Faith, Politics, and Paradox: Jim Wallis as Social Justice Prophet

By Laurie Britt-Smith.

Published by The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society

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The United States has a history of reformers who stood at the intersection of religious belief and political action asking, “If you believe . . . how can you accept . . . ?” In a country manipulated to think of itself as divided into a red state/blue state binary, we must ask if there are still individuals who can present a vision of social justice based on spirituality that the majority will respond to and work toward. Drawing from Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination and James Gee’s work on Discourse theory and social literacy, this paper discusses the work of Jim Wallis and how it places him into the tradition of social justice prophet. Giving an overview of Wallis’ core beliefs, it considers where he succeeds in crossing social boundaries that allow his message to be heard and enacted, and where and why that message is blocked.
Wallis is trained and identifies himself as an Evangelical preacher, and his sermonic and writing style/rhetoric is clearly Evangelical in its presentation. At the same time, his message most strongly appeals to those who draw their inspiration from liturgical religious traditions and those who reject organized religion altogether. In negotiating the currents of American politics and religion, he excels at crossing the theological boundaries, but finds his message continually blocked by the political rhetoric attached to American faith identities. To be the social justice prophet he imagines himself to be, he must challenge that rhetoric, not become part of it, to create an alternative vision of society which motivates both the conservative and liberal factions to “locate a moral center that isn’t left or right, but deeper.”

Keywords: Social Justice, Politics and Religion, Faith, Jim Wallis, Social Justice Tradition, Prophetic Tradition, Discourse Analysis, Discourse Theory, Social Literacy Practices, Community Action, Social Reform

The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp.149-158. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 715.095KB).

Dr. Laurie Britt-Smith

Assistant Professor of English/Director of the Writing Program, Department of English, University of Detroit Mercy, Detroit, Michigan, USA

Dr. Britt-Smith holds a PhD in English: Rhetoric and Composition from Saint Louis University and currently is an assistant professor of English at the University of Detroit Mercy where she is also the director of the writing program and writing center. In addition to her work in composition studies, her scholarly interests include cultural studies and the intersection of literacy, identity, public discourse, and spirituality. She is involved in several research projects examining social justice rhetoric, the characteristics of effective movement leaders, and how social justice campaigns have been shaped in the past and how they are being reinvented by the demands of today’s tech savvy audience.