Politics and Religion: An American Odyssey

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. James Wall
Title: “Politics and Religion: An American Odyssey”
VTR: 7/15/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And my guest today is by this time an old friend of our viewers.

For Dr. James Wall, the erudite, peripatetic editor of the distinguished national publication, “The Christian Century”, has joined me here many times over the past two decades.

Now usually, of course, he beats up on me in that sly “small-town-Southern-boy” way of his…using me as a whipping boy for his concerns about our secular society. Particularly about the role mass media play in molding American opinions and attitudes.

But today there is a special twist to Dr. Wall’s appearance. For we record this program mid-July, 1992, with the Democrats here in New York to pick their national ticket, and with my religioso friend here as Special Assistant to Bill Clinton’s national campaign manager.

Sixteen years ago my guest ran another Southern governor’s presidential campaign in Illinois…and helped put Jimmy Carter in the White House.

So I won’t ask Dr. Wall if his candidate will win again; I know what he’ll say. But I will ask my guest: from his special perspective, what has changed in our country since 1976 – and to what degree it may be good or bad for his part. Dr. Wall?

Wall: It’s a good question. What has changed since 19876 of course is a…politically an incredible deficit in our society. On the other hand what has changed is the end of the Cold War. What has changed is the arrival of AIDS as a critical problem…many, many, many things have developed. We didn’t have a fax in 1976 that we could use. We didn’t have cellular telephones we could use. So there have been some technological advances. But, you know what…in the light of the kinds of things we talk about…what has changed is I think that Bill Clinton and Al Gore, two Southern Baptists who’ve now been named by the Democrats to head the Democratic ticket…the first time this has happened since the previous Southern Baptist named Jimmy Carter was named…will very likely be more at home speaking their religious language in the campaign than he was.

Heffner: Well then tell me about that because so often, Jim, on this program you‘re really castigated contemporary society, you’ve pointed an accusing finger at the media for participating in secularizing American life, and for making it well-neigh impossible for the attitudes that you say these two Southern Baptists represent, to be heard in American.

Wall: These two men both are products of a culture. A culture that thinks religiously, a culture that…for whom religious language is, is second nature. I’ve heard Bill Clinton campaign in churches in which he just naturally uses scriptural language and it’s part of him. It doesn’t mean that everyone who is brought up in a Southern Baptist culture will be able to do this and be at home with it. These two men happen to be in that category as was Jimmy Carter. But Carter was blazing a path. This county which I’ve been arguing for many years is so highly secular, is secular primarily among its leadership elites, not among the public. And so the public, in effect, is demanding that the leadership elites in the Academy, in the media, in the political arena start listening to their religious sensibilities, start listening to that desire to speak of the higher dimension to existence as we grapple with political problems. Not to apply religious test to political decisions, but to listen to the fact that some people will make decisions out of a religious sensibility. And I do believe we have two candidates here who will do that.

Heffner: Now…no dis-ease on your part about that even though you’re a minister? No concern that suddenly, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, in the contemporary America there will be this sensitivity or sensibility, as you call it?

Wall: Not a bit of unease because I think the fact that they are coming out of a religious sensibility period…I heard an interview withy Bill Clinton’s mother in which she pointed out that he was very much a young boy who grew up in a religious milieu and felt at home speaking religious language. But that he felt somewhat constrained when he entered politics to be careful not to express it too much, especially on the national level…at home in Arkansas he’s a little more at home doing it. But now, again, I want to emphasize these are not men who will apply religious test, these are not men that will through Bible scripture at you every moment, but they are men for whom religious sensibility is a natural way of thinking and a large part of the American public also responds to that…whether they’re Jewish or Catholic or Mormon or Protestant, they will respond to that.

Heffner: Now, let me ask you…you’ve made the general statement. How will this religious sensibility reflect itself? How will their policies, their activities, their actions, and if they go from being candidates to being President and Vice President of the United States, how will their actions in Washington differ given those sensibilities?

Wall: One of the problems will be that you very likely will not overtly be able to notice it.

Heffner: Why?

Wall: Because they will be making political decisions…political decisions have to be made in a political framework, and a political category. And of course the media only reports political category or political framework. Columnists, or discussion shows like this will be able to get into the little more subtle points that I’m describing, but the news report will say they’re for or against this. Whereas these candidates once they’re in office will be able to reflect their concern with issues viewed through a lens that is shaped religiously.

Heffner: But, Dr. Wall, I’m, I’m not now raising the question of how the media will reflect this, how the media will see it if they do, how the media will report this…I’m really asking you as in ’76 and in ’80 a supporter, a strong supporter of Jimmy Carter, and now the role you play in the, in the Clinton nomination, the Democratic Convention. I’m asking you…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …how there…a difference will be reflected.

Wall: Alright. But now the reason I answered it immediately by giving…

Heffner: Because you’re being careful, you’re being cautious…

Wall: No, I’m not. I’m telling you that the only way you are going to know what they are thinking is through the media. That’s the crucial point you will not…that’s where the media is such a powerful entity in this country. Now if the media can interpret the fact that these candidates will be able, and these office holders will be able to deal with problems that are highly ambiguous, highly complex without giving simplistic answers…I was talking to a colleague today about the issue of abortion. Politicians have to refer to pro-choice, pro-life because that’s where the ballgame is lined up. Newspapers report “which one are you?” But I would think that both of these men reflect out of their background, their religious concerns a great sensitivity to choice because they’re both pro-choice. But they also reflect a great sensitivity to the real serious problem of abortion. Abortion is not something to be taken lightly…it is a difficult decision that everyone wishes they did not have to make. So, when you approach the problem of abortion out of a religious concern you’re dealing with the sacredness of human life…as you are dealing with the sacredness of the right of women to choose. But the ambiguity of the subject of abortion is lost when you polarize between pro-choice and pro-life. Now, unfortunately the reporting will show one way or the other, but the subtlety will be there and I think it’s there in the case of both these men.

Heffner: Yes, but I’m asking you about the subtlety, I’m not asking you about what the press will do. And you’ve responded in this one issue, and I think that’s fair enough. When there have been guests on this program who have been urging a larger, much more important role for women…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …in American politics…”would that a woman be President of the United States”…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …the question I ask…fine, can you tell me what you believe will be the consequence, the result in term so actions, of policies, of the sensitivity, the sensibility that will come with a woman. And I’m asking you the same thing.

Wall: In many ways I could answer that more easily as an outsider looking at the woman than I can the religious perspective.

Heffner: In many ways…but you don’t have that perspective…you do have the religious.

Wall: Let me try and answer it for the moment for the woman because a woman should be, not necessarily because some women are as hard-core insensitive, I think to women’s concerns as men are. But a woman has…they get it, if you will…to pick up the phrase that came through the Clarence Thomas hearings. They “get it”, they have a sensibility, they have a sensitivity, they have an awareness that tells them how to feel their way into decision–making from a woman’s perspective. I believe the religious person, with a religious sensibility feels their way into political decisions out of that perspective. Now it isn’t just that they belong to a church, it isn’t that they are raised in a religious community. They are either sensitized out of that world view or they’re not. Or they are to some extent, or not to another extent. It’s not an easy either/or proposition to make, and you’re asking me, once again…

Heffner: You’re right.

Wall: …easy either/or…you’re asking me the media question.

Heffner: Oh, no, no, no, no, no.

Wall: Yes, yes, yes. (Laughter)

Heffner: Don’t, don’t turn it around, Jim. Look, if you and I weren’t friends, if we didn’t know each other, hadn’t known each other over so many years…you know I’m a pussycat interviewer…I don’t press where people don’t want to go…and you clearly do not want to go in this direction…so…

Wall: Alright let me, let me go with you…

Heffner: Okay.

Wall: …you, you’ve challenged me.

Heffner: Good.

Wall: The Gulf War of late, lamented memory…

Heffner: One…one of the candidates in favor of it…one of them opposed. Right?

Wall: Wonderful. Wonderful that you would put it that way. It so easily simplifies it, Al Gore…

Heffner: One voted for it…the other would have voted against it. Right?

Wall: But you’re talking voted.

Heffner: Right.

Wall: Of course you’re talking voted…

Heffner: And I’m asking…

Wall: …that’s the way the media…I’m telling you that I believe, I haven’t discussed the War in that kind of detail with these two men, and it’s a, it’s a…but let’s face a new war…

Heffner: Yeah.

Wall: …down the road. I think that both of them, Al Gore, Bill Clinton…both of them would approach the new war possibility not with the kind of heartless, macho “let’s solve the problem and benefit me politically” attitude that George Bush approached the war in the Gulf.

Heffner: In your view.

Wall: Well, in my humble view…thought I think increasingly the evidence is there that it was a war that was fought with far greater excessive use of power than was necessary…

Heffner: As reported by the media.

Wall: The media was taken in…incredibly taken in…

Heffner: That isn’t what I mean, Jim. What I mean…the perception that you say informed President Bush’s involvement is as reported by the media. Right?

Wall: After the fact. During the war itself the media was pure patsy to the Administration, reporting these video game victories, ignoring the suffering of…that we were inflicting with the carpet bombing and so forth. Granted…subsequent to that research, which the press has reported on…didn’t do much of it themselves…but research which they reported on, shows it to us in a different light. I think our two officers now…Bill Clinton and Al Gore would approach a, a similar problem with a sense of the humanity involved…the, the sense of justice involved, the sense of consequences involved. You see, all…any human being ought to approach a problem with that kind of concern. But the religiously sensitive person is obligated, out of their own sense of awareness of the moral center of an issue, to approach it from that point of view. So you ask the larger question….you ask what will be the result of this action in the long run? What will be the impact on the lives, not just of American people, but of Iraqi people…what will be the impact on the children of Iraq, or whatever the country may be that we have to deal with. This is very difficult…you, you can appreciate this though…I appreciate the opportunity to try and do it…to be precise in seeing what will be the end result. But the, the point I would want to make is that Bill Clinton, as President, when he makes a decision, it’s my conviction that he will make it like any flawed human being with all the data coming in to him, but because I think he operates out of a moral center…at the heart of who he is…not simply “how will this get me re-elected”…

Heffner: Jim…I, I…

Wall: …he’ll do the right thing.

Heffner: …are you saying essentially that in a secular society the person whose concerns are moral and ethical, but secular is not…would not be able to function in the same way? I, I…

Wall: No…

Heffner: …find it hard to believe…

Wall: …alright…

Heffner: …that you would.

Wall: …alright…I’m glad that you asked the question that way. I don’t want to claim for the morally centered person out of a religious perspective…

Heffner: Good.

Wall: …that they’re the only ones who would operate in this manner. I would hope that our leaders how come to making decisions with a moral center would, would have a moral center out of some source. In the case of these two men, and Bill Clinton as President will be the one who’ll make the most decisions…they will be people…he will be a man who will be influenced out of his religious background. Other people who make decisions like this, subsequent presidents down the years, may say “I’m reaching my decision out of a ‘secularized’ moral center”. I’m always troubled by the source of that secularized moral center because in our culture it’s very difficult to reach and find a source other than the Judeo-Christian tradition…in our culture. We don’t happen to be a Buddhist culture, we increasingly are going to be more and more Buddhist or more and more Muslim in our…or Hindu in our culture, but right now we’re essentially coming out of a Judeo-Christian tradition, and I would say that most of the secularists in our culture are not un-informed about the moral code, the sense of justice that need to relate to the, to the total picture, the need to, to see the consequences for all human beings, and not simply be pragmatic of “what’s in it for me” or “what’s in it for my re-election”. They may not identify it as a religious source but my, my contention is that’s probably where they get most of it.

Heffner: But, of course, you have expressed your feeling here at this table so many times that outside of the closer connection of the person who has these religious sensitivities, sensibilities, you don’t find it easy, in a secular society for the morally ethical concerns to, to be nourished, to be nurtured.

Wall: Our secular society in the leadership elites, you see I always have to qualify that because I think the body politic, I think the average citizen has a much greater sensitivity to religion than the leadership elites. And, and they do also…as individuals. But the kind of the…the code of media, Academy and politics and the economy is to speak no moral language in public, so that you won’t be accused of being moralistic. That’s kind of the giveness of our code. I like to say five, ten years from now when we’re doing this program, and we will…that we’ll be able to find that it’ll be easier to speak moral language in public decision-making, that newspaper reporters and journalists and editors and television commentators will feel more at home with moral language out of a religious tradition. Right now we’re not at home with it.

Heffner: Do you think they will because of events of this year, of this convention?

Wall: Oh, well…what’s happened is that since Jimmy Carter…you began by asking me what the difference is…

Heffner: Right.

Wall: …what happened since Jimmy Carter is that…I had reporters in 1976 ask me to explain to them what it meant to be “born again”. And we’ve made progress since then. We now generally do know what Jimmy Carter meant by that rather unique religious phrase, that is unique to his tradition. The clear rise in American religious conservatism has made people more sensitive to approaching life from a religious point of view. And discussion is easier and it will become more, more possible to speak this ways in years to come.

Heffner: Then you believe that in the last 12 years, the last 10 years, whatever Americans have by and large realistically made moral choices more central to their lives. Is that true?

Wall: I do not believe that.

Heffner: I didn’t think you would…

Wall: I believe…

Heffner: …if I asked you the question.

Wall: …I believe the leadership elites…

Heffner: Yeah.

Wall: …are beginning to recognize that the American people do put moral choices at the center of their existence.

Heffner: Let me go back again. Do you really feel that increasingly since 1976 the American people do put moral choices at the base…

Wall: I’m not sure about “increasingly”…you see you’re asking that kind of a question out of the, understandably, modernity’s way of viewing the world…is it going this way or is it going that way? Do it on a line by line basis. You’re asking me to, to forget the Heisenberg principle and to say “It has to be moved in a certain A, B, C, D way”. Are we more religious than we were?

Heffner: No, no, no. No.

Wall: Making decisions more religiously?

Heffner: No, no. Because I don’t mean religiously. I, I…

Wall: Moral center.

Heffner: Morally centered decisions.

Wall: Well, the…

Heffner: I’ll bet you don’t think so.

Wall: There are segments of our population that seem to be utterly insensitive to moral choices, and they may be particularly that way in , in segments of the population because no one has given them any possibility to consider the moral center. Maybe they’re so poor, they’re so down-trodden that they don’t have the luxury of thinking morally, all they can think about is “where do I go from here? How do I survive?” kinds of things. So they…there’s a lot of complexities that feed into this. The economy is driving people into a kind of sense of desperation so they can’t make the kinds of decisions that Dostoyevsky told us that Russians were making when he wrote about the complex moral choices that…and the guilt that his people were, were making in the tales that he was writing. And our people may not be even at that level of moral decision making. But I do want to insist that the main point I’m making is that the leadership elite is just slowly beginning to wake up to the reality that moral choices are important and that we can speak of them in religious terms, if we are religious, in secular, ethical terms if we are not, but we can speak of them without hesitation. It would be wrong to do this, it would be the right thing to do…I mean it’s now…we’re freer to be…use that kind of language. I think I may have told you before, and maybe…forgive me if I’m repeating, but I remember during the War, the Gulf War, being asked by a network to come on and discuss the religious implications of the war. And I was very pleased. I thought they wanted me to talk about the moral dimensions that I’ve been trying to elucidate here, and it turns out they wanted to talk about…this is a network news program…they wanted to talk about how terrible it is that the Christian boys couldn’t wear their crosses in, in an Arab country, Muslim country…and the Jewish soldiers couldn’t show heir signs. And I said, “I don’t think you want me, because if that’s what your idea of religion is, we’re not talking on the same wavelength”.

Heffner: Dr. Wall, and I leave the “Jim” and say, “Dr. Wall”, that’s the question I’m really asking you, whether we are talking about now in terms of the religious sensibilities and Americans at large. And I think your answer is very direct…you’re not talking about Americans generally, you’re talking about our leadership…that that…those sensibilities are more and more informing…those moral sensibilities are more and more informing our leadership.

Wall: You know…you’re asking me a very good question, but it has to be qualified so much, with so many inputs that it would take us days to, to deal with it. But one aspect of it that we could pick up, and that is whenever we are in a difficult economic times, whenever a society is going through difficult economic times, as we are now…there is a tendency for us to drop back to the basics, and say…I mean, while on the one hand there are greedy people making millions and millions of dollars, and while there are greedy people who get corporate CEO salaries that are obscenely large, the bulk of the population is suffering economically. And that tends to drive us more into a “what does it all mean, what is the ultimate meaning of life, what are the decisions that I make that have moral implications”…yes…at this aspect…at this point in our society where we’re economically having difficulty, I think it does drive us more into the moral camp.

Heffner: You see I guess I sense, I feel that that prime moral question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is being answered more and more in the negative.

Wall: It’s being answered more and more in the negative by the 1%, 2% of the people who make all the money…I still think the bulk of my population will give their neighbor a piece of bread if they’re hungry. I do think the bulk of the population is…if given a chance, willing to be moral in their decision-making. The tragedy is our leadership up to this point, when faced with a decision such as the Gulf War, didn’t make that judgment on a moral basis.

Heffner: I, I think the question “Am I my brother’s keeper” has more to do…has to do with more than a scrap of bread. It has to do with sharing, it has to do with meeting communal obligations and national obligations, and I suspect that that’s what your candidates are going to put to the American people, and it will be interesting to see what the response is. Not a piece of bread, but…

Wall: But the bread is a metaphor for sharing…sharing the burden, being responsible for my neighbor by participating with my neighbor in, in the burden the neighbor carries…

Heffner: …and accepting higher and higher taxes.

Wall: You see, you immediately have asked, deliberately the journalist question because all you need to do is brand somebody’s raising taxes…

Heffner: I, I don’t mean…Jim, I don’t mean “brand” somebody…

Wall: (Laughter) Yes, you do. That’s the way the media functions, to “brand” somebody.

Heffner: Why…why do you say it’s “branding”…it’s dealing with the reality.

Wall: Because it’s the way in which it’s played…

Heffner: Now you’re being a politician…

Wall: No, I’m not. I’m just telling you this is the way it’s played, and this is the way it comes out and this is the way…you remember Walter Mondale’s horrible mistake to tell the Convention of 1984…”he’s lying to you when he says he won’t raise taxes. I’m telling you the truth. I am going to raise taxes”. Then you reduce that whole discussion to the sound bite…he’s going to raise your taxes. The discussion is gone…the ambiguity’s gone…

Heffner: A mistake?

Wall: …the complexity is gone.

Heffner: A mistake?

Wall: It was a bad mistake on Mondale’s part.

Heffner: That’s why I say “you’re being the politician”.

Wall: No, I’m not…I’m…

Heffner: You’re being the delegate…you’re being the…

Wall: I am being…I am saying that there are…if you want to communicate with a pluralistic, big, wide culture, don’t use the code words that frighten people.

Heffner: Well, I would have thought, Dr. Wall, that you would have said, “He said the truthful, honest thing. He said the moral thing”. Didn’t work in America in 1984…

Wall: He, he…no, I’m not going to say that’s the moral thing, to say “raise taxes”…

Heffner: Hey…

Wall: …I’m just saying solve the problem as best we can…we’ll decide together how we solve the problem.

Heffner: No wonder we’re together so often because I’m getting the signal to “cut”…thank you very much, Dr. James Wall, for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about our program, about our guest today, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. In the mean time, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

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