Jim Wallis, a patriarch of the religious left, found himself on the business end of the woke cancel culture orthodoxy. His crime? Taking down an article that condemned the Catholic Church as a haven for white supremacists. Two editors resigned in protest after Wallis took the article down, and he issued five separate statements about the article. The sorry episode concluded with the article reinstated and Wallis no longer editor-in-chief of his flagship magazine, Sojourners.
The retractions painted an interesting picture of a leftist magazine in turmoil as wokeness overwhelmed its editor-in-chief.
The article in question, headlined “The Catholic Church Has a Visible White-Power Faction,” claims that U.S. Catholic bishops had refused to condemn swastikas, nooses, and the Confederate flag in their statement on racism. It goes on to claim that “the Catholic Church, once persecuted by the Ku Klux Klan, today has a visible white-power faction. As long as the bishops actively refuse to condemn its banners, they give white supremacists space to embrace their anti-Black and anti-Semitic work free of religious dissonance.”
White nationalism and white supremacy have no place in the Roman Catholic Church or in mainstream Christianity, but this article suggested that the Catholic Church is consciously harboring white supremacists to some degree.
The four statements
On July 28, Wallis announced that Sojourners had removed the article. He condemned the article as “offensive,” saying it “did not meet our editorial standards for accuracy, fairness, and balance.”
“White supremacy and alt-right factions are insidious realities of the American society and indeed have manifestations in all our communities of faith. But this article made unwarranted insinuations and allegations against many Catholics, many in leadership, including the bishops, and within the wider Catholic Church who are working toward and are committed to racial justice. We are sorry for harm this article has caused in those efforts and we will work to repair the damage,” he added.
Yet the article’s removal did not end the controversy. The editor-in-chief noted that its removal inspired “a deep and passionate response.”
On July 31, Wallis issued a longer statement. “While our editors preferred to pursue our normal practice of reviewing the critiques and issuing any corrections to the article that might be necessary, I ultimately felt that the factual accuracy, tone, and implication of the article as a whole failed to meet our journalistic standards of accuracy, fairness, and balance and required a more urgent response from Sojourners,” he explained.
Wallis noted that contrary to the anti-Catholic article, U.S. bishops had named the presence of nooses and swastikas as a “tragic indicator of rising racial and ethnic animus.” Skipping over this fact, the article had used the bishops’ ostensible silence on racist symbols “as a key example to link failures in leadership of the Church to the growth of white nationalist and supremacists groups with ties and connections to Catholicism.”
“This was a theme that would be returned to throughout the article and ultimately I felt that the broader theme of the article would not be corrected by a simple factual correction,” Wallis insisted. He praised the article for calling out “those who would seek to use Catholic theology and teaching to justify their white nationalist and white supremacist beliefs and actions,” but he still insisted that it went too far.
On August 10, Wallis wrote yet another statement, noting that both the “initial short explanation and the subsequent longer one” had “clearly proved to be totally inadequate.” He wrote a rambling statement condemning the “MAGA wave” as an “exponent of white supremacy” but acknowledging that the U.S. Catholic bishops had full-throatedly condemned racism, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan. He faulted the article for falsely accusing the bishops of giving white supremacists “space to embrace their anti-Black and anti-Semitic work free of religious dissonance.”
Wallis took pains to explain that he was not just defending the bishops from criticism, and he noted many criticisms of the bishops’ letter that did not make false claims. Even so, he insisted that removing the article was the right decision.
On August 12, Wallis again apologized for the situation and promised to change the way Sojourners makes editorial decisions. “I believe that none of our churches or institutions, including our own at Sojourners, have gone far enough and deep enough to root out America’s original sin of white supremacy from our institutions—which is systematic in all our American culture and structures. But by grace I trust and believe that God is not finished with us yet—including me,” he wrote.
Anti-Catholic article republished
Sojourners republished the article on August 14, including an editorial correction stating that the article’s claim about the bishops’ letter was false. That same day, Wallis stepped down as editor-in-chief while remaining president. Sandi Villarreal, who had served as executive editor, became the new editor-in-chief.
Two prominent resignations appear to have forced Wallis’s hand. Dhanya Addanki, a former associate editor at Sojourners, announced her resignation in early August. She claimed the environment at the magazine was “toxic” for women of color. “Let me be clear — three years of experiencing this toxic environment as a Dalit woman/WOC + recent events is the reason why I decided to leave,” she tweeted.
Daniel José Camacho, an associate editor, announced his resignation on August 10. “It’s become clear that I cannot stay here without compromising my own values and commitments to social justice, journalistic integrity, and honoring diverse and marginalized voices,” Camacho wrote in a statement.
I officially resigned from my associate editor position @Sojourners late last week. I secured another position elsewhere but let me be clear — three years of experiencing this toxic environment as a Dalit woman/WOC + recent events is the reason why I decided to leave. https://t.co/OL4YaVHBbe
— dhanya (@dhanyaddanki) August 13, 2020
Camacho later claimed that “Sojourners editorial problems weren’t just about one racism article. There were strong, non-transparent restrictions on what LGBTQ stories I could publish & almost no room for stories on women’s reproduction, etc.”
Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), explained Wallis’ predicament.
“For many years Wallis has often been careful about abortion and sex so as not to impair relations with Catholics and theologically orthodox Evangelicals who share his liberal politics. He says he wants to reduce abortion but opposes legal restrictions. For much of the last decade he has backed same sex marriage, at odds with Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism,” Tooley wrote.
While Wallis joined the radical Students for a Democratic Society in his youth and praised Marxist revolutionary movements in the 1980s, he became more moderate in the 1990s, seeking to build wider coalitions and becoming more mainstream within Democratic Party politics. He hosted a 2007 candidate forum with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Yet Wallis’ comparatively moderate stance has led critics to dismiss him as “an old white man.”
Tooley explained that during the scuffle over this anti-Catholic article, “Wallis sensibly had recognized the article as incoherent and conspiratorial without evidently realizing that postmodern intersectionality disdains linear reason in favor of drawing ideological lines connecting all sinister oppressions.”
The logic of Wallis’s own movement is swallowing him whole.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.