"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Two days before he lost the presidential election, John Kerry made a campaign appearance at Shiloh Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio. It was the fifth time in five weeks that Kerry had stopped at an African-American church in Ohio, but that doesn’t mean he was comfortable in the setting. As the church choir rocked through a long number that morning, Kerry sat stiffly in a chair near the pulpit, looking lost. Do I clap? Do I tap my foot? Do I sing along? And when Kerry rose to spoke — when he invoked the Book of James and talked of the emptiness of “faith without deeds” — he came across not as a fellow Christian but as a politician visiting a foreign land, trying to win over the locals with a few words in their native tongue.
While the importance of “moral values” in the 2004 election has surely been overstated, Democrats take it on faith that they’ve got to do better next time with people of faith. The problem: So few of them seem up to the task. For every Bill Clinton or Barack Obama — “We worship an awesome God in the blue states” — there’s a John Kerry or a Howard Dean, who famously put the Book of Job in the New Testament during his presidential run and now quotes Scripture as if he’s writing speeches with a list of the “10 Most Famous Bible Passages” sitting next to his yellow pad.
Can Democrats do better? Jim Wallis says they have to. Wallis, the evangelical Christian who founded the religious social justice group Sojourners, has spent the last three months on an extended book tour in support of “God’s Politics,” and he says he has seen signs that the right’s one-sided conversation about religion is finally over. Americans are ready to hear a different, more progressive dialogue about the role of faith in public life, but they’ll listen only if the Democrats’ messengers can speak with religious authenticity, Wallis says.
“It’s so transparent when somebody is being inauthentic about religion,” Wallis says. “There are millions and millions of moderate evangelicals and moderate Catholics who are simply not in the pocket of the religious right. And yet Democrats haven’t got a clue as to how to speak to them. They have no idea! And Kerry gave them nothing to vote for.”
Wallis says that Democrats have to begin a discussion with voters about how faith drives their public policy ideas beyond the confines of abortion and gay marriage. And he says the party needs to find candidates who can talk about God — or at least spirituality — more generally, in ways that don’t sound as phony to Christians as Ronald Reagan’s invocation of Bruce Springsteen sounded to rock ‘n’ roll fans.
Salon spoke with Wallis last week as he traveled from his home in Washington to Philadelphia for another stop on his book tour.
The subtitle of your new book, “God’s Politics,” is “Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.” What’s the “it” that Democrats don’t get?
The left, the progressive side, has conceded the entire territory of values and religion to the religious and political right. That’s the biggest mistake the left has made in years. It allows the right to define religion and values any way they want to, and that’s what they do. That’s what you saw on Justice Sunday. When only one side is doing the defining and the talking, when one side talks about what God says and the other side doesn’t want to use the G-word, it’s clear who wins the public debate.
The right can take an issue like the Democrats’ opposition to a handful of George W. Bush’s judicial nominees, turn it into this huge religious spectacle, and then argue that the Democrats’ views are somehow an attack on people of faith. And instead of being able to engage on the religious level, all many Democrats can say is, “No, wait, this isn’t about faith.”
If the first time Democrats ever talk about faith is to say, “Oh, this isn’t about faith,” if you haven’t been talking about faith for years and years, the [public's response is,] “How do you know it isn’t about faith?”
You know, Martin Luther King Jr., in “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” responded to white clergy who were criticizing him for what he had done [in the civil rights movement]. But he never said they weren’t people of faith. In arguing on behalf of racial justice on the basis of faith, he assumed integrity on their part, and he appealed to the best of their own traditions. Now you have leaders of the religious right saying, “Anybody who disagrees with us on the filibuster is not a person of faith.”
When the other side speaks in such outrageous terms, there has to be a real counterpoint. The Democrats were vitally connected to the civil rights movement, [which was] led by black churches. So how is it that they are now successfully portrayed as a so-called secular party and a party hostile to faith?
How can Democrats provide that “counterpoint” on something like the nuclear option? If you were advising Senate Democrats on their strategy in fighting Bush’s judicial nominees, what would you tell them about getting their own conceptions of morality into the debate?
There’s a much broader context. The right gets it wrong by saying there are only two moral-values issues, only two: abortion and gay marriage. Now, those are important issues, and we need a better, deeper moral conversation on all sides on those issues. But to go along with the idea that there are only two moral-values issues is to give away the whole discussion.
I’m an evangelical Christian, and I’m bound to a Bible where there are 3,000 verses on the poor, which means fighting poverty is a moral-values issue, too. Protecting the environment, otherwise known as “God’s creation,” is a moral-values issue. And the ethics of war — whether we go to war, when we go to war and whether we tell the truth about going to war — these are profoundly religious matters. So you’ve got to broaden the conversation.
You can’t just dive in to talk of religion in the middle of the feud about the filibuster.
There is no religious position on the filibuster. The filibuster is a Senate procedure, and we all know that it has been used for good and for ill. But it’s gotten caught up in this battle over judicial nominees. And that battle is about more than abortion because judges [also] rule on things like workers’ rights and human rights and environmental regulations and political representation and voting procedures. A lot of pretty important issues are at stake here.
The issue the Bible talks about most often, over and over again, is how you treat the poorest and most vulnerable in your society. That’s the issue the prophets raise again and again, and Jesus talks about it more than any other topic, more than heaven or hell, more than sex or morality. So how did Jesus become pro-rich, pro-war and only pro-American?
There’s a major distortion going on here, a major misrepresentation of Christian faith. It’s almost like our faith has been stolen. And it’s time to take it back.
The Republicans have made faith into kind of a wedge, a weapon to divide us and destroy us. Bridges, not wedges, is what we ought to be providing.
But can Democrats get voters to start thinking that there’s more to religion than abortion and gay marriage — that something like poverty is a religious issue and that the Republicans aren’t doing much about it? In his first inaugural address, Bush invoked the Gospel of Luke, saying, “When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.” And nobody jumped up and shouted, “Hypocrite!”
I would argue that when we’re having over 2,000 people come out every night in every city [on the book tour], a lot of people do see the hypocrisy in such a profoundly religious matter. The Zogby poll right after the  election asked voters what the greatest moral crisis was in the nation, and 64 percent said either materialism and greed or poverty and economic justice.
So there is a resonance there. What if we had a political leader who ever spoke to it? I mean, my goodness, when did we have John Kerry talk about poverty as a fundamental moral issue or lift up the plight of the poor as a high priority? John Edwards did for a short period during the primary campaign season, and bless his heart for doing so, but he and that issue got put on a shelf. You didn’t hear about “Two Americas” ever again.
When you talk [to young Christians] about poverty as a test of faith, you receive a standing ovation every single time. So there is a deep resonance out there, but Democrats aren’t really talking about this as a profoundly moral question.
Bush did that, at least to a degree, when he ran as a “compassionate conservative” in 2000.
That’s why he won. Exactly.
I met with him before he came to Washington, in Austin, on poverty and faith-based initiatives. He had about 20 people there, and he knew that a lot of us hadn’t voted for him. He came up to me at one point and said, “Jim, I don’t understand poor people. I’ve never lived around poor people. I don’t know what they think or how they feel. I’m just a white Republican guy who doesn’t get it. How do I get it?”
I said, “Well, you have to listen to poor people and those who live and work with poor people.” And he said, “Mike, Mike, come over here,” and [speechwriter Michael] Gerson came over, and Bush said, “Write this down, write this down.” And then, in his inaugural, he said, “Many in our country do not know the pain of poverty, but we can listen to those who do.” That came right out of that conversation.
If you look back at that inaugural address, it talked more about poverty than anyone had done in years. But there have been no resources [provided]. I wrote a memo to Democrats in January, and I told them: “You’ve got to frame the budget in moral terms. Do a moral audit on the budget, talk about it as a moral document.” When the president says, “I’m for faith-based initiatives,” but then has no resources and no program, no domestic policy beyond tax cuts for the wealthy, it [turns the promises] into a photo op.
So you’re saying that Democrats should actually do the sorts of things Bush said that he would do when he ran in 2000?
Yeah. You’ve got to reframe policy issues in the values context. Don’t start with policies, start with values. Don’t start with programs, start with principles. Let policies flow from values. And those of you who are people of faith, let your faith shine through. Don’t be ashamed of talking about your faith. A lot of Democrats tell me they feel apologetic, marginalized in their own party, for being people of faith, and that’s got to change.
Like I said to Howard Dean, you don’t have to be a person of faith, but if you’re not a person of faith, don’t act like you’re one. The worst thing you can do is to sound inauthentic. Putting the Book of Job in the New Testament wasn’t a good move on his part. Just respect people of faith. Let people of faith in the Democratic Party — Barack Obama, Rosa DeLauro, Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor — let them talk.
But is the public ready to listen to Democrats talking about their faith?
You look at these town meetings we’ve been having [about the book], you look at the media coverage, and what’s clear is that the monologue of the religious right is finally over and a new dialogue has begun. Their monologue has controlled the conversation, and a dialogue is all you need to get people thinking, “Well, there’s this point of view [from the religious right], but here are some Christians talking about the environment.”
Did you see the New York Times story a couple of weeks back about the National Association of Evangelicals saying that global warming is a religious issue? That was huge. It changed the politics of global warming in Washington overnight. Until then, the global-warming constituency wasn’t a part of the Bush base, so what did they care? But all of a sudden, there are evangelical leaders saying, “You know, the environment is God’s creation, and being good stewards is part of our responsibility.” And I’m telling you, the same day, they got calls from the White House saying, “What don’t you like about our policies?”
That’s a change within the evangelical right. For Democrats, it seems so much harder. As Democrats begin wrapping their policies in the words of faith and religion, it often sounds like they’re saying, “Hey, look at us, we’re Christians, too!” Dean sounds like he has a list of Bible quotations next to him when he’s writing his speeches.
And that’s the wrong way to do it. It can’t be just language, it’s got to be content. It has to be authentic. It has to be more than words. And do it the way King did it, with your Bible in one hand and your Constitution in the other hand, in a way that’s open and inclusive and welcoming.
The dialogue has begun, and Democrats have to reassess. Some of it will just be crude and shallow demographics — “Oh, I guess we lost that one; let’s throw in a few Bible verses and few hymns and just sing the same song.” That won’t work.
But in “God’s Politics” you suggest that talking the talk will help at least a little. You say there are two ways the Democrats can make inroads. They can start to reassess some of their policies in order to find common ground with more people of faith. Failing that, they can begin to talk about their existing policies in better ways.
You’ve got to have a conversation. I’m just saying that you have to be authentic. Some of the Democrats I talk with about their faith and what it means for politics [are] not just saying, “Give me some lines.” They’re wrestling with it, they’re soul searching, they’re trying to figure out how to talk about it. And I encourage them to just be themselves. Be people of faith — authentically.
Kerry had a hard time doing that. Two days before the election, I watched him campaign at an African-American church in Ohio. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man look less comfortable —
I know, I know. And that just hurts. That’s the worst thing. That’s worse than saying nothing.
But how much of what the Democrats need to do is just a matter of finding a way to talk about this stuff better, explaining that moral values drive their concerns for poverty or healthcare or whatever?
A lot of it. Kerry has a strong environmental record, but we heard almost nothing about that during the campaign — or about how his faith [influenced his politics]. He was just defending himself on abortion and the Eucharist. You know, “I was an altar boy!” But Hitler was an altar boy.
[The Democrats needed a candidate] who simply said, “These are issues of inclusion, fairness, economic equity, justice — 9 million families in America are working hard full time, and they’re not making it. They’re playing by the rules and not making it, and that’s wrong. If you work hard in America full time, you shouldn’t be poor.”
The Bible says you judge a society by how it treats the poorest and most vulnerable. On healthcare, on housing, you talk that way. You talk about the environment, about being good stewards of God’s creation. You talk about the ethics of war. And then you say, “Abortion is a moral issue. We’ve got too many unwanted pregnancies in America, way too many. Let’s work together, pro-life and pro-choice, to really target this abortion rate. We’re all for that; it should be common ground. This is a tragic choice. We’re not going to give up on the legal option for abortion, but let’s make it rare.” That kind of candidate would have won.
You sound a lot like Hillary Clinton.
Well … [laughs]. That kind of candidate would have won this last election. I’m convinced.
Is there a similar approach to the question of gay marriage?
You know, the right says, “Vote against gay marriage and it proves you’re for the family.” This is a surrogate for saying you care for the family. But this is the wrong surrogate, and the Democrats should have taken that away. They should have said, “Families are in crisis. The breakdown of families is a huge problem, not just for the poor but for all classes. Kids are falling between the cracks.” So you have that conversation, and then you say, “Most who are religious people also support some kind of legal protection for same-sex couples.”
You can be pro-family and pro-civil rights at the same time. You can win with that. But you’ve got to get to it as a fairness question, a civil rights question. You don’t get started by saying, “I’m for gay marriage.”
Energy against gay people is coming from two sources. There’s this very ugly, hateful, homophobic violent attitude — the Matthew Shepard stuff — and that has to be fought against and resisted. The other part is concern from people who are worried about their families, and they’ve been sold a bill of goods that that has something to do with gay people. That piece, we’ve got to disentangle.
You’ve described your book tour as a series of town meetings, and you’ve begun to talk of a “movement” springing up around the ideas in “God’s Politics.” Are you thinking about ways to institutionalize it or build on it? And can that work to the benefit of the Democratic Party?
We’re starting to have some success on the ground in changing the [perception] of faith and politics, and in winning over a lot of moderate evangelicals and Catholics to a very progressive agenda. But the Democrats have to do their part, too, if they expect ever to appeal to these people. We’re doing a lot of things. After [an appearance on] the Jon Stewart show, we reached a whole new kind of audience that had never heard that there’s a progressive religious option. We’ve gotten thousands of e-mails from young people who say, “I didn’t know you could be Christian and care about the poor or care about the environment or be against the war in Iraq. I never knew. Sign me up.” So we’re having some great success out there, and I’m really encouraged.
When it comes to closing the deal with those kinds of people, how important is the candidate that the Democrats run in 2008?
Totally. You saw Bill Bradley’s piece in the Times about how the Republicans have this machine, and how who’s at the top, who’s the placeholder, isn’t that important. The Democrats don’t have a clear structure.
I spoke with a leading Democrat in D.C. — you’d know who it was — and he said, “You know, if the average Democratic canvasser ever went to the front door of a home and was asked, ‘Tell me what your party is for,’ he’d have to make it up. He’d just have to make it up.” So in the absence of that, the candidate becomes crucial. I’m not endorsing, you know, Barack Obama, because he’s probably not going to run for president anytime soon, if ever. But that kind of candidate — forward looking, building bridges, comfortable with the language of faith, speaks in a moral vocabulary … Barack is going to make faith in politics one of his signature issues. Remember when he said at the convention, “We worship an awesome God in the blue states”? That kind of candidate would be very, very appealing to these moderate religious voters.
But it’s hard to think of a Democrat in a position to run for president in 2008 who would have that kind of appeal.
It is. It is. So that’s going to be the issue. On the [positive] side, we’ve really had some success in the last several months in changing the debate in the media and on the ground. We’ve been quite stunned by the success of the book. But it’s not about the book. It’s that the country is really tired of the monologue, tired of not having their voices represented.
Do you think there’s some connection between the success of the book — or the success of the “movement” — and the Republicans’ overreaching on things like the Terri Schiavo case?
Absolutely. These guys are saying you’re not a Christian unless you’re for all of Bush’s nominees. Well, even conservatives think this is nuts. I think they’re overreaching. They’re giving us a gift: They’ve been winning political battles, and now they’re in the White House, that’s true. On the other hand, people are really tired of their definition of religion. There’s such an openness and a hunger for another way to be a person of faith or a Christian or religious. I’m finding it every single night.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)