James Wall

Religion and Politics

VTR Date: February 3, 1981

Guest: Wall, James


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. James Wall
Title: “Religion and Politics” Part I
VTR: 2/3/81

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, and I was brought up to believe that one doesn’t usually discuss either politics or religion in polite company. But, today on THE OPEN MIND we’ll do both. For my guest is a United Methodist clergyman, Dr. James Wall, Editor of The Christian Century, one of the most distinguished religious publications in contemporary America. And, as a friend of Jimmy Carter, was also the President’s leading spokesman in Democratic politics in the State of Illinois. Dr. Wall, think you for joining me today. We will talk about religion and politics, and the mixture of the two, and perhaps it is the mixture of the two that should start us off. I had noted in an editorial in Christian Century in September, 1980…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …before the election took place. You said, “It is clear that our national mood has made more than a shift to conservatism. It threatens, in fact, to “lurch to the Far Right”, and maintain them talking, rightly or wrongly, as religious persons. And I wonder if you still feel that we made a “lurch to the Far Right’ in November 1980?

Wall: Yes, we did, and I think I would want to say even more after the election, that the forces of what we call the “new Religious Right”, as you well know, men such as Jerry Falwell and some of the other evangelistic fundamentalist preachers on television contributed and have continued to contribute to that lurch. What it means or where it will take us, remains to be seen.

Heffner: Your Christian Century is not a political magazine. But as Editor, I’ve always been aware of the fact that you, as Editor, have been in what has generally been considered the Liberal…

Wall: Right.

Heffner: …political camp.

Wall: Right.

Heffner: How do you evaluate…what do you think of…what are your concerns about this “lurch to the Far Right” therefore?

Wall: Well, frankly, Dick, I would have to confess that those of us in the Liberal religious community, and indeed, the Liberal secular community, may have helped contribute to this. There’s a certain sense in which political movements go from one extreme to the other in society. And I think one could make a case, at least I’ve tried to make the case in The Christian Century in the past, that the climate for today’s lurch to the Right, led by in many instances, the Religious Right, was created by the mood of the sixties, the mood of the seventies, in which the Liberal churches and the Liberal secular political leaders gave the impression, at least from the Church’s point of view, that this somehow was God’s will, that there was a certain righteousness, a certain self-righteousness about the fact that certain things should occur in society.

Heffner: You mean religious secularism?

Wall: Well, you see, I have trouble with this subject, and I’ll tell you why…because I was on the side of the…and still am, as a liberal, and I agreed with any of the things that were accomplished in the sixties. After all, the war in Vietnam was a horrendous thing, I’m glad it was stopped. The Civil Rights Movement was long overdue and we needed to do the things that we did there, the opening up of the First Amendment so that censorship would not encroach upon us in society. The rights of people of all types, gays and otherwise, we needed to give these rights to these people. But what has happened, I think, has been sort of a feeling of self-righteousness, as Liberals have controlled society, as we, indeed, have done for the last two decades, a feeling of resentment has built up in society, a feeling of “you’re telling us how life should be lead in this country. You’re creating this permissiveness, and the rest of us (namely, the more conservative, moderate people) feel put upon”.

Heffner: You really think that the Liberals, who have maintained forever that this is basically a conservative country, have, in reality, over the past generation, dominated American life?

Wall: I think in the last two decades, in the last two decades. And now let me speak specifically about the religious community where I’m really, basically focused.

The religious community has controlled a lot of the patterns of life in terms of saying “permissiveness is permitted”, that whatever…”if it feels good, do it”, whatever is appropriate for you is okay, morality is relative, and all of these things, you see, have elements of truth in them. But when they get dispensed into the public, they don’t come down very well so that the average citizen watching television, or the average citizen seeing their family disintegrate or their children not responding to their authority, suddenly say, “now wait a minute, is this permissiveness all that good?” And in effect, to use a phrase that came out of the movie “Network”, they got mad as hell and said, “I’m not going to take it anymore”, and they stood up and here comes Jerry Falwell, and here comes the new religious Right, they say, “Hey, would you like to let us help you not take it anymore?”, and they say, “Yes, let’s do something about it”. And they’ve done it.

Heffner: Then in a sense you’re, you have a deep sympathy for, an understanding of, a sympathetic understanding of this thrust on the part of the Right?

Wall: Well, “understanding”, yes, “sympathy”, no.

Heffner: Why not sympathy?

Wall: Because I think what you have when you leave one extreme is you go to the other extreme. I certainly have no regard for the Right…have no regard for their desire to control my life, anymore than I had desire for the Left of the churches in society to control my life. In other words, I don’t like any segment in society setting themselves up as spokespersons for God, and, therefore, for society. That is very threatening to me, and I think it’s threatening for eh average citizen today. Frankly, I hope that we may have reached…I don’t know this yet, we won’t know for a while, something of a peak I the strength of the new Religious Right. I hope, frankly, we have because I’d like to see them peak in this last election, and then subside, and then hopefully, we can find a little more balance in society. They’ve corrected one wrong, I hope they don’t create a greater wrong in the process.

Heffner: Tell me, what wrong is it that you think they have corrected?

Wall: Excessive permissiveness in society.

Heffner: What do you mean?

Wall: Oh, the feeling that…and this is tricky for a Liberal because…

Heffner: That’s why I asked you the question.

Wall: I know, I know, and that’s why it puts me on the spot. But, it’s true…that…it occurred to me yesterday as I was thinking about doing a piece…a society that will exploit thirteen year old girls for jean advertisements is asking for the arrival of the New Religious Right. That’s what I’m talking about. The sense of “Whatever we want to do to make money is okay”, the sense of “If you want to do it, you do it is just offensive to the public wheel, if you will, and so I think we helped to create this mood. Now, what frightens me is that s a Liberal I do believe in freedom. Right. That’s basic to our whole concept in society. But how do you set limits on freedom?

Heffner: How do you set limits?

Wall: Well, I don’t know, I don’t know. You hope that you can appeal to the common sense of people who sell blue jeans, for example. But I…evidently we’re not doing that. You hope, frankly, you could appeal t the common sense of Time and Newsweek magazine that they still insist on touting Brooke Shields, and seeing that she’s on the cover, and, and…do they do that to report to me about Brooke Shields? Do you believe that? I don’t believe that. They do that because her picture on the cover sells magazines. So, there is something fundamentally wrong with a society that is so commercially oriented that it will exploit sexuality, and, therefore, invite in what we’ve gotten from the new Religious Right.

Heffner: Well, you…you mentioned before the movie “Network”, and you were talking about that wonderful phrase indicating that we’ve had it.

Wall: Yes. Yes.

Heffner: We’re sick and tired…of it. What is it that you think? What are the areas, because I notice in that editorial of yours, in September, you talk…well, let me answer through you, the question that I was asking. You said, “The New Right has discovered that it is not public issues, but concern over personal status that produces citizen fervor”, and that’s so interesting. It’s not economics, essentially. It’s those personal…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …issues. And a little later down you said, you asked yourself what the list of personal items is made up of…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …You said, “It speaks to changes in the way society views sex, family life and education. The New Right has touched a chord with those parents who on more than one occasion have shouted in frustration to children in their own home, ‘When I was young we didn’t do things that way’. What was it we didn’t do? We didn’t talk back to our parents, we didn’t see dirty movies, and we didn’t even discuss abortions, much less have them. Public schools mirrored the cultural mores of the local community, not the views of some Federal agency. What did we do in those glorious, earlier days? We followed the authority of the Bible, and we at least knew right from wrong. Relativity was a word for science, not for morality”. Now is that the Editor of Christian Century…is that the United Methodist Minister speaking?

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: Or is that the Far Right?

Wall: No. That’s…that is something of a perspective that I see the Far Right seeing the world. In other words, what I’m trying to say there is “This is the way the world looks to the Far Right”.

Heffner: Yes, but it seemed to me, in terms of what you just said, Dr. Wall, that “This is Wall speaking…”

Wall: Wall has a lot of sympathy with that. You see that’s, that’s where…

Heffner: We go back to that sympathy.

Wall: Yeah, Wall has a lot of sympathy for that because…

Heffner: Not just understanding, but sympathy.

Wall: Some sympathy for it, and I think, frankly, I hope that I’m not alone in having sympathy for that from the Liberal Left…because if we don’t have sympathy for it, we will never understand what disturbs the average citizen. I can’t say whether Jerry Falwell feels deeply about this subject. I can’t question his motives. He’s done very well with it in the public eye, and he’s a leader from the Far Right. But I do know an awful lot of private citizens in this country, family people who feel exactly the way I described that. Now I think they’re exaggerating. I think that things are not as bad as they think they are, but there is enough that is wrong, that makes them uneasy, and so they are sitting ducks, if you will, for the propaganda that comes from the Far Right.

Heffner: You know, I make no bones about it. I never try to hide anything on THE OPEN MIND. It would be foolish to do so, and I wouldn’t want to, and you wouldn’t want to. We’ve known each other for a good many years. Matter of fact, I was looking back at some of the questions I asked you six years ago…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …when you were on THE OPEN MIND…

Wall: (Laughter)

Heffner: …before your deep, profound involvement, to the hilt…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …in American politics. And I know that you have, have expressed great sympathy for this position, when it wasn’t associated, in person, with…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …some of the characters…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …you’ve named on the Far Right.

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: Now, where would you have us go? It’s a fair question, isn’t it?

Wall: It’s a fair question. It’s a very broad question as to how you think society ought to…

Heffner: You narrow it then.

Wall: Well, I would have us continue to…and you know what I think, I think society will do this. I really believe that the response to the Far Right wasn’t the only reason…for example…obviously not the only reason Ronald Reagan was elected President. As a matter of fact, the difference between the two candidates was so large that I would say it was a relatively small input. But had it been a narrow election, the New Right would have really claimed credit for defeating Carter. The new right did defeat a good many Liberal Senators, a good many…at least six that I think really can be attributed to that emotional Right Wing “lurch” as I indicated. But I think the public will not pursue this indefinitely. The big test will be the 1982 elections. There are twenty more Congress members who have been targeted by the New Right. Let’s see how well they do. If they’re all wiped out, then we had better begin worrying about how well they will do. But now you asked me where we should go, and I don’t want to get away from that question.

Heffner: I won’t let you.

Wall: I’m hoping, I’m hoping that society in general will, thorough the marketplace for heaven’s sakes, quit buying those jeans (laughter), and through somehow, without censorship, quit tolerating the kind of excessive exploitation we get in our media…movies and television, I’m referring to. I don’t want it to have censorship. I want good judgment to prevail. I want the churches to inform the public as to what is good and what is not so good in the media, so that perhaps people could begin making sound judgments, and sound decisions on these topics. But, frankly, too much permissiveness, will inevitably lead to censorship. To much looseness will inevitably lead to authoritarianism, and all one can ever hope for, in a Liberal society, which is what I’d like for us to have, is some reasonable boundaries set up so that the authoritarianism and the censorships will not develop.

Heffner: I’ve been fascinated in these past years in reading your editorials in Christian Century at my own sense of the pain you feel, quite obviously…as you “do a number”, if I may use that expression, on our Liberal friends, because you really do see them as having, perhaps, understood the program, and as necessarily though pushing forward anyway, rubbing the noses of Middle America in their own moral standards.

Wall: You see, I’m talking about myself here, obviously. I’ve been an editor of this magazine for 9 years, another Methodist magazine for 10 years before that. I can go back and show you editorials that I wrote in the 1960s that helped to create the climate I’m just now telling you about.

Heffner: The one you are deploring?

Wall: Yes. I’m really trying to say that I have come to see that it is…we’ve sighted the enemy and it is, indeed, us, you see. So, I’m in pain over the fact that it…these are the people, the Liberal leadership of the churches today, that have really helped create this climate, and I take part responsibility for that.

Heffner: You know, Jim, in interests me because over the years we’ve discussed the role of the press, and we’ll get to that…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …and we’re going to do two programs today, and the second will be on next week, and maybe, maybe we’ll get to that then, but I’ve heard you frequently comment what some of your favorite, unfavorite newspapers have been writing. Now you’re, you’re saying that the clergy itself, that the religious establishment…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …itself, has participated in this loosening up movement…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …that has led to this reaction. It’s a rather strange statement to someone as unsophisticated as I am in this area.

Wall: Well, bear in mind of course, that’s the target I’m responsible for. We’re talking about “the” Church right now, because that’s the magazine audience that I feel that I must most directly address, and so I’m speaking, if you will, to my own constituency when I criticize the church leadership. Now, if you want to turn my focus, as I do on occasion to the secular media, I would be happy to do that excessively, also, and I am just saying that the house in which I reside, the Liberal church community, the mainline Protestant bodies, these are the people that I think have really got to come up short and realize that there’s just only so much you can do to push people. I’ve been to so many…now you know what I’ve written and you know the magazine’s view on the importance of equality and freedom for people of the gay persuasion, just for an example.

Heffner: Yes.

Wall: I mean we don’t think that gays should be discriminated against in any kind of way, but every time you go to a church meeting these days, especially a national meeting, there is a militant demand that Gay Rights be pushed forward. Now first of all, that’s just not smart, politically, because you constituency gets uneasy about that. So I’m offended, you see, of my own church constituency at the way in which so much that is important has been overly stressed. And I mention in that piece you were quoting earlier about education. Lord knows the Federal government had to step in in the South to integrate schools, and that was needed because the Southern states which is where I come from originally, Georgia, they were not going to integrate. They had to be forced into it. And that I recognize, and I think we all generally agree to. So we accomplished that, and then we had to force the schools to do some other things. But the first thing you knew, we were forcing the schools to do everything, and increasingly, as the Federal government began to more and more force and impose and require and demand, the result was that it began to take over the local school systems, and the local school systems said, “Now, wait a minute, don’t we have some say in how we educate our children? Must Washington, if you will, tell us how we educate our children?” Then you get a reaction, so that you get the silly business of The Catcher in the Rye being banned by local school boards. See we’re looking here for the golden mean if you will.

Heffner: Jim, you know, it’s interesting, you seem to be saying that the religious community was, you’re not being critical of its religious posture or of its social position derived from religious notion, you seem to be critical of it from a political…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …point of view. Is that…that’s a strange indictment. The religious community was not political. Should it have been political…?

Wall: Well…

Heffner: …at the cost…

Wall: It was…

Heffner: …of not pushing what it thought was right and moral?

Wall: The religious Liberal community was, indeed, very political. For example, it had a lot to do with aligning itself with the Liberal senators and members of Congress to push through Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s. I remember Hubert Humphrey making a speech on the steps of the Capitol, publicly thinking the National Council of Churches for the assistance that they gave him in passing some Civil Rights legislation. This was after he became Vice President, but he referred back to the good days. Now, yes, they were very political, very involved politically, which is really what gave the Far Right the idea, “They got a good idea. You can change things through politics”. I’m just saying that after they made that initial successful step, then they go lousy in their politics, then they began to forget that if you’re going to be political, you’ve got to bring the people with you. So then they began cramming things down our throats, if you will without trying to bring the people along. The Democratic Convention here last summer in this city…

Heffner: New York.

Wall: …New York City…where the Far Left that was represented in the Convention, primarily behind Senator Kennedy, really, really, really pushed and pushed and pushed for platforms, for decisions, for rules that were excessive, by any standard. They just satisfied their need to win little victories, forcing, if you will, the main body of the Democratic Party, and forcing, I regret to say, the incumbent president to adopt things that really didn’t make much sense.

Heffner: Gosh…

Wall: And that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. Their politics…

Heffner: I remember when that was said about Wall…Dr. James Wall.

Wall: Somebody said that about me?

Heffner: Yeah.

Wall: Somebody…

Heffner: …when you were pushing, as an extremist perhaps, when you and, in our support for McGovern, for instance, were pushing the Democratic Party in a direction you thought was right.

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: And moral?

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: And you could uphold in terms of your religious training…okay. When is politics impolitic? It’s the point at which…what?

Wall: You’re talking about…

Heffner: We’re not longer with you?

Wall: You’re talking about 1972 and 1980, you’re talking about the difference of eight years, for one thing. You’re talking about a 1972 Convention that came out of the 1968 Convention, which was oppressively on the other side where nobody had a say-so, where no delegation had anyone in it that could stand up and say, “I’m going to vote a different way than the Chairman says. And the Chairman says, ‘Sit down’.” That’s…no wait…that’s 1968. 1972 corrected that, 1980 over-corrected it. I’m only talking about a process, and I think we simply went too far by 1980, and I, as a journalist, am trying to say, “Let’s watch this. Let’s see if we can’t blow a whistle”.

Heffner: Jim, does it ever become confusing to be both a journalist and politician on the one hand, and a man of religion, a man of the cloth, on the other?

Wall: Of course, I wouldn’t have it any other way and I suppose it is confusing at times for me. I worry at times about what role I’m in, but then I think we all do that. We all have personal opinions about candidates. I used to worry about the fact that, as you mentioned, Jimmy Carter is a personal friend of mine, and I’m very fond of him, and yet I had to write editorials about him. I began stopping worrying about that during the last four years when I saw how many television commentators, and columnists, not only didn’t like Carter but despised him, and I decided that well, maybe liking a politician is not much worse than disliking a politician. We all, as journalists, have a problem of emotion in dealing with the political figures we are dealing with. So, it’s a problem, but it’s a problem we all face.

Heffner: You said…made a comment a moment ago about the fact that the Liberals taught the church how to use politics…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: Or how to be involved in politics.

Wall: Yes, yes.

Heffner: And taught the Right in the church, too.

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: You think that lesson is ever going to be forgotten?

Wall: I don’t know how the New Right will operate. All I do know is that no…recently the 1972, the message out of the Conservative wing of the church was “Stay out of politics. Don’t get involved in politics, you should not speak, that politics and religion are separate”. Eight years later they are helping to elect a President, helping to elect a Congress. They picked up the message rather rapidly. Now, who knows how long they’ll keep it and what they’ll do with it.

Heffner: Jim, if you had been prescient, if you had seen into the future, back a dozen years ago, if you had seen the ways in which your political opponents would latch on to the politicizing of religion, or the injection of religious personnel and religious ideas into politics, would you have done it?

Wall: Oh, yes. Of course. One does what one can do in the circumstance because we don’t know what’s coming down the pike ten years from now. These things were necessary. The church had to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Heffner: Well, then the rest of the…

Wall: The church…

Heffner: …church has to be involved…

Wall: I’m only saying…

Heffner: …from its point of view…

Wall: I’m only saying that the New Right, at the moment, is doing what we helped to each them to do. Now, we’ve got to watch what they’re doing because if they feel that they cannot only elect candidates on narrow…in other words, I think they have overdone already. They’re already single-shooting candidates, they’re already knocking out a man like George McGovern in South Dakota on…on misinformation…on narrow, emotional religious appeals, particularly abortion. If that happens, as it obviously already has happened to some extent, then we are in the negative side already. I don’t think, in other words, the New Religious Right went through a 1972, I think they jumped, if you will, all the way from nowhere to 1980. That is, they became excessive from the very beginning.

Heffner: But they were watching, as you’ve suggested, the religious Left.

Wall: Why sure, they watched and they got the idea, and as you are well aware, the Right Wing secular folk of the country went to Jerry Falwell and said, “Have I got an idea for you. You’ve got the people. You’ve got the appeal. You’ve got the television program. We’ve got the computers. We can get together and we can make this country different”. And the marriage came about.

Heffner: Same kind of marriage that came about before between the Liberal secular community, and the Liberal churching community.

Wall: Same kind, only in initial methodology. Attitudinally, no. Now…

Heffner: Oh, of course not.

Wall: Yeah, because…

Heffner: Right versus left.

Wall: Right versus left, oppressive desire to control versus the desire to influence.

Heffner: But Jim, you, you’ve said before you were concerned about the desire to control on the part of the Liberal Left.

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: Right? Why do you back away?

Wall: Well…

Heffner: …from that now?

Wall: …the Liberal Left, by definition, is not in its best interest desirous of control. By definition the Liberal Left would not want to control. It would only want to influence. Like the rest of it, Reinhold Niebuhr was quite correct. So was the Old Testament quite correct, man as in humankind basically a sinner. So even in the best instincts, the Liberal Left drifts into trying to control in subtle ways. Now, I’m afraid to say the Religious Right believes in control, and it’s a di8ffeent philosophy of how one governs. It’s a different philosophy of how on handles one’s religious point of view, and how one influences society.

Heffner: We…

Wall: The Religious Right thinks it has the answer and it will impose the answer. The Religious Left says, “We have a good answer. We’d like for you to consider it”.

Heffner: Oh, Jim, as I would go back and look through your editorials, I’d find you saying…not…there would not be that shade of difference between your criticisms of the Right and the Left. You were steaming about what the Left was doing to the rest of the country, not just in terms of the reactions…

Wall: Yes.

Heffner: …that they would…

Wall: Well, only because I’m trying to speak, if you will, to my constituency, and say “Hey, we’re on the same team. Let’s be careful how we try and impose on the rest of society our view of the world”.

Heffner: Jim, I think that that’s probably the best point at which we should end this program. Besides, I’m getting the signal that we have to. No kidding, you’re going to stay where you are and we’re going to continue this discussion of religion and politics for the next program. Thanks, Dr. James Wall.

Wall: Thank you very much.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.