Tony Campolo might rightly be described as one of the founding fathers of the modern day “Christian left.” An ordained baptist minister and son of a union organizer, Campolo gained prominence as a spiritual advisor to President Bill Clinton. He’s the founder of the Evangelical Organization for the Promotion of Education and the namesake for Eastern University’s Campolo School for Social Change. Progressive evangelical Jim Wallis calls Campolo his “favorite evangelist.”
The evangelical leader and author of Red Letter Revolution is known for his tenaciousness and use of hyperbole to make serious points about injustice. According to a 2003 “Christianity Today” profile, Campolo would often begin speeches by saying, “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a sh-t. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said ‘sh-t’ than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”
The rhetorical tactic is undeniably effective, but as “Christianity Today” adds, “The hyperbole and shock are inevitably followed with cogent arguments, along with reams of Scripture.”
At age 78, Campolo is less visibly involved in public advocacy than he once was. But you’ll see, he’s no less opinionated. Here, Campolo discusses his views on a range of today’s most divisive topics, from abortion to gay marriage to Israel.
RNS: You were known in the 1990s for being something of a spiritual advisor to President Bill Clinton. What did he teach you that has stuck with you throughout the years?
TC: What President Clinton made clear was that social change is a strong possibility. And that the church can participate effectively. I’ll give you one particular instance. There’s a group over in the UK that is very evangelical, committed to a kind of Ignatian spirituality and has worked for social justice. The group is called SPEAK. They compiled a great deal of information on the crippling effect which third-world debt has on poor countries.
And at one of our earliest meetings, I passed that on to the president. And that’s one of the things that got him thinking about the cancellation of third-world debts. About a year and a half later, when the G7 nations met at Birmingham, England, about 1,000 young university students showed up at the building. They weren’t carrying signs, they weren’t chanting, and they weren’t shouting slogans. They simply held a prayer vigil.
All day and all night, with the candles lit, the leaders of the G7 nations took note of this and were very impressed. They began to ask what this was all about. And the answer was, “The cancellation of third-world debts.” It was then that Bill Clinton introduced a motion that the rich countries work hard to cancel third-world debts. And it was a very receptive response to that plea. The first nation they worked with was Uganda. And the debts were cancelled with the stipulation that all the money that would have been paid on the debt and on the interest had to be set aside by the government, in a special fund, that would address the AIDS crisis: medicine, counseling, education.
As a result, they were able to turn things around in places like Uganda, so that within just a couple of years the death rate from AIDS had dropped dramatically. The new cases of AIDS was about one-third of what it was a few years earlier. It had tremendous change. And all this was done because the President made a move. It really does show that people who are in power, who have a heart for the poor and oppressed, are able to make structural changes that are essential to bringing an end to poverty.
RNS: During that time, you clashed openly with folks like Gary Bauer, Jerry Falwell and Rush Limbaugh. What is the enduring lesson to be learned from the religious right experiment in your opinion?
TC: I think that in my exchanges I could have done better if I’d been better informed. I think that people like myself often are right, but we’re not sufficiently armed with facts. We don’t have the huge research resources that all of those people you just mentioned have at their disposal. Whenever they’re going into a debating situation, they have a team that’s equipped them with facts and figures that enable them to come across as very well-informed. When I had to face many of these people in open debate, I had to deal with just the information I had at my disposal.
There is great need for there to be a progressive evangelical think-tank. It’s been talked about but has never happened. The religious right has huge economic resources and can set up think-tanks, like the Heritage Foundation, that can bolster the debating qualities of those who have to do these kinds of confrontations on social issues like war and welfare reform and things like that. I think the best-informed person we have going for us is Jim Wallis. But we’re not as well-informed as we ought to be.
The one thing I had going for me, that was of incredible use, was that I was brought up in a very fundamentalist background that taught me to memorize Scripture. Consequently, if I was on a television debate with Jerry Falwell, and he brought up the whole idea of women preachers, and he would cite passages in the book of Timothy, and I was able to come back and say,
“Yes, I affirm that, but I have to set what you just said, Jerry, over and against the fact that, in the sixteenth chapter of Romans we have a woman who’s referred to as a fellow apostle. A missionary, a speaker, a leader in the church. I have to put that over and against the fact that the book of Acts talks about Phillip having three daughters who were preachers. I have to put that over and against the fact that in Philippians we read about Eudia and Sntyche, two women who were leaders of the church in Philippi. I have to deal with the fact that, on the day of Pentecost, it was said not only that young men but young women prophecied, which is to say, to preach. So I have all these other instances to set over and against what you have just said. So we do have to handle those verses, and they trouble me, but what do you do with all of these other verses?”
The ability to invoke Scripture was crucial in all of those encounters with the people you just mentioned.
I then would watch Jerry Falwell on another program, dealing with a liberal Methodist bishop, and after Jerry Falwell gave his bit, the bishop said, “In order to recognize the full humanity of women, in order to actualize the potentiality of persons…” It was all this wonderful talk, but it wasn’t Scripture. Jerry’s Falwell’s response, to that bishop, was, “That was a very moving statement you just made. But I have to tell you, as a minister of the gospel I have to be faithful to Scripture.”
Whoa! And I was thinking, “What do the people out there, in radio-land and television-land, hear when they hear these two people?” Somebody with a secular humanistic philosophy versus someone who’s biblically-based. We have to be biblically-based if we’re going to respond to biblically-based people.
RNS: You’ve always taken a more traditional stance on gay marriage and homosexuality than some progressives, including your wife. How did you react to the Supreme Court’s recent DOMA decision?
TC: I was very pleased, but I felt that it didn’t go far enough, and I think many people would say it should have gone further. What I have advocated, and I’m seeing this being picked up more and more is that there ought to be a clear distinction between church and state. We say that we believe in that, but it hasn’t really been actualized in this case. My position has been, over the last several years, that the government should not legitimate gay marriage, and it should not legitimate heterosexual marriage. What it should do is guarantee the same civil rights to both kinds of couples. And if people want to call it a marriage, they should go down to the church, or the synagogue, or the mosque, and there have the marriage vows taken.
I believe marriage to be, as my Catholic and Lutheran and Episcopalian friends would say, one of the sacraments of the church. And the government should not be deciding who should and who should not engage in sacraments. That’s the role of the church. So, I would like for us, in America, to do what some European countries do. If you want to get married, you do two things: you go down to the city hall and you register as a couple that is establishing a legal commitment to each other, with all the rights and privileges ascertaining thereto. But if you want to call it a marriage, you go to a church.
My critics will say, “Wait a minute. There will be people who go to certain liberal churches where they will marry gays.” And my response is, “That should be their right.” I believe in freedom of religion, and I believe that churches should be able to decide who they want to marry and who they don’t want to marry.
However, while I am personally conservative on this issue, I really have problems with imposing my conservative values on who should get married and who shouldn’t on the rest of society. Or even on the rest of the Christian community. I just don’t think that’s something I have a right to do. So, I think that what the Supreme Court did was positive in this sense: they gave all kinds of legal rights to gay couples that they didn’t have before.
I have friends who are gay, and I know of one couple who is ecstatic because they’re counting out the tens of thousands of dollars that they’re going to save each year. They live in California. Their marriage is now valid, and they have all kinds of tax deductions, arrangements with insurance companies–buying automobile insurance, house insurance, health insurance–that they didn’t have before.
Now here’s the point that I want to make: I, as an evangelical, want to win people to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It’s hard for me to say, “I love you in the name of Jesus, but I am in favor of maintaining laws that deny you the basic rights that I enjoy.” If I love you, I want you to have the same rights and privileges that I enjoy. And if I don’t do that, I don’t love you, no matter what my language might in fact indicate. Love is more than just an emotional feeling. I hear people say, “I really love my gay friends.” But what does that mean? That you have a warm fuzzy feelings inside? Love is something you do. And it’s bringing justice to other people. You can’t say “I love you” if I don’t work for justice on that person’s behalf. And if I don’t love you, it’s going to be nearly impossible for me to win you to Jesus.
RNS: What are the most pressing political issues for American Christians in this century in your opinion?
TC: The most pressing issue, and the place where the church is failing incredibly—in fact, political scientists say the church may be the biggest block to justice, in this respect—is justice for Palestinian people.
Tony Blair said once, “Almost every political problem in the world, in one way or another, can be traced back to this disturbance in the Middle East, between the Israelis and the Palestinians.” I believe that the church has allied itself with the Israeli government—and I’m saying the Israeli government because there’s a difference between the policies of the government, and the will of the people. They have aligned themselves with the Israeli government in a way that allows the Israeli government to pursue policies that create injustices towards Palestinian people.
We stood by and actually cheered as the Israelis have established settlements on land that was designated to be a Palestinian state. Today, somewhere around a half a million Israelis are living in land that has been stolen from Palestinians. Houses have been leveled while the former occupants stood by and wept. All this, in order to make room for a settlement that had been condemned by the U.N.—the same United Nations which, in 1948, gave birth to the Israelis to have a nation of their own.
I want to affirm emphatically, I love the fact that the Jewish people have a land of their own. And I agree with them that they need to have safe and secure borders, which they do not have right now. They live with a certain degree of fear, being a few million people surrounded by sixty million Arabs who would to wipe them off the face of the earth. That needs to change. But until we, in America, have become committed to justice for the Palestinian people, even as we support the state of Israel, we are going to lose our moral authority among the Muslim people.
The Muslim world is becoming increasingly militant. I am watching the Islamic community become increasingly belligerent under the influence of radical Muslims, especially the growing number of radical young people in the Muslim community, and I’m saying this: The US government has lent incredible support to the military forces of Israel, so that is has now the fourth most powerful army in the world. Even though it’s a small nation. More than one third of all the foreign aid the United States gives away in any given year goes to Israel. The fact that the Israelis and the Palestinians feel themselves oppressed is because the US government is financing a military regime that has created that oppression. I think there’s a need for a military for defense, but not for oppression.
Having said that, we all know that the US political system will continue to do this as long as evangelicals, not mainline churches, are pressuring the people in office, from Obama to congressmen and senators, to favor, in an imbalanced way, Israel against the Palestinians. There has to be a commitment to equal justice. Because the evangelical church, with its Christian Zionism, has pressured the governmental leaders into doing what they have done, it is the most pressing political issue of our time. We haven’t even begun to deal with the Middle East situation, which I think will be the cause of World War 3 if we’re not careful.
RNS: And what about the millions of abortions performed each year in America? Explain to me why that doesn’t make your list.
TC: I think it is a pressing political issue. And I am very concerned that we have allowed the Republican party alone to define the pro-life position. The Democrats have not understood where evangelicals are coming from. They would be able to get a great deal of support from the evangelicals if they would propagate what they know to be true: 72% of all abortions in America are driven by economic forces. That is to say, it is young women who are pregnant, working at a minimum wage, with no health insurance or possibility for daycare, with no pre-natal or post-natal help, and who knows that if she has the baby it’s going to cost her thousands of dollars for hospital care. So we have to begin to ask, “What’s this woman going to do?” Seventy-two percent of the people who’ve had abortions were driven by economic forces and when asked by the Guttmacher Institute, which is a pro-choice organization, “Would you have an abortion if it wasn’t for these economic choices?” would say, “No, we wouldn’t have had the abortion.”
My question is: how can we as evangelicals call ourselves pro-life if all we are anxious to do is to make abortion illegal? If we are not dealing with the economic forces that are driving people to have abortions?
In short, the people in Congress who vote for curtailment of abortion, on the one hand, turn around and vote against raising the minimum wage, vote against universal healthcare, vote against daycare for single women, vote against prenatal and post-natal care? There is an inconsistency here. If we’re going to make abortion illegal, on the one hand, we have to deal with the forces that are driving women to have abortions. Or else we will drive them underground as they were prior to Roe Vs. Wade. And you know the consequences of driving abortions underground. The evangelical community should have a guilty conscience if, in fact, it makes abortion illegal and doesn’t deal with the economic forces that are driving people to have abortions. I’m pro-life, but pro-life in a full sense, in the sense of Cardinal Bernadin: you can’t just pass a law against abortion. You have to, in fact, deal with the forces that make many women feel that abortion is a necessity for them.