My Deconstruction Heroes: Tony Campolo

You may be surprised to learn that many of my greatest exvangelical heroes  are Christians. 

In fact, it was an evangelical whose writings walked me through the process by which the Moral Majority came into power – how Nixon dabbled in creating a voting base out of the religious right, and how Reagan ran with that idea and married the platforms of evangelical Christianity with the political positions of Republican constituents. The result was the rise of powerful and influential evangelists like Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robinson – who all worked closely with Reagan to convince their base that the Republican Party represented the “family values” found in the Bible. This scam worked to turn bipartisan politics into a Holy War and gave rise to the Trumpism that literally saw fringe groups within the evangelical base storming the White House on January 6th. 

There was a small group, little talked about in evangelical circles, who didn’t take Reagan’s hijacking of their faith traditions sitting down. They identify as the “Evangelical Left,” and they are a perfect example of what I mean when I say that I don’t care what an individual believes, but instead am invested in how they choose to believe it. (Its ranks also include Jimmy Carter.) 

One of the movement’s most outspoken leaders is a contemporary and peer of Falwell et al by the name of Tony Campolo, a Baptist preacher out of Philadelphia. “Mixing religion and politics is like mixing ice cream with feces,” Campolo once told Stephen Colbert. “It doesn’t hurt the feces, but you don’t want to eat the ice cream.” Yeah, I love this guy. 

Now, Tony Campolo believes in Biblical literalism with as much reverence as his right-winged compatriots. His interpretation of the scriptures includes Hell theology, that we are sinners saved by God’s grace, atonement through Christ’s sacrifice, salvation through faith in Christ – all the components to why this is not the path that personally works for me. The difference is that Campolo believes that the Republican party’s devotion to capitalism doesn’t represent the God that he encounters when he reads the Bible. “For as much as evangelicals say that the Bible is inerrant, they don’t seem to read it,” he often laments. 

Campolo is right, and he’s emerged as a voice of reason refusing to be drowned out by all the choas in his funhouse. He uses every platform he can to point out that for all its violence and calls to war, the number one topic of the Bible is actually God calling upon those who follow Him to help the poor, to feed the starving, to rescue the perishing. Campolo certainly wants to “save souls,” but he also has a reading of the Bible in which he recognizes that Jesus preached more about the Kingdom of Heaven spread out upon the earth than he did about someone’s eternal fate. He doesn’t think you can call yourself a Bible-believing preacher if you are not actively helping the poor – not just in spirit, but also in body. 

“The God of the Bible is the God of the poor,” Campolo insists. And while he preaches the traditional Gospel message, he believes that you cannot preach it if you are not actively participating in a social gospel in which you are giving people decent wages, providing them access to good health care, helping immigrants, opening food banks – basically everything you hear at a Bernie Sanders rally. Campolo is using the evangelical right’s own infallible Word position against them to swing the pendulum back toward the Gospel of Christ standing for social justice rather than oppressive right-wing ideology. Unlike Jerry Falwell, Campolo can provide countless verses in the Bible to back up his claims. 

I love watching Campolo preach too – he pulls no punches. I watched him once stand in front of a packed-out auditorium of evangelicals and say, “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.” And while the shock in the audience manifested audibly – the ones who gasped loudest were those of us who knew he was right. 

I read Campolo’s book SPEAKING MY MIND in 2005 when I was still preaching behind a Southern Baptist pulpit. In this book, which is really just a long rant about all the ways the evangelical community has gone haywire, he calls out evangelical hypocrisy for leaving out all the overwhelming calls to help the poor in the Bible while nitpicking a handful of verses about homosexuality and other concepts that the evangelical right insist are foundational to Christian belief and practice. Reading it then made me think I was holding something positively radical in my hands (I had no idea, of course, that John Shelby Spong was on my horizon). 

As someone raised in the the evangelical community – especially since I was born at the beginning of the Moral Majority’s rise – it simply never occurred to me that you could be an evangelical without being a Republican until I read that book. When I did, it made me feel a little less crazy for having reservations about Bush Jr’s invasion of Iraq, which didn’t make any sense to me but that every preacher I knew enthusiastically endorsed. It gave me permission to actually read calls for non-violence in Sermon on the Mount without needing to twist it awkwardly into the “guns and country” theology of my upbringing. Campolo was thus foundational to me realizing that there was more to the story than what I’d heard my whole life. 

Campolo, now 86 and the father of a major player in the deconstruction movement (follow Bart Campolo, all of you – he’s a trustworthy leader), went on to found a movement to rally the Evangelical Left called “Red Letter Christians,” named after the tradition in the Gideon Bible to highlight the sayings of Jesus in red ink. Their central thesis is that spreading Jesus’s message of peace and universal love that he preached in the Sermon on the Mount is just as important to accepting him as Savior. It is an organization dedicated to be like Jesus and to take him in earnest – feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and advancing social justice causes. 

By actually striving to be Christ-like, Campolo’s movement has learned to listen to those concerned with indoctrination and have set out to reform the way some of their message is transmitted to children. Campolo also recently came out as LGBTQ-affirming, which for a Baptist preacher is a huge step. The Red Letter Christians are proud allies of Black Lives Matter and #metoo. They showed up for Standing Rock. They’re forces of good,.

All this to say: It seems like actually listening to Jesus improves the evangelical platform all around. I will never return to Biblical literalism – reading it as a metaphor is far too beautiful to me, and evangelicalism is a philosophy that limits God’s capacity for grace and mercy far, far too much for my preference. There’s still a lot of psychological harm in Hell theology, even as an adult, and theism in general just isn’t my personal cup of tea. But if Tony Campolo represented the future of evangelical Christianity, I suspect the exvangelical movement wouldn’t have been quite as necessary – and that is the finest compliment I can pay a Baptist preacher. 

I’d love to hear about some of your deconstruction heroes, those of you who for whom it is safe to speak openly about such a thing. In the meantime, if you’re at the very beginning of your deconstruction and need a gentle push in the direction of challenging the narrative you’ve been told while still affirming theology that is dear to you – I can’t think of anyone better than Tony Campolo. 

Remember: You are loved, you are worthy of love – just the way you are. 

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