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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Why I signed an Open Letter to Jim Wallis

An open letter to Jim Wallis is now up at this blog and many others and is making its way through the blogosphere. I want to explain why I have joined with reporters from a number of traditions in signing this letter. I had been working on the article that appears below for a number of days when I received a phone call from an organizer of the open letter. On the basis of the reporting I had already done for my article, I was not surprised to hear that other people were similarly disturbed with Jim's recent comments. I had, in fact, reached out to Jim and to Sojourners in an attempt to gain clarification about what Jim intended because I was so concerned and because I believed that he was likely to be challenged for it. I had cordial correspondence and discussion with folk at Sojourners who made it clear that they thought Jim's article was just more of the same general critique of media cluelessness about evangelicalism that Jim has engaged in for decades. I and the other reporters who have signed on to the open letter disagree and I wanted to provide readers with my own particular argument for why I disagree that expands on the consensus expressed in our open letter. Here then is the article I had prepared that I called "Wallis is Wrong".


I have in the past had good things to say about Jim Wallis, including a blog post I did under the title “Wallis is Right on Afghanistan.” Wallis has probably forgotten more about the Bible and politics in America than I will ever know, so I don’t want what I say here to be interpreted as part of a broader agenda to weaken him. In fact, as I hope will be clear in this piece, I believe an article by Wallis posted at the Sojourners God's Politics Blog and at the Huffington Post serves to weaken him and the consistency of his message because it explicitly endorses an analysis that panders to religious stereotypes and challenges common-sense assumptions of the evangelical left that Wallis’ own Sojourners magazine and website have regularly agreed with.

Pinsky and Jewish Critics of the Right

Last week USA Today published an extraordinary article by Mark Pinsky, a Jewish progressive who is best known for his book A Jew Among the Evangelicals. In his article Pinsky embraces the “more of the same” view that I have criticized extensively, saying “beginning in 2006 and every two years since in the run-up to the presidential and off-year congressional elections, books and articles suddenly appear…about the menace and weirdness of evangelical Christianity.” What makes Pinsky’s contribution to the literature attacking critics of the religious right is that he attempts to focus his arguments on politically progressive Jews who Pinsky thinks are disproportionately the ones making these charges. Pinsky asserts that among these authors “the tone is what I'd call ‘Upper West Side hysteric,’ a reference to the fabled New York City neighborhood.” He goes so far as to make an astonishing charge that USA Today would likely never have published if Pinsky himself was not Jewish: he compares Jewish critics like the four he singles out to the authors of the anti-Semitic screed Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Pinsky makes passing reference to three Jewish authors, but the only person he engages specifically  in his essay is Rachel Tabachnick. As readers of my work know, I have more than a passing interest in Tabachnick’s work: I believe that she has significantly advanced the conservation in this election cycle by carefully explaining the New Apostolic Reformation and its impact on Governor Perry’s The Response prayer rally. While I have occasionally raised questions about some of Tabachnick’s work--I made the regrettable charge that she was engaged in “a type of McCarthyism” for asserting that Samuel Rodriguez is a leader of NAR, until I realized that she was correct--I found it astonishing to read Pinsky assert in the nation’s most read newspaper that she is part of a Jewish cabal that portrays the entire evangelical movement as “dark conspirators trying to worm their way back into political power at the highest levels.”

There are two things that make Pinsky’s accusation wildly irresponsible: first, her religious heritage is anything but the stereotypical Upper West Side Jewish story that Pinsky takes delight in presenting; second, her reporting goes to great lengths to distinguish the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) from traditional evangelicals. Both of these points are easily accessed by anyone who listened to what is by far Tabachnick’s most recognized and significant media contribution, the lengthy interview she gave in August to Terry Gross on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program. In the interview Tabachnick spoke specifically about both her religious background and the significant threat to traditional evangelicalism that NAR represents. This was not an obscure part of the interview. In fact at NPR’s website, this portion of the interview is highlighted under the heading “A Different Evangelicalism” and introduced with this description: “Tabachnick, who has been researching and writing about the apostles for a decade, says her own religious background has helped her with her research. She grew up as a Southern Baptist and converted to Judaism as an adult.” This sentence is immediately followed by this quote from Tabachnick:

"Having the Southern Baptist background and growing up in the Deep South has helped me to be able to do this research and has also helped me realize something that might not be apparent to some other people looking at the movement," she says. "This [NAR] is quite radically different than the evangelicalism of my youth. [NAR doctrine] is not representative of evangelicalism. They're not representative of conservative evangelicalism. So I think that's important to keep in mind. This is a movement that's growing in popularity, and one of the ways they've been able to do that [is because] they're not very identifiable to most people. They're just presented as nondenominational or just Christian — but it is an identifiable movement now with an identifiable ideology."

What does this have to do with Jim Wallis?

In the blog post Wallis wrote Thursday entitled “Defining ‘Evangelicals’ in an Election Year” he begins by saying: “Here we go again. Presidential elections are coming and the role of ‘the evangelicals’ is predictably becoming a hot political story. Ironically, voices on both the right and the left want to describe most or all evangelicals as zealous members of the ultra-conservative political base.” (emphasis added) Jim wants to be clear that these unnamed critics

Let me try to be clear as someone who is part of a faith community that is, once again, being misrepresented, manipulated, and maligned. Most people believe me to be a progressive political voice in America. And I am an evangelical Christian.
I believe in one God, the centrality and Lordship of God’s son Jesus Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, the authority of the scriptures, the saving death of the crucified Christ and his bodily resurrection — not as a metaphor but a historical event. Yep, the whole nine yards.
I love my liberal church friends, but am more theologically conservative. I have many allies on the religious left, but I am not a member of it. I work closely with brothers and sisters of other faith traditions where we have common concerns, but I will never compromise the truth of my own faith.
I also collaborate with people of no religious affiliation at all, because I believe that religion has no monopoly on morality. But I also believe in evangelism, and have called and led people to faith in Jesus Christ. Like I said, I am an evangelical.
For me (and a growing number of others), it is precisely because we are Bible-believing and Jesus following evangelical Christians, that we have a fundamental commitment to social, economic, and racial justice, to be a good stewards of God’s creation, to be peacemakers in a world of conflict and war, and to be consistent advocates for human life and dignity wherever they are threatened. Because we are all made in the image of God. We are all God’s children.
And, because we are first members of the global body of Christ, before we are Americans, we don’t believe God blesses and loves our country more than others, and that the gospel doesn’t co-exist well with empires.

Could Jim be any clearer that he sees a serious attempt being made to  “misrepresent, manipulate and malign” his “Bible-believing and Jesus following” evangelical Christianity? One would expect Jim to clearly identify who he thinks is guilty of this extremely serious offense. But instead of identifying the people himself, and engaging the critics themselves, he leaves it to the above-mentioned Mark Pinsky and his article in USA Today. He claims Pinsky’s article will help the “millions of evangelicals [who] feel stuck and almost invisible in the middle of that political and cultural battle", precisely because of what he sees as the excellent way that Pinsky responds to the diabolical critics clueless about the true nature of evangelicalism, the only one of which Pinsky ever refers to specifically being Rachel Tabachnick. And yet if Jim is only worried about people who portray evangelicals as a monolithic right-wing group, then why is he so worried about what Tabachnick is saying? After all, making distinctions between mainstream evangelicalism and the New Apostolic Reformation is a key component of the entirety of Tabachnick’s work and one of the things I have most admired about her efforts. In fact just days ago I did a blog devoted to a plea she had made to evangelical leaders in the wake of Pinsky’s article, a plea I never thought Jim Wallis would need to hear:

“It is time for those evangelicals who do not want others to lump them together with the NAR and their activities, to quit attacking the messengers who are warning of this threat to religious pluralism and separation of church and state. Attacking the messengers will only add to the perception that other evangelicals support the Dominionist agenda of the NAR. Denials and suppression of this information will only help advance the steady march of the NAR into more communities, churches, and denominations.”

If Jim thinks Rachel Tabachnick has “describe[d] most or all evangelicals as zealous members of the ultra-conservative political base” he should explain how she is doing that. And if he does not think any of this, then he should explain why he chose an article that singles out Tabachnick as Jim's best example of the kind of reporting he is looking for. As it stands now, Wallis has singled out Pinsky’s effort to discredit the author of an article that asked a question that one would think Jim Wallis would be interested in: “Why Have the Apostles Behind Rick Perry’s Prayer Rally Been Invisible to Most Americans”? 


It should be noted that there is one other possible interpretation of Jim’s praise for Pinsky’s harsh response to Tabachnick’s reporting. This other option is worth considering, if for no other reason than it makes obvious why I have concluded that Jim is either endorsing Pinsky’s strong rebuke of Tabachnick’s reporting on NAR or he did not read the article carefully. In the part of the USA Today article where Pinsky mentions Tabachnick he also notes his concern that liberal Jewish writers like Tabachnick treat John Hagee and David Barton as significant representatives of evangelicalism worthy of concern. Pinsky is emphatic on the point that Hagee and Barton are “splinter, marginal figure[s]”, going so far as to say that implying otherwise is an example of “sensational, misleading mishegas” (Yiddish for craziness). The reason why I think it is unlikely that Jim Wallis would agree that Tabachnick’s concerns over Hagee is “mishegas” is that Wallis’ blogging, speaking and magazine publishing convey serious concern about the impact of Hagee. Like Tabachnick, Wallis does not see them as representing all of evangelicalism, but like Tabachnick a fair reading of Wallis’ project leads to the obvious conclusion that he too is concerned about the widening impact of Hagee.

For instance, here is Tony Campolo writing on the same Sojourners blog, God’s Politics, that Jim writes for: “The most serious threats to the well-being of the Palestinians in general, and to the Christian Palestinians in particular, come not from the Jews, but from Christian Zionists here in the United States [italics in original]." Campolo goes on to make an argument, very common on the evangelical left, that Christian Zionists have “huge ideological support” among evangelicals. Who does Campolo finger as the leader of this huge faction of evangelicals? “Powerful televangelists [such] as John Hagee.”
Brian MacLaren has also written at God’s Politics about “the need to confront the terrible, deadly, distorted, yet popular theologies associated with Christian Zionism and deterministic dispensationalism… so common among my fellow evangelical Christians [emphasis added]." And just last week God’s Politics linked to the powerful new “open letter to Christian Zionists” published by Glen Stassen and David Gushee. Those two make the bold claim, which Sojourners magazine itself has consistently documented over the years, that “American Christian Zionism is pushing the U.S. government to support Israeli policies that our international friends find immoral and illegal. We have come to believe that Christian Zionism underwrites theft of Palestinian land and oppresses Palestinian people, helps create the conditions for an explosion of violence, and pushes US policy in a destructive direction that violates our nation’s commitment to universal human rights.” Stassen and Gushee do not mention Hagee by name but his leadership of the Christian Zionist movement is so well established that they don’t have to. I generally agree with what Campolo, MacLaren, Stassen and Gushee are saying. I believe Hagee’s organization, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), boasts with justification that it is “the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States.” That is why it begs belief to think that Jim is endorsing Pinsky’s take that Hagee is a “marginal” figure in American evangelicalism.

It is also just as unlikely that Wallis endorses Pinsky’s declaration that David Barton is a “splinter, marginal figure”. In May 2010, for instance, Sojourners published an outstanding article by the noted historian John Fea in which Fea’s major point is that the influence of Barton’s books, which Fea rightly says are “wildly popular” among conservative evangelicals, are effecting the national curriculum standards across the United States, as God’s Politics itself has continued to report. Fea regularly blogs about Barton at his own blog and his books can be seen as substantive responses to Barton and others of his ilk.

Since Jim Wallis and Sojourners have this track record of characterizing Hagee and Barton as worthy of criticism because of their standing in the evangelical community it actually seems likely that Wallis did not agree with the way that Pinsky dismisses them as marginal. And since the only other target of Pinsky’s article was Tabachnick’s portrayal of the New Apostolic Reformation, it seems reasonable to conclude that either Jim did not really read Pinsky’s article carefully or he agrees with Pinsky’s faulty analysis of Tabachnick’s reporting on New Apostolic Reformation and his shallow description of her religious motivations.


I want to make clear that my criticism in this blog is focused on Wallis and Pinsky, not Dr. Joel Hunter. I mention this because in Pinsky’s article he quotes Dr. Hunter in a context that would lead one to believe that Hunter endorses Pinsky’s broad assault on leftist “Jewish” critics of the religious right. I reached out to Hunter and he made clear to me that his words were in response to a question from Pinsky about dominionism specifically. When Hunter says “We know their numbers are small and their influence is grossly exaggerated” he is specifically referring to dominionism, not to Hagee, Barton or the New Apostolic Reformation. While I disagree with Hunter’s assumption about the influence of dominionism, I wanted to make clear that Hunter is not at all equating the New Apostolic Reformation with what he calls “marginal groups.” (This is important to clarify since Hunter sits, together with the NAR leader Samuel Rodriguez, on the National Association of Evangelicals Executive Committee Board of Directors.)

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