Religion, Politics and the 21st Century
VTR Date: April 12, 2003
Dr. James Wall discusses the role religion plays in politics and everyday life.
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GUEST: Dr. James Wall
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And when I go back through the annals of this weekly series of conversations with public persons, I find that for nearly three decades now many of the most provocative – and most fun – were conducted with my guest today, Dr. James Wall, a United Methodist clergyman, most of that time the Editor and now Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, long one of the most distinguished religious publications in contemporary America.
Now, that’s not, as you might suspect, because of any traditional religious proclivities of my own, nor even because I love to needle my friend as a “holy roller” while he stereotypes me as a Godless media person … but largely because over the years and our many programs together, Dr. Wall has provided my viewers with such acute observations on the role religion plays (or doesn’t play) in American life, particularly its politics.
Today, of course, with some time for thoughtful reflection after George Bush’s reelection with the staunchest support of his religious base, this subject is uppermost in the minds of many Americans, some pointing with pride, others viewing with alarm.
And just where, I wonder, is my friend, Jim Wall?
WALL: (Laughter) You don’t have to wonder too long. Because I’m viewing with alarm. I’m a part of the mainstream Protestant community and that’s not George Bush’s base.
HEFFNER: What do you mean it’s not his base?
WALL: George Bush’s base is evangelical Protestant, self-declared, born-again Christian community.
HEFFNER: That large?
WALL: Well, let me give you some figures. It’s large. It’s quite large. This time there were 23% of the people who voted in the Presidential election, who so declared themselves to be born-again Christian Protestants. Of the that 23% of the base vote that George Bush had, 78% of them voted for him. 21% voted for John Kerry. When you can start with a base of that size, that dedicated, that emotionally tied together with the President, you’re starting with a very strong chance of winning.
HEFFNER: How in the world, then, in the future, in four years from now, in eight years from now could it result any other way?
WALL: Well, the main stream Protestant churches with whom I am most familiar take the position that the trouble with the base that George Bush built up was that it was so narrowly constructed around a few very precise, emotionally-laden issues … abortion, gay marriage … most particularly, that … we do not think can last. Because religion, at its best for all people regardless of whether they’re in the Bush base or in the mainstream Protestant base, is concerned with more than those two specific issues, important though they are.
Much more is involved in religious concerns, much more about the need for curing poverty, the need for stopping wars, the need for a balanced way of looking at how the government spends its money, not on military matters, but on health care, on education, on things that benefit the citizens. That I think will possibly change if enough people work at making it change.
HEFFNER: But, Jim, a question of fact, and I don’t pretend to know the fact … you talk about mainstream and you talk about George Bush’s base …
WALL: Base … aha …
HEFFNER: … what’s the difference in the numbers?
WALL: The numbers are not clear. But two numbers are clear. George Bush’s base, which is comprised primarily of evangelical Protestants who live in all parts of the country, but concentrated in the rural areas in the Southern parts of the country, and to some extent the urban suburbs. That base is more related to literal Biblical beliefs, in other words they have a theological base that takes the Bible literally. The Protestant communities of which I am one … the United Methodist Church … we have a greater concern for understanding the Bible to be interpreted for the good of humankind and for connections to God. And that’s not quite as moralistic as is the base that Bush is building on.
HEFFNER: Yes, but when you talk about mainstream, and this was really the question I would put to you, when you talk about mainstream, that conjures up for me, at least, and maybe for my viewers, the image, the picture of many more persons …
HEFFNER: … than when you talk about his base.
WALL: Interesting, interesting terminology, because 20 years ago when I really got involved in national politics with Jimmy Carter’s campaign, they were larger in number in terms of participation in political life …
HEFFNER: The mainstream.
WALL: … they being the mainstream. The mainstream would be the recognized denominational groups in the country … Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, Episcopalians … they were the mainstream. They were the people who basically founded this country as a protestant state in many ways. There have been added other denominations, other faiths since.
HEFFNER: I hope we’ll argue that sometime, about a Protestant state.
WALL: Well, I understand you … I don’t mean to say it was a Protestant state, I’m saying the people who founded the country came out of that tradition. But, by the time of the eighties and the nineties, the American religious community began to shift, and it is now definitely shifting in the direction … numerically … numerically … the churches that are growing are the evangelical churches. The churches that are declining are the mainstream churches. No question about that.
HEFFNER: And …
WALL: And a lot of them are either starting with new people to join the evangelical community, because there’s a religiously spiritual depth that they, they reach for … or they’re stealing them from the main churches.
HEFFNER: Well, then, how long, Jim … and this is a needle …
WALL: I see.
HEFFNER: … how long are you going to call yourselves “mainstream” …
WALL: Well, I, you know …
HEFFNER: … making it seem as though Bush’s support …
WALL: Yeah, mainstream is a sociological term … I, I didn’t dream it up, and it’s just the way it’s been described. The mainstream churches versus the more independent, or more traditional evangelical churches.
HEFFNER: And which is in the minority now?
WALL: Well, the mainstream are still the majority.
HEFFNER: How long? How long will …
WALL: I don’t know, it could start shifting seriously because … the United Church of Christ, one of the big churches in this country … I think they showed a decline of from … I don’t want to be called on numbers, but from 1.3 or 1.4 million down to 1.1 and a half, or something, in recent years. It’s just a declining time.
HEFFNER: Well then don’t you see, and perhaps, fear, the continuing growth of what we’ve called the evangelical Christian base.
WALL: I don’t fear the growth of the evangelical base, I just hope that the spiritual zeal that’s found in the evangelical base can be made to broaden out, to include more than just some narrowly focused matters.
Because you know what, what happened in this last Presidential election was a very skillful handling by Karl Rove, who put this whole thing together, to go out and get these evangelicals to get behind George Bush. He taught them how to beat the bushes and get …
HEFFNER: He didn’t beat the bushes …
WALL: He didn’t beat them … and to get to, to get them to use their mailing lists in their churches, to get organized, the way labor unions used to organize and liberal activist groups used to organize and they’re not doing as quite a good job as they should have done, this last time, for Kerry’s sake.
HEFFNER: But they tried.
WALL: They did.
HEFFNER: They tried the same organizational …
WALL: Oh, yeah.
HEFFNER: … techniques.
WALL: Well, it’s the same organizational technique they’ve always used, but it hadn’t been used that effectively by Republicans until now. This is the way, this is the way Rove did it. And he, in order to energize this base, he skillfully picked on the two main religious issues of abortion and the fear of gay marriage. Massachusetts, place where John Kerry comes from, place where Ted Kennedy comes from … all of the negative things that the Bush base feels about the country, can be found in Massachusetts, including the fact that it’s there, in that state that you can legally get a marriage if you are a person of a gay persuasion. And so that … with 11 states … 11 states and I’m sure Rove had a lot to do with this happening, putting on their ballot, in the same election as the Bush/Kerry race, the amendments to, to define marriage as between a man and a woman … 11 states did that, including Ohio … a critical, critical state.
Now when you get people coming out to vote against gay marriage, who will also come to vote for George Bush, they’re motivated. They wanted to vote for Bush, but they may not have bothered. But with this gay marriage vote, they were motivated.
HEFFNER: Okay, it’s been many, many, many years since you were President Carters, or candidate Carter’s, Governor Carter’s man in Illinois and ran that campaign … you predicted many things then, you saw things happening. What do you see happening now, politically speaking?
WALL: Well, I think … unless the Democrats do a great deal of work between now and four years … in the next election … and if the Republicans bring themselves out with a red state, amiable, attractive candidate like George Bush, which is what he certainly was … amiable and attractive, but with all those conservative emotions … the Democrats are going to lose for several times more, until they begin to build up some kind …
The Democrats cannot win, I’ve written this in my magazine, so I might as well confide it to you … Democrats cannot win with a United States Senator. They’ve got to stop trying to do that. And the reason is simple. You go in with a Senator who has had 30, 25, 20 years of …
HEFFNER: Roll calls.
WALL: Roll calls, nuances, you know … “I voted for capital punishment even though I’m against capital punishment because I wanted to put cops on the street”, that was a John Kerry line, in one of his debates when he was running for re-election to the Senate.
Now you know what he means, and I know what he means and he knows what he means … he means that you negotiate in the Senate. But, when you’re running against a George Bush kind of candidate where things are very simple … are you for it or against it … well, that’s not the way the Senate works. You have to be … you, you get things done by negotiating.
I wrote a piece about … in my recent piece about Barack Obama, whom I admire a great deal, is a good friend of mine in Chicago, the new United States Senator from Illinois, in which I said “Don’t try to run him for President after he’s been six years as a Senator, because he’s going to have to make a lot of compromises. He’s going to have to vote for this amendment in order to get this bill passed, and negotiate.” That’s not going to happen. We’re going … we, the Democrats and I, I usually am voting Democratic … will need to get ourselves a red state Governor and somebody that can appeal with all the nuances and the history and the background.
That doesn’t speak well for democracy. I recognize that. Because a Senator does do some valuable things. That’s the way democracy works, but it doesn’t speak well for democracy to say that in the simplistic way in which media handles politics today a nuance does not sell well.
HEFFNER: Well, you say the “simplistic way” and naturally you have to return to your constant battle against the media. And despite your stereotyping of me, you know that I join you in much of that. But it leads me to ask whether the, the media haven’t become a … perhaps a negative, but a very realistic handmaiden of democracy? That what the media have done has been to spell out even more the will of the people. Can you escape it?
I would go back now to our friend Alexis de Tocqueville … and wonder whether majoritarianism, the thing of which we’re so proud, the voice of the people, is, at least approximate, the voice of god. Whether the media aren’t simply pushing, pushing, pushing that nice American idea?
WALL: You mean they’re in favor of that nice American idea?
HEFFNER: Well, they, they’re … I’m not talking about favor, that’s the way they function.
WALL: I don’t know that media has always been as … commercially competitive as it is now … I know they used to sell papers on the streets of New York and one boy tried to outsell the other boy. I mean that’s, that’s been a part of media from the very beginning. But right now the commercialization of our media, especially the television media and radio, has become so obsessively desirous of making profits that they will do whatever they think will sell.
Now whether that means what the people want is another matter.
HEFFNER: Well …
WALL: It’s what that will sell to the public.
HEFFNER: Jim …to sell, somebody has to buy. When you sell counterfeit, someone is buying counterfeit. When you sell nonsense …
WALL: But you …
HEFFNER: … someone is buying nonsense …
WALL: Yeah. Yeah, they’re buying it. But it seems to me you, you’re arguing or suggesting that the public is so shallow that it will buy this stuff all the time. And therefore what the public wants, the media will just turn around and give it to them. And that’s what happens, but it shouldn’t be that way.
HEFFNER: What do you mean “shouldn’t”?
WALL: Shouldn’t …
HEFFNER: What do you mean, Jim … I’m just asking you really to parse …
HEFFNER: … that statement. “It shouldn’t happen”.
WALL: There ought to be a sense of responsibility in the …
HEFFNER: But there isn’t.
WALL: There isn’t … I know that … that’s my concern.
HEFFNER: Because it runs as a …
WALL: Commercial enterprise.
HEFFNER: … democracy …
WALL: Well, we’re agreeing on that.
HEFFNER: All right. Tell me what in our society, and this is not to apologize for or to excuse the media, what in contemporary American society is not based upon the dollar principle, the bottom line principle … anything?
WALL: Well, that’s a cynical conclusion …
HEFFNER: Stop characterizing it, Jim … you’re getting away from …
WALL: I think …
HEFFNER: … having to give an answer.
WALL: I think serving people …
WALL: I think wanting the best for people …
WALL: … the school teacher who stays late in order to take care of someone. The medical doctor who is not as much interested in the fees they receive as they are in curing illness. There are people out there who are not oriented just to commerce.
HEFFNER: I mean …
WALL: But our big institutions are.
HEFFNER: That’s …
WALL: They are.
HEFFNER: … that’s … the point I make so …
WALL: All the big institutions are.
HEFFNER: So …
WALL: So are religious institutions, as well as the …
WALL: So are the religious institutions concerned …
HEFFNER: You want to elaborate upon that?
WALL: Well, you know, they want to have larger churches; they want to have more, more money, more people coming in on Sunday morning. Increasingly “bigness”, “bigness” sells in religion as well as it does in other institutions of this country. Not any deep sense of why they want to be big.
HEFFNER: But, you mean, it sells, or it is a sign that you have sold … bigness, isn’t it more of a sign that you have met what the, the … what the purchase price is?
WALL: Yes, but the bigger you get, the more you sell. So it just continues to, continues to multiply.
HEFFNER: All right … now … return to the James Wall of 30 years ago …
HEFFNER: … what’s … hope is there?
WALL: Well, you know, I was …
HEFFNER: For the future?
WALL: … reflecting on previous programs we’ve done and I remember so well flying in here to New York with the … the week of Ronald Reagan’s First Inauguration and how depressed I was (laughter) over the future. Not knowing it was going to end up being eight years, not just four when Jimmy Carter, who should not have lost, but did … and I remember thinking then, “how can we survive this? How can we survive this kind of anti-Intellectualism?”
That’s one of the things I think we’ve not touched on, but it’s underneath all of this other material.
WALL: How can we survive … it’s not a Conservative emphasis. I admire Conservatives, I admire Pat Buchanan’s Conservatism, by the way, even though his conclusions are not always what I want. Because he thinks carefully about what he’s seeing. But the simplicity of Reagan and the simplicity of the, the Bush Administration, because I said “We’re going to war … we’re going to war”. Because I said it was good idea in spite of all of this foolishness that you now know was not true. It’s a good thing. And the media has agreed to that. The simplicity …
HEFFNER: People seem …
WALL: They seem to accept it.
HEFFNER: … at least not to have voted against him because of it.
WALL: They did not. I understand … he may have lost 2% to 3% according to one survey I saw of the voters who resisted, more for people who were personally affected by losing family members in the war. Or sending family members into harm’s way. He may have lost some votes, but not enough to, to lose the election.
HEFFNER: But now what are you saying … you remembered that day when you came to New York, Ronald Reagan was being inaugurated …
HEFFNER: … and you were doom and gloom.
HEFFNER: Now, are you saying, “but I was so wrong” about yourself? After all …
WALL: No, (laughter)
HEFFNER: Or, are you saying that … indeed, your feeling …
WALL: Things got better for a while …
WALL: … things got better for a while. The sunshine shone again in, in the country. I think we made some progress, but Bill Clinton let me down in certain ways that we certainly know about. And it’s just … this is politics … you, you hope that things will get better and you settle for two-thirds of things being better. And that’s, that’s the way it’s always going to be.
But you’re looking for … and I keep looking for … I found him in Jimmy Carter. I mean, you know my admiration for him is unbounded. Somebody with integrity. Somebody with commitment to the well-being of people. There are people out there waiting to run for office, and we must grab them and encourage them to run and hope they can batter through this media simplicity that forces them to explain things in simple ways.
HEFFNER: Does it make you feel better to beat up on the media rather than to see them as simply another symbol, another symptom of what you’re describing as America?
WALL: You see, the media has so much influence, has so much influence and contributes so much to this simplicity that I beat up on them; they’re out there to be beaten up on because of the … you know, I was sitting at a place for breakfast this morning and, and one of the talk shows was playing and I was obligated … because everybody else was watching it … catch it … and I declare in 30 minutes three fist fights broke out on the people on the stage. You know the show I’m talking about; we don’t need to discuss it. But that’s awful, it’s just, it’s just the sort of … doing that to make money. That’s why the show’s on the air.
HEFFNER: But you see, Jim, I … my concern is that by saying “media” you’re able to focus over here when the picture is so much broader, the concerns … our concerns, your concerns should be so much broader and … you know, doggone it, maybe you have to begin to question the basic political assumptions that we have made for so long about democracy, about majority rule. You think not? You want to just go beating the media people?
WALL: I don’t know of a better alternative, right now.
HEFFNER: I don’t either, but until we stop asking the wrong questions, or pointing in the wrong direction, how are we going to search out …
WALL: Well, you, you … the media is, is … you’re right, it’s a target I work on a lot, but money and politics is another target that people are concerned about that needs to be stopped. I mean the way money shapes how we vote, controls our voting … the people with the money that give it, the people who know how to raise the money that get it; the people who are in the Congress who vote in order to get more money, I mean … money is really corrupting the political process.
HEFFNER: Well we know that John McCain and a few others have made efforts that have not proved … yet …
HEFFNER: … good enough, strong enough. But we know that they intend to make more efforts. What efforts would you make in reference to the media?
WALL: Well, you know, I was just thinking that I should be bringing here a moral base … I don’t have an absolutist solution and the trouble with the evangelical Right Wing that Bush is cultivating is that they have moral solutions that are absolutist. I don’t have absolutist convictions, but I do feel that there are certain religious and moral principles of all various faiths that the media should adhere to. Integrity. Honesty. A willingness to probe when, when authority tells them to do something, don’t become embedded with the military when they go off to war. I think that’s one of the worst things that we’ve had happen to us in this war in Iraq. The media allows itself to “embedded” as it travels into Iraq, which means that everything they see and report on is controlled by the people who are fighting the war.
HEFFNER: Jim, do you … do you hesitate to say that when you expressed your respect for teachers, the educational …
HEFFNER: … grouping … would you hesitate to say that what we are talking about here is the profit-making world and the non-profit making world?
WALL: No, I’m not. Because I’m just thinking … you’re getting me to say bad things about the media …
HEFFNER: What do you mean “getting you to say” …
WALL: (Laughter) But there are so many people valuable in the media that we depend on that, depending upon your point of view, obviously …so that a Molly Ivins columnist, for example … a Maureen Dowd columnist, for example … those, those columnists bring me joy whenever I read them because at least they’re poking at the establishment in a discerning manner, and that I find extremely rewarding.
So, yes, and of course, there are those courageous editors and managing editors and writers and reporters that we don’t hear about except that they finally produce some truths, and they finally produce some digging and they finally refuse to accept things. I mean you get “Chain of Command”, the author of “Chain of Command” Seymour Hirsch, what he did with the New Yorker magazine article which is now in a great book, “Chain of Command” … to review, to reveal Abu Ghraib horrors.
The journalists are out there, but it’s just the bulk of the leadership, the commercially oriented media leadership that bothers me …
HEFFNER: Would you … we only have a minute and a half left, which gets you off the hook … would you yank, pull out, deny that commercial basis for the media?
HEFFNER: Why not.
WALL: In, in a democracy or in a capitalistic society, I don’t any other way of doing it. But I, I just think we need to have a higher ethical standard in the media itself.
HEFFNER: Have you ever said anything different from that?
WALL: No, I hope not.
HEFFNER: No. But where are we?
WALL: Ah, we keep trying. (Laughter) We keep trying. Everybody must do what they can do where they are. That’s my motto; I’ve come to that belief. Where they are, with what they have and do what they can to accomplish what they can under the circumstances. And hope, then, for the best.
HEFFNER: Dr. James Wall, what a lovely way to end the program. Thanks …
WALL: Thank you.
HEFFNER: … for joining me again today on The Open Mind. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.