Q&A with Tony Campolo
By Lauren Thompson
March 11, 2009
Tony Campolo is one of the most high-profile evangelicals in American Protestantism, but he’s not really what you'd expect. The Red Letter Christians author has made a name for himself as a champion for the poor, a voice for social justice and a member of the Democratic Party—an anomaly in mainstream evangelicalism. Campolo tours North America speaking about his ministry and work on President Obama’s platform committee, a position directly influencing the party’s policies. RELEVANT recently sat down with Campolo to talk about Inauguration day, how he helped keep the Clinton family together and meeting Stephen Colbert.
Q: How was working with Obama and the Democratic Party?
A: The Democratic Party realized that the reason why they lost four years ago was because they had failed to relate in a positive manner to the religious community. They were determined to change all of that, and they did. Part of what they were into was saying, “OK, if we’re going to do this, we have to have some evangelical voices on the platform committee to develop the policies of the party. So I was their evangelical.
I was most anxious to serve on the committee for one specific reason: I’m a pro-life Christian. The Democratic Party has been historically pro-choice. I didn’t think there was a chance of changing the party’s position on abortion, but that wasn’t my intent. Seventy-three percent of abortions are people who would have carried their pregnancies to term if they were financially able to do so. But we know that we can reduce abortions dramatically if we address the economic issues that are driving women to abortions. One: We provide medical care for them—will the government do that? Will the government provide pre-natal and post-natal care? Will the government provide daycare when the child is born so that the mother can continue to work? So, all of these things are written into the platform. While the party is still pro-choice, it is committed to abortion reduction, which Obama articulated in the last debate with great clarity. Abortions will happen unless you begin to address the [socio-economic] issues [that cause them].
The Democratic platform was endorsed by the Alliance of Catholics for the Common Good, hardly a pro-choice organization, but they recognized in realistic terms that if we really want to deal with abortions, it would make more sense for us if we go with the Democrats who are not willing to make it illegal, but are willing to change the system that is driving women to have abortions than to go to the Republicans.
We were actually able to put together an organization called Democrats for Life, which was run by the Catholics in the party, which was responsible for getting the Catholics to vote for Obama, so it was a very important decision.
Q: Has any of this been presented to Protestant Republican voters?
A: Protestants so often confuse being Republican with being Christian. To be evangelical in the U.S. is to be defined as being part of the religious right. That is why I’m part of the Red Letter Christians movement, which says that we believe the Bible is an infallible book, we believe in the doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed, that salvation comes from a personal relationship with Jesus, but we don’t buy into all the right-wing politics. So, you see, we’re part of a whole group of evangelicals that have stepped away from that because if you go to a Harvard or a Stanford and you say you’re an evangelical, the red flags will go up immediately. They’ll say “You’re anti-women, you’re anti-environment, you’re anti-gay, you’re against the poor and you’re pro-war …” and we say, “No, that’s not what we are. We’re on the opposite side of all these issues, so don’t put us there.”
Q: Isn’t the Moral Majority dying in the U.S.?
A: This last election was a mortal blow to the movement. They will survive, but they won’t be the great power that they were. They really are on the skids right now. Though they were anyway, because there was a decided break between the older evangelicals and the younger evangelicals; the older evangelicals were so focused on the two hot-button issues—abortion and gay marriage—that they had no time to deal with the environment, poverty, the war—these are issues that young people say are very important.
Q: So, do you think that being involved in politics in an imperative for a Christian?
A: I think it’s imperative for anybody—Christian or non-Christian. What we need to affirm is that Jesus is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. Whenever we marry Jesus to a political party, we are committing the sin of idolatry. We are making Jesus into the image of our political party.
Q: You speak a lot about living a life of radical sacrifice, but many young Christians spend a lot of money on Christian higher education. Do you think it’s worth it to spend $20,000 a year?
A: Is that it? That’s cheap. Well, it certainly means that if you’re going to spend $20,000 a year, you’ve got to take education seriously. So many students in Christian colleges are just kind of playing at being a student, not recognizing the cost is enormous. The responsibility that goes with having an education has huge significance.I would say this: the reason why most of the young people come to college is because their parents said, “If you go to college and get a good education, you’ll get a good job and make a lot of money so you can buy a lot of stuff.” But the purpose of an education is to equip you to be a more effective servant of God in the world. If four years of university can increase your effectiveness of what you can do for others in the name of Christ, it is the best investment that you can make. But if the education is simply to get a job to make a lot of money, you have to raise the question of why you’re doing it.
Q: So you think education is a valuable tool?
A: Well, the point is, it’s a complicated world out there, and to know what to do and how to do it, it’s complicated. We need education to prepare us for that, and to know how to think, how to articulate, how to communicate, to know how to organize, to develop the kind of maturity that is required of Christian service. Education isn’t just gathering information; it’s a whole maturation process of the development of the person. This is especially true at a Christian school; at a Christian school, it should be a place where they do more than just say a prayer before class. A Christian school should be a place where young men and young women go through a period of spiritual formation and development so that they come out incredibly more proficient at living out their calling than they would have been had they not gone to school.
Q: I was curious about your work with Bill Clinton—did he take your spiritual advice?
A: Well, we dealt with a lot of problems after the Lewinsky scandal, having to do with whether or not he could keep his family together. So that was my first and foremost responsibility, because the worldwide embarrassment that family had to endure because of what he did would have been enough to destroy any family.
But in addition to that, there was an axe I had to grind with Clinton, which is also about spirituality, and it’s, “What are you going to do with all the poor people?” And he did a great deal for poor people, so that was part of it.
Being spiritual was not only dealing with his personal life, but dealing with, “What are you going to do, as the leader of the most powerful and richest nation on the face of the earth, what are going to do with the poor?”
Q: Did that happen?
A: Well, there were things that we liked and things that we didn’t like. We didn’t win the whole ball game. We hoped we were able to influence him in positive ways.
Q: How are you received as a Democratic Evangelical by the secular media? For example, you appeared on The Colbert Report …
A: I’m always very clear what I believe about Jesus. You know, it’s kind of a stunned reaction—“Wait, you’re a Christian and you care about poor people? You’re a Christian and you care about justice?” But that’s what Jesus was about. I don’t think it’s about being Christian in a secular society. What we have to do is we have to learn about how to speak without being obnoxious—with authority. People say, “How did you get on The Colbert Report, or The Daily Show?” Well, it wasn’t because we were movie stars; it’s because you establish a track record of working with poor people, and word of that gets out and “people in the media” want to hear what you have to say, not because you have power, but because you have authority.
Q: What other major media outlets have you done?
A: You name it, we’ve done it. We’ve done Larry King Live, Charlie Rose, Crossfire, CNN news. The political landscape in America has changed. Those of us who are evangelical and are not part of the religious right are simply given attention. Generally, when the American media wanted to speak to an evangelical, they’d call on Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. Now, they’ll generally call on Jim Wallis or me. We have become the go-to people. This is important to us, because what we’re trying to do is change the image of evangelicalism in America.
Who we are as evangelicals is multi-faceted. You’ve got everybody from the right to the left, we’re all across the board politically, we all have the same goals, and it’s just that the method of doing it is different. [The Republicans] want to end terrorism by killing terrorists. My attitude is, you’re not going to end terrorism by killing terrorist any more than you’ll end malaria by killing mosquitoes. You’ve got to get rid of the swamps that produce the mosquitoes. You've got to get rid of the social and economic conditions that are producing terrorists.