James Wall

Politics and Religious Sensibility Revisited

VTR Date: March 17, 1995

Guest: Wall, James


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: James Wall
Title: “Politics and Religious Sensibility Revisited”
VTR: 3/17/1995

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND and two years ago when my guest today sat at this table, a team of young Southern Baptists, who spoke so easily and naturally from a profound religious sensibility, religious sensitivity, had just become President and Vice President of the United States. Dr. James M. Wall, the long-time Editor of the distinguished publication The Christian Century, had graced our program many times before, always relating himself to contemporary issues from just such a religious perspective. Indeed, two years ago, we spoke again about what Dr. Wall had called “that sacred revelation to which secular Americans had largely expected religion to be confined”. “Where religion is found and rigorously practiced”, my guest wrote, “but from whence it is not expected to emerge, except on those public occasions where one may lay a wreath on a tomb, open a football game, or even bless a presidential inauguration with prayer”. But last time, Dr. Wall thought that with radically changing times, and with this impressive changing of the guard, our new leaders might not only talk the talk of religious sensibility, but walk the walk, as he said, as well. So let me ask him now, if they have indeed, done just that.

WALL: Very much so, they have done that, because you might be asking me to point to bills passed, or the task accomplished out of their religious sensibility that otherwise might not have been done. That I will not give you, because what is at stake here is a mindset, a perspective, is a way of viewing society. And I know from keeping close tabs on Bill Clinton and Al Gore, that as they speak in public they frequently make references to the religious tradition out of which they come even as they acknowledge that we are in a pluralistic society. And therefore we are not imposing any one religious view on anyone. But religious view, and not religiosity, which is a pejorative term, the religious view is very much a part of the way they view the world. And I think that is a great accomplishment.

HEFFNER: Yes, but I got from you, dear Dr. Wall, the notion of walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

WALL: Well, walking the walk, yes. They are making decisions…

HEFFNER: How? Where? When? Why?

WALL: See, that’s a very hardcore, secular question you’re asking me. And that is where the dialogue and the communication become very difficult. Because I’m not going to claim that because Bill Clinton believes a certain way about the Balanced Budget Amendment, that that has a religious superiority over that of Newt Gingrich, or feels differently from a religious sensibility. That is not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about how one views the world. And I can identify in history, and time I think will do a better job of identifying for us, the ways in which their religious sensibility impacts almost all that they do. But we can’t…no, I never would and never have pretended to say to you that you will see direct results of religious sensibility coming up with this kind of view. Now I have to think that their religious sensibility leads them to make better judgments than the religious sensibility of Newt Gingrich, but that’s not a religious judgment, that’s a political judgment on my part.

HEFFNER: Yes, but Dr. Wall, after all, whatever the source of what you might demonstrate or document, we poor secular persons, do indeed need, even though you might be contemptuous of that need…

WALL: (Laughter) …I am indeed!

HEFFNER: …we need this religiously sensitive couple, the President and the Vice-President…

WALL: …and their wives…

HEFFNER: …and let’s look back to Jimmy Carter, for whose election you worked so hard, and who also had that kind of religious sensibility.

WALL: Perfect example, perfect example. You go back and look at Jimmy Carter’s record in office and ask me the same question you ask about Bill Clinton.

HEFFNER: I’m asking…

WALL: …and I would be hard-pressed to say to you that this action was taken out of religious sensibility as opposed to this action. Now, I will be willing to say to you, and very quickly, that it’s evident in his emphasis on human rights and dealing with other countries. That was a very controversial dimension to the Carter foreign policy. I would be willing to attribute that to his religious sensibility. But I would quickly say to you, as I think I have probably said on this program before, a person coming out of a very definite secular perspective might have reached the same conclusion Carter did regarding human rights. So it’s not necessarily superior religious view but you asked me to give you an example of something Carter has done.

HEFFNER: Jim, I’m really not asking for a superior view, religious or otherwise, I’m asking for something that…well, for instance, let’s go back to the last program we did, when we…a year or so ago. When I asked you, let’s see…

WALL: And you have me at a disadvantage. You have a script there and I don’t! (laughter)

HEFFNER: No, I have you at a disadvantage because I have the facts and you don’t. (laughter)

WALL: (Laughter) I’ll deal with it.

HEFFNER: I once said that “I want to start the program today by asking the Christian Century’s politically savvy editor what differences we can expect in American governances that derive from our Chief Executive’s Southern Baptist background. Dr. Wall?” Dr. Wall said “Thank you. I would say that the major difference you can expect…”, and this isn’t terribly different from what you say now, so I’m not throwing this at you, “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 or that, the way I think we’ve experienced the Reagan-Bush years”. Now my question is not now…my question is whether that sense of the ambiguous hasn’t indeed been troublesome in the presidency up to this point.

WALL: Oh, not at all, not at all. And when you reminded me of the use of that term “ambiguous” I thought of what would be his first big public relations mistake.

HEFFNER: Um hmm.

WALL: …and that is dealing with gays in the military.

HEFFNER: Um hmm.

WALL: His position, in my judgment, was very sensitive to the ambiguity of the situation. Both the rights of gay people to serve in the military and the recognition of the resistance that was being felt, met by in the military…that’s an ambiguous situation. Now one could quickly argue, and I’d be the first to do so, that it was not handled well at all. It should have been done quite differently. I would have had him nominate a distinguished panel of military personnel as well as other community leaders and let them come up with a recommendation. Instead, he did it differently. That’s a strategy question that we can discuss politically. But in terms of recognition of ambiguity, he did precisely that.

HEFFNER: That’s so strange, Jim, that you say that, because he seemed to do just exactly the opposite in recognition of the ambiguity.

WALL: What do you mean, just the opposite?

HEFFNER: He took a stand that as you suggest now, was opposed by so many people in this country.

WALL: He had the stand…

HEFFNER: People say he wasted his political…

WALL: He took a stand strategically that was not wise. But he should have done what he did do, mainly acknowledge the different feeling in society on that subject.

HEFFNER: Well, at a time when there are so many people who say, and you have said this: we need leadership. You talk about a certain kind of leadership. Others may talk about a different kind. But one of the criticisms of the President has been that there has been a shuffling forwards and shuffling backwards…

WALL: That’s a political judgment of strategy which, I acknowledge, has been a criticism of him.

HEFFNER: But he…isn’t that a reflection of his recognition of the ambiguity of situations? That he has taken…what was the old Woodrow Wilson…one step forward and one step back?

WALL: Well you have to acknowledge ambiguity in a pluralistic society. It is not easy to do.

HEFFNER: But hasn’t this done him in?

WALL: Politically…it has been interpreted that way, and he has had a hostile press. I hate to say this because every president finds a hostile press to be against them. My guys always run into a hostile press. Newt Gingrich, who is not one of my guys, has also run into a hostile press. So it’s an environment that he’s working in right now. The same environment Gingrich is working in, and he’s had a tough time as well. Ambiguity is fundamental to the reality of the American political scene, or to any political scene. And how you deal with that ambiguity is the issue. It’s a matter of strategy. It’s not a matter of whether you acknowledge ambiguity or not. I don’t think that, especially in the Reagan years, there was much acknowledgement of ambiguity. There was a very righteous attitude that this was right and this was wrong.

HEFFNER: Wouldn’t that mean that at least, as of this moment the one man will go down as a more impressive leader?

WALL: I don’t think so. I think in time we’re going to see that a lot of what he proposed…for example now, we’re talking politics and strategy…what he thought was the trickle-down theory was a disaster. Look at the deficit we have, the result of his economic policies. No, he will not go down in history as an outstanding president.

HEFFNER: William Jefferson Clinton?

WALL: Will. Will. By the way, he is going to be re-elected. Let’s just get that out of the way. He will be re-elected.

HEFFNER: I’ve never heard you be so bold!

WALL: As to be re-elected, you mean?

HEFFNER: No, no, no, to make that kind of prediction. Today when we tape this, it’s mid-March, 1995.

WALL: We’ll come back together at the inauguration in 1970…ah, 1996…

HEFFNER: (Laughter) …you’re thinking of the other one…

WALL: 1997…and he will be re-elected. Well, all I’m saying is that you are asking me whether or not recognizing ambiguity has led him to do a poor job as President. No. Recognizing ambiguity is crucial, which I have said is part of his theological insight. How you deal with that ambiguity is a political strategy question, which is where they did NOT do well and have gotten themselves into some political difficulty.

HEFFNER: Has he dealt with them ambiguously?

WALL: Well, stylistically I would say more than anything else that the noble cause of correcting our health care difficulties…well, he was against an adversary that did him in. The health care industry made him look bad and the whole thing collapsed. And that’s a sad commentary on our American political dialogue.

HEFFNER: But you see it’s probably because I have not phrased, which is my want, to phrase my question well enough – but I really wondered Jim, again, not in terms of tactics much, but whether the ability, the open-minded ability – now maybe you don’t want to identify what you consider a religiously sensitive given with open mind – but that ability seems to be antithetical to a successful political career. It’s been the ones who have said “This is the way. There are no ambiguities about this. This is the way.”

WALL: Well, one in leadership does have to say “This is the way”. He said “This is the way” on a subject that I happen not to agree with, capital punishment, for examples. He favors capital punishment. Bill Clinton, that is. I do not. I think he’s dead wrong on that matter. But he hasn’t been that ambiguous on capital punishment. You can’t be. You’re either for it or against it. I think any decent leader will recognize the ambiguity of any every situation. You would acknowledge that, I’m sure. The question is, how do you then reach a decision? A political leader has to say “I know A, B, C, and D are all involved in this, but I know I see that the only option open for us is ‘B’. So we’re going to pursue ‘B’. Now, I’m willing, along the way, to adjust ‘B’ because of the certain pressures I am going to have to deal with in this pluralistic society”.

HEFFNER: Well, let me come back a moment. I know that in polite society, and this is a polite society, one doesn’t talk about religion or politics. But you have made such a bold statement about President Clinton’s re-election.

WALL: Ah huh.

HEFFNER: Why are you willing to call…

WALL: Because I think that partly due to his capacity to identify with the average citizen, and to relate to the average citizen…again, looking beyond the elites that shape the media, beyond the elites that shape our political structures and our academic structures, and our business structures, looking to the people…The people recognize a certain sense that they find in this particular man. I think they’re going to respond…enough of them are going to respond in the election of 1996, to favor his re-election because he gets down with the people. They recognize in him one of them. He’s quick to acknowledge “I made a mistake. I have made mistakes in the past and I’m going to proceed accordingly”. And people recognize that and identify with it.

HEFFNER: Of course, I don’t necessarily have a recording of it and a transcript of an OPEN MIND in which we discussed that so I’ll just ask you: Didn’t you feel that way about Jimmy Carter?

WALL: Yes…

HEFFNER: That he would be re-elected?

WALL: I thought that he was going to be re-elected, but circumstances that he was in, trace that history again, if it had not been for the crisis with the Iran hostages, he would have been re-elected. We discussed this before, on the last weekend when he lost that election. But that’s politics. George Bush lost the election to Bill Clinton on the last weekend as well when…what was that…something came down relating to ah…Weinberger I think…ah…in other words, politics turn on these last weekends of developments. But I think in the case of Bill Clinton overall, he has the ability to identify and relate to the American people so successfully, that he will triumph over whatever person or persons are put up against him.

HEFFNER: Well, I don’t mean to beat that issue, I don’t think it’s a dead issue, and I have some serious reservations about your conclusion. Not your wish, but your prophecy.

WALL: Well, you can question my judgment on whether he will or will not be re-elected. I happen to think that he will be. But may I make a quick point in connection with our discussion of Carter: We discussed Carter and Clinton. The problem with the religiously oriented candidates and the presidents we have had, is how difficult it is to communicate that religious sensibility through the press, the media, the elitist press. Because the elitist press – again by that term I mean “elitist” as those people who make the decisions and shape what we get through media – the problem with dealing with the media is that the media is so secular in its orientation that it screens out references to a religious sensibility. I know Al Gore gave a splendid speech down in the University of Virginia about a year ago in which he talked about Thomas Jefferson and about the freedom of religion, and I thought made a wonderful statement. The passages that dealt with religion or religious sensibility were ignored. I can just see journalists taking notes and stopping when he talks about religion and picking up again when there is something that’s hardcore news. That’s the problem.

HEFFNER: You know I will always ask this question: If that’s the problem, what’s the solution?

WALL: Well, the solution…

HEFFNER: What are the ways to diminish the impact of that?

WALL: Sensitizing the media to what we’re talking about. I’m teaching some courses at a seminary in the Chicago area right now on the subject of religion and media. And one of the things we are trying to do is to get the journalists, the upcoming journalists who are in graduate school today, who will be the managing editor or the program director ten years from now, to at least have a sensitivity to the role of religious sensibility in American life, when they make decisions on what program to run or what way to shape a news coverage.

HEFFNER: Isn’t that spitting against the wind?

WALL: It’s tough. It’s tough out there. With religion is ever has been. As soon as religion becomes the accepted norm in society, it is always polluted, or tainted if you will. We happen to be in a very secular leadership environment right now. And as I have said before, in time I believe that will change, as the people demand greater sensitivity to religion.

HEFFNER: When you say “secularized”…in a situation which the secular impulse is commanding, are you referring to the media or are you referring to politics?

WALL: I’m referring to all. I’m referring to the leadership groups in this country: Media; Schools; Business; and Politics/Government. Those four leadership books – Steven Carter’s book did such a good job identifying these four categories, and pointing out how secular the mindsets are of the decision makers in these particular groups in our society…So that the masses, the people, are far more religious generally in their orientation than the leaders would have. Now, you have them be…you ask me what we’re going to do about it. I think that the leadership of the future need to be trained to be more sensitive. And I think that because of the environment we’re living in we’re really starting to talk more about this. People are writing more about this, and in time it will have an impact.

HEFFNER: But you say being more sensitive to this aspect of our country’s attitudes, feelings…how could that come about when, indeed, you have already given a kind of, almost a Marxian or egalian deterministic interpretation? Here are these people, the media elite. They control, they’re the gatekeepers. Everything comes through them.

WALL: It’s true.


WALL: True.

HEFFNER: Then, I don’t know how you, in your efforts, can break through that hold.

WALL: Because the gate keepers will open the gate wider when they themselves become more sensitive. Jimmy Carter is a great example of what we’re talking about. He is described as the greatest ex-president we’ve ever had. Why? Because of what he’s done. What is he doing? Precisely what he has always done in life, take those steps that seem to him to benefit others. Believe in trusting in people so that you can persuade them to do what they ought to do in a situation. As a peacemaker, which is what he obviously has become since he left the White House, he is doing as a citizen/or president, what he tried to do, and to some extent what he did do as president, though handicapped by being president rather than the free citizen that he is now. And the media elite still have trouble interpreting Jimmy Carter in public. They make fun of him, they say he must be trying to win the Nobel Peace Prize otherwise why does he subject himself. They got to have “why is he doing this”, and the automatic answer is “there must be something. Let’s see, is he getting any money? No. Not that we can tell. What does he want? Now let’s see, does he want to be famous?” A former president. You can’t be more famous than that. “What does he want? Ah! The Nobel Peace Prize”. Now when he wins it, as I suspect he will in 1996, what are they going to say then? They will probably be nicer about it because once a Nobel Prize committee acts people are usually pretty positive about that. It’s this inability to grasp that people do things out of motivation other than the secular standard of greed, of success, of victory.

HEFFNER: And, Dr. Wall, is there good reason in our national life for having taken that posture, that understanding?

WALL: That corrective is probably always necessary in our society so that one doesn’t pretend a certain motivation that is pious but not really religious. Yes, I think journalists in particular – I am one – have to be somewhat skeptical about people’s motivations. But the beauty of Jimmy Carter’s career is that now we see him in retrospect. He didn’t go to Haiti, he didn’t go to Bosnia, he didn’t go to North Korea to enhance his reputation. He risked his reputation when he went to those places. Every time he takes a step like that he runs the risk of failure. So a journalist has a right to question him. But I’m just saying that in his case we have pretty good evidence that he’s not motivated in that same way.

HEFFNER: Of course, there’s a difference. Jimmy Carter lusted only in his mind. Right? Will that make a difference in his heart?

WALL: You’re obviously referring to one of the secular journalist’s favorite stories interview in Playboy magazine.

HEFFNER: Yes, I am referring to…

WALL: Naturally…

HEFFNER: …his, his interviews…

WALL: I’m surprised you don’t bring up the bunny rabbit story which is what this secular journalist…

HEFFNER: C’mon! I voted for this man, too.

WALL: But what’s your point in “lusting in his heart”?

HEFFNER: I’m wondering whether Bill Clinton is going to be able to fare as well.

WALL: Okay. Let me finish on Carter because…

HEFFNER: …as well as Carter…

WALL: What I have written about Jimmy Carter in a recent piece called “The Global Pastor”, is that he fully recognizes the temptation to do things for his own glory. He recognizes that. And a lot of what he has written and said over the years is an acknowledgement that “I fight a constant battle against self-glorification. I have to constantly remind myself that I am doing this because God wants me to and not because it brings me joy and glory”. He steadily resists that notion. But he fights it. And I think relatively successfully. We all fight the same battle, but I think he does it rather well. Now your question has to do with Bill Clinton and whether he will be able to. I think he will continue to be the kind of man he has been, mainly, making mistakes. Lord knows he’s made mistakes. But recognizing his mistakes and starting over again, I mean…he’s not the “come-back kid” for nothing. You don’t make a come-back unless you get up and say “All right, I didn’t do that well. I’m going to fight again and do better the next time”.

HEFFNER: Well, we’ve reached the end of our time and I suppose I ought to say I, I guess there will be people who will say “there was a come-back kid, and a come-back kid until he doesn’t come back”. And then there is no longer a come-back kid.

WALL: That’s up to the people to decide.

HEFFNER: As they read what must be filtered through those evil…

WALL: Well, not evil, just secularized media. Yeah, but the secularized media has begun to recognize some of what we’re talking about.

HEFFNER: Dr. James Wall, that is all the time we have. Thank you so much for joining me again today on THE OPEN MIND. 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 $4.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of THE OPEN MIND has been made possible by grant from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Carnegie Corporation of New York; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The Virginia and Leonard Marx Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Ruder-Finn and Mutual of America.