The evangelical minister hosting Monday's discussion of faith, values and poverty with Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Barack Obama, D-Ill., and former North Carolina Democratic Sen. John Edwards sees 2008 as a turning point for faith-based progressives.
"I think the 2008 election will be dramatically different from the 2004 election in relationship to issues of faith and values," the Rev. Jim Wallis told ABC News. "The Democratic front-runners are all people who are clearly more comfortable in church as people of faith -- relating their faith to politics -- than the top Republican front-runners."
Gotta Have Faith
Wallis is the author of "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It" and the founder of Sojourners, the largest national network of progressive Christians.
He describes himself in his writings as an advocate of a "new moral politics" that "transcends" the "old categories" of both the "secular left" and the "religious right."
In an e-mail to supporters sent just hours before the start of his 7 p.m. EDT forum with the Democratic Party's top-three presidential contenders, Wallis wrote, "There are very few moments when we have the opportunity to turn the eyes of the nation away from the three-ring circus that our electoral process resembles and on to the concerns of those whom Jesus called the 'least of these.' Tonight is one of those moments."
Rather than invite all eight Democratic presidential candidates to Monday's discussion at George Washington University, Wallis decided to limit the invitation list to Clinton, Obama and Edwards, in order to foster a "more thoughtful, deeper, reflective" conversation among those candidates who he thinks have a realistic chance of winning their party's nomination.
"You can imagine the Democratic front-runners knowing the psalms in church, knowing when to clap at the right time and knowing what comes next in the service," Wallis told ABC News, "and the Republican front-runners kind of squirming awkwardly and, you know, not knowing the music and clapping at the wrong time, and looking at their watch to see when the service gets finished."
"We think they are the top-three candidates because they are so far ahead of everybody else," continued Wallis. "I suspect that the nominee will come from one of the three on the Democratic side."
Democrats' Moral Compass
Wallis is an influential voice in Democratic Party circles.
Following President Bush's re-election, Wallis advised Democrats on Capitol Hill on how to discuss budgets as "moral documents" rather than in programmatic terms as a way to shed the Democratic Party's secular image and to tap into the religious commitment that Wallis believes has always been at the heart of progressive social change.
Even though the Democratic Party's 2008 presidential contenders are as staunch in their support of abortion rights and gay rights as the Democratic Party's 2004 presidential nominee, Wallis believes the 2008 conversation of spiritually based issues will be "broader and deeper," and that the playing field has been "leveled" by a willingness of more Democrats to connect their religious commitments to the policies they support.
"There won't be a two-issue religious agenda any more -- abortion and gay marriage," said Wallis. "They are not the only issues that fire the passions of religious voters. The issues now that are on our agenda include global poverty, climate change, HIV/AIDS, sex trafficking, Darfur, the war in Iraq."
Even though Wallis has become somewhat of a go-to person for the Democratic Party on issues connecting faith and politics, he has invited the top-three Republican contenders -- former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to participate in a similar discussion of faith, values and poverty in September.
Wallis has not yet received commitments from any of the top-tier Republican candidates, though one campaign, which Wallis declined to identify, told Wallis it wanted to learn more about the forum after receiving the invitation.
Since former Tennessee Republican Sen. Fred Thompson's decision to become all but a declared candidate for president, Wallis is now considering whether to make Thompson the fourth invited guest.
When Clinton, Obama and Edwards make back-to-back appearances at Wallis' Monday night forum on CNN, Wallis hopes to ask them "not just about issues but about values. Not just what policies they favor but why. Not just whether they believe privately but about how they live out their faith in public life."
Wallis will be joined in the questioning of the candidates by CNN's Soledad O'Brien, as well as by a panel of other religious leaders.
Wallis, who is working on a new book ,which will be published in 2008, has a personal relationship with each of the three Democrats participating in Monday's forum.
He has known Obama for "more than 10 years" since his days as a "lowly state senator."
The minister met Clinton when the former first lady first came to Washington after her husband was elected president, and he has gotten to know her over the years during the annual Renaissance Weekend that they both attend in South Carolina.
Wallis has gotten to know Edwards since 2004, when Edwards began to emphasize the "moral commitment" of ending poverty.
"I've talked to Democrats over the years who were people of faith but who felt almost 'in the closet' in their own party," said Wallis. "They didn't feel like they could really talk about faith. Now they can. That's a dramatic change. That's important because people of faith should not be in any party's political pocket. We should be the ultimate swing vote."