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Obama's spiritual advisor visits Rice

By Ellen Liu     10/6/11 7:00pm

The Baker Institute hosted Reverend Jim Wallis, the president and CEO of Sojourners magazine and a spiritual advisor to President Obama, on Thursday, Sept. 29. In front of an audience of students, faculty, staff and general public, Wallis discussed the roles faith and morals play in politics and democracy.

Wallis started the presentation by talking about how he wanted to communicate the meaning of faith to people and renew their beliefs.

"I've met a lot of people who say things like, ‘I lost my faith because of TV preachers, pedophile priests and White House theology,'" Wallis said. "I've built my life on religion and really want to clear up the confusion about what it means to be a person of faith."

Wallis added that he especially enjoys talking with teenagers about their personal definition of faith and is pleased to see that at least half of his audience is under the age of 25 at many of his presentations.

Wallis then discussed the political initiatives and actions necessary to bring about social change in today's environment. To have a significant impact, systems, structures, habits, attitudes and behaviors must be changed first, Wallis said.

"You can always see congressmen in D.C. with their fingers in the air, testing the wind," Wallis said. "All great leaders know that you must change the wind – and not just one wet-fingered politician – to change the nation."

Wallis added that religion could be a powerful tool in motivating policy change, and in fact, many of the passages in the Bible address how politics affects social justice.

"Religion has no monopoly on morality, but no social movement has succeeded without religion and faith at the core," Wallis said. "Separation of church and state does not mean the segregation of moral values from public life."

However, the political sphere views religious evangelists as intellectually-flawed people who want to take over the country, while the general public sees them as only involved with topics like abortion, Mormonism and homosexuality, Wallis noted. He said religious people were actually raising other very political issues, like poverty.

There are over 2,000 verses in the Bible about the poor, Wallis noted. He said he and a friend once took a Bible and cut out every passage that mentioned poverty, and when they were done, the book was full of holes. Philanthropic organization World Vision heard about this and decided to adapt the idea into the "Poverty Bible," in which all references to the poor are highlighted. \

Wallis said it was necessary to form a circle of protection around those who are most vulnerable in society and added that when the government makes taxation policies regarding the deficit, the poor should be exempt from them.

"I am for reducing the deficit, but how you do that is a moral issue," Wallis said. "Don't choose to cut those who can't defend themselves."

Additional issues that will probably be discussed during the upcoming presidential election include the existence of a social contract and the characterization of a society as "good" or "bad," Wallis added.

"The battle ahead for us will be seeking common good in an age of selfishness," Wallis said. "Young leaders would be integral in forming a new political ethic that comes from their own moral compasses."

After his talk, Wallis fielded questions on topics ranging from hunger to population control. The dialogue was moderated by Professor of Sociology William Martin.

Though many organizations worked together to bring Wallis to Rice, he was initially invited by Danny Cohen, a member of the Baker Institute Student Forum. Cohen, a Lovett College sophomore, introduced Wallis before the talk and said the reverend had always been a hero of his. After attending a BISF meeting as a freshman, Cohen decided to invite Wallis to Rice.

"I thought [Wallis] was the perfect person to talk about religion and politics on a campus that usually avoids both conversations," Cohen said.

Cohen said bringing Wallace to campus was a long and tough process that involved price negotiations and ten months of fundraising.

"Fundraising was definitely the most difficult part," Cohen said. "I contacted over 50 potential donors and had to call and email innumerable times to ask for financial support and ensure that all the funds promised for the event would make it to the Baker Institute."

Cohen eventually raised enough money from 25 donors of differing backgrounds and religious traditions and worked with the Baker Institute to book the venue and plan all of the logistics.

Cohen said he enjoyed Wallis' presentation and believed the reverend raised important questions and articulated a concrete vision for society that everyone could work toward together.

Martel College sophomore Naomi Wong attended the talk and said she agreed with what Wallis said about religion's ties with public policy.

"Sometimes a perspective that was initially rooted in religion will actually benefit society as a whole," Wong said. "I think something that Christians don't always realize is that politics and religion are not as separate as they think."

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