By Ruth Conniff
From the August 2005 Issue
An ordained Baptist minister, Tony Campolo overcame a heresy trial to preach social justice in the United States. Along with Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Ron Sider, the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, Campolo is trying to counter the forces of the religious right from within a church-based tradition.
"Tony Campolo is my favorite evangelist," says Wallis. "He blends revival with social justice. In that way, he's like one of the nineteenth century evangelists who fought for the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage and social reform. His altar calls urge all of us to overcome poverty, end war, and stand up for human rights for everybody."
Campolo's father was a union organizer, and some of that tenacity has rubbed off on him. He says it's time to "take the gloves off" and compete against the religious right. He has clashed openly with Jerry Falwell, Gary Bauer, and Rush Limbaugh, and he served as a spiritual adviser to Bill Clinton during the impeachment scandal.
Campolo is currently the associate pastor of the Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia. He's also an emeritus professor of sociology at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. On that campus, there is the Campolo School of Social Change, which consists of graduate programs "aimed at developing Christian professionals who will use their skills to transform urban communities around the world."
That school is part of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, which Campolo founded. It serves inner city schools as well as AIDS hospices and Christian service programs in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Africa, and Canada.
"Our goal is to help build the Kingdom of God by combining evangelism and social justice in the name of Jesus," the association says.
Campolo has produced a prodigious body of work, including twenty-eight books, most recently Revolution and Renewal: How Churches Are Saving Our Cities, Let Me Tell You a Story: Life Lessons from Unexpected Places and Unlikely People, and Speaking My Mind.
That's one thing he's not afraid to do. Campolo has appeared on Crossfire, Politically Incorrect, Charlie Rose, and CNN News. And he makes hundreds of speeches a year around the country and abroad. This balding man is known for his entertaining, enthralling speaking style, and for using humor and occasionally vulgarity to shock his audience.
According to a profile in Christianity Today entitled "The Positive Prophet," Campolo would often begin a speech this way: "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 shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night."
I meet up with Campolo one snowy February day at his office on the campus of Eastern University. After he greets me, he begins our interview with a prayer, and then he explains his approach.
"When I call people to commit their lives to Christ," he says, "it is primarily in order that God might use them in this life to do the work that needs to be done. I try to get people to give themselves over to Jesus so that Jesus can take them and put them into law, business, the arts, and to government, to be agents of change."
For him, the Kingdom of God is a place of justice. When his students ask him to "spell that out," Campolo says he refers to Scriptures.
"I go to the Bible, and the sixty-fifth chapter of Isaiah is the passage I often refer to, starting with the seventeenth verse, in which the Kingdom of God has certain characteristics," he says. "First of all, children do not die in infancy. I want to go to work around the world to do something about the infant mortality rate, the fact that 30,000 kids die of hunger every day. It says that old people shall live out their lives in perfect health. I want to see elderly people cared for, as they should be. It goes on to say that everyone should have decent housing to live in. I've been on the international board of Habitat for Humanity for years, for that reason. It says that everybody has a job, to work in the vineyard out there, and earn a living. I want to see people get a job."
He also finds respect for the Earth in the Bible. "The last verse of the sixty-fifth chapter of Isaiah says, ‘Neither shall they hurt the earth anymore.’ Environmentalism is in there," he says.
Campolo is aghast at the way the right captured the term "moral values" during the 2004 campaign. "It's horrible," he says. "Jesus refers to the poor over and over again. There are 2,000 verses of Scripture that call upon us to respond to the needs of the poor. And yet, I find that when Christians talked about values in this last election that was not on the agenda, that was not a concern. If you were to get the voter guide of the Christian Coalition, that does not rate. They talk more about tax cuts for people who are wealthy than they do about helping poor people who are in desperate straits."
He blames religious broadcasting. "The major factor influencing the evangelical vote was Christian radio and television," he says. "But they did not do what their charters tell them to do, namely preach the Gospel. What they were doing was becoming surrogates for the Republican Party."
And this, he believes, is a treacherous path to take.
"What scares me is that Christianity in America today sees nothing wrong with being allied with political conservatism," he says. "Conservatives are people who worship at the graves of dead radicals. Stop to think about that. The people who started this country, George Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, these were not conservatives; these were the radicals of the time. In fact, conservatives always look back on people who they despised and make them into heroes. If you were to listen to the religious right today, they would make you believe that Martin Luther King was one of their flock. In reality, they hated him and did everything they could to destroy him."
Campolo opposes abortion and gay marriage, but believes that "social justice is the primary purpose of government." And he faults the Democrats for doing a poor job of framing the issues in 2004. "When you deal with these issues that are plaguing this country," he asks, "do you frame them as moral issues, or as economic issues? The Democratic Party made a very serious mistake. All the issues were framed in economic terms: How many jobs are we going to create, how much money is it going to cost to do this, that, and the other thing. What they should have been saying is, ‘This is what is right, and we're going to do it, because it's right.’ When we begin to frame the issues, as liberals, in moral terms, talking about what is right and what is wrong, rather than what is pragmatically efficient, I think the American people, who are looking for moral leadership, will flock to the side of those who can give it."
Campolo was an outspoken foe of U.S. policy in Central America in the 1980s, and in 1995 he joined Wallis's Call to Renewal, which fights poverty and racism and strives for peace.
Campolo says he is "very upset that the evangelical community is not raising the kind of questions about this war in Iraq that should be raised." That war should not be considered a "just war," according to the criteria set by John Calvin and Saint Augustine, Campolo says.
"We are losing our moral high-ground," he says. "We're torturing people, and that's not the America I knew, that's not the America I grew up in."
Like many sincerely religious people, Campolo has little regard for America¹s consumer culture. "Christianity is countercultural," he says. "If one embraces Jesus, one has to raise some serious questions about the American way of life, especially its consumerism. Here's a society that has us buying new cars all the time, and has got us caught up with fashion models, and every year, women and men are getting rid of their clothing because somebody in never-never land has decided that these clothes are out of style. What we are discarding in this consumeristic society, because the dictates of custom have decided are out of date, is appalling. People are spending huge amounts of money on cars that are basically status symbols, and it's contrary to the teachings of Jesus. We are wasting so much money in catering to our pleasure, while we allow the basic needs of others to go unmet."
He finds the sales pitch of Madison Avenue especially hollow.
Advertising promises us that products will "meet our deepest spiritual and psychological needs and create well being, a sense of joy, give us friends, and make us young and happy," notes Campolo. "Jesus says, ‘Why do you spend your money on that which satisfies you not?’ "
Campolo's critique of U.S. policies and culture leads him to some stark positions. "To be a Christian in today's world is to be opposed to America," he says. "Why? America believes in capital punishment, and Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.’ America says, ‘Blessed are the rich.’ Jesus said, ‘Woe unto you who are rich, blessed are the poor.’ America says, ‘Blessed are the powerful.’ Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.’ "
Campolo also objects strongly to churches becoming too patriotic. "We have reached a stage of idolatry when, in any given church in America, you're going to run into more trouble if you remove the American flag than if you remove the cross," he told church leaders, according to Christianity Today.
Campolo is used to creating controversy. In 1985, he was invited to speak in Washington, D.C., at a large youth event sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ and Youth for Christ. Campolo was then disinvited after some Illinois pastors objected. They took issue with something Campolo had written in A Reasonable Faith: his view that Christ lives in every human being, whether Christian or not. "Jesus is actually present in each other person," he wrote in the book. Though Campolo believes the Bible is the literal word of God, the pastors charged him with "spiritual adultery."
A trial conducted by the Christian Legal Society cleared Campolo of heresy, though it did say his views were "methodologically naïve and verbally incautious."
Campolo is a believer in faith-based activism for social justice.
He cites the positive influence of evangelicals in the Abolitionist Movement right on through the civil rights movement. But he is no fan of the Bush Administration¹s faith-based social programs.
"When government and church begin to mix, you got a problem," he says. "It's like mixing ice cream with horse manure: You will not ruin the horse manure, but it will ruin the ice cream. I think to mix the church and state is to, in fact, put the church in a compromising position."
Though he had a stroke three years ago, Campolo is still going strong. This spring, he had dozens of speaking engagements all across the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, as well. And he is as fervent about his message as ever.
"It's about time we realized that Christianity is a call not to conservatism but to change," he says. "Jesus came to the world not to conserve the system as it was, but to change the world into what it ought to be. That's where I am, and that's where I want to be."
John Oliver Mason is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.