For the Taking the Lead series, we asked leaders in various fields to share insights on what they’ve learned and what lies ahead.
When Kyle Meyaard-Schaap was in high school, a quote from the Rev. Jim Wallis was emblazoned on the wall of his English classroom: “God is not a Republican or a Democrat.” Today, the two men are leaders in the movement to expand the political imaginations of American evangelicals. Though evangelicals are known for their strong support of former President Donald J. Trump — most polls showed around 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for him in 2020 — and an array of conservative causes, a vocal cohort includes many who find their faith directing them elsewhere.
Mr. Wallis, now 74, was raised in what he described as a “very evangelical” family in Detroit, where his parents were lay leaders in a Plymouth Brethren church. He attended an evangelical seminary outside Chicago but was drawn to the radical student politics of his era, and quickly became one of the leading figures in an energetic politically progressive wing of American evangelicalism. That movement — anchored by Sojourners, the organization he founded and led for 50 years, before leaving in 2021 — enjoyed a heady decade until the rise of the Moral Majority and the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, when evangelicals became a reliably conservative voting bloc, which they remain today.
That forced Mr. Wallis into the role of opposition leader, a perch from which he has tried to turn the American church’s attention to issues including racism, poverty and, more recently, voting rights. He has written 12 books, has been arrested 25 times for civil disobedience, and was one of a small group of pastors President Barack Obama turned to for prayer and counsel in the early years of his presidency.
Mr. Meyaard-Schaap, 33, was ordained as a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church in North America and serves as the vice president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, a ministry that seeks to mobilize evangelicals around environmental issues. He was previously the national organizer and spokesman for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, another group devoted to mobilizing young evangelicals on climate issues. His book, “Following Jesus in a Warming World: A Christian Call to Climate Action,” will be published by the evangelical InterVarsity Press this month.
The two leaders came together for a conversation, conducted in November over a video call, about collaborating with secular leaders, talking to Christians about climate change and capitalizing on being, as Mr. Wallis put it, a “critical minority.”
Mr. Wallis was speaking from his office in Washington, D.C., where he is the founding director of the Center on Faith and Justice at Georgetown University, where he is also the chair of faith and justice at the McCourt School of Public Policy. Mr. Meyaard-Schaap joined the call from Grand Rapids, Mich., where lives with his wife and two young sons.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
How did you settle on the issues you’ve devoted your careers to?
JIM WALLIS For years I was a student activist but not a religious person. We organized, marched in Washington, marched to the Capitol there in Lansing and then were attacked by right-wing groups and all of that. I guess I never quite got shed of Jesus, even though I left the church and they left me. I was studying — like everybody else those days — Marxism, anarchism. My conversion text was the 25th chapter of Matthew, called the “It Was Me” text. “It was me,” Jesus says. “I was hungry, it was me. I was thirsty, I was naked, a stranger, sick, in prison. How you treat them, the least of these, is how you treat me.”
That was more radical than Karl Marx and Che Guevara. And so I signed up.
KYLE MEYAARD-SCHAAP I grew up in a pretty conservative Christian home. I never really remember calling ourselves evangelicals. But I do remember this overwhelming assumption of ideological and political sameness. When I was in the fifth grade, it was during the 2000 election between Bush and Gore, and we did a mock election at the school where everybody wrote down their choice for president. All day, none of us could pay attention to any of the lessons. The vote came out to like 96, 97 percent Bush, 3 percent Gore. And everybody said, Who the heck voted for Al Gore? It was just inconceivable that a Christian could vote for Al Gore.
RUTH GRAHAM Was it you?
MEYAARD-SCHAAP No, it certainly wasn’t!
You know, we recycled. But if the truck didn’t pick it up at the curb, I don’t know if we would have done that either. I don’t remember derision, necessarily, around climate change or environmentalism. Growing up, what I mostly remember was silence.
I had an older brother whom I respect a ton, three years older than me, who studied abroad in New Zealand at a Christian program called Creation Care Study Program. He came back totally transformed. The climax of his transformation was, soon after he came home, he announced to my Midwest family that he was now a vegetarian because of the choices he had made. And that went over as you might expect. To my parents’ eternal credit, they didn’t quite understand it, but they wanted to and they worked to understand it.
That sent me reeling, because I didn’t know anybody like me who had ever made that choice. I had a caricature in my mind of people who were vegetarians. They were throwing red paint on fur coats on the weekend. So it was painful because I needed to either suspend my own assumptions and change the way I thought and change my assumptions about the world, or write my brother off as one of those people that I thought was crazy.
And, you know, thanks be to God that my brother was patient and generous in bringing me along. And he was kind of the first person that helped me understand that his choice to become a vegetarian and the other choices he made after returning from that experience wasn’t him rejecting our Christian faith and the Christian values that have been instilled in us. It was him living more deeply into them.
WALLIS The parallel here is there were particular relationships that were transformational.
How have you brought faith into activist spheres that are largely secular?
WALLIS The left wants to say the answer is to become more and more secular, leave religion. I think the answer to bad religion is better religion. It’s our faith, [Kyle] and I were raised in it, and we didn’t just become liberal, lefty, secular. I would say more than ever, the future is going to be leaning into faith. With secularism and dying churches, it’s going to be only those who lean into a deep passion — I would say radical faith — only that will survive.
MEYAARD-SCHAAP I think you’re right because, like you said, the far left says to reject religion. I think the far right says the opposite: Lean into an unquestioning faith, lean into this particular version of faith, which is more cultural than theological or spiritual.
WALLIS My students are very weary of hearing me say: “Don’t go left or right. Go deeper.”
How do you persuade secular leaders to make room for religion?
MEYAARD-SCHAAP Particularly at [Young Evangelicals for Climate Action] we were doing work with mainstream environmental organizations. And my experience, almost to a person and to an organization, was eagerness and acceptance. I think a lot of those organizations recognize that they’ve done a really good job mobilizing everyone that they can mobilize. They built the biggest choir loft that they can build with the kind of messaging that they have and the kind of people they are trying to reach out to. And if we’re going to build a coalition that’s actually big enough to accomplish what we need to accomplish on climate at the speed and scale that the crisis demands, we need to build a bigger choir loft.
WALLIS I agree with that entirely, but I would add: We’re not going to win just with a political message. There has to be a moral underpinning. There has to be a spirituality to social change. All the great movements in our history in this country have had faith movements as animating cores. There wouldn’t have been a civil rights movement, period, without the Black churches.
How do you talk to Christians about climate change?
MEYAARD-SCHAAP So much of what we try to do, especially at the Evangelical Environmental Network, is talk about environmental protection and climate action in a way that resonates with the values that are important to evangelical Christians.
A lot of the mainstream environmental messaging often unintentionally communicates to more conservative folks, more theologically, politically conservative folks in a way that sounds something like, Here’s all the things you are doing wrong and why you and your community are wrong and bad and here’s everything you have to change and sacrifice and give up to be more like us who are right. That’s just not a winning message for anyone.
The climate movement has kind of been the scold in the room for a long time. I wish the climate movement was that friend we all have who is the first one on the dance floor at the wedding and gets the party started and says: Here’s this beautiful vision of a world we can create together. Let’s have fun creating it, and let’s create it with joy and delight, because that’s how God creates in his people, in his image.
WALLIS I often say when the political leaders have their finger in the air, it doesn’t work to change the political leader — you have to change the wind.
With progressive Christianity in decline by some measures, how do you keep momentum?
WALLIS We need a new American church. Just conforming, or a kind of moderate faith, doesn’t have a future in America against secularization and demographics and all the rest. But genuine faith, I’ll even say radical faith, I think does have a future.
Change never comes by majorities. It’s always minorities, and majorities say, OK, I can go along with that. Dr. King didn’t have a majority of Black church people on his side. It was a critical minority that risked and paid the cost. Countercultural minorities can change majorities. And that’s what Kyle and I are both talking about in different way.
MEYAARD-SCHAAP There’s a statistic: Successful social change over the last century has only required 3.5 percent of the population.
I don’t see a decline in progressive Christianity as a particular threat to the movement we’re trying to create because I don’t even like those categories, those binaries of progressive and conservative. What we’re trying to do is change the culture of the church writ large so that justice is nonideological and so that addressing climate change is nonpartisan.
Jim, that’s what I see you doing across your career. And it’s what I want to do, too.
There’s so much hand-wringing happening in the churches. Why are the young people leaving our churches? If you want your young people to stick around, start talking about the questions that they are talking about with their friends on Friday and Saturday night, the existential crises that they are grappling with. Give them a Jesus-shaped answer to the things that matter most to them, like climate action. And then watch them not only stick around but lead. Watch them reignite your church in a way you never imagined.