After spending most of his years leading and shaping the Evangelical movement, Tony Campolo has thrown in the towel. He has dumped the label Evangelical. He has not changed his theological convictions. He just thinks that the public use of that label has degenerated beyond any realistic hope of rehabilitation in the foreseeable future.
As a movement, the Evangelical label once stood for both conservative theological convictions and progressive social engagement, for evangelizing the lost and healing the sick. Accordingly, Campolo has been broadcasting the saving power of Christ, while simultaneously promoting ministries of justice, peace, and compassion, i.e., the ethical teachings of Jesus.
But, as he said at the Presbyterian Head-of-Staff Pastors’ Conference this past February, the movement has been overtaken by voices on the extreme political right, and has been co-opted by a single political party.
He has given up; he no longer calls himself an Evangelical. After extended conversations with other so-called progressive Evangelicals like Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, Joel Hunter, and Shane Claiborne, he has called for the launch of a whole new movement: the Red Letter Christians.
He wrote the book: Red Letter Christians: a Citizens Guide to Faith & Politics (Regal, 2008).
In the book’s foreword, Jim Wallis introduces the basic idea. “We affirm the authority of the whole Bible, not just the explicit sayings of Jesus, often found highlighted in red. … But we believe that the ‘red letters’ of Jesus need to be focused on again. We feel a calling together in this historical moment to bring back the distinctive message of Jesus for our time, for our world, and for the critical issues we face today” (pp. 10, 11).
Campolo elaborates the agenda. Red Letter Christians “ … embrace a broad range of social concerns, giving special attention to legislation that provides help for the poor and hope for the oppressed. Declaring that there are more than 2,000 verses of Scripture that call us to express love and justice for those who are poor and oppressed, we promote legislation that turns biblical imperatives into social policy. We … concur with Gandhi when he said, ‘Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is’” (p. 24).
These words sound almost like those Karl Barth would write.
Among the million or so words written by Barth, one brief collection rang out such a clarion call that the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church adopted it as their confession of faith. On Pentecost Sunday, 75 years ago, the Confessing Church movement was launched in Germany.
The Theological Declaration of Barmen declared the “evangelical truth” that Biblical faith stands up to evil, including social evils being perpetrated by governmental principalities and powers.
Today, a growing number of Christians — including folks who, like myself, have self-identified as evangelicals — feel deep shame over the ways that their nation keeps making the wrong decisions with regard to the treatment of foreign workers, enemy combatants, undocumented immigrants, people of color, other minorities and women. Many of us have come to recognize our own complicity in such policies and actions.
What shall we do about this moral and faith-based failure?
Might we Presbyterians join the movement? Might we draw from the wells of our theological tradition, which is both conservative in theology and liberal in social action (we did adopt Barmen as one of our confessions), to stand with our sisters and brothers who are seeking to promote of social righteousness and to exhibit the kingdom of heaven to the world?
Campolo urges all camps of the church to work together. “In reality, conservatives and liberals need each other: Conservatives maintain many lines that should never be crossed, while liberals destroy many lines that should never have existed” (p. 36).
Red letter Christians are the new Evangelicals. Might they also be the new Liberals, the new Conservatives, the new Progressives, the new Presbyterians?