He may be 81 years old and fresh off a transatlantic flight, but the prospect of a lengthy interview on some controversial subjects doesn’t seem to bother Tony Campolo. The veteran evangelical is as energetic and interesting as he’s ever been. The American pastor has been well known as a prominent Christian speaker and author for decades. His claim to fame isn’t just that he used to be a spiritual advisor to Bill Clinton, but that he’s helped awaken a social
conscience among many evangelicals. And in pioneering the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE) – a ministry that served the world’s poor for nearly 40 years – he hasn’t merely talked the talk; he has walked the walk. Nevertheless, the talking has been memorable! See, for example, his now famous comment from the Spring Harvest platform in 1982: “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 45,000 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 45,000 kids died last night.”
Campolo is no stranger to controversy. He received plenty of media attention in June last year when he released a brief statement which called for “the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church”. Whether he can legitimately hold such a belief and remain an “evangelical” remains a hot topic among many Christians. Campolo himself is ready to ditch that label, albeit for political rather than theological reasons. For the past few years he has referred to himself as a “Red Letter Christian”, which means he emphasises the words of Jesus (printed in red in some Bibles). His new stance on gay relationships has led to two surprising outcomes. On the one hand, he says the door is now open for him to preach the gospel in more liberal churches. But there’s a serious downside as well. Campolo is candid in admitting he now feels cut off from his former friends in the evangelical world who can’t endorse his change of heart. It’s clear that a huge amount of inner pain and turmoil has accompanied his difficult decision. As our conversation turns to the upcoming US election and the divisive contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Campolo is aghast at the support many US evangelicals have lent the Republican candidate (even before the latest 'lewd talk / locker room' revelations and allegations of sexual assault). He also admits that he has already spoken too much about Hillary Clinton. But it’s also clear from his demeanour that he enjoys a good political discussion.
So as the interview ends and I thank him for his time, he replies, “Well, it’s never a pleasure to talk about controversial subjects,” I only half believe him.
Back in 2014, when you closed your ministry EAPE, the headlines were: “Tony Campolo is retiring”, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case! You're still speaking and travelling. Do you have any intention of slowing down?
It’s interesting you should say that, because when the word got out The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a major story that said, “Campolo is retiring. Subtitle: Who’s he kidding!”
Although you officially closed EAPE in 2014, you started up Red Letter Christians, which emphasises Jesus’ words that are printed in red in some Bibles. Why?
Because it was needed. Evangelicalism has become identified with extreme right-wing politics and become an adjunct to the right wing of the Republican Party. So when you start talking about evangelicals, the image that comes across in the American press and, as I understand it, in the British press as well, is that these people hate gays, are opposed to women’s rights and are anti-environmentalist. When Donald Trump says, “Global warming is a myth” and evangelicals are yelling, “Yay, yay”, I’m saying we don’t want to call ourselves evangelicals any more.
So you would no longer call yourself an evangelical?
Well, let me put it this way. There was a fundamentalist movement, but the word fundamentalist got bad press and people didn’t want to call themselves fundamentalists any more. Billy Graham and Carl Henry, then the editor of Christianity Today magazine, came up with a new word: “evangelical”. And it’s served us well.
But over the last ten years the word has become associated with certain political and social ideologies that we do not embrace. Do I have the very high view of scripture that fundamentalists have? Yes, I do. But the movement is no longer a theologically defined group. It is now a political group and the politics of evangelicalism are not the politics of a lot of Christians. Red Letter Christians is the new name we’ve come up with.
Did you ever think you would see a day when Donald Trump would be this close to becoming president?
No, I did not. I remember my reaction when he announced it. I couldn’t believe that he was even going to try. The thing that bothers me most is that evangelicals liked his racist statements, his homophobic statements, his antifeminist statements, his belligerency. I mean, they loved it! What’s most disturbing is not who Donald Trump is, but what this is revealing about the consciousness of evangelicals.
Why are we seeing so many major US evangelical leaders endorsing Trump?
Because to a large degree Christianity is more influenced by politics rather than influencing politics. Their commitment to the Republican Party is unquestioned.
A lot of your fellow American Christians don’t like Trump either. But they can’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton. She’s not trusted.
Yes, but why isn’t she trusted? Does anybody know?
The emails are the example that’s always given…
The classic example! Let’s take the emails and stop doing the propaganda thing. [Of the] 30,000 emails there were three that were called into question and none of those three had “top secret” across the top.
There’s an organisation in Princeton, New Jersey, that checks the facts that people utilise in their speeches. Hillary Clinton came out as number one: the most factual and most honest. Down near the bottom was Donald Trump. He makes these statements and nobody calls him on it. He talked about how, on 9/11, thousands of Muslims were dancing in the streets of Jersey City and New York. It never happened. Nobody ever witnessed it. But somehow Hillary is the liar?!
You were a former spiritual advisor to Bill Clinton, and you know Hillary Clinton on a personal level, so I’d be interested to hear your insight into her character.
She once was a Republican. And then her youth pastor took her into Chicago one Sunday evening to hear Martin Luther King, and when he spoke her whole political ideology changed and she wanted to use politics to end racism, sexism, homophobia. She wanted to use politics to end economic injustice. She wanted to use politics to do what her Christian faith had led her to do.
I don’t think she’s perfect, and it’s easy to see the places in which there have been inconsistencies in her life. But when she was publicly humiliated because of her husband, she didn’t divorce him. This is very important. When she was running for the Senate, her opponent brought that up: “The feminists in New York City have turned against you because you did not walk away from your husband after he humiliated you as no other woman in America has ever been humiliated. What have you got to say to them?”
And here was her answer: “When I married Bill, I promised that I would be there for better, for worse; that I would be with him no matter what happened. I would not end this marriage. That was my promise. I keep my promises to my husband, and if I’m elected to the US Senate, I will keep my promises to the people of New York.” There’s a smart politician!
She goes to church every Sunday. That’s significant. She was the only Democrat who regularly, without fail, showed up at the Senate prayer meeting on Tuesday morning. There were about 15 Republicans – it became a Republican thing – and when she found that the senators were having this prayer meeting she just showed up and said, “When it comes to praying, we should transcend political identities.”
How do you call for unity between Christians who deeply disagree on these political issues?
Well, first of all, I’ve talked too much in favour of Hillary Clinton. Far too much. I don’t think it’s a proper thing for Christian leaders to endorse a candidate. I think I kind of revealed by what I’ve said how I feel and what I think, but to give public endorsements – and I think the evangelicals have done that – I think that crosses a line.
But how do you treat a fellow evangelical who is going to vote for Trump?
As a fellow evangelical! My goodness, if I didn’t love them and relate to them in a positive way I would lose 90 per cent of my Christian audience! My wife and I have disagreed on a lot of things over the years, on very important issues. We always began our discussion with a very simple line: “I’m going to tell you what I believe about this, but I could be wrong…” It’s important to do that.
One major area where you have decided you were wrong in the past is homosexuality. Last year you wrote on your blog: “I am finally ready to call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church.” What made you change your mind?
And if you read the whole statement you’ll find that I say in that twice, “I could be wrong.” I’ve struggled with this. But let me just say, the toll that it’s taken on me has been enormous. For most of my life I’ve felt that my calling was to bring social justice issues into the evangelical community. I was a darling in the evangelical community. But [since my announcement] huge numbers of speaking engagements were cancelled.
However, liberal churches are welcoming me and I now have an opportunity to go into liberal churches where nobody has given an invitation to accept Christ as personal saviour for years! Paul writes: “I want to preach where it is not been preached before. [Romans 15:20]” I really feel that way, and I feel I’m very, very privileged.
That’s a fascinating answer, but I’ve got to bring you back to the original question. What caused you to change your mind on homosexuality?
One of the things that changed me was going back and studying [biblical] verses, studying the Church Fathers. I found that they said very little about it, if anything at all. Jesus, of course, never even mentions it, which is interesting.
If there’s one passage that gay people feel they’re clobbered with, it’s out of the first chapter of Romans: “They take the image of the incorruptible God, they transform him into the image of corruptible man and the four-footed beast and birds of the air, and they end up worshipping the creature rather than the creator. Therefore God has given them up to uncleanness, men having sex with men, women having sex with women” [Romans 1:23-27].
What Paul is doing is tying this homosexual behaviour that he’s talking about with idolatry. If you read that passage carefully, it says they gave up their natural affections. The homosexuals say, “You don’t get it, Campolo, my natural affection was never heterosexual. My natural affection was homosexual.” So as I began to review scripture, I began to say, “Wait a minute, maybe this isn’t as strong a condemnation as I think it is. Maybe he’s condemning obscenities that were related to idolatry rather than loving relationships between two persons.”
I know all the arguments pro and con. I’ve thought of everything, and I’m still open to considering new things when somebody has something new to say. Having said all of that, I just meet too many wonderful Christian people who are in gay relationships, and I know this: my own marriage has been an incredible relationship. If I was to ask what has been the greatest influence in nurturing me as a Christian, I would have to say it’s my wife. I then ask myself a very simple question: can I deny homosexual couples what I am personally experiencing in the way of blessings and joy in a relationship?
That became the basis for my final decision. I just knew too many couples who were living out the Christian life, who were committed to the work of the kingdom and who were in edifying relationships.
Suicide is the second major cause of death among teenagers in America, second only to automobile accidents. Almost three-quarters of those suicides are suicides by Christian young people who cannot reconcile their sexual orientation with what they’re hearing from the pulpit. I don’t know what the Church is about, but if it’s about driving kids to suicide it’s not doing the right thing.
So there are biblical reasons. But more importantly – and this is not the way in which theology should be formed – I just see so many Christian young people being hurt.
It’s interesting that you admit that’s not the way biblical theology should be formed, but nevertheless that’s the direction you’ve gone in…
That’s what a sociologist does. We call ourselves phenomenologists. It means that you step outside of yourself and look at yourself as a sociologist should. So I hear all my rhetoric, but I’m always saying, “But what’s really going on here?” I’ve been appalled by the number of gay people who have been driven away from Christianity, who have given up on God because of the way in which the Church has related to them.
By and large, those on both sides of this debate – including those on the conservative side – acknowledge that the way the Church has treated gay people has been horrific…
They have to do one thing more. They have to accept what scientific research has demonstrated: that people do not choose to be gay. Southern Baptists in the United States are convinced that gay is chosen.
Yes, but in the UK, many of the arguments I hear are from people who may well accept that. They would just say that, in the same way that you or I would have sinful desires, we would resist those.
I think it’s a good position.
And of course you used to hold it yourself. So you understand where these people are coming from…
And I understand why the first chapter of Romans is interpreted differently than the way in which I just interpreted it. But I do have to say it’s been painful for me to step back and make this statement, because I’ve lost my community, I feel alone. I feel stranded out there.
And I’m saying, “Where do I belong? Do I belong with these other people who are so liberal in their theology that I can’t really identify with that because I believe in the Bible and I believe in Jesus and I believe in the doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed? And on the other hand, I don’t want to be over here.” So I find myself in a no-man’s land, and that’s a very painful thing for me.
Hear the full interview with Tony Campolo on Premier Christian Radio on Saturday 5th November at 4pm. Or listen again at premierchristianradio.com/theprofile