlash, similar to the current one, immediately ensued. In addition to self-identified gays and lesbians who felt “betrayed,” a significant protest came from a group more liberal Christian leaders who not only supported Sojourners' comprehensive commitment to justice but also regularly contributed to the magazine. Among those jointly signing a critical response were prominent Catholic peace activist Daniel Berrigan; celebrated social justice advocate William Sloane Coffin, Jr.; theologian Walter Wink; and leading evangelical feminist Virginia Mollenkott. In a lengthy letter, the group challenged the relevance of biblical condemnations of homosexuality; argued for left-handedness rather than clubfootedness as an analogy for homosexual orientation; and appealed to “the reality of deep and abiding love between two gay persons” as evidence that God also intended homosexuals to express their particular “gift of sexuality.” To these authors, affirmation of homosexuality represented a basic “question of justice.”

While Sojourners responded to these criticisms by reiterating a commitment to defending the civil rights of gays and lesbians but regarding homosexual practice as unacceptable for Christians, Wallis and other editors seemed chastened. The intensity of this criticism from ecumenical Christian supporters clearly shaped the magazine’s subsequent coverage. Rather than promoting its controversial welcoming but not affirming position for Christians, Sojourners declared itself committed to a "dialogue" on the issue while unequivocally supporting LGBT civil rights. Thus, for example, the July 1991 issue of Sojourners carried a forum dedicated to "The Need for a Better Dialogue in the Churches on Gay and Lesbian Sexuality" but only included authors who "share a commitment to justice and human rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation." Likewise, in 1999 Sojourners published " a dialogue on the church and homosexuality" between Tony Campolo (who believes "that the Bible does not allow for same-gender sexual intercourse or marriage") and his wife Peggy Campolo (who "believes that within the framework of evangelical Christianity, monogamous gay marriages are permissible"). Most important, Sojourners muted its coverage of LGBT issues in comparison to the urgency or frequency with which it addressed issues of poverty, peace, racial and gender justice, or environmental stewardship.

The current controversy reflects this background. While the video ad itself seems only to advocate a welcoming position, Believe Out Loud promotes "LGBT equality in the church and in broader society" that includes both ordination and marriage equality for LBGT individuals. Sojourners likely believed that accepting this ad without any "dialogue" around these issues would imply endorsement--a concern that Wallis expressed in a 2008 interview with Christianity Today after feeling remorse for accepting ads from Human Rights Campaign, another organization promoting LGBT rights. Indeed, both the blog post from Sojourners' communication director and Wallis's own statement on "Sojourners' Mission and LGBTQ Issues" emphasize Sojourners' history of supporting LGBT civil rights and their commitment to promoting dialogue among Christians who disagree theologically on affirming same-sex practice. Wallis admitted that Sojourners' "core mission concerns" are focused on "matters of poverty, racial justice, stewardship of the creation, and the defense of life and peace" and not debates about justice for LGBT individuals.

Thus, the disillusionment of religious and political liberals among Sojourners' supporters is understandable. Many who define full equality for LGBT individuals as vital to social justice are angered. Few find credible Wallis's and Sojourners' desire to promote social justice but allow for different standards within the church. And many would even question Wallis's ostensible commitment to LGBT civil rights since he supports civil unions rather than same-sex marriage.

Ultimately, this controversy illustrates why the progressive evangelical movement has remained small over the past four decades. Leaders like Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo have been too politically progressive for most evangelicals but too theologically conservative for most political liberals. Wallis may consider his political positions "prophetic," but he no doubt wishes they would remain more popular.


Paul M. said…
Thanks for the post. I am reminded of the central irony in the clash between Christian Left and Right. The Right is anti-statist in economics while pro-statist on social issues. The Left is pro-statist in economics and anti-statist on social issues. The cognitive dissonance from both sides gives me a headache.
Phil Sinitiere said…
Welcome, Brantley. Great post putting Wallis in historical perspective.

I wonder where individuals such as William Stringfellow, and the good work Andrew Marin is doing fit into LGBTQ issues and the history of the evangelical left/right?

Perhaps that'll be in the book, which I know many are looking forward to reading.
Seth Dowland said…
Great post, Brantley. I will be interested to see how this plays in 2012 -- will Wallis still be the darling evangelical for the Daily Show, or will he be cast aside? My hunch is that opposition to gay marriage is a much more controversial position among evangelicals today than it was even 10 years ago.
Thanks, Paul, Phil, and Seth.

Phil, Andrew Marin had a harsh post on this, accusing Wallis and Sojourners of "using gays only when its convenient for them."

Of course, criticism from the Left has not assured Wallis of praise from the right: a new post at Family Research Council criticizes him for promoting "special" rights for gays and lesbians and accuses him of "playing intellectual Twister" since he won't open his pages to "dialogue" about just war, the virtues of capitalism, abortion, and other conservative positions.
Thoughtful, nuanced post, Brantley. I agree that the evangelical left does not rest comfortably on the two-party-powered ideological continuum. One additional reason, it seems to me, is that prophetic politics lends itself more readily to talk of “justice” than to talk of “rights.” The former discourse requires some conscious disaggregation of largely secular political criteria (individual liberties, citizenship, the public good, etc.) from explicitly moral (read, for Wallis, Sider, et al, biblical) criteria. The modern evangelical left emerged in large part as a reaction against “civil religion”—not as an affirmation of A Theory of Justice. While its leaders talk of “civil rights,” the evangelical left strikes me as much more comfortable in the latter realm of prophetic moralism. Of course, this begs the question of whether “dialogue” can also be prophetic.
Anonymous said…
This is helpful, and it's also important to remember that the evangelical left is "evangelical" in the sense that its supporters generally subscribe to some kind of biblical literalism. Wallis' point (and Ron Sider's before him) is that if you take the Bible seriously and literally, you must prioritize care for the poor and support peaceful resolutions to problems. That's all over the gospels and there's no denying it, and Wallis has argued that the other issues are a distraction from these core obligations, especially the obligation to the poor. If the NT barely mentions homosexuality, the argument runs, why waste so much time and energy discussing it? There is so much important work to do already on points where Christians agree.

Many well-meaning and otherwise progressive evangelicals I know struggle with gay rights issues. As an outsider to the tradition, I can't imagine that problem going away. Most other progressive Christians are not inerrantists, but somehow they would like to believe that even inerrantists can eventually get to a point where they think the Bible says loving, healthy, lasting homosexual relationships are possible and valid in the eyes of the church. I doubt that very much. It's too bad - those of us who support gay rights could use their support - but I don't think it's going to happen.
Anonymous, while you're probably right that most evangelicals won't "eventually get to a point where they think the Bible says loving, healthy, lasting homosexual relationships are possible and valid in the eyes of the church," there is a minority of LGBT-affirming evangelicals. The most prominent group that has been around since the mid-1970s is Evangelicals Concerned.

In addition, I didn't have the space to address it in this post, but the second leading journal of evangelical progressivism, The Other Side (which began in 1965 and ceased publishing in 2004), began affirming gay and lesbian Christians in the early 1980s--just as Sojourners took its welcoming but not affirming position.

Finally, there are signs at many evangelical colleges that the younger generation of evangelicals are much more accepting of their gay and lesbian peers.

Popular Posts