Values Voters Summit: Land, Wallis debate how faith influences politics

WASHINGTON (ABP) -- Jim Wallis and Richard Land agree that faith should influence public policy. They just can't agree on how.

The two evangelical leaders -- one conservative, one progressive -- locked horns in an Oct. 19 debate at the “Values Voters Summit” in Washington.

The event attracted conservative Christian voters looking for encouragement, advice and leadership going into the 2008 presidential elections. They heard from each of the major Republican presidential candidates as well as pundits, including talk-radio hosts Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin, National Review Online columnist Myrna Blyth, and conservative virtue-guru Bill Bennett.

It was all organized by the Family Research Council, which supports family values and politically conservative issues.

Wallis and Land exemplified two sides of the evangelical spectrum. Wallis, a best-selling author and head of Sojourners magazine and Call to Renewal, is known for his activism on environmental, poverty and human-rights issues. Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, is a well-known denominational leader who supports traditionally conservative values.

Wallis started the debate by saying he believes common ground on critical issues among conservative and progressive Christians is possible. They just have to make sure their faith trumps their political ideology, he said.

“I am an evangelical Christian who tries to live under biblical authority,” he said. “A fundamental [biblical truth] is the dignity of human life. We are all created in the image of God.”

With that in mind, Wallis urged all evangelicals to work together to “dramatically reduce the number of abortions in America” -- something at which politics has failed, he said.

“We simply must find common ground to actually save unborn lives,” Wallis said, adding that alternatives to abortion, like adoption, could become common ground for the two groups.

But the language of reduction wasn't strong enough for Land.

“We are profoundly offended, and we are horrified that we allow 1.2 million citizens per year to be killed before they've had a chance to born,” he said. “Our common faith as Christians tells us that God never makes a mistake. You may have been a surprise to your parents, but you weren't a surprise to God.”

Wallis, when asked about domestic and foreign policies of the Untied States, stressed the need to address poverty, especially the “deep connection between poverty and race.”

The Bible has more than 2,000 verses that show God's concern for the poor, but neither political party has adequately prioritized fighting poverty, he said.

“We need a new grand alliance where liberals take seriously the healing of families … and where conservatives agree to strategic public investments that actually produce results” for the poor, Wallis said.

The fact that 30,000 children around the world die every day from needless hunger and preventable disease “breaks the heart of God and should break our hearts too,” Wallis said.

“I believe that we as Christians should provide a tipping point against these realities,” he said. “Unless the gospel is good news to poor people, it is simply not the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Land agreed in his concern for poor people but stressed a different way to combat poverty.

“The best way, the one thing that would eliminate more poverty in the United States than anything else, is to reduce illegitimacy,” he said. “If mothers would marry the fathers of their children, that would eliminate more poverty” than any other single effort.

It all goes back to “the transcendent moral issue of our time,” which is the sanctity of human life, Land said. “I want to help poor children, but I can't help them if they're not born.”

Land also spoke about God's “special claim” on the United States. America is not God's chosen nation, he said, but the nation is “extraordinarily blessed.”

God's blessing means Americans have obligations to other countries, he added.

“The only reason under God's sun that people have freedom and dignity anywhere in the world today is because of the armed might of the people in the United States military and [their] courage,” Land said, to loud applause.

In his response, Wallis said national security depends not only on military might but also on the well-being of others.

Prosperity in the United States is tied to the health of the rest of the world, he said. The war in Iraq has undermined America's image around the world and hurt the cause of Christ, he continued.

“We all admit the suffering and violence of Iraq,” Wallis said. “I believe it's time to find a responsible way to end the war in Iraq that protects as many lives as possible.

“Christians should be among the hardest, not the easiest, to convince [to go to war] and we should require the highest burden of proof before military force is approved,” he added.

On the environment, the differences between the two -- and which side most of the crowd took -- were evident.

The only solution to a polluted environment is a “massive” government-led charge toward “clean, safe nuclear energy,” Land said, which prompted loud cheering.

But when Wallis hinted that global climate change is being caused by out-of-control consumption by the world's most affluent countries, the crowed noisily booed.