Last night, at the National Press Club here in Washington D.C., the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and Sojourners co-sponsored a conversation between me and Richard Land on what the religious and moral issues will and should be in the upcoming election year -- about one year out from voting day.
The packed room of reporters demonstrated a high degree of interest in what the faith community's role might be in the upcoming election, at least in the opinion of two Christian leaders who are usually on different sides of politics, but who still call each other friends.
Amy Sullivan, of Time magazine, was our moderator and posed a series of questions to us before the audience joined in. Amy started by asking each of us what the primary issue/s would be for the faith community and what we would like them to be.
Richard said "the economy" would be the key issue and I agreed, pointing to the rising poverty rates and the basic questions about inequality raised by the Occupy movement. We differed over who was most responsible for the economic crisis -- I pointed to Wall Street and he blamed Washington (actually both bear responsibility); but we both spoke of poverty as a fundamental Christian concern.
We also agreed on the need for comprehensive immigration reform, having both addressed a conference on that imperative just last week, at an evangelical Christian college in the Midwest. Undocumented immigrants are in the biblical category of "the stranger" for Christians, and we are obligated to treat them as Jesus taught us to.
Land said it is "shameful" the way both political parties are using the issue for their own agendas. I noted that Leith Anderson, of the National Association of Evangelicals, said in the New York Times this week that the treatment of immigrants will be an issue that Christians will be watching in this election.
When Richard called for a "Manhattan Project" to remove the nation from dependence on fossil fuels and create a "clean energy nuclear future" I almost jumped out of my seat to say I agree with nearly all that -- except for the "nuclear" part. We agreed to discuss that in greater depth at a later time.
I suggested that evangelical Christians should unite in defense of the low-cost, but very cost-effective, foreign aid that feeds millions of hungry people around the world, keeps hundreds of thousands of infants from being born with HIV/AIDS, vaccinates millions against life-threatening diseases, and provides tens of millions of malaria bed nets that save lives in the global south.
Richard lifted up specific programs such as PEPFAR and the Millennium Development Accounts, which were developed under President George W. Bush and have enjoyed wide bi-partisan support, but are now in great jeopardy in the deficit reduction process. Some cuts can kill, we agreed.
Both of us talked about the broken system in Washington, now being protested by both the tea party and the Occupy movement, and the need for people of faith to hold our political and economic leaders accountable.
We disagreed on nuclear weapons policy, as on the causes of the 2008 recession, and the safety and sustainability of nuclear power plants. But, when the issue of Herman Cain's problems with accusations of sexual harassment came up, we both affirmed the deep connections between personal integrity and public leadership.
And we both agreed that Mitt Romney's Mormon religion should not be a factor in the election. Rather, we instead should examine a candidate's moral compass and policy positions.
One of the most interesting things about last night's event were the issues that did not come up: abortion and gay marriage.
Both are issues Richard and I care about, even if we have different solutions and perspectives on how to address them. And yet the topics simply never arose, neither in any of the questions from Sullivan or the audience, nor in our responses to them.
Abortion and gay marriage are the two subjects that have dominated discussions of religion and politics for many years. But they weren't even on the radar during our public conversation at the National Press Club Wednesday evening.
Richard raised the subject of marriage as an important antidote to poverty, another point on which we agree. And we both know that reducing poverty reduces the number of abortions, something we both support. Still, neither gay marriage nor abortion was mentioned.
People of faith -- including evangelical Christians -- will be voting both ways in the upcoming election. It is simply not true that they will be voting only on one or two issues.
And, if evangelicals focus on many of the issues central to their faith, rather than becoming partisan cheerleaders, they might be able to raise some critical issues in this election and to hold both sides more accountable, even in a campaign that both Richard and I suspect will be one of the ugliest in U.S. history.
At the end of the evening, Amy remarked that if the upcoming election debates were as civil and substantive as this evening was, we would all be very grateful.
Richard and I disagree about some things and agree about others, yet we were able to model respectful and dynamic public discourse.
Even if we end up canceling out each other's votes a year from now on Election Day 2012, if in the intervening months more evangelicals and people of faith join the Great Conversation, we all win.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.
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