taking the words of Jesus seriously

I met Tony Campolo at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan, between a performance of Rigoletto, which he and his wife had attended at the Metropolitan Opera. I sat down with him to discuss some questions related to my new book The New Evangelicals. The following is an excerpt from that interview:

TC: What’s happened overall in the last few years is that a younger generation is emerging with different values. Consider the homosexual issue. Recent studies indicate that older people tend to be opposed to gay marriage and younger people, while still conservative on the issue, do not consider it a defining issue for Christians.  While conservative in their thinking, they put in an emphasis alongside of their concerns about the environment, their opposition to war, their concerns about human trafficking and, most of all, their concerns about poverty.

I’m in the middle, closer to the younger. Of all the things to be upset about, this is not a big one. I put homosexuality in the same category as divorce and remarriage. Do I approve? Of course not. Do I accept people who are divorced and remarried and receive them into the church? Of course. If they want to become clergy, will I stand in opposition? Of course not. I’m a Baptist. That means I believe in sole conscience, which is to say that each individual has a right to interpret Scripture for himself or herself. My wife is not in agreement with me in my conservative view on gay marriage.  She supports gay marriage.  But we have no problem because we recognize that we are not infallible interpreters of Scripture.

After Proposition 8 passed [the California referendum prohibiting gay marriage], conservatives said, we won. But tens of thousands of gays and lesbians marched in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, and Chicago looking at the Bible as an instrument of oppression and at Jesus as their enemy. If you call this winning, we are not on the same page.

If you talk to young people on these divisive issues [abortion, gay marriage], they say, it’s not that we’ve changed our minds but that they’re not as important to us anymore. George Santayana once said, ‘on such concerns, we do not reject; we simply bid them a fond farewell.’ So, as to the broadening of the evangelical agenda, there has been a shift. What appeals to young people is a call to do something heroic with their lives— they respond to our challenge when we say to them, “Through you Christ wants to help the poor, save the environment, end war, end oppression, bring justice.”

MP: What does that mean politically?

TC: On these poverty and war issues, the shift of young people towards to Democratic party looks inevitable. Many say, if it wasn’t for the abortion issue, there would be no question how the vote would go. The idea is that war is the major cause of poverty. When you’re spending $250, 000/minute in Iraq, you don’t have money to take care of the poor in our country or in Iraq.

The argument that has cut into the support of the Republican Party is the reality that 73 percent of all abortions are economically driven. Are the Republicans willing to address these issues? In the 2008 election, the Republican platform originally had a proposal that would have addressed the economic forces that are driving so many women to have abortions.  It was deleted because the Republicans, at their national convention, contended it would cost the taxpayers too much money to do that. Tell that to young people and they are not sure they want to be Republicans anymore.

MP: What could frustrate this move among evangelicals towards the Democrats?

TC: President Obama, during the election period, made a strong pronouncement that the U.S. government would not fund any faith-based social program that exercised any form of discrimination.  I disagree, as do most young evangelicals, with that position.  There are some legitimate forms of discrimination that can be exercised by evangelicals.  For instance, a Christian organization should be allowed to discriminate in hiring when it comes to considering non-Christians or even anti-Christians for employment.

Furthermore, if the convictions of a Christian group (let’s say a church) call for discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation, most evangelical young people would say that should be allowed.  Certainly, that was the case during the Clinton administration.  Clinton allowed certain forms of discrimination to preserve the integrity of faith-based organizations.  Sometimes discrimination is necessary.

In discussions that I had with leaders on the platform committee of the Democratic Party, I asked whether or not those in the national offices of the Democratic Party, when hiring secretaries and other workers for their office work, should be allowed to discriminate against some deeply committed Republicans.  Would they really want Republicans involved in the inner workings of the national office?  The answer I got was no.  So it is that I believe certain forms of discrimination seem to be legitimate, and I use that as an example.

The real problem could be the conscience clause on abortion [which allows doctors to refuse, on religious grounds, to perform them]. That’s going to lose Obama ground among the young who say people should be allowed their conscience. Young people believe that conscientious objectors should not have to go to war, and what they believe about war is what they believe about abortion.  Doctors and nurses who are opposed to abortion should not be forced to perform an abortion if they work in a hospital that is receiving government funding. I’m going to stand for the conscience clause.

MP: At the end of his presidency, Bush issued a policy that allowed not just doctors but janitors or accountants to refuse to perform their jobs if they disagreed with services—like abortion–offered by their employer.

TC: Certainly, conscience objections apply to doctors and nurses–those who are directly involved in performing abortions. But I think that’s where I’d draw that line.

MP: During the heyday of the Bush administration, many people were concerned that evangelicals would interfere with church-state separation, so today….

TC: We are pressing for greater church-state separation, not less. Take marriage: What the state should do is guarantee people’s rights.  We should follow a model such as that employed in Holland where, if you want to get married, you go to the city hall and register there as a couple, entitled to all the legal rights of a civil union.  If you want to call it a marriage, you then go to a church and the church blesses the union.  I think that churches should determine who is married and who is not.  If marriage is a sacred institution, which President Bush said it is, then it should remain within the domain of the church to define who is to be married and who is not.  The state’s only responsibility is to guarantee the legal rights of couples who want to live together in a committed union.

This idea is picking up so much momentum that a petition is circulating in California to make that state policy. I have gotten no opposition to this idea even among older evangelicals. It looks like a solution where nobody is imposing on anyone else. This is the big principle: We don’t have the right to impose what we believe in religious matters, such as who is married and who is not, on other people.

We’re moving to an enhanced understanding of separation of church and state. If we’re going to ‘speak truth to power, ’ we can’t be the power. We can be a prophetic church only if we are not in bed with the state.

MP: Where are “new evangelicals” on foreign policy?

TC: Religious legitimization of the war in Iraq raises serious questions, and these questions are raised not only among younger evangelicals. And today, religious right rhetoric is increasingly anti-Muslim. They are creating Islamo-phobia. The coming Armageddon for Christian Zionists is now being defined as a conflict between the Islamic and Christian worlds. Older Christian Zionists see that the only solution to the Mideast crisis is a Lieberman solution [Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time of the interview], where all Arabs leave Israel because God promised the land to the seed of Abraham. But Christian Zionists often fail to realize that the Arabs are also of the seed of Abraham via Ishmael.

This could influence the relationship between evangelicals and Obama. He has put out the olive leaf to the Muslim community. If there is another terrorist attack, it could shift people back in the direction of the religious right.

MP: With another terrorist attack, will evangelicals return to a more theocratic vision of church-state relations?

TC: I don’t think so. The influx of immigrants has been huge and the religious right has alienated Hispanics with its anti-immigrant mentality. White protestant Christianity is still a gigantic plurality but it is no longer a majority. The new majority is very concerned to keep the older plurality from imposing itself on the rest.

MP: They don’t want to give the white evangelical majority the help of the state to impose itself?

TC: Right, they don’t.

MP: Let me ask you where evangelicals are on a few high-profile issues, like evolution.

TC: Evangelicals are moving more towards biological evolution. Creationism is a dying issue. You have PhDs teaching evolution and biology courses at Christian academic institutions. But young people say that intelligent design should be taught simply because, if we’re going to have liberal education, we should be open to all points of view. Here we come back to the problem of imposing: do you impose one set of views on all people—about homosexuality or about evolution? If we are really going to affirm open minds and avoid bigoted responses to questions, then young people want all points of view expressed.  Creationism and intelligent design cannot simply be dismissed out of court as being unscientific without an honest discussion on these subjects.

MP: Your stand on religious symbols in public places?

TC: We’ll win the argument on the liberal side. Take religious symbols in courts of law. What right have we, in a pluralistic society, to say in a court of law that our God takes precedence over your God?

MP: Moments of silence in the public schools?

TC: I am opposed to silent prayer being ordered. I’m in favor of students taking the initiative and saying, “I’d like to share some of my beliefs with the class about how we should live out our lives.” But no employee of the school system should impose that because everyone in society is paying this guy’s salary, including atheists.

The schoolroom should be open to Christians expressing their beliefs openly. Freedom of speech in the Bill of Rights should guarantee that for the student.  I hasten to add, however, that the door should be open for Muslim students and for Jewish students, as well as those of other religions, to do the same.  We would have a better situation if everyone had an opportunity to share beliefs and convictions in the classroom.  Even atheists and agnostics should have that same right.  I believe that the Bill of Rights does not exclude religion from the classroom.  What it does do is exclude the propagation of any one single religion at the expense of others.  I would not be opposed to a time of silent meditation, but to call it prayer has religious overtones.  If someone, during that time of silent meditation, wants to pray, this is something that each person has to decide for him or herself.

MP: School vouchers?

TC: I’m opposed to vouchers because of my experience in Northern Ireland. Because of the voucher system, Protestants have become increasingly disconnected from Catholics. Everyone in Ireland agrees: if we’re going to solve the problem, we’ve got to do something to get these kids to know each other. To be a pluralistic society where people get along, the voucher system must be opposed. Also, the minute I ask, “Are we going to allow the black Muslims to have their own schools?” evangelicals who are in favor of vouchers suddenly say, “oh, I hadn’t thought about that.”

MP: Is this the view that most evangelicals hold?

TC: Centrists are still very much for vouchers and will continue to be because the public school system is so lousy.

MP: The future of “new evangelical” politics?

TC: I expect that progressive evangelicalism will win. I am not sure that this means that they will be Democrats, nor do I care. But I do know that their positions on social issues will be progressive. When anybody asks me if I am a Democrat or a Republican, my response is always: name the issue. McCain’s daughter represents them. She’s evangelical; she’s where we are; she’s a Republican, so what.

Marcia Pally is the author of The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good. In addition she teaches at New York University in Multilingual Multicultural Studies and is a permanent Fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities. In addition to her academic work, Professor Pally has been a columnist in the U.S. and Europe for over 20 years.

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