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2005-04-26

God’s Politics: Frist Fights Filibuster on Judicial Nominees in "Justice Sunday"

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Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist delivered a taped speech Sunday at an event called "Justice Sunday: Stopping the Filibuster Against People of Faith," in which he again threatened to ban Democrats from filibustering Bush’s judicial nominees. We speak with preacher activist Jim Wallis, author of "God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It." [includes rush transcript]

The battle over President Bush’s judicial nominees reached new heights this past weekend. Senate Majority leader Bill Frist delivered a taped speech in which he again threatened to ban Democrats from filibustering Bush’s court nominees. While the Republican leader’s rhetoric was the same, it was the venue of his address that grabbed national headlines.

The speech was part of an event organized by Christian conservative groups called "Justice Sunday: Stopping the Filibuster Against People of Faith." It was held at a packed Baptist church east of Louisville, Kentucky and was simultaneously broadcast to churches around the country, as well as to 61 million households.

In his speech, Frist threatened again to use what is known as the "nuclear option,"–changing Senate rules to ban filibusters of judicial nominees.

Democrats have said they would retaliate by bringing most Senate business to a halt. But now, the Senate’s top two Democrats–Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Minority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois said for the first time yesterday that they would consider a compromise in which some of the seven stalled nominees would be confirmed and the others withdrawn.

While Frist didn’t mention religion in his speech, others who were headlining the event did. Charles Colson, head of Prison Fellowship Ministries, said filibustering of court nominees is "destroying the balance of power, which was a vital Christian contribution to the founding of our nation."

Religious groups and Democrats said Frist should have played no role in the heavily promoted broadcast which they say inappropriately brought religion into a political debate. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said the move, "Clearly argues that people of one viewpoint have God on their side and all others are faithless."

Frists speech comes as a new Washington-Post-ABC News poll finds that Americans are opposed to changing the Senate rules by a 2-1 margin. Meanwhile, the group, MoveOn.org, says it will finance TV commercials criticizing the rule change and organizers will hold 120 rallies around the country on Wednesday, including one in Washington with a speech by former Vice President Al Gore.

  • Jim Wallis , author of "God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It." He is a founder of the Sojourners Community and editor of Sojourners Magazine.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined in our firehouse studio by Jim Wallis. He’s author of God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get it. He is founder of Sojourners Community and editor of Sojourners magazine. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JIM WALLIS: Thanks, Amy. Great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. So let’s talk about this event that took place on Sunday called "Justice Sunday," and Senator Frist’s participation, the Senate Majority Leader.

JIM WALLIS: It was pretty amazing. You know, I have looked through my Bible, and I can’t find filibuster anywhere. I really looked hard. But it’s not there. A bit of historical perspective, after he was arrested once, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a very famous letter from a Birmingham jail to white clergy who opposed him, and it was about racial segregation and violence against black people. Never once did he say they weren’t people of faith. He challenged their faith. He wanted them to go deeper with their faith, but he never said my opponents are not people of faith. That’s what they’re saying. Now, if King wouldn’t say his opponents weren’t people of faith over racial segregation and violence, how can the right do this over a filibuster? There’s something crossing a lot of boundaries here.

AMY GOODMAN: What really is the big deal? It’s their opinion versus yours.

JIM WALLIS: Well, I think it’s fine for people to bring their moral conviction, even their religious conviction in the public life. King did that. I do that. The religious right does that, but when you say those who oppose us, who have a different view, are not people of faith, or Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said during the campaign, you can only vote for George W. Bush. Now they’re saying you must also agree with all of his judicial nominees. Now this is really the hijacking of religion. It’s making it into a partisan wedge and a weapon to divide us, not a bridge to bring us together. This is really the abuse and misuse of religion. We’re having these town meetings across the country disguised as book signings. And what I’m learning is people are tired of the monologue of the religious right. And the good news, having been to the East and the Mid-West and the South and even Texas and the West, is the monologue of the religious right is now over. And a new dialogue has finally begun.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, isn’t it at the height of their power?

JIM WALLIS: Well, it’s interesting because they’re in the White House now. So you can say, yes, it’s at the height of their power. But more than ever before, it’s almost like the rise of the non-religious right, which isn’t much of a name for a movement, but that’s what I’m sensing and feeling all over the country. So a lot of people are saying, wait a minute, the way faith is portrayed in the election, in the media, and invoked in the White House isn’t my faith. I’ve got faith, too. I’ve got moral values, too. They don’t speak for me. So, a lot of other people are saying, I want my voice to be heard, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: This event that took place just this Sunday, filibustering people of faith, took place in Louisville, Kentucky. You were there that day.

JIM WALLIS: Well, there was another service, a counter-service. 1,200 people showed up on about a week’s notice. And that’s what I’m finding all over the country, packed churches, to say, well, their faith isn’t our faith, and the monologue doesn’t represent the dialogue we now need to have. So, it was lots of energy in the room. Good preaching, good choirs. And people said, wait a minute, I don’t agree, and they can’t say this. One guy from Kentucky said, he said, I have been an evangelical Christian my whole life. Imagine my surprise when I woke up and found the newspaper saying I’m not a person of faith. Imagine my surprise. It was great — a great event to say, wait a minute — because someone doesn’t agree with the judicial nominee or a Senate procedure, you know, filibusters have been used for good and for ill. But, my goodness, this is not a theological matter here. So, they’re really overstepping, they’re overreaching. Last night, we had a debate. I was on with Dobson and Moler.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who Dobson and Mohler are.

JIM WALLIS: Well, James Dobson, the head of Focus on the Family, one of the organizers of this event, and Albert Mohler be the president of the Southern Baptist Seminary, also one of the planners of this event, and they’re already beginning to back off, which they should. We never said this is not about people of faith. What they said, this is a filibuster against people of faith. They said that the Democratic Party is hostile to people of faith. That would be news to Barack Obama, for example, who is a deeply Christian person, member of a black church the south side of Chicago. So, this kind of rhetoric is really getting very old for a lot of people. I have often said when people steal your faith in the public realm, it’s time to now take it back.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read you the beginning of a piece that was in The New York Times a couple months ago, New York Times Magazine. "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush" by Ron Suskind. And it says, "Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and treasury official for the first President Bush told me recently if Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting November 3. The nature of that conflict, as Bartlett sees it, essentially the same as the one raging across much of the world, a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion. Just in the past few months, Bartlett said, I think a light has gone off for people who have spent time up close to Bush, that this instinct he’s always talking about is this sort of weird messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do. Bartlett is a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian republican who has lately been a champion for traditional republicans concerned about Bush’s governance. He went on to say, this is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all, they can’t be persuaded, that they’re extremists driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he’s just like them. He goes on to say, this is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts. Bartlett went on to say, he truly believes he’s on a mission from God, absolute faith like that, overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence, Bartlett paused, then said, but you cannot run the world on faith." Can you talk about that?

JIM WALLIS: You know, religion is being used by some to provide us with what we really long for, which is a kind of easy certainty. But the better use of religion is to provide us a deeper reflection. For example, if we can’t see the face of evil on September 11, I suppose we’re suffering from some kind of a post-modern relativism or something, but to say they’re evil and we are good is bad theology. Jesus said don’t just see the log in your adversary’s eye, but also the one in your own eye. So that kind of bad theology, they’re evil and we’re good, leads to bad foreign policy, to preemptive, unilateral and endless war. Fundamentalism exists in all of our religious traditions, and the antidote to it, I think, is prophetic faith. The answer to bad religion, I think, is not secularism but better religion. So, how do we talk about a prophetic faith? In my Christian tradition, I want to talk about Jesus. How did Jesus become pro-rich, pro-war and only pro-American? It doesn’t make sense. And yet, that’s what we’re faced with. So, really, a rescue operation is what I think is required now, to take back our faith from those who have made it into a kind of a political weapon and a wedge. The religious right is the political seduction of religion. The religious right was the idea of the political right. They created it. There were meetings. Republican political operatives, TV preachers, a deal was made. Give me your lists. I’ll make you famous. It was a Faustian bargain. But what happens is when the progressives concede the entire territory of religion and values and faith to the right, then they get to define it however they want to, and they have in this very narrow, partisan, ideological way. So that’s what I want to take back here.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Reverend Jim Wallis, and we’ll be back with him. He is author of God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get it.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest in the studio is Reverend Jim Wallis. He’s an evangelical preacher, a founder of Sojourners magazine more than thirty years ago, and has a new best-selling book out; it is called, God’s Politics — Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It: A New Vision for Faith and Politics in America. I bring up best-selling, Reverend Wallis, because — I mean, you’ve been doing this over three decades and — What is it? Suddenly this has caught on? I mean, at a time when people are saying that the right is in control, the religious right is at its height, your vision of religion, secular religion, has caught on?

JIM WALLIS: You know, it’s almost because of their success a lot of people are saying: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I’m a person of faith, too, and they don’t speak for me. I was on Meet the Press with Jerry Falwell and he said one of his usual crazy, outlandish things, and I just looked at him and I said: "Jerry, when you say those things millions and millions of American Christians want to say to you, say to the nation: You don’t speak for me." And I felt — I almost felt like the millions saying: "Yes! Yes! Yes!" And all across the country, we just packed houses every night because people — It isn’t about a book. It’s about a desire to have their faith heard, too. Their voice heard, too. And you know, we’re — Religion doesn’t have a monopoly on morality. Never has, never will. But we’ve had in our history progressive, prophetic movements of faith that have fueled every major social reform movement, abolition of slavery, child labor law reform, women’s suffrage, of course, civil rights. To take back that prophetic faith when we need it right now, is something people are very excited about.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you see the invasion and occupation of Iraq?

JIM WALLIS: When I was on Jon Stewart he said: "You want to apply the teachings of Jesus to politics?" And I said, "Yeah. And I don’t think his first two priorities would have been a capital gains tax cut and the occupation of Iraq. You know, the truth is, and the media never told the story, that every major religious body around the world was opposed to the war in Iraq except our American Southern Baptists. The Pope was — The Pope is hardly a liberal religious leader, but he shook his finger at George W. Bush in the Vatican. The White House didn’t get the photo op they wanted that day. This Pope was against the war in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet this hardly got that kind of attention from the media.

JIM WALLIS: No, it didn’t at all. And I was stunned because I’ve never seen such a unity among religious leaders around the world. In fact, every evangelical group around the world, even in our allied countries like the U.K., they were all against the war in Iraq. And yet that never got reported here. Tony Blair met with a number of us before the war, at the run-up.

AMY GOODMAN: You met with Tony Blair?

JIM WALLIS: With Tony Blair, five American church leaders. The President — President Bush — would never meet with any of us who had questions about the war in Iraq. There was a powerful — The majority of Christians around the world were opposed to the war in Iraq, because by any criteria, this was not a just war.

AMY GOODMAN: And so what do you think needs to happen right now, and what about the situation for Muslims in this country?

JIM WALLIS: Well, you know, there will never be a resolution in Iraq until the American occupation is over. The American occupation is not the solution; it’s the problem. And, you know, there’s a — You know, Reza Aslan who’s got a great new book out called, No God But God. He’s a young Islamic scholar. He was on Jon Stewart just this past week or so. He says there’s a big battle internally going on within Islam. It’s not the clash of civilizations, like Samuel Huntington says, the West and Islam. It’s within Islam, fighting for the hearts and souls. I feel that way about my Christian faith. We’re fighting for the heart and soul of our traditions against a fundamentalist sort of takeover that really wants to take over all of them, and then a prophetic faith which is the counter to it. So, in every religious tradition there’s a prophetic, progressive tradition stream, energy movement flowing; and I’m finding young people all over the country who want to join that. They want to sign up. They want to be part of a move — They want a — Faith does big things. It’s supposed to change the things that no one else thinks can be changed. The things that have no hope and the odds are against us. That’s why we have faith. Three billion people living on less than two dollars a day. That’s a big thing. Thirty thousand people, children, dying every day in a silent tsunami because of lack of clean drinking water and lack of food. That’s a big thing. These are the big things faith is supposed to change. Instead, we’re debating filibusters.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Reverend Jim Wallis. He has written God’s Politics, a new book, but he has been the editor of Sojourners magazine for many decades. Can you talk about the founding of _Sojourners_magazine, why you did it in early 1970s, and the difference between the climate then and the climate today?

JIM WALLIS: I was fresh out of the movement. I had been kicked out of my little evangelical church at 14 over the issue of race, and I joined the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. And I came back, really, to Jesus. I find Jesus the most radical historical figure I’d ever known, and I was captivated, converted, by this radical Jesus, who turned the world upside-down. So I went to seminary. I found a different kind of religion there than I had found in the gospels. We started this thing and we said, you know, we want to be as radical — try to be — as Jesus was, and so, we started this. At first it was aimed at movement folks like us; and it attracted all these Christians who were tired of a private faith (either just me and the lord, not the world) or a very kind of reactionary right-wing faith. And so, we began this movement a long time ago. It’s been like speaking in a stadium without a microphone. You can reach a section at a time. We’ve been going around the country and we have a serious constituency. But now the time has come that the microphones are now open to a different kind of voice. So, now the right doesn’t have the monologue anymore. And it’s — it drives them crazy. There’s a dialogue now and they don’t want — they don’t know what to do with that. So, we’re going to have a serious debate with the religious right about what faith means and with the progressive side. You know, the right gets it wrong because they want to narrow all the moral values issues. There’s just two: abortion, gay marriage. That’s it. You know, what about 3,000 verses in the Bible on poverty. Fighting poverty is a moral value. Protecting the environment, otherwise known as God’s creation, that’s a moral value issue. And as you said, the ethics of war. When you go to war, how you go to war, and whether you tell the truth about going to war. These are profoundly religious matters. The left, I think, needs to recover its own progressive history, its heart and soul, its moral vocabulary and not give the right that whole territory of religion, values and politics. We can’t ever do that again. That was a mistake.

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