Reaching out just enough to court fractions of your opponent's base without alienating your own, Wallis believes, won Bush re-election in 2004. That's where we were. Tied to that is where we are now -- but to provide a clearer picture, he has to do some talking. On Monday at Gonzaga, Wallis will discuss how liberals and conservatives can create some common ground.
His thoughts come quickly but deliberately, sketching a long road to Democrats reclaiming a bloc of pious but moderate voters that he believes got trapped in the religious right's moralistic wave. "If Democrats win just 40 percent of the evangelical vote," he says, "that's the presidency." It's possible, Wallis believes, despite the drubbing John Kerry took in 2004 -- it's just going to take recreating a dialogue that was squelched before Reagan took office.
Exit polls following the presidential election showed a determined Democratic challenger battered on the rocks of a single set of issues. Of those who believed "moral values" were the most important issues in the election, 80 percent voted for Bush. John Kerry had lost because of his values or, in the minds of hard-line conservatives, the fact that he didn't have any. Wallis believes the poll was flawed, but that, without that 4-to-1 wake-up call, everything that's happened since wouldn't have begun. "If Kerry had won, there wouldn't have been such a clear need for an alternative," he says, the alternative being more a state of mind than a fixed platform.
"[The polls] asked if you voted about Iraq or the economy or moral values," Wallis notes. But his contention is that Christians and other people of faith view all those things as moral values. "The budget is a moral document," he says, in that it codifies those things an administration deems important. "The way Wal-Mart treats its families is a moral issue." By setting the war and the budget and wages as something separate, respondents "interpreted ['moral values'] as only meaning gay marriage and abortion."
The flaws in the poll were microcosms of flaws in the way politicians, both left and right, viewed people of faith. In misunderstanding the underlying morality by which believers approach politics, progressives had alienated believers. Wallis' book, God's Politics, hit shelves on Jan. 1, 2005 -- just days after Kerry's defeat. The book's publication became an event.
"People of faith didn't feel represented by either the religious right or what we'll call the secular left. God's Politics spoke directly to that vacuum," says Wallis. A vacuum being exactly what progressive leaders needed, they leaped at the opening. Wallis became a sensation, guesting on all the cable news shows, providing a salve and a four-year plan for smarting Democrats to reenter a dialogue with people of faith.
It's a long gap for progressives to bridge, but Wallis honestly believes if they go far enough in good faith, moderate evangelicals and social justice Catholics will go some distance as well. "[Believers] are asking about Darfur and sex trafficking," Wallis says, "and our inner cities. They're active participants in creation care, which is environmentalism for the pious."
Wallis believes the things not placed under the umbrella of moral values in those problematic exit polls are foundational to more people of faith than Democrats ever imagined and more than the right ever wanted to admit. "[Evangelicals] still care about the sanctity of life," he says, "but if a Democrat takes a thoughtful stance, they'll listen to that." Wallis doesn't think that has to mean offering to criminalize abortion; instead, it could mean a holistic and inclusive set of pro-family ideals that would reduce the need for abortions without legislating against choice.
Pro-family wouldn't just catch the Dems up with Republicans -- it'd put them ahead. The Republican platform on families is shrill and two-note, says Wallis: pro-life, anti-gay-marriage. The best thing our kids can do, he quips, under Republicans, is stay in the womb: "Once I'm born, I'm off the agenda." Religious voters find this cynical and destructive, he says, but they haven't been offered an alternative.
As important as the issues themselves is the way they're presented. Wallis believes candidates on both sides need to use the vocabulary of faith earnestly, something the 2008 field of Democrats is well positioned to do. "Evangelicals know [Republican candidate John] McCain isn't one of them," says Wallis. He paints a jokey hypothetical portrait of McCain and Rudy Giuliani staring at their watches during church services, paying lip service to the Republicans' traditional base as Democratic hopefuls John Edwards, Barack Obama and even Hillary Clinton participate in expressions of faith that they deeply feel. "The 2008 field reverses the 2004 stereotype completely," Wallis says, believing that's especially true of Obama.
Turning back to those 40 percent of evangelicals with whom Democrats could carry the presidency, he concludes, "My judgment is that a candidate like Barack wins that today." Coming from God's progressive, that's gotta sound, to Democrats, like the Good News.
Jim Wallis will speak about "Creating Common Ground" on Monday, April 30, at 7:30 pm at Gonzaga's Globe Room in Cataldo Hall, 429 E. Boone Ave. Free. Call 323-4069.