In “One Cheer for Jim Wallis” I complimented the founder of Sojourners for his insistence—when pressed on the issue by a CBN reporter—that abortion funding be excluded from any health care reform. I ran into Wallis not long afterwards and he wanted to know why I was being so stingy with my applause. Why, he wanted to know, did he only get one cheer?
I told him I thought it was pretty clear from my article what it would take to earn greater applause. Here’s what I said:
Before we break out the Champaign, pop the corks, and celebrate the return of a prodigal to the pro-life fold someone needs to ask Wallis a follow-up question: What exactly is so morally objectionable about including abortion in health care reform? For example, Wallis has always claimed to be both pro-life and pro-women (whatever that means). Couldn’t his progressive friends argue that including abortion in health care reform is being pro-women? And if he opposed it, would that make him anti-women?
If Wallis’s opposition is truly principled (or “prophetic”) then we can expect Wallis and the Sojourners crowd to offer up a reasoned and articulate public argument for the moral wrongness of including this particular “health care procedure.” We would expect to hear from Wallis and the Sojourners crowd not merely the acknowledgment that other people have moral objections, but an explanation and articulation of Wallis own moral objections. We would expect an argument that informs his readers just exactly why his “progressive” friends are so wrong on this issue and the right wing “pro-life extremists” are right.
In addition, I told Wallis as bluntly as I could, that as far as I could tell his position and that of Sojourners was indistinguishable from the old Mario Cuomo position of being “personally opposed” to abortion while wanting to keep the procedure legal. I suggested that neither he nor Sojourners could honestly be labeled pro-life because, for that term to mean anything, it has to involve advocacy for the legal protection of the unborn. Wallis was equally frank in response. He simply rejected my suggestion that the “legal protection of the unborn” had anything to do with being pro-life. Both of us left that conversation with a clear understanding that Wallis was, quite simply, pro-choice on abortion.
I was a bit taken aback, then, to find that a fellow named Ryan Rodrick Beiler over at Sojourners thinks I have Jim Wallis all wrong. In “Critics on the Left Meet the Critics on the Right,” Beiler disapprovingly cites my “Back to Zero Cheers for Jim Wallis” as an example of how unfair I and other pro-lifers have been to Wallis. Here’s what I said in that post:
Last week almost seventy pro-life organizations signed a letter to Congress asking that abortion be clearly excluded from proposed health care bills. Signatories to the letter included Priests for Life President Fr. Frank Pavone, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, Democrats for Life of America head Kristen Day, CatholicVote.org President Brian Burch, Day Gardner of the National Black Pro-Life Union, and Marjorie Dannenfelser, President of the Susan B. Anthony List. John F. Brehany of the Catholic Medical Association and Christian Medical Association Senior Vice President Dr. Gene Rudd, M.D. also signed the letter.
Guess who is noticeably absent from the list of signatories? Wallis said that the abortion issue should not “doom the chances” of healthcare legislation. He characterized abortion in politics as a “contentious and ultimately unproductive debate” between “simplified and polarizing positions.”
Beiler is particularly unhappy with my preface to these comments. I said that my skepticism about Wallis was based on my observation that Wallis “has become little more than a flack for the Obama administration but also because Wallis has never really been serious on abortion.”
Now, you might think that Beiler would offer up an argument to refute all this. But he doesn’t. Instead, he resorts to a ploy that will be quite familiar to anyone remotely familiar Wallis and Sojourners. He digs up a pro-choice critic of Wallis and then declares that since Wallis has both pro-life and pro-choice critics, he is really a . . . a what? A “moderate?” A prophet who has attained a “higher plane,” or who has embraced a “third way,” between “polarized positions?”
Beiler calls our attention to a Mother Jones article, “White House Religion Adviser Trying to Hijack Health Care For Anti-Choice Cause” by Adele Stan. According to Stan:
The Rev. Jim Wallis is sitting pretty these days. He’s the evangelist the media love—so much so that Democrats kow-tow before him. He says he’s progressive, and has some credentials to back up the claim: anti-poverty work and opposition to the Vietnam War. But he’s opposed to legal abortion and same-sex marriage. Nonetheless, eager for an evangelical partner, President Obama named Wallis to the President’s Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, giving Wallis the ideal platform from which to try to subvert the debate over health-care reform for his anti-choice cause.
Let’s leave aside the disputable claim that Wallis is opposed to the legalization of same sex marriage. Why would Stan think that Wallis is “opposed to legal abortion”?
[T]he recent discovery and dissection of a 1996 pro-life statement, “The America We Seek: A Statement of Pro-Life Principle and Concern,” by the journalist Frederick Clarkson, suggests otherwise.
Clarkson traces the connection between the statement, signed by Wallis, among others, aimed at making abortions more difficult to procure and current “common ground” strategies for “abortion reduction.” The statement, signed by major religious-right figures like James Dobson, was also signed by proponents of the Come Let Us Reason Together abortion-reduction strategy, including Wallis and Mercer University Christian ethics professor David Gushee.
Well, there you have it. Wallis tells me point-blank that he is opposed to the legal protection of the unborn. But, on the other hand, he signed a very pro-life letter back in 1996. Beiler concludes from all this that the confusion is entirely our fault. Stan is confused because he thinks Wallis is a stalking horse for James Dobson, the National Right to Life Committee and all the other pro-life signatories of “Come Let us Reason Together,” while I am confused because I have this crazy idea that Wallis, while “personally opposed” to abortion does not want to legally impose. It evidently has not occurred to Beiler that Wallis and Sojourners might be the cause of all the “confusion.” Maybe, just maybe, the confusion has something to do with Jim Wallis speaking out of both sides of his mouth.
But then, I may be entirely mistaken and overly harsh. Maybe I misunderstood Wallis, in which case I would be more than happy to apologize publicly for tarring him with the “pro-choice” label. In which case, Wallis could clarify matters easily enough. Here, I simply can’t improve on the remarks of one Sojourners reader commenting on Beiler’s article:
Prolifers criticize him on substance and prochoicers criticize him based on superficial rhetoric. Is this the ‘higher plane’ he has reached?
It would clear up a lot of this confusion and would make people like Adele Stan feel a lot better if Wallis was just more honest about his beliefs and repudiated the statement he signed years ago that he obviously no longer agrees with. Did he ever agree with it? Doubtful. . .
That’s something Stan and I could probably agree upon.
In the meantime, is it too much to ask Sojourners and Wallis to tell us whether or not they agree or disagree with the recently released letter to Congress authored by the three Catholic bishops leading the Church’s efforts on health care? They don’t seem to think that health care legislation is “abortion-neutral,” and have warned “we will have no choice but to oppose the bill” unless current bills are amended.” Can we expect Wallis and Sojourners to join the bishops in opposing the bill unless they are ammended? Or will they dodge the issue and proclaim they are on a “higher plane,” or embracing a “third way.”