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Author Tony Campolo, however, feels that Christians must engage politically. “I think addressing political issues is a requirement for any true Christian who wants to live out his or her faith in today’s society,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a choice—you have to become politically sensitive and politically involved.”
Campolo believes that while grassroots efforts to see societal change are necessary, they are not enough. “The reality is, the religious communities, not just Christians—though we are the dominant ones responding to the needs of poor people—cannot solve the problem of poverty by itself,” he says. Change, Campolo believes, must also come through legislation. “Eliminating poverty requires not just taking care of the victims of poverty; it requires transforming the infrastructure of poor countries. Do they have the roads for them to get food? When it comes to building roads, airports, facilitating transportation and communication, all of which are essential, and providing massive educational programs, which are essential to overcome illiteracy, I don’t think the Church alone can do it. We need a partnership,” he says.
This partnership, though, is often curtailed by sharp ideological differences. One of the defining characteristics of American politics has been intense partisanship. Starting in the 1980s, the Republican party seemed to become the de facto party of evangelicalism, but more and more young evangelicals are becoming disaffected with the idea of being defined by a particular party, and are frustrated with change being stifled by partisan posturing. Claiborne echoes this dissatisfaction. “It’s tricky when you don’t have any party that really embodies the central values of the Scripture,” he says. “No one’s really saying, ‘Blessed are the merciful and peacemakers and poor.’”
Claiborne feels that Christians can embody the ideals of both parties. “One of the things I love about Jesus is that He’s never telling people exactly what to do—or if He does, it’s different for two different people,” he says. “There are a lot of different ways people are going to respond. I think one of the mistakes the Religious Right made was telling people exactly what to do, like, ‘If you’re a real Christian, you’ll do this.’”
Campolo agrees. “My contention is that if anybody asks if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, the answer should be, ‘Please name the issue,’” he says. “On certain issues, I’m going to come across as someone who likes what the Republicans say, and on other issues I will come across as saying what the Democrats say.”
In fact, Campolo became so disenchanted with the politicization of evangelical Christianity that he and a group of Christian authors and thinkers have chosen all themselves Red Letter Christians, a reference to the words of Christ being printed in red in some Bibles. Campolo hopes to break the stereotype that one political party has a monopoly on Christianity.
Ultimately, Campolo feels that both parties need the guidance of Christian leaders. Campolo is himself a Democrat, but would like to see a spirit of cooperation between Christians on both sides of the aisle. “I would hope that people who are Red Letter Christians would join the Republican Party, and I would love it if some of them got into the platform committee and said what they had to say in that setting,” Campolo says. “I think it’s important that Red Letter Christians be in both parties, and be articulating the values of Red Letter Christians.”
On many issues, Campolo believes there is no partisan answer, but that Christians should seek an entirely different path. “We are looking for new answers to questions that transcend both the Democratic and the Republican resolutions,” he says. “On the war in Iraq, the left-wing understanding is that they want to pull out tomorrow morning. The right wing wants to stay there as long as it takes. People say, ‘Are they the only two options?’ The politicians have polarized the American society so that we think they are the only two options.”
Another issue in which Campolo sees Christians finding a different path is abortion. “The abortion issue cannot be ignored,” he says. “Here’s where you can see where both parties have something to contribute. The Republicans want to overthrow Roe v. Wade, and the pro-life people would cheer that, and they should. The other side of the story is this: Seventy percent of the abortions in this country are presently driven by economic forces. You have an 18-year-old woman who works at Wal-Mart at minimum wage—she has no hospitalization, she has no opportunity for maternity leave, she has no access to daycare when the baby is born, she’s in dire straits. If you’re going to be pro-life, you cannot only be concerned about the unborn; you have to be concerned about after they’re born. Are we going to have universal health care so she doesn’t have to worry about paying her hospital bill? Are we going to raise the minimum wage, because presently that woman cannot pay for her rent, let alone take care of herself and a child? Are we going to provide daycare for her, so she can continue to be employed? Are you willing to give her a maternity leave so that she doesn’t have to either lose her job or have an abortion?”
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