James Wall

Governance and Religious Sensibility in America, Part I

VTR Date: January 29, 1993

Guest: Wall, James


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. James Wall
Title: “Governance and Religious Sensibility in America”, Part I
VTR: 1/29/93

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And my guest today must be quite familiar to those of you who watch this program with any regularity at all. For over the years, Dr. James Wall, long-time Editor of the distinguished national publication, The Christian Century, has graced our table many times, always relating himself to contemporary issues from the perspective of a profound religious sensibility and sensitivity.

Indeed, once Dr. Wall and I talked quite specifically about what he had elsewhere referred to as that “sacred reservation” to which secular Americans largely expect religion to be confined, that “specifically sacred place” as he has described it, “where religion is discussed and rigorously practiced, but from whence it is not expected to emerge, except on those public occasions where it may lay a wreath on a tomb, open a football game…or even bless a Presidential Inauguration with prayer”.

Well, now, of course, things may be changed and religious sensibility may come off its “sacred reservation” to play a larger, more significant role in American life as a team of Southern Baptists takes over the Presidency and Vice Presidency of the United States.

Now you and I know – from what Dr. Wall has said here before – that my friend warmly embraces the idea that the tradition of religious sensibility that Bill Clinton and Al Gore share will now inform life in our Presidential precincts.

So that I want to start out program today by asking The Christian Century’s politically savvy Editor what differences can we expect in American governance that derive from our Chief Executive’s Southern Baptist background? Dr. Wall?

Wall: Thank you. I would say the major difference you can expect is that you will see a leader, a Presidential leader, who will be much more sensitive to the ambiguity of problems, and much less willing to be absolutist in his insistence that this is morally right, or morally wrong, and therefore we must go in this direction…the way, I think, we’ve experienced the Reagan/Bush years.

Heffner: You know, that’s a puzzle to most of the people who are watching us today, and listening to what you say because I, I would imagine that the assumption is that if two men, sharing this religious tradition, enter the Presidential precincts, they will, indeed, bring a rather rigid morality, a rather rigid religious standard to bear upon political activities.

Wall: The reason that people misunderstand this, is that that’s sort of a popular notion of what conservative Southern Baptists think. Now, let’s be clear about his. These two men come out of the Southern Baptist church, but this particular denomination is at the moment somewhat split between a moderate, which these men are, and the more hard-line conservative fundamentalists. But both of them are very careful to be sensitive to the fact that they could be wrong. See, that’s the crucial point. You have to say, “I could be wrong, but I’m going to move in this direction”.

Heffner: But if you say, “I could be wrong” too many times, what kind of leader are you?

Wall: Well, you don’t’ say it to the public. I mean you don’t say, “I could be wrong, but we’re going to do this”. No, what I mean is that in your own heart you’re moving out of a sense of the ambiguity of human experience, that there is no way for us to be absolutely certain about this in terms of how we should proceed. Now we can be sure on principle, and fairness…that’s different from being absolutist in terms of the course of action you should take. The, the subject of abortion, of course, which both Reagan and Bush were absolutist about…they were certain that they were right on this subject. Bill Clinton’s view is that this country has different views on the subject of, of abortion…some people feel hard-line about it, some people are more choice oriented, others are in-between. The best way to function with that kind of problem is not to be absolutist, but understand the ambiguity of the problem.

Heffner: You’re describing a non-traditional religionist, aren’t you, in the form of Franklin Roosevelt, when you talk, you’re really talking about his pragmatic “we’ll try this, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll try that”.

Wall: No, it…you see, you’re describing as non-traditional because the traditional way of looking at religion is moralistic. I believe that the mainline Christian community, and I think this also applies in other religions, has a much more sensitive feeling about ambiguity. It’s only the, the publicized, highly publicized, hard-line absolutists, ion the fundamentalist community, that give the impression of moralism and absolutism.

Heffner: What did you mean, just a few days ago, when in Orlando, Florida…a few days and a year ago, I should say, when you wrote “Can the spirit bear fruit in the politics of the nineties?” Or, indeed, was this…no…

Wall: It is this year…this is the year…

Heffner: It’s this year…you just have got to tell your secretary to date it ’93.

Wall: My computer…is still dated ’92…

Heffner: I, I, I thought it was just…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …the other day, but you…

Wall: It was after the Inauguration…

Heffner: Yeah, the content indicated that. “Can the spirit bear fruit in the politics of the nineties?” Or, “the religious community gets ready for Bill and Al’s excellent adventure”. What did you mean besides being cute here?

Wall: Well, I thought it was a nice play on the movie title, so that people in the audience who recognize the title would chuckle, the others would not be clear about it. Can the spirit bear fruit? Can a religious sensibility which I do believe both of these men possess, have an impact on their policies? And I think it will. And in the course of the talk I was very careful, I tried to be careful, to say that this does not mean that Clinton and Gore are any more moral, or any more righteous than their predecessors. This is not a judgment about their morality because that’s a personal judgment that only God can finally determine.

Heffner: You’re talking about an approach.

Wall: I’m talking about a style, I’m talking about a willingness to say “I feel this way about my faith and I’m going to let it have an impact on what I do, and I’m going…”, and much of it is style. “I’m going to be willing to speak openly about my faith, not giving it any kind of partisan way”…in, in the Inaugural Address, Bill Clinton referred to “the Scripture sys…”, and then he comes out with a statement from the New Testament. But it was sensitive of him not to kind of be too blatant about where it was coming from, although it you know your Bible, you know where it comes from…comes from Galatians, Chapter 6, verse 9.

Heffner: Now look, you, you make references there, but it’s interesting that you, you also say…you talk about his Notre Dame speech, made during the campaign…

Wall: Right.

Heffner: And you say “In his Notre Dame speech, Bill Clinton offered us a possible text…”, which is an interesting phrase, “a possible text”…

Wall: You see, that’s because I speak out of a religious context, he speaks out of a religious context.

Heffner: And I don’t, so I take the text to mean something else…

Wall: Oh, really, okay.

Heffner: Alright. No…and I’m not saying that my interpretation is correct, I’m saying you have to educate us to what you, you…

Wall: May I…what do you mean “text” to be, that’s an interesting…

Heffner: Something that you follow.

Wall: Aha…

Heffner: And you’re saying that is not…

Wall: A text in my thinking and Bill Clintons’ thinking is the, the line, the passage that informs the rest of the document. Good point.

Heffner: Okay, alright. Now you, you indicate that he speaks the language…

Wall: But, but other religious groups use “text”, I mean a Rabbi preaching a sermon would also use the text, but that’s a…

Heffner: Alright. You say here, “In his Notre Dame speech, Clinton offered us a possible text for his Administration when he said, ‘to the terrible question of Cain…am I my brother’s keeper, the only possible answer for us is a thunderous yes’.” And you go on to note that it will be by the benchmark of that thunderous “yes” that we will measure how effectively Bill Clinton will link his religious sensitivity with his problem solving agenda in the White House. Now that sounds like content to me rather than style.

Wall: Am I my brother’s, or my sister’s keeper? What does that mean? It means “am I responsible for eh well-being of the people I serve?” He says, “Yes, I am”. Now you don’t have to be religious to accept the fact that a President is committed to the well-being of his people. His policies have to reflect that. As he allows these polities to develop this will have to be developed within the context of the secular environment in which he’s functioning. But he is freer, I think, because it is natural to him, he is also freer because the vast public out there that has this capacity these days to respond quickly to radio talk shows, and faxes, and the telephone calls, and the telegrams who are influencing public policy much more than they, they used to. This vast public is far more religious in their thinking than the cultural elite leadership of this country seems to realize.

Heffner: Yes, but it’s interesting that as you conclude this speech, you use this “am I my brother’s keeper”, which I would interpret in the same way that I would interpret “and the devil take the hindmost”, or I would interpret some Darwinian statement of the survival of the fittest, and so it seems to me that this is a statement of religious, but even as importantly, political philosophy. Not true?

Wall: I don’t know why you find it related to Darwin. It is simply a political philosophy of compassion. And insistence that “I must do what is in the best interest of my people”. Not what is in the best interest of one segment of the public. Not what is in the best interest of the corporate entity. And, indeed, in dealing with Bosnia, overseas, in dealing with Somalia, the question “is it in our national interest” has been the question put to all of these issues in the past. I think the question of national interest now must go beyond what used to be the Cold War, communism versus non-communism. And becomes “are people suffering to such a degree that we can no longer tolerate it, and is it possible for us to have an impact by stepping in? If so, let’s do it”.

Heffner: But, Jim, that’s precisely what I mean. You say you don’t know why I mention Darwinism…

Wall: Yeah.

Heffner: It’s because it seems to me that one can posit one against the other. The “am I my brother’s keeper”…

Wall: Yeah.

Heffner: …approach…

Wall: You mean “survival of the fittest?”

Heffner: …approach of the survival of the fittest, let the…I’ve got mine…I’m alright, Jack…

Wall: Yes. Well, there’s a great deal of that attitude of “I’m alright…it’s mine, I don’t care what you have” in our society. But the best lights of this community in which we live, or this United States, and I think of a larger portion of the world than we can acknowledge, or will acknowledge, does believe, does believe that we have a responsibility for caring for our neighbor.

Heffner: But, Jim, you say “the best lights”…what do you mean? The best and the brightest?

Wall: No, no, no, I mean…

Heffner: …in our community?

Wall: …I mean…our human nature…the religious communities around the world, whatever religion it is, directs us in that way, urges us to be sensitive to the care and feeding of our fellow human beings.

Heffner: Yes, I, I, I understand that. But that’s why I posed my first question to you. What will be the difference? Here is a man who says, and you say it, too, that he will be informed, his actions will be informed by this question that…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …he puts to himself, too…am I my brother’s keeper, and his answer is “yes”. Now that is far different…you talk about our involvement abroad…involvements abroad…you know there is a kind of isolationism…America apart, America separate…we can’t really handle their problems and our problems, so let’s handle ours. An attitude that has become, if not prevalent, at least that has become important in our times. And he seems to be saying, because of his religious orientation that’s not acceptable, I am my brother’s keeper.

Wall: Yes. I think he is saying that and I would be willing to commit him to that because of what he’s said to us. And he also has the skill, I don’t want to mislead you by saying the skill of the preacher, but he has the skill of the communicator to persuade the public to accept and to agree with his point of view. Because you can lead unless you can persuade. Ronald Reagan persuaded the public in a direction that I don’t find as comfortable as I do Clinton’s, but nonetheless communication is very crucial in, in leadership. And I do think he will see to persuade this public to see the world as a place where we must be of concern…must be concerned about and of help to others.

Heffner: And won’t that concern and that helpfulness to others stem from…

Wall: His religious convictions.

Heffner: His religious convictions.

Wall: You see everything we do as individuals stems from a moral center out of which we function. Even the person who is absolutely greedy and saying “I don’t care about my neighbor, so long as I have mine” has made that decision out of a center…their personal center. Now if there was ever a religious center there, they have either quelled it, or distorted it, but they are moving out of some driving force. And all of us have a driving force that determines what decisions we’re going to make on a daily basis.

Heffner: Yes, but which is it that you mean more? That we have a driving force, and that that is what you equate with a religious sensitivity?

Wall: I…

Heffner: You know who you are.

Wall: I think that we all have this driving force, and I think that the religious person identifies that force as being centered in their particular religion. And it’s a struggle, a constant struggle, because the baser nature of the human being, as the book of genesis, for example, clearly lays out to us in beautifully metaphorical language, is that we don’t want to go in that better direction, but we have that core of religious training, of religious experience, of religious tradition that enables us to say, “this is how we should proceed”.

Heffner: Even…

Wall: And we have the support, this is something we’ve talked about before…it isn’t just a code of ethics that we’re following, it is the religious belief that we’re not alone in making these decisions, because our baser natures are so strong that we couldn’t do it alone. We have to have the internal power from, if you will, an ultimate force, I call God helping us in this action.

Heffner: Well, we come back to the same ball that we’ve kicked around on…at this table, somehow or other I find that you don’t want to let me get away with the notion that a humanity oriented, a “I am my brother’s keeper”…a humanistic approach…

Wall: Yes. Yes.

Heffner: …is essentially the one that you arrive at if you have a religious background.

Wall: I don’t know that I’ve ever told you you couldn’t decide…I just…we’re talking terminology, I think…I, I just…the word “humanism” at its best means me allowing my best human face to function…best food forward. I just think the world “humanism” because of the adjective “secular” that’s gone in front of it, is, is sort of made the word difficult to deal with in our…

Heffner: But, but not…

Wall: …but we’re in the public debate that we are engaged in. Absolutely…we could…you and I…let’s assume for the moment that you came at it, and you come up with a humanistic conclusion. The only difference is that we may have reached the same conclusion about feeding the hungry, or caring for the needy, but I say that I am inspired by, related to, strengthened by an ultimate power that enables me to do this in a way that I couldn’t do it without that strength.

Heffner: Now, practically speaking, what will be the impact of having in the White House two men who speak the language?

Wall: Or, as I say in my talk that you alluded to earlier, they, they “talk the talk”. What…will they “walk the walk?” We’ll see. They’re human, they’re frail, they are no morally better than their neighbor, they are…they are leaders, they are pretty good politicians, or they wouldn’t be where they are today. I think that there’s going to be a foreign policy, a domestic policy, a health care plan, and all of the things that are on the table for this White House to deal with, with a more humane dimension to it. The questions are going to have to be asked…not will this profit the nation, but will this benefit the bulk of our people? Compromises will be reached, but the compromise will be in favor of the suffering, rather than in favoring the well-to-do, the rich, the corporate. That’s a kind of, of a conclusion that I would reach. Now that’s a political conclusion, do you realize that?

Heffner: What…

Wall: If someone else with a religious…of conviction…might come up with what was…one of the first times we did this show…the week of the Inauguration of Ronald Reagan, and there were those who were saying “once you start trickling down the economy, it will benefit the masses”. But I don’t believe that was the motivation in the first place.

Heffner: And…but you’re saying that that, that could be accepted as a religious…a religious based…

Wall: Sure, I would think…I, I don’t for one moment think that people who agreed with Ronald Reagan, or Ronald Reagan himself did not engage in that activity…when they did engage in it back, lo those many years ago, by saying “this is a hedonistic thing we’re doing, and we’re not interested in religion”. No, I don’t think that at all…I think that they could come at this from their own point of view. But I just think these two men are coming at the world problems, and the nation’s problems out of a religious sensibility, overtly expressed, sensitive to the ambiguity of the problem, in a way that, for political reasons, I think, both Reagan and bush fell into absolutism. They probably were more sensitive to ambiguity than they would acknowledge. But the reason they could not express it, is that they were pretty well trapped by the absolutism of a certain segment of the American religious community, namely the Christian Right.

Heffner: Jim, what does “religious sensitivity or sensibility” mean to you?

Wall: Religious sensibility means that when I approach any problem, I, I do it out of a connectedness to an ultimate power. I, in my tradition, refer to that ultimate power as God. Others might refer to that as Yahweh, or whatever, but there is not, in my judgment, a world out there that I’m living in that stops at the top of the Empire State Building. It’s a world, if you will, that reaches, metaphorically into the reality that’s at the heart of the existence that we live in. That’s God, for me. A religious sensibility moves through life hooked in with the ultimate.

Heffner: And when Clinton, when the President said here, a very interesting story in the New York Times, during the campaign, it was Peter Steinfels, he said. Asked on a television program if he could pinpoint any way in which, as a Baptist, he would be different than an Episcopalian, Jewish or Catholic President, Mr. Clinton said “No. That I have a deep faith in God and a sense of mission to try to do the right thing every day, should be reassuring to the American people. But I don’t expect to get any marching orders from the fact that I was raised in the Baptist church”. No “marching orders”?

Wall: “Marching orders” is a very good statement, and probably carefully chosen. Because “marching orders” means taking this tack on the subject of the economy or the health-care, or taking that tack…moving this way in a particular direction…that’s a “marching order”. But I do believe that he would be the first to say that when he decides between options “a” and “b”, he’s going to make that decision with a certain sense of having been related to that which is ultimate in his life.

Heffner: And Al Gore in terms, particularly in terms of his concerns about the environment?

Wall: I…there’s no question but what Al Gore’s book…make that very clear…his introduction to the book, makes it clear that he came to write it out of a real wrenching period in his life, when his son was critically ill…not ill, but critically injured in an automobile hit. And he, he literally tackled the environment out of a, a stewardship sense, out of a sense of responsibility to this, this environment, this world, this planet that God has created and for which we are responsible. It does definitely have…and, and it takes the form, it you will, in Al Gore’s case, of being concerned about the environment.

Heffner: What do you mean “takes the form”?

Wall: Well, I mean his particular focus in the last four to six years has been coming down into the environment. And technology, that happens to be a specialty of his.

Heffner: Jim, in the couple of minutes left…do you think that the last Southern man concerned with his religion was damaged by, aided and abetted by…

Wall: Oh, he…

Heffner: …his religious training?

Wall: …we’ve said, I have said on this…oh, by his religious training? Oh, I didn’t let you finish the question. Oh, it was enormously important to Jimmy Carter to make the kinds of decisions I would say about him, the same thing I’m saying about Bill Clinton. But Clinton comes in to the public arena, the national public arena, at a different period of time than Carter did. Carter was viewed as a moralistic, self-righteous person. Unfairly, I believe, but that was the way he was viewed. It was his style that did not register with the, the public or the, if you, if you forgive me the mediators of the public…the media. And so it came off negatively. I don’t think you’ll find Clinton’s religious sensibility being perceived that way. I think he’ll be perceived as a person who is very much aware of his own frailties, and very much conscious of the fact that he makes mistakes, and doesn’t do what he should do all the time.

Heffner: But that was Jimmy Carter’s…I was going to say “strong point”…I really meant weak point. That he lusted in his heart, that he seemed to be imposing upon himself standards that he didn’t want imposed upon us.

Wall: He did have an extremely…there was a moralistic approach to Carter that comes out of his own personality, out of his own style of religion. But it didn’t mean he was moralistic. It meant that he recognized, as a good Southern Baptist, as he would say, that he does not do all the things that he should do, and he made that mistake when he used that “lusting in the heart”, because we all lust in our hearts. He just made the mistake of saying it in Playboy magazine.

Heffner: Do you think you can “talk the talk”, and “walk the walk” both in this country at this time?

Wall: I think it’s, it’s easier to do it today that it was when Carter came into office 16 years ago, yes, I do.

Heffner: In a half a minute…why?

Wall: Because the environment has changed in terms, not the physical environment, but the attitude toward religion…there is a greater openness, I think the product of the sixties, these two young men in there in the White House, come out of the sixties. There’s a greater sense of openness, there’s a greater sense of being willing to express your religious feeling than was true of the, of the 1976 era. We, we…this new generation, this younger generation is much more into hugging, as a good example, than the ’76 generation…so, that’s just an example of how, how things have changed, and why it’s going to be better and easier for them to talk religion and “talk the talk”, as they “walk the walk”.

Heffner: Jim, it will be interesting to see, the next time you’re here, whether they’re walking and talking in a way that the American people approve of. Dr. James Wall, think you so much for joining me today.

Wall: Thank you.

Heffner: 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, 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. Meanwhile, 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 Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.