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Jim Wallis Talks Faith's Role In Politics, Gay Marriage And Immigration

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NEW YORK -- A little over a year ago, during some of the most heated moments of the presidential election, the Rev. Jim Wallis went on a three-month sabbatical.

The president and founder of Sojourners magazine and the progressive Christian organization of the same name, Wallis is one of the most politically active religious leaders in Washington, D.C., a familiar figure on Capitol Hill who has spent decades lobbying politicians from a liberal evangelical perspective on poverty issues. More recently, he has been a key member of influential Christian groups in the Beltway pushing for immigration reform, gun control and environmental protections.

But last January, he stopped doing interviews, going on television and speaking on the radio.

"I'd get up early, have some quiet space, exercise and write all day and read all day and I'd watch the news cycle at night. The more I did, the most depressed I got," explained Wallis, who visited The Huffington Post newsroom on Friday to discuss the book he penned during his time off, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned about Serving the Common Good. "The vitriol. The screaming. The polarization. The paralyzation. The hate. The fear. And I thought we've lost something really significant, this ancient idea called the common good."

"If you just take care of yourself, and your group, your tribe, your party, we're all going to be in trouble," he said. "If we don't figure out how to take care of each other -- all of our neighbors -- we are all going to be in trouble."

In a wide-ranging series of interviews, Wallis, 64, spoke with HuffPost about the growth of political and religious polarization, the role of faith in politics, and how people who disagree on religious and political issues can work together. He also touched on his views on immigration reform and his support for same-sex marriage.

On what Washington is doing getting wrong -- and getting right:

In D.C., you've got the terrible loss of common good with the sequester and budget stuff, but the same politicians -- same people, same time -- are getting something right: immigration reform. I think we'll have it by the August recess. But they say it's only because of the momentum you people are providing from the outside. We're providing moral courage and political cover.

On the role of everday Americans in creating social change:

This last election, a demographic time bomb went off. For the first time ever now, you can't win an election with just white votes. But let's be clear, the demographic that runs the country has not changed yet, so how do you change all of that wealth and power? It's always movements that change the politics.

People have got to think they can be part of that. The Civil Rights movement was not just Birmingham and Selma, it was a million decisions made by ordinary people -- risky ones -- that made that movement possible. The book is about how to make those decisions, and it says, really, that this ethic of loving your neighbor as yourself is in all of our traditions but it's also in our secular democratic tradition -- the Golden Rule, treat others as you want to be treated.

On what the Biblical call to "love your neighbor" means today:

Our neighbor is beyond the boundaries of what's been common before. I used to hold my cell phone up and say, "You know the people in the Congo whose dirty minerals are being used to promote the warlords and militias are making our cell phones. So hold your cell phone up, this is your significant other. Whoever helped make this cell phone is your neighbor."

How do supply chains become value chains? The religious question is always to extend the boundaries of who the neighbor is, and until we do that, we will never get to the common good.

On the role of personal faith and religious communities in politics:

People have to understand how their personal decisions and choices connect to changing a society. We often don't think, "Oh, I can change Washington or Wall Street," but indeed, you look at immigration, for example -- what pastors and lay people are doing in their communities is changing the conversation in Washington. It literally is changing it. And now they are mobilizing to change it very deliberately.

This evangelical immigration table we put together, it's really reaching out to people in their congregations to reach out to their members of Congress to say, "You need to look at this because we are saying this is breaking up families, these are our brothers and sisters and you've got to change this."

Or when the mosque burned in Missouri, [or] in Wisconsin when the Sikhs were killed, or when the [anti-Muslim] subway ads came up [in New York City], all we did was offer local people a chance to put up these very simple messages, "Love your Muslim neighbor," and it really changed the conversation. In a situation of hatred and violence, putting up a different kind of message changes the public conversation. So people can change things.

On the growing support for same-sex marriage:

We are losing marriage in this society. I'm worried about that -- among low income people, but all people. How do we commit liberals and conservatives to re-covenanting marriage, reestablishing, renewing marriage?

I think we should include same-sex couples in that renewal of marriage, [but] I want to talk marriage first. Marriage needs some strengthening. Let's start with marriage, and then I think we have to talk about, now, how to include same-sex couples in that deeper understanding of marriage. I want a deeper commitment to marriage that is more and more inclusive, and that's where I think the country is going.

When pushed on whether he specifically supports same-sex marriage:

Yes. [This marks a change from his position as recently as 2008.]

On how people who disagree politically or religiously can speak to one another:

To disagree with someone shouldn't be to hate them. Even people who are your political adversaries don't have to be your enemies. How we talk to people we disagree with is really important. On the issue of gay marriage, you can be supportive of same-sex couples being able to have the same benefits that straight couples have, but you can also be in favor of of religious freedom for faith communities to figure this out in their own time, in their own scriptures, their own way. I don't think they should be called "bigots" if they are struggling with what the Bible says about this, or might we lose marriage because of this. Those are questions we cannot be afraid to talk about.

But calling each other names, we've got to stop doing that. To act like God's on our side is to make a mistake [President Abraham] Lincoln didn't want us to make. To ask if we're on God's side requires some humility. Should religion produce deeper certainty or deeper reflection? Sometimes it needs to be deeper reflection. How do we listen to each other? Tolerance is okay but it's kind of too weak a word. I want inclusiveness and humility.

On the growth in the number of atheists, agnostics and the religiously unaffiliated:

I don't think religion has a monopoly on morality. People like me who are religious need to keep saying that. How do you feel free to say who you are? "I love Jesus and Jeremiah and whomever," but [Martin Luther] King never said, "I get to win because I'm a Christian in a Judeo-Christian country." He knew he had to win the debate on the common good -- the Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act were necessary for all of us, not just black Baptists or Jews.

So how do you do that in a pluralistic environment? This isn't a Judeo-Christian-Islamic country, it's a country that is pluralistic, including a lot of people who would check the "none of the above" on the surveys. I speak to them all the time. They are searching, they are looking. Most of them are not atheists. When religion says and does what it says we believe in, people are surprised and attracted. I hope this book surprises people and attracts people. In my head, this book is written a lot to the "none of the aboves."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Watch Wallis's appearance on HuffPost Live above.

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