James Wall

This I Believe …

VTR Date: June 30, 1990

Guest: Wall, James


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: James Wall
Title: This I Believe . . .
VTR: 6/30/1990

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And my guest today has joined me so many times in the past fifteen years or so that he hardly needs any introduction at all. Surely he won’t once he starts beating up on me again in that sly, small-town southern boy way of his. Fact is that Dr. James Wall, the learned churchman who is editor of the distinguished national publication “The Christian Century,” writes so many insightful weekly editorials about almost every aspect of our lives that I always want to probe his thinking evermore than I already do here on the Open Mind. Indeed, we started off here earlier today when I had the temerity to ask him essentially what he wants to do when he grows up, and his answer makes the question worth repeating. Consider it repeated, Dr. Wall.

WALL: What do I want to do when I grow up? I think what I would like to do, and I attempted to give you this earlier and not knowing you were going to ask me that here on the program; I believe so strongly that there is a religious perspective to life that I have, that other people of other religions have, that I believe we should do all we can to take our religious perspective, that develops into a religious sensibility, and then apply that religious sensibility to all aspects of life, and to at least get other people to be aware that you are doing that, not to persuade other people to do it the same way you do, but simply to approach all problems out of a sensibility that you feel is religious. Now, my real thesis is, and this is why I want to do this when I grow up, is that all of us have a sensibility out of which we operate. I happen to have one of that I feel is religious. Everyone has their sensibility; we simply have to be conscious of what it is.

HEFFNER: You seem to think, in terms of what you have said in programs over the years, that the sensibility of most Americans is not oriented toward the religious, is enormously secular.

WALL: That’s exactly what troubles me. And one of the problems with that is that if you have what you feel self-consciously is a religious sensibility and you attempt to address issues and address relationships and address the environment that you’re involved in out of that sensibility, you run the risk of other people thinking you are, quote, holier-than-thou, quote, pietistic, quote, arrogant, quote, self-righteous. All of those charges are made. And that is because the culture in which we are operating is so secular. That is to say that prevailing, quote, religion of our society is secular.

HEFFNER: But if you respect your sensibilities, your sensitivities, and you consider them religious, how would that bring you to a different conclusion or to a different set of actions and reactions in our lives than from others who do not share that?

WALL: That’s a good question because the actions and the conclusions are not going to be particularly different. I’ve been involved, as you know, in political activities and I would not for a moment want to claim that because I reach a conclusion politically out of a religious sensibility, that’s a superior decision to one you might make. It’s just that I happen to have made it out of my sensibility. My colleague on my right and on my left made the same decision because we made it jointly, and yet, those colleagues perhaps had a different sensibility. No no, the conclusion is not necessarily different.

HEFFNER: But does that then mean that you’re simply looking – “simply”, strike that because I know you’ll grab hold of that and beat me with it – but that you’re looking for a kind of purity of purpose and action if you don’t think that there will really be, pragmatically speaking, a difference in what you and the person on your right and the person on your left will do?

WALL: Well the question is not, different pragmatically; the question is, I would hope, that the conclusion I reach has about it the advantage of being informed by a religious sensibility.

HEFFNER: And what would that do, Jim? Seriously, what would a religious sensibility do, for you, in relation to most of the things we face?

WALL: Alright, let me try this. And this is always a risky way of putting it, but we’re just sitting here talking, the two of us.

HEFFNER: Nobody’s listening.

WALL: It’s a risky thing to do, but I am not making that decision in a vacuum. I am not making that decision alone. I am having the arrogance to say that I enter into this dialogue related to an ultimate mystery, which the tradition of which I am a part refers to as God. So that gives me enormous confidence that I’m not making this decision alone. Now, unfortunately, since I am making it, it’s going to be an ambiguous decision. It’s going to be, many times, the wrong decision. So that you can almost visualize God, if you don’t mind the metaphorical imagery, striking the forehead and saying, “There he goes again. I tried to give him help, and he makes the wrong decision.” But I am not making the decision alone.

HEFFNER: But you’re, I think you’re avoiding the thrust of my question. I know you’re avoiding the thrust of my question.

WALL: (Laughs) I don’t think so, but go ahead.

HEFFNER: Well, Jim, I say that because I know that in the past you have commented with sadness, and I was going to say bitterness but I think mostly sadness that that sense of religion, that sense of belief, that sense of spirituality is absent in most of American life. And I believe that you believe, that as a consequence, we are doing things as a people that you feel we shouldn’t do or not doing things we should do.

WALL: Yes, correct.

HEFFNER: Ok, so it’s not just a sensibility. We are not doing specific things, or we are doing them.

WALL: Well, the people that make decisions, and that means the person who chooses to steal your watch or not to choose it, to steal it, the person who chooses to pass a bill and put more money into armaments than to the homeless; all these decisions from the little one to the big one, if they are made out of sheer self-greed, or out of sheer nationalism, or out of fear but unrelated to any kind of ultimate religious sensibility, then they’re going to generally be the wrong decisions. But if these decisions could be made out of a religious sensibility, cumulatively speaking, then we get solid and better decisions.

HEFFNER: Now, let’s take some of the issues that face us today. Let’s take, for instance, the issue of abortion. Now that’s a very touchy one, but one to which you have addressed yourself in the pages of “The Christian Century”.

WALL: Yes.

HEFFNER: What does a religious sensibility lead you to conclude, or lead one to conclude?

WALL: Well obviously, because the issue of abortion is so touchy to – so sensitive is the right word – for Roman Catholics and for fundamentalist Christians, and perhaps for Orthodox Jews, it leads that particular community, those three communities, to a very strong, almost absolutist position on abortion. I belong to a different tradition. I belong to, if you will, a more liberal Protestant tradition. But it doesn’t, that particular tradition doesn’t lead me to a more absolutist position. It leads me, personally, to a greater sensitivity to the ambiguity of the subject of abortion. I’m very conscious, as everyone should be, to the personal decision-making of the woman involved in the abortion process. And so I want us as a people to be sensitive to that. That’s coming out of my religious sensibility. I want us as a people to be aware that we can’t, necessarily, impose the best possible decision on people by fiat. And therefore I prefer that legislature, legislative decisions not be made about something as personal as this. That’s my personal conclusion.

On the other hand, I recognize that in our society, the three groups that I have mentioned plus many others who think alike feel that the society has a vested interest in the unborn. And therefore these people say, “No, we don’t agree with you. We think we’ve got to put more emphasis on the unborn, and therefore you’re insistence on choice is too much of an extreme in one direction.” So here I am, as a Protestant Christian, seeking to find a balance between these two.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you see I raise the question because it seems to me that if all of us were to opt as you are opting for, not imposing but filtering what is the rest of your life through a perspective that you consider religious; when we do that, don’t we then come up against then the intrusion, not now of secular, but of religious perspectives into areas of our common life that require practical decisions being made, that require political decisions being made, and aren’t we asking for trouble?

WALL: Ah, you’ve implied that because I introduce my religious perspective into a decision-making process that I’m intruding my religious orientation. That is basically what you’ve implied. I say back to that, that let’s say you and I serve into the legislature together in the state of New York or Illinois, let’s say New York. And let’s say you come in to the decision-making process on the subject of abortion with a self-consciously non-believing secular orientation. You are intruding your self-conscious secular point of view in to the process just as I, as another legislator, am intruding my religious sensibility. So, when these two things intrude together we struggle to come up with a common decision that is ambiguous, but compromise. And two sensibilities have intruded. You see, just because mine is religious doesn’t make me more of an intruder than you as a secularist.

HEFFNER: Yes, but as what you call a secularist, aren’t I more likely to be less convinced of the righteousness altogether of my ways?

WALL: Oh, by no means are you. You are going to be just as rigid in your point of view as any religionist is. Actually, a religionist at his or her best should be more flexible than the non-religionist because a non-religionist only has their point of view to go on. Here am I, as a religionist, saying I could be wrong. I am quicker to say I could be wrong than you are, as a secularist, because all you’ve got to go on is some kind of ideological commitment to choice or to the opposite of choice. Whereas I can say I am not sure what’s best. I am struggling out of my religious sensibility to come to the right conclusion.

HEFFNER: But what we see on the scene today, in contemporary America, would not seem particularly much to support that thesis.

WALL: Well no question, but what many of my colleagues within religious communities have not been as flexible as I think they should have been; they’ve been more ideological in insisting on the truth of their position. I’m just saying that there is a way of coming at these problems out of religious sensibility that’s religious and not ideological, or hard-lined, or finalist on it.

HEFFNER: Are you as convinced as you were a year ago when you sat at this table that the secularists have won and continue to dominate American life?

WALL: I would qualify it by saying that because I sense a spiritual hunger in the population, not knowing how to identify it. And I read many novels and I just finished reading Sue Miller’s novel, “Family Pictures”, a magnificent piece of work. And she, in this novel, does not have characters who are overtly religious, but she has characters who are hungry for mystery, hungry for a connectedness to something other than themselves. So the answer to your question is I think there is this hunger, that if it could somehow be channeled into some understanding that there is a religious channel that this could feed in to, you’d have less of this secular impact.

HEFFNER: So you’re sitting there much more pleased today than you were a year ago because you see some hope for, if not the end then the diminution of secular control.

WALL: Yes, partly I think because the religious ideologues, and by that I mean the people involved in this abortion discussion, seem to me to be losing some strength and I think, that is, the ability to force things to happen. I’m not sure what the process will be. That’s going to be up to the Supreme Court, so it may take a while for it to play itself out. But I think that this flexibility, this sensitivity to what is good for all as well as what is good for the individual, is going to play itself into a direction so that spirituality can have an impact.

HEFFNER: You do know that there are going to be a great many people watching us today who are going to say, “I don’t quite understand that. The wars of religion have been, if anything, wars that demonstrated that when this religious perspective dominates individuals they war and war and war, rather than jaw and jaw and jaw.”

WALL: That’s because they are facing the issue, they are looking at religious activity in a rather narrow perspective. They only see the manifestations that are hard-line. They don’t recognize that in the midst of all of this, there is a yearning, and an openness, and a questing for the mystery, and a questing for the sacred that transcends this hard-line political ideology. Remember what I said at the very beginning: I’m not sitting here alone. I must caution you that I am – I feel myself a connected-being to a larger being. And that gives me a certain sense of security, not to tell you I’m absolutely right, but to tell you I very much could be wrong but I am struggling to come up with an answer. Now my colleagues who fight on this abortion issue don’t say that with a kind of openness that I wish they would say it with. But people who look at religious folk have a tendency to only assume that’s the way they operate.

HEFFNER: Well now, a year ago you still said that moving from secularism, maybe not very far, you said that left-wing liberalism is the assumed cultural ethos or bias in this country.

WALL: Mmhm.

HEFFNER: Still think so?

WALL: It’s obviously changing. I mean, media seems to me, since they’ve – who was it that first got invited to write editorials for the New York Times op-ed page, was it Safire? Was he the first one?


WALL: I remember that was a big first step for the New York Times, to bring in a real conservative columnist. Now you find a larger and larger number of those kinds of columnists, or TV commentators, or writers, or interpreters. So, the society is I think a less hard-line liberal than it was, secular liberal we’re talking about now, and much more moving to the right, politically.

HEFFNER: Now, the pleasure you feel in this, you take from this phenomenon, and from what you were saying before; I have to ask you how does that conform with the fact that “The Christian Century”, under your leadership, is an extraordinarily liberal magazine in terms of its editorial policy? Where are you, Dr. Wall?

WALL: I would have to say to you, and I think many of my readers would say to you, that we’re not as extraordinarily liberal as we might have been twenty years ago, in the sixties when whatever the left-wing ideology of the day called for, we were right there behind it. I think you’ll find us, to whatever extent as editor I can influence this; you’ll find us a little bit more moderate in grappling with the ambiguities of political reality. I’ve cited Reinhold Niebuhr on the program to you before. Here is the man who said ambiguity is the key word to understanding human relationships and politics.

HEFFNER: And ambiguity, embracing the phenomenon or the fact of ambiguity, leads you to the right rather than to the left?

WALL: Politically?


WALL: No. It supposedly leads you to the truth. I thought that would bother you a little bit. (Laughs) It supposedly leads you to…

HEFFNER: Whose, Jim, whose?

WALL: …to as close as you can get to the truth. All I’m saying is that since the prevailing ideology in our culture has been left, to move away from that you move toward the right. Now, obviously I certainly don’t want to go to the far right. But as you jockey in trying to get to the position in American culture where conscience issues are dealt with, you shift away from the absolutist position, which was a liberal position on individualism, and you shift in the direction of, not all the way to the absolutist, but at least in the direction of the common good. See, we’re in tension between individualism and the community.

HEFFNER: Are you saying that the common good is a province of the more conservative elements in our community rather than of the more liberal elements?

WALL: I’m saying that at this moment in our cultural history the more conservative elements in our society are trying to get us to stop being individualistically absolutist. And the abortion issue, you see, has been very touchy in this regard because the people in favor of choice seem to say, “I can do what I want to anytime I want to, regardless of the impact it has on my family, on the society, on the fetus.” See, that’s the absolutist position on the subject of abortion. Now, the other absolutist position against that is that says, “You can’t do anything unless we legislate you how you can function with your physical body.” Now, those are two extremes. The answer is in the middle somewhere.

HEFFNER: It’s so interesting that the words have come to mean very, very different things in our history. I mean, it certainly was a conservative point of view that I am free to do what I want, when we were talking about the marketplace, right? In the marketplace, the conservative ethos had to do with, “I have mine, Jack. I’m ok. The devil takes the hindmost.”

WALL: Well the free market said that, yeah. No regulation…

HEFFNER: Now, wasn’t that the, if you were to take the person, the recent president that you admire so much, Jimmy Carter, and I know you do and I share that admiration though you try to identify me with those who oppose Carter – it enables you to foster your stereotypical thinking, you’ll forgive me…

WALL: Well, I mean, ten years have gone by. I’m beginning to forgive you now.

HEFFNER: Good. If only you understood me, never mind the forgiveness. It’s your religious orientation that leads you to forgiveness. But certainly the Reagan administration and perhaps the Bush administration not to the same extent, that, the conservatism there is a conservatism of a different kind of individualism, but individualism nevertheless.

WALL: It was a certain kind of individualism. But it was an individualism not of everyone, but of the privileged few.

HEFFNER: The worst kind.

WALL: That’s a value judgment I’m not going to make. I’m just going to say that the individualism of the Reagan years was individualism of the wealthy and the upper-class; that then, we will benefit and when we benefit, then we’ll trickle down some dollars to the rest of you. And I think that is a very selfish, greedy-oriented individualism.

HEFFNER: Well that kind of, let’s call it Social Darwinism, that kind of individualism that wasn’t the kind that primarily bothered you. What bothered you was what; the sixties movement toward individualism? As I said before, “I can do what I want, don’t bother me. It feels good.”

WALL: You know, you have to realize that, I, like many of my generation are a product of the sixties. And I was looking at some old clippings the other day, in which I was quoted in 1972 and saying that I think maybe we have gone too far in demanding “my way of doing things” and being insensitive to the others out there who felt like we were going too far. So yes, I’m saying all of this out of my cultural history, and my cultural history is coming out of the sixties, into the seventies, and to where we are now.

HEFFNER: Now we’re in the nineties, and we have to look forward to the twenty-first century. What do you assume will happen in regard to the dominance that you saw before of the liberal ethos, to the dominance of individualism? What do you suspect will happen?

WALL: I would suspect that the dominance will cease to be the liberal, and much more the conservative. After all, the Court is voting a lot five to four these days. A couple of more appointments of persuasive right-wing – Bush might not appoint people quite as conservative as Reagan kept doing, but nonetheless, it’s possible for the Court to shift. And then I think all of society is going to make a shift toward this more, again the individualism versus the community, and I think the shift is toward the community.

HEFFNER: Let’s go back to Jimmy Carter for a moment because we always touch upon the former President, for good purpose I think. How do you identify him in this? Where do you place him on the spectrum of liberal/conservative?

WALL: Oh he was a conservative, and is a conservative man. I can remember riding in a cab with him one day with Bob Strauss, and he said to me, “Now, how do you like being with these conservatives these days?” This was early in the administration. I mean, really, this man was never a liberal, as Teddy Kennedy tried to tell the country and tried to say, “Reject him and take my brand of liberalism.” So he was already aware of the danger of the individualism of the sixties, and in his administration, sought to move us in the direction that Reagan finally did move us in an extreme way. You see, why Carter would have been so far superior to Reagan in the second administration that Carter was not allowed to have, is that he would have done it without the kind of excessiveness that Reagan did.

HEFFNER: He would have done what?

WALL: He would have moved us in the direction of the community, cautious, less preoccupied with only the individual’s right to do whatever the individual wants to do.

HEFFNER: It didn’t work, did it, when he tried to do that as president? That was the thing that got us in our catfight, cat and dog fight last time. It didn’t work for him.

WALL: What aspect of it didn’t work? I’m not sure what you’re saying.

HEFFNER: The concern for the community that he expressed to the American people, asking them to make sacrifices, if you will, in the name of the community.

WALL: That particular speech I think we did discuss before, I think was better received than you did, in that the press, I think the public kind of liked it because it was “ask not what you can do for your country”, or “what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” He said essentially the same thing, he was criticized for it. Didn’t he deregulate a great number of industries? Didn’t he have an attitude of deregulation which was certainly a conservative attitude? The airlines were certainly deregulated under his administration.

HEFFNER: You see that’s what puzzles me so: saying to individuals, saying to corporations, “You can go your own way now. We’re not going to regulate you.” To say that in the name of the kind of civic consciousness that you are pressing for, the kind of civic conservatism that you are pressing for; I don’t understand that.

WALL: That means you’re a traditional liberal. You don’t believe in any kind of, I mean you believe in regulation, to control these big industries to make them behave better.

HEFFNER: No no, Jim, you do hear what I’m saying. I’m saying to say to individuals, “You’re free to do what you want,” again, “and the devil take the hindmost”; to say that that’s a kind of conservatism of the ideological conservatism that you, really, were pressing before puzzles me, no end.

WALL: Yeah.

HEFFNER: No, it doesn’t puzzle you?

WALL: No. (Laughs) It doesn’t at all. I think what Carter was doing, and I’m not sure that I ideologically agree with him on this, I was only using the deregulation to illustrate to you that he has a – you asked me whether I thought he was liberal or conservative – that he has a conservative bent and orientation, a cautiousness about him. And I think the deregulation was his way of expressing that.

HEFFNER: Dr. James Wall, you know, I don’t want to make it another year before we come back here. This one time…

WALL: No, you got my book if you want to set up a time.

HEFFNER: (Laughs) This is the one time you didn’t beat me about the evils of the press and identify me with those evils. Maybe next time we’ll go back to…

WALL: Well, you see it, one year has passed and the press has begun to deal ideologically more conservatively than it did a year ago.

HEFFNER: Well, we’ll see next year.

WALL: From there, maybe it will be more so.

HEFFNER: Thanks, James Wall. 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 today’s program, today’s guest, please write The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”