Visiting Professor, Wake Forest University School of Divinity and Nonresident Senior Fellow in Governance Studies, Brookings Institution
Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations
Melissa Rogers, visiting professor at Wake Forest University Divinity School and nonresident senior fellow in governance studies at Brookings Institution, and Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, discuss political polarization and the role faith communities can play in protecting democracy.
GROSS: Good afternoon and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy webinar series. I'm Rivka Gross, program coordinator for the Religion and Foreign Policy program, filling in for Irina Faskianos. The webinar is on the record and the audio, video, and transcript will be made available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. We are delighted to have Melissa Rogers and Jim Wallis with us.
Melissa Rogers is a nationally known expert on religion and American public life. Her areas of expertise include the First Amendment's religion clauses and the interplay of religion, law, policy and politics. Ms. Rogers is currently a visiting professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity and nonresident senior fellow in global governance at Brookings Institution. Previously, she served as special assistant to President Barack Obama and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and as chair of President Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Ms. Rogers has also served as the director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at the School of Divinity, as executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and associate counsel and general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. She is the author of two books and most recently co-authored a report titled, “A Time to Heal, A Time to Build,” on how the executive branch should approach religion and civil society in the next administration. Ms. Rogers has been recognized by National Journal as one of the church-state experts politicians will call on when they get serious about addressing an important public policy issue.
Reverend Jim Wallis is a globally respected writer, teacher, preacher and justice advocate. He is a New York Times bestselling author, widely recognized public theologian, renowned speaker and regular international commentator on ethics and public life. Reverend Wallis is the founder of Sojourners, which is both a magazine and Christian community in Washington DC. And he is the author of twelve books, including America's Original Sin and God's Politics. He served on President Obama's White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and has taught faith and public life courses at Harvard and Georgetown University. Welcome, Melissa and Jim. Thank you very much for being with us today.
Melissa, we were hoping you could tell us a little bit about the effect political polarization has on the American religious community. And in addition, can you share what you know about efforts that faith leaders are making to support fair elections?
ROGERS: Sure, thank you, Rivka. I really appreciate the opportunity to be on this call with you. And thanks to the Council on Foreign Relations and Irina, as well as my colleague, Jim, and of course, everyone who's joined the call. So political polarization is a problem for us right now, including in the religious community. And I'll just mention three factors that are prominent in this polarization. One is, of course, a geographical sorting. Increasingly, Americans are living in like-minded political communities. And that tends to have a reinforcing effect on our views and also attends us to make more hostile toward views that are not shared. And we've seen this impact or a factor take place in religious communities as well. Whereas we used to have more of what we often called “purple houses of worship,” meaning houses of worship that included people that are both Republican and Democrat, red and blue in other words, thus making purple, increasingly, we see houses of worship that are more red or blue and not purple. So that's had an effect. Also political party sorting that's related, as well. There used to be more liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Now we see less of that and that has created more of a partisan gap. And as religious conservatives have become an important force in the Republican Party, we have also seen an effect where the proportions of Americans who don't identify with a particular religious tradition has skyrocketed, and those people have become a part of the feature in the Democratic Party. So here we have kind of religion and partisan loyalties sometimes reinforcing each other, and that is also contributing to polarization.
In addition, we've seen religion used as a partisan tool, increasingly, and that not only has kind of a toxic effect on religion, but also politics, and we have to deal with that situation as well. Of course, in a factor that won't surprise anybody is this kind of what's often called “ideological siloing,” where we're not tuning in to shared media anymore, but rather to media sources that reinforce our own views, and including social media, that reinforce our own views. And, of course, this is true of the religious community as well. And all of these factors are kind of contributing to what Arthur Brooks calls a "culture of contempt," where we not only just differ with one another, but we actually have disdain for one another. And that is a regrettable effect of this polarization. And indeed in this report that Rivka mentioned, that E.J. Dionne and I wrote with recommendations for the next administration on religion and governance, we said that large groups of Americans currently fear that the triumph of their opponents will render the country unrecognizable and inhospitable to their deepest beliefs. Now, religion is only one dimension of this coming apart, but it's a significant dimension because it is part of our deepest divisions.
And if I could, I wanted to just read you two sentences from the report that sort of give some specificity to this fear. We say, "Consider how these issues often present themselves: One side fears that marriage equality and Roe v. Wade will be reversed and that Americans will be denied basic health care, commercial goods and services, and government-funded benefits based on an individual's gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity. The other side fears their government will brand them as bigots for their religious opposition to marriage equality, close their colleges and universities, press them to engage in activities that violate their consciences and strip their institutions' tax-exempt statuses because of their beliefs and practices."
So you can see there the fears of at least two sides of this divide. And there are many divides, of course, and you can see how it is creating a great anxiety about the election and what will come out of the election. And I should also mention that, as you could hear in those specific statements, religious freedom has become polarized deeply as well. Whereas it used to be more of a force that binds us together, increasingly, as my friend Tom Berg says, it is itself an engine of polarization.
So what do we do about these things? We have our work cut out for us, of course, and in our report, E.J. Dionne and I recommend a number of steps that the next administration can take to heal some of these divides and reduce the polarization. And when I say next administration, we refer to whoever is going to take the oath of office in January. And we recognize that a president can't heal all these divisions and can't change the dynamics instantly but can take certain steps that will help us including recognizing that the weaponization of our divisions is not good for the country and needs to be addressed. And that the next administration can give people who did not vote for that administration some degree of comfort by indicating that their views are being taken into account and that the president is going to be the president for all Americans.
Also, we recommend that the next administration do something that the Bush and Obama administrations did very prominently, which is issue a call to community service, and to service, whether it's the pandemic, the economic recession, or systemic racial injustice, that we call on all of our communities, religious and non-religious, to immediately begin to work with the government and with one another to attack these problems and to build bridges across our differences and to bring about a greater measure of justice for everyone. And so we say that the task really begins with respecting everyone's dignity and recognizing that we truly are very far apart right now. And we need to do what we can to rebuild bridges toward one another.
Let me mention something that's going on right now that is helpful toward that end that some of you may be aware of. There have been some letters, including some letters that include leaders of faith-based communities and some that are wider efforts by civil society leaders, to say that we need to have free and fair elections. What does that mean? The letter signers, that include people of many different ideological perspectives, many of whom are probably on this call, who signed this letter, talked about the fact that we need to be able to cast our votes without interference, suppression, or intimidation. And that we all need to make sure that happens, that every vote needs to be counted, even if that takes a little longer this time than it normally does, and that leaders of all stripes, including government and non-governmental leaders, those in the civil society, in other words, need to ensure that we're imparting accurate information and not whipping up fears and trying to make sure that we are helping to make our passage through this election season as constructive as it possibly can be. And that, of course, leaders should accept the official election results and work to keep peace and ensure that there's not violence at the very worst point that we might expect from the election.
So those are some of the very good efforts that are happening with the help of many people on this call and including my colleague, Jim Wallis. And I just want to thank everybody for joining in for caring so deeply about, if they are people of faith, their faith, and all of us about our democracy and the health of our democracy, and a pledge of working toward a better situation in the next four years than we've had in recent years in terms of political polarization. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Melissa, and sorry to be late joining the call. It's good to see you both, and I'm taking over for Rivka. Jim, let's turn it now to you. You've stated that race is the most important religious issue in this election and that 2020 is a test of democracy and faith. So can you elaborate on your thoughts?
WALLIS: Well, just to agree with most of what the chair of the advisory committee I was on, so I like it when she's my boss. And she was very eloquent there about the polarization. Everything she says is so true and so dangerous. But I do want to bring the central element of race to this polarization. After the election in 2016, I remember saying right after that this is all about race. And I was really pilloried by many people who said, no, it's not. Well, the data now shows that it was and is. Let me give you a hopeful sign because people of faith are supposed to look at where hope is. So there's a sermon, I always look for good sermons, right. There's a sermon out there that gives me a lot of hope. In states where governors are literally trying to suppress early voting, I see long lines of people stepping up, standing up, driving a long way, waiting in line for a long time with record turnouts that we haven't seen before. And when I first saw that in Georgia and Texas, and they were standing there, I think, not despite voter suppression, which was happening, or even voter intimidation, which is now threatened, but because of it—because of it. They were standing up in line determined not to move.
And I just tweeted out that that reminded me of the first free and fair election in South Africa. Because I was involved in that, it felt like that to me. My tweets don't always get a thousand likes in twenty minutes, and forty thousand in twenty-four hours, and ten thousand retweets. I like to say they did, but they don't—this one did. There's a sermon out there, people are standing up, who understand as Black pastors, and parents tell me every day that this is a life and death election for them. When asked why they say the future and safety of their children. Now, in response to sermon, an altar call has gone out. This is my evangelical tradition. The altar call is clergy are showing up at the polling places. We've had this plan for over a year. "Lawyers and collars" we call it. Lawyers there to protect legal rights. The clergy with collars—Christian, Jewish, Muslim—alongside to protect threatened voters from intimidation. And this for us isn't a partisan issue or even a political issue, it's theological. I've had conversations with election officials in all these states where we quote Genesis, myself and a Black bishop, we quote Genesis: "And God made all humankind in God's own image and likeness." That's relevant to when you target votes to be suppressed because of the color of their skin. This is a throwing away imago Dei, the "image of God," or racialized policing. This isn't just political, this is theological. And so we have lawyers and collars in nine battleground states led by Black clergy and white allies. And clergy are coming to be chaplains at the polls. And even more will come after—I got a video last night from Steph Curry, an NBA basketball player, who's calling out young pastors to come to the polls. So really even more young pastors.
So this is really about whether there's going to be a "we" going forward in this country. Who's going to be the "us," who's going to be the "we." And the fact that we are moving from a white majority nation to a majority of minorities is underneath everything in this election, because I don't think we've ever committed ourselves in this country to a genuine multiracial democracy. And that's what this election is finally about. Now with that, I talked to some George Mason students on conflict resolution yesterday. And I said, when you're talking about a change this big, a genuine multiracial democracy, it's going to create conflict. It's going to create conflict. And Jesus said blessed are the, He didn't say peace lovers, He said peacemakers. Conflict resolvers—we're going to need a lot of conflict resolution, it's overcoming polarization. It certainly is that, but the polarization is deep. And Melissa is right, it's because we are separate from each other. We are racially geographically divided, purposely. Because as a Little League coach—I'll tell you, when moms get together and talk about the future of their kids, kids that I've coached, their hopes, their dreams, their fears, it's a bonding thing. It doesn't cross racial lines in this kind of country. How do we come together and understand who each other are as human beings made in the image of God? This is deeply theological. And media outlets are trying to prevent us from seeing that. And it isn't just the last several years, this administration is running on division. They're running on division because their core campaign tactic is running on division. And so that's what's at stake in this election. And it has everything to do what is being polarized, which is polarizing humankind over race and culture. So a lots at stake in this election and the country's feeling that right now.
FASKIANOS: Thank you very much. And now we'll will turn to all of you for questions and comments. So you can click on the participants’ screen at the bottom of your desktop to raise your hand there or click on the "more" button to raise your hand in that context. And we have the first, I'm going to take the first question from the chat from Reverend Canon Peg Chemberlin. "Melissa, do you see interest in each party for this work? Do you see national religious leadership embracing the report and developing work related to it?"
ROGERS: Thanks, Irina. You want to go ahead and answer? Yes, so my friend, Peg Chemberlin, who also served with us on the Advisory Council that Jim was referencing earlier. So thank you, Peg, it's great to hear from you and we appreciate your work always. So I can tell you that while we were working on the report, we reached out very widely to people who worked for past Republican administrations and past Democratic administrations, people of different ideological and religious stripes, and we felt like there was a real hunger on the part of people to try to work together and become less divided than we currently are. It was also the case, we saw real differences and imported differences over policy. But we heard at the same time the hunger to try to work together and listen to one another and that there is a number of pieces where we actually find common ground. And especially since we're before the Council on Foreign Relations meeting today, I wanted to emphasize all the common ground that we have on foreign policy issues, including about educating our diplomats so that they have better religious literacy when they go to work, and ensuring that we promote religious freedom around the world. We can't often agree about religious freedom at home, whether we have school vouchers or a governmental display that might include religious elements, but we can agree that what's happening to Uighur Muslims in China is a travesty that we must stop. So there was a lot of agreement reflected in the conversations in the report, and I hope that it will trigger many more conversations that will enable us to find more common ground even as we deal constructively with our differences.
FASKIANOS: Go ahead, Jim.
WALLIS: Melissa describes common ground so well and that's true. I've got all kinds—what we're facing right now is not Republican or Democrat. It's not conservative or liberal, left of right. There are real differences, genuine differences in democracy about many of those things with which we can find common ground. And Melissa and I have seen that happen again and again. I was on a call last night with evangelicals about the election, and there were evangelicals there who had been Republican their whole lives and who care about the issues that she was talking about. But they're speaking up and standing up now because they don't see that. There's all kinds of people from all kinds of traditions that have legitimately different views and different perspectives. But we're facing a call to division. This is a campaign based on division that makes polarization even more dangerous. I'm having to raise no matter what forum I'm in these days because that's what we're facing now. And I think the report is brilliant, by the way, just brilliant. You should all read it. It talks about how people who the Clinton, Bush, Obama administrations—Republicans and Democrats their whole lives—how they can find common ground. But are we looking for common ground? Are we trying to find common ground? That's the question here. And I think a lot of us want to but the danger of the polarization—we're living in different universes in this country where people aren't talking to people different than them. They're not even watching or listening to the same media sources. When I say what do you think about this or that, they haven't seen that. They haven't even read that. And if they knew where it's from, they wouldn't even pay attention to it. So we're at a place of being deliberately divided. And we're already, because we're human, full of divisions anyway. And with the report that Melissa and E.J. did, it’s almost a roadmap for how to bring us together. But we have to embrace roadmap of trying to find common ground amid all these polarized differences.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let's go to Razi Hashmi, and please identify yourself and unmute yourself.
HASHMI: Hi, Irina, Melissa, and Jim—great to be here with you. I am a CFR term member and foreign policy professional. So my question is related to not just the report, but also the elections and politics. So those on the left are often painted as being anti-religion or at war with religion, but in fact, there's a large and vocal religious contingent to those on the left. So whether it be Muslim, Jews, or those from other, maybe dharmic traditions. And so what advice do you have for those that are on the political left to really have conversations about religion? And especially when the other side typically has a very restricted, either Judeo-Christian kind of perspective on things, and how do we broaden the dialogue to ensure that all faith groups, and those that don't believe anything, are part of a conversation to focus on the problems facing America. Thank you.
WALLIS: You're describing the class I've got in three hours at Georgetown, all those people. It's called, “Faith, Race, and Politics 2020.” And they're from all our traditions, or no tradition, or even people who have left traditions or even call themselves agnostics on their most hopeful day, and yet we're having this conversation about how the faith factor, or how our different traditions or different moral sensibilities can bring us together across these ideological lines that Melissa was talking about. And I see it, it's my most hopeful time of the week, every week to see these young students who are finding the value or the spiritual value that can really transform politics, the faith factor. Ideologically, we're just so divided. And Melissa and I know people on the Hill who won't even talk together about any of this. Is there a way to go deeper than politics? I say don't go left, don't go right, go deeper. How do we go deeper on these international issues that you're speaking of that there is a lot of? But internationally, people are terrified of what's happening in this country. That's what I hear all the time, about the polarization and the moving apart from each other.
So this issue of division and what it means to bring people together is the very heart of our politics. We've got to go forward, we can't go back to normal. Normal wasn't good for a lot of people, people of color. Normal wasn't good before this administration. So we'd have to go back to better. How do we get better? And I think Joe Biden's trying to figure that out, too. I don't think he can solve all the answers by far, but we need a door opener to a better conversation. And the report that Melissa co-wrote is one of those great roadmaps. But how do we get to a roadmap? We're throwing out the roadmap. Part of this country is throwing out the roadmap to a common good. It's saying we're going to vote for who we hate, despise, and have no relationship to. Relationship is what brings people together, time and time and time again. We've been structured out of relationship geographically, media-wise, and certainly racially. We've been deliberately divided from each other. And until we overcome that division, the roadmaps won't even be read.
FASKIANOS: Melissa, do you want to add to that?
ROGERS: I'd just add really quickly, I do think it's a problem that sometimes religion is not seen in more progressive communities. And it's there, it's just not recognized, including by the media. And so we need to hold people accountable when they're not recognizing all the people of faith on the progressive side. And including, sometimes religious liberty claims are thought to be just the province of the conservatives. And if you look, you see nuns and Native Americans protesting events, pipelines running across their property because that's a religious problem for them or protesting over a border wall being built as one Catholic diocese did because they object to the border wall for religious reasons. So it's very important to highlight these things. I think journalists play an important role there. And I think, as we're thinking about how to work on these issues, language is so important. And we developed several sections in our report to language and how it's mistreated oftentimes. For example, people will say things like, well, the debate over LGBTQ rights is between religious people and LGBTQ people, entirely missing the point that many LGBTQ people are themselves religious, not even to mention the allies of LGBTQ people who are religious, and that there are arguments on both sides here that are made by religious people and sometimes inflected with religious freedom concerns. So part of our task is to work on our language so that we communicate better and hold media outlets responsible for doing better in terms of reflecting the realities that we live in.
WALLIS: Very quickly to underscore that point and your question, Razi. The core of the Democratic Party are African-American women. That's the core of the Democratic Party. The most religious population in the country, by far, and yet, when Democrats are reluctant to talk about religion, they make a big mistake here. So it's really a mistake for the left to be reluctant to embrace. Melissa's right, I'm with faith all the time who are in those protests and marches and struggles. And we're all over the place. And the Black churches have been the core of social movements in this country for a very long time—deeply people of faith. So how we get over this bifurcation and the whole, and when they say evangelical, I said last night on the broadcast, they mean white evangelical, because if you talk about Black evangelical—Black churches won't use evangelical because it has that taint of white evangelical. But Black churches are very evangelical, theologically. And so there's a whole conversation about faith that Melissa and E.J. are inviting us to, what does it mean to have faith. And let's not be afraid of faith, but let's make sure that faith is shaping our politics from traditions. And people of no faith at all have to be in this conversation. So this is a great, wonderful conversation that young people are ready for. A new generation is ready for a new conversation about how faith can help us going forward into genuinely a multiracial democracy.
FASKIANOS: Great. I'm looking at lots of questions here, both raised hands and in the chat, so I am overwhelmed with it. Tom Walsh talks about, "Can you comment on what it's like in the pews in the churches given the polarization, what's the pastor to do? Speak what they believe is trust to power or try to stay abstract and voice general principles? Are individual churches and temples fractured, do believers turn or tune into their MSNBC church or their Fox News' church." And somebody else also put in about, Whitney Bodman about the "call to come together sounds like a pie sentiment, a great idea, but without legs—since we're so siloed, where do you see the opportunities, the places where this can happen? My church, for instance, is solidly Democratic. We preach inclusivity, but God forbid, a Republican can walk through the door." So if you might want to pair those two?
ROGERS: Yes. So first, let me express my appreciation for all pastors and clergy. You carry a heavy load, and I have never been called to the ministry, and so I cannot adequately appreciate what you do, but I want to say thanks to you because I think it is really a challenge and it's becoming more so. I think, and Jim can speak more to this, it's very important, of course, to preach what God has laid on your heart and to preach words of justice, I think, especially today, when there are so many injustices that we see around us, including, most prominently, racial injustice and, hatred of other people and fearmongering of other people. I guess I think that in all these issues, they're going to be some places where reasonable minds are going to differ, but there's so much that we can unite around just to get started around saying no fearmongering on factors like race, religion, and ethnicity. That's not only un-American, it's at least against my religious tradition. And are we going to hold our elected leaders accountable for those kinds of things? Are we going to hold them accountable for not endangering the lives and the very safety of our fellow Americans? I think that's something we can come around very strongly all together. And then they're going to be issues where we differ. Sometimes, in my experience in the church, the best time to deal with the issues where we differ is in small group settings, where we engage one another in conversation and real listening, back and forth dialogue, so that we can correct each other when we're misunderstanding things. So that would be some suggestion.
How do we find common ground? I think we sometimes try to find common ground on too big of an issue, and instead we should be splitting off smaller issues to build trust. So for example, when Jim and I and Peg were on the Advisory Council under President Obama, we couldn't agree about whether certain issues of non-discrimination and taxpayer funding when they flowed to religious organizations. But we could agree, despite those disagreements, we could agree that social service beneficiaries, people who are getting federally funded social service benefits that are struggling need their rights protected. And we could add protections to ensure that no matter your faith or beliefs, that you're never turned away from a federally funded provider of social services, and we could agree on that. And that meant something. So I think looking sometimes for other issues, smaller issues, as places to start that are significant and of themselves and can be trust builders as we move forward is one way to think about it.
WALLIS: I've had megachurch pastors say to me, I only have my people if I'm lucky for an hour and a half, two hours a week. And Fox News has them 24/7—I don't have a chance. And then, there are other places where a sermon can sound like an MSNBC white paper. So how do we get beyond that? How do we get beyond our partisan, political, ideological polarization? For example, the fear question that Melissa talked about, so the mom of one of my staff was in her choir one morning practicing for church and the choir director says a prayer at the end before church and she said, "Lord, protect us from those caravans of immigrants that are coming from the South and full of drug dealers and rapists and leprosy," which I didn't see much leprosy there, and the mom said, "Wait a minute, we don't talk that way about of fear in this church. We talk about what it means to welcome our neighbors."
So getting back to the core issues of our faith, big and small, the small issues are important. But I want to say I spoke to a bunch of pastors a few weeks ago. I said, "Every week, all our pastors should say that white supremacy is anti-God. Anti-God, period. And antichrist. That's just the truth. And we have to say that in the middle of a conversation like this. And what does it mean for churches to then implement that in the way they relate one to another after this election? And so I want to say getting back for me as a Christian, it's what did Jesus say? And did He mean it? There are questions He asks, like who's my neighbor? And the Good Samaritan parable, which He used, suggests clearly the neighbor is the one who's different than you. That's what the text says—different from you. So loving our neighbors, with no exceptions, becomes a spiritual issue and also deeply a political one for this time. So pastors are in the middle of this because they're in politically polarized congregations. So how do we bring them back to the faith traditions of their people? I would say, love your people enough to preach the gospel to them. And I think that's what we're facing right now.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let's go to Bawa Jain. And please unmute yourself.
JAIN: Good afternoon, everybody. As good to see you, albeit virtually, Jim, after a long time. It's been a while since we met together. And hearing you all gives me some encouragement. But I'm wondering whether the people that we have on the call today are already the converted? Are we preaching to the converted? My question here is that I go back actually to Reverend Dr. C.T. Vivian, God bless his soul, who said to me, he says, "Bawa, we thought the days of segregation are over." Boy, were we wrong. I say this because when other people of faith, we know by all conservative estimates that 90 percent of our country follows one faith or the other, right? These religious leaders are uniquely equipped with a pulse of the issues in their own communities, yet, we are afraid to engage them. Why is media not covering the kind of things which you are telling us? My question is, can we move from all the papers that have been produced, I have nothing against them, I have great respect to building this into a movement that every common person on the street understand these issues and say, this is beyond what each ideology is left or right, red or blue. We are the United States. What can we do to make this a global movement? This is a time—time is ripe for this. What can we do?
ROGERS: So, I would just say, I thank you for your comments because they illustrate the pain and the fact that we want to be in one place and we are yet in another. And that pain has been certainly very much present for me in recent years. And so what do we do to overcome it? And I think it's going to take all of us putting in a lot of very intense effort. I know so many on this call, this is what you're doing. I'm preaching to the choir. But this election season has provided, and I think the aftermath of the election season, should provide us with opportunities for us to even take what we're doing to the next level, have conversations. I know it's prompted me to have conversations and reach out to people and devote more of my time to this than I ever have in the past because it is that essential. And because truly, lives are at stake. We have people who are being—their houses of worship are being attacked and set on fire. And they are being bullied and knocked down in the street simply because of the way they practice their faith. That is beyond, beyond, unacceptable. And so it's prompting, I think, a lot of us to take it to a new level and to do things that frankly I haven't done in the past, which is to engage people who I know are in my circles who disagree with me, including family members, and have those conversations for the first time in my life. That's been painful. But it's also been something that I feel like I cannot avoid. So I'm hoping that all of us, I think all of us are having these feelings on this call. And it's a question of can we share what we're learning and what we're doing and do things that are unprecedented for us and maybe even a little painful for us because the alternative is unthinkable.
WALLIS: Bawa, you're right, when you raised the tough question. A lot of us have been doing endless Zoom calls like this, all these past several weeks. But I don't know if these calls are getting to anybody who hasn't already decided how they're going to vote when, realistically, we're often preaching to the choir. So I was preaching to a big church in Charlotte, actually predominately white church, but very progressive church, on issues like race. And I said, "They say I'm preaching to the choir here." And the place was full of it and they all clap. I said, "Well, yeah, you're the choir." But good does it do if the choir stays in the choir loft? This choir ought to get outside this church, cross the sidewalk and get into the streets, because the choir has to just not sit there and feel like they're so righteous, and the others are so wrong, which is how we do this again and again. We have a serious—polarization is a way to describe it—but it's division. Eddie Glaude says we're in a quiet Civil War. Now, Melissa referred in her opening remarks to the danger of this becoming not so quiet. No matter how the election turns out, divisions aren't going away. This election won't be solved by a candidate or a vaccine. This is a polarization that goes very deep. And so the choir has got to get outside of the choir lofts and do what Melissa is saying. What does it mean to really listen and talk to people, even at Thanksgiving dinners, who are very different than us? That's going to be facing us no matter who wins this election. These issues aren't going away.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to go next to Tereska Lynam.
LYNAM: Hi, thank you so much for taking my call. Can you reinforce some ideas that we individually can go following on from your comment, Jim and Melissa, your opening comments? What energetically can we do as individuals for the days and weeks and months following the election, both if it goes our way and if it doesn't go our way? And how can we individually heal our families, our friendships, our communities because they are so fractured, and we do have so many different information points. Thank you so much. Have a great day.
WALLIS: Let me start with the days—five days. This election must be free, and fair, and safe. And all of us have to respond to the altar call, if you will, to make it so. That is so crucial because this election going one way or the other will be decisive in what we're facing going forward. And so I've got to do everything I can with lawyers and collars and Black clergy and their white allies to make sure these votes are all protected and counted. There's now the threat of voter intimidation, which we've never seen before. Like we have now real chaplains trained at the polls and for events afterwards to do what they do if conflict breaks out. So that's crucial.
But then the day after or the week after, who knows how long it will take to resolve this election, where we go forward is crucial here. And it's got to be very practical. We need concrete changes in the systems in this country. And I love it when I'm home with my boys and they and their friends every night talk about how to refound, as Eddie Glaude says, the third founding of this nation. The nation has to be refounded all over again. And that's the opportunity but the danger is going back to—literally we have our best angels in this country and our worst demons. Our best angels and our worst demons. We have our best angels and ideology often covers that Melissa does so well to explain. What are our best angels here, but we have our worst demons. And right now what's being appealed to is America's darkest side. Our worst demons and those demons have to be defeated. This is in my tradition, we call it "spiritual warfare." That's what's going on here. And so how do we get through that and understand that going for we got to change our ideological, partisan, party identities and ask what are our deepest and best angels or values? And how do we build on them going forward?
ROGERS: Yes, I would just add, I agree with all of Jim's comments. I think that it is very important to remember the power of your voice. Never underestimate the power of your voice, including with your elected representatives. I think that it's too often we think that, well, it's just me, I wouldn't really make a difference. And I sound like your eighth-grade civics textbook. But I've been on the other side of government working in government and see how when a person raises their voice and writes that letter, calls their office, says to their leaders, I expect better from you and I am watching you and I am telling you that this is unacceptable what you're doing right now. On the flip side to praise them for something good that they have done. That matters. It sends ripples and it matters. So please, I hope all of us will be saying, if we see our elected representatives going the wrong way, including things as awful as dehumanization of people, that we will, or spreading lies and conspiracy theories, or encouraging or inciting violence, even if unintentionally, even if the remarks are just flirting in this direction, we can't have that right now. And so I think holding everyone accountable, raising your voice, you can't take that for granted. Please do that. And know that we also have to hold our own side accountable. Dehumanization is not okay if it's done by somebody that we voted for. We have to then go to them and say, wait a minute, your language here is scaring me and you need to retract and do better. So all those things are very important in addition to all the things Jim mentioned.
FASKIANOS: And just to follow on somebody asked, it's not just about doing things individually, what should we do as the church or the synagogue or whatever you're— the mosque? What should we be doing as a body?
ROGERS: Well, I'll throw in a couple—go ahead, Jim, did you want to go?
WALLIS: Just to underscore what Melissa just said, your voice, every one of us is an influencer. When we look at influencers and say—I'm not them, they don't listen to me, I can't do anything. Everyone on this call has circles of influence. And when you trust your voice, the way Melissa's saying, that to quote a chat here from the comments, gives legs to what it means to bring us together. So in the synagogue, in the congregation, in the mosque, we need to trust our voices with our fellow congregants, with our clergy. Our voices, each of us has influence, so don't get off the hook by blaming other influencers. There's a lot to blame there, for sure. But each of us has influence so where we have a voice, use it, and use it in ways that are risky. You're afraid to speak because you don't know what other people are going to think. A lot of pastors are afraid. To use your voice means to take some risk, it means to trust your voice, trust your values, trust your faith, and use your voice even if that is risky.
ROGERS: Yes, I would say one easy thing for, and hear I'm speaking mainly to white, predominantly Christian churches, is to reach out to congregations in your city or neighborhood that are different, whether they're predominantly African-American Christian churches, whether it's predominantly Hispanic, or whether they are Jewish synagogues, or mosques, or gurdwaras. Those of us who do not feel threatened for the practice our faith every day, cannot adequately appreciate how our neighbors are feeling threatened merely for practicing their faith every day. So one easy step and you can work on your own through congregations, or you can work with something like the Know Your Neighbor coalition organized by my friend Gurwin Ahuja or the Multi-faith Neighborhood Network organized by Jim, excuse me by Imam [Mohamed] Magid and Bob Roberts, two good friends of mine, who help congregations and religious leaders come together across religious difference, and racial difference, and ethnicity differences and protect each other's lives and rights. That small step of reaching out to other congregations and say, we want to make sure that you feel comfortable in this neighborhood, that you feel safe. What can we do to help you? That can be one simple task that any church could do.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, I'm going to take a written question from Salam Al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council: "How do you suggest we counter the rise of religious nationalism, which is racializing religion? It's popping up in other parts of the world and also here in the U.S."
WALLIS: Well, there is a growing movement; the Washington Post had a story about it just this week. A growing movement of Christian nationalism, even called "patriot churches" in this country. It's the worst of that white evangelical heresy, which is what it is, that puts the nation first. And there really is no difference between Christian nationalism and white Christian nationalism. I mean, this is something that that is seen and felt by so many of our brothers and sisters of color, and who are really watching what happens in this conflict in these days and this election. To go back to what Melissa referred to, I'm a white Christian. I'll say that. Or even a white evangelical at its best. However, what is the operative word in that phrase? Is a Christian? Or is it white? Is it evangelical or is white? That's going to be really revealed in powerful ways in these next few days. And a whole lot of Black pastors and church leaders tell me that if racism isn't a deal breaker for white Christians, they're not sure they want to work with those white churches anymore. And I'll tell you, a whole generation of multiracial young people are never going back to church, if, in the end, white and American and nationalism overcomes what our traditions that we all know, say. And so this election is a test of democracy, it is that. It's also a test of faith, the integrity of faith going forward. Not just who wins the election, but what people will think of us as people of faith, particularly, as white people of faith going forward. But that's really all at stake now. It goes past the election, but this election is critical to defining a context and a framework for how we're going forward.
ROGERS: Yes, I just throw in a mention of a project run by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty where I used to work. They've got a project called "Christians Against Christian Nationalism.” And that is also a productive effort that is trying to tackle these issues in a constructive way.
FASKIANOS: There is a question from Mark Brinkmoeller: "In the book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam and his collaborators relate that their research shows that when political beliefs clash with theological beliefs, we here in the United States more often change our theological position to conform. What does this suggest about the state teaching or formation of U.S. religious bodies?" Melissa, do you want to go first?
ROGERS: Sorry, yes, I was on mute for a minute there. So I believe, and pardon me, I had a minute where I could hear what you're saying, but I believe it was about we're too apt to change our religious beliefs to fit our politics. Is that it?
FASKIANOS: Right, it was based on Bob Putnam's book.
ROGERS: Okay, yes, I think that's a good caution. And my friend Mark Brinkmoeller, I want to thank him for chiming in, he's another person working in these fields very intently and productively. So yes, we have to have people hold us accountable. One of the things that I think is a very productive, practical suggestion of many, including Arthur Brooks, is that we have friendships, we have close friendships with people whose politics differ somewhat than our own but share the same faith tradition. And that we try to hold each other accountable for things that we see that don't add up in the other person's perspective. So in preparing for this report, for example, we had a very good conversation with Peter Wehner, who has different political leanings than I do but is also a Christian. And so I think having those conversations can point out blind spots that we have in our own approach where we might be missing something theologically that we ought to be paying attention to and making sure that we're not letting politics control our fate.
WALLIS: I wouldn't normally lift up a podcast that I do in a webinar like this, but it goes right to Mark's question. Every time I do it, like yesterday, I said, this is a podcast for people who think that faith should shape their politics rather than the other way around. And the other way around is what happens, as Mark is suggesting, all the time. Mike Gerson, for example, Peter Wehner's best friend, Mike Gerson and I once did a poverty caucus, we had chief staff, legislative staff from Republican and Democratic sides work on ten poverty issues that need solutions. They had to be faith people from different sides of the political aisle. And Mike and I were amazed at the creative solutions that they came up with to these ten serious poverty problems. But when we began to start this poverty caucus, none of their principals, none of their bosses would enter in, because it meant talking with and working with the other side. I mean, these policymakers found answers instead of just finger pointing and blaming, they found solutions, and nobody wanted to hear them because of the party fighting on both sides. So that's why the faith factor could be really crucial here. And I want to keep raising that—what does the faith factor mean in our polarization and our division, in particular. All of our faith traditions talk about how we're being brought together as all of us made in the image and likeness of God. I go right back to the first book in the Bible, right there.
ROGERS: And could I just really quickly, Irina. Thanks, Jim, those were great comments. I remember that project very fondly and well. One of the things that both Jim and I are saying that I don't want to be lost is that both of us insists that people of all faiths and none are equal Americans, and that we should be defending each other's rights. And that's another divide that we need to extend our hand across that divide because religious people care about religion and non-religious people care about religion, because religion ends up affecting them. And so how do we go to bat for each other's rights to make sure that all the differences that we have to bridge are done, or that we do so, and that we defend everybody's equal dignity and infinite worth no matter of faith, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and more?
WALLIS: And young people are looking to who's defending the rights of others. That's what young people are looking toward. Who's doing that?
FASKIANOS: Great. And the final question I may take is from Thomas Uthup, "What is the role of media in spraying division versus unity?
WALLIS: Melissa, go ahead.
FASKIANOS: And how do we hold them accountable?
ROGERS: That's a biggie. And I hasten to add, I could name quickly a bunch of journalists and media outlets who are doing a marvelous job in this space. But then we also have those who are not doing so good of a job. And unfortunately, a lot of newspapers and media outlets have recently, over the past few years, cut the person that they had looking at religion and public life. And so then you'll have somebody who's not as practiced in these issues covering it, and they wander into any number of errors. So we just have to be very vocal. I mean, I know Jim, you have this experience, there are all kinds of times where I see things that are wrong in journalistic accounts. And I just contact the person and I would say nine times out of ten, I get some result out of that. Even a headline change, something that was misstated, corrected, a relationship with a reporter that makes a difference the next time. So I think sometimes we are too passive. And we just don't do that. It shouldn't be just a few people who are doing that. It's everybody who picks up their paper and see something wrong or tunes in and says, here's what's wrong, listen to me. And I would say nine times out of ten, you're going to get a better result. And that's worth working for. So that's it. Those are my thoughts.
WALLIS: Well, messaging is crucial for us going forward. And media and politics always see the value in bifurcation, in binary choices. And in conflict, they're looking for conflict. Melissa and I often look for people who are talking about how Christians, Jews, and Muslims are coming together on things. And there's all kinds of stories all over the country—amazing stories. The media never covers those stories. It likes to cover the conflict. We got to, in some ways, we have to create our own media. I'm all for calling up those reporters and trying to help them see a different world. But the messaging, in the faith we have our own messaging, we have our own outlets, we have our own publications, we have our newsletters, and I want to see our messaging be different and better and not just rely on huge media outlets that really are defining what to do by profit, despite some of the best reporters I've ever seen in the media. So a whole new generation of reporting has to happen. And I think people have faith have to be part of that, and say, we're going to change the message here. The message here is Jesus says the truth will set you free. And we're in bondage to media that is based on things that just aren't true and making us even not believe there is truth. That's even the deeper problem than the lies. Those who want to say there is no truth, so just trust me. That's what strongmen always do. And that's we're facing again.
FASKIANOS: Well, thank you both, for today's terrific call and to all the rich conversation that was going on in the chat and raised hands. I'm sorry, we couldn't get to all of you. But we'll have to continue the conversation in the wake of the election. So we encourage you to follow Melissa and Jim. You can follow Melissa on Twitter @melissarogers and @jimwallis. So those are their Twitter handles. We put in the chat a link to the report that Melissa and E.J. Dionne co-authored. And we'll share that in a follow up email as well. And please follow our Religion and Foreign Policy program on Twitter @CFR_Religion. We'll be holding more of these webinars in the coming weeks. So again, thank you, Jim and Melissa, for today's discussion. We appreciate it. And everybody, vote. Vote for sure. Stay well and stay safe and we hopefully can preserve unity or encourage unity in the wake of the election, regardless which way it goes.
ROGERS: Thank you, Irina. Thanks, Jim. Thanks, everyone.