Tony Campolo Extended Interview

Read more of Lucky Severson’s interview about evangelicals and politics with author, teacher, and Baptist minister Tony Campolo, an evangelical Democrat:

Evangelicals aren’t all of the same stripe, are they?

The reality is that at least 35 percent of us (that’s a large group; it’s a minority, but it’s a large group of evangelicals) voted for Bill Clinton the last time he ran for president. Many of us have concerns about the Democratic Party, but we have even more concerns about the Republican Party. Thus, we vote Democratic not because we’re totally in agreement with that party allegiance, but because it seems to be more slanted in the direction that we want to go.

You describe yourself, then, as maybe a reluctant Democrat?

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Yes. I think the real place where most evangelicals have trouble with the Democratic Party is on the issue of abortion. But it should be noted that in 1950, when abortion was illegal, 27 percent of women over the age of 35 had had an abortion. In short, I’m not sure that the abortion problem can be solved by legislation. I think it can only be solved through moral persuasion. The churches and the mosques and the synagogues of this country have really failed to convince the American people that this is a sin. And until we do, we shouldn’t be trying to impose our values by law — not because it’s wrong to do so, but because it won’t work.

It’s one of those moral absolutes, but you think that until most Americans have a better understanding that it is, you can’t be quite so absolute in your voting?

I think it is an absolute. For some of us, it’s a very, very strong absolute. We just don’t know, and we are not convinced, that passing laws is going to solve the problem, especially in the age of a pill, where people can have abortions without an surgical operation, where it all becomes a very private matter. Prior to ROE V. WADE, abortions were common even though they were illegal. I don’t think making them illegal again is going to solve the problem.

Is gay marriage another one of those absolutes?

The reality is that people like me have very strong feelings about the gay situation. I feel that the government should not be in the business of marrying anybody; that, in reality, what the government should do is recognize civil unions, both homosexual and heterosexual. That’s what they do in Europe. You go down to the city hall and you become legally connected. You have a civil union there. Then, if you’re religious, you go down to the church, and the church blesses the union. That gets the problem solved. I don’t know of many evangelicals who want to deny gay couples their legal rights. However, most of us don’t want to call it marriage, because we think that word has religious connotations, and we’re not ready to see it used in ways that offend us. Now, I have to say this. My wife and I differ on this issue. She goes to a church that does marry gay people. I don’t. We go to different churches. That’s all right. It seems to me that a gay couple could go to a church like hers and get their marriage blessed. They couldn’t come to mine and get their marriage blessed. But I think it’s up to a local congregation to determine whether or not a marriage should be blessed of God. And it shouldn’t be up to the government.

I’m a minister, and I serve as a minister in addition to being a university professor. I always found it very strange that, at the end of the ceremony, I had to say things like, “By the authority committed unto me by the state of Pennsylvania. …” When did my authority come from the state of Pennsylvania? As a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I thought my authority came from God and from the Holy Scriptures. All of a sudden, the ball game changes and I am no longer a servant of God; I’m a servant of the state. That kind of duplicity upsets me. I contend the state ought to do its thing and provide legal rights for all couples who want to be joined together for life. The church should bless unions that it sees fit to bless, and they should be called marriages.

But you don’t put this issue in the same category as abortion?

Certainly not. And I would have to say, if you look at the two candidates, Kerry and Bush, coming up in this election, you’ll find that they hold identical positions, that both of them say, “We believe that gay couples should have civil rights. We just don’t want to call it marriage.”

Tell me about your relationship with President Clinton.

I got to know the president early on in his first term of office. We shared a common commitment to helping oppressed, poor people in the city. I teach at Eastern University, which is highly committed to doing work among the poor and the oppressed peoples of the world. We have a special commitment to the city. He found out about that and invited me to the White House to talk to him about this. That resulted in a friendship. About every five to six weeks, I would go down to the White House and spend an hour, an hour and a quarter, talking to him. I would open Scripture, because that’s my thing — I’m a Bible guy; I’m an evangelical to the core — and try to explain to him what his responsibilities were to society. I think my failure was that I did not focus at all on his personal morality; I focused on his social morality from Scripture. For that I am very sorry, because I think I had an opportunity that I missed. When he messed up his life after that Lewinsky mess, it was horrible. He called me one day. I know the day. It was Labor Day. I pick up the phone and it’s the President of the United States at the other end of the line, who says, “I’ve made some terrible mistakes and I’ve messed up my life. Will you help me?” I don’t know what you’re supposed to do, as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What do you say? “I only pray with Republicans?” What do you say? “Of course I’ll help you.” I think the call of every Christian is to help any brother, or any sister, who is in need. Anybody who would refuse to help a person who reaches out for spiritual assistance because of political affiliation ought to raise some very serious questions about his spiritual affiliation, or her spiritual affiliation.

So after the Lewinsky scandal, everything changed, and we moved from using the Bible to address the moral issues of our time, which were social, to moral issues of our time that were very personal. I have continued that relationship up until the present. I continue to see him, so don’t get the idea that he was just doing this in order to maintain his political stature, whatever it might have been at that point, among the American people; that he was trying to convince the people that “I’m your President, see how careful I am about spiritual things.” He has continued to seek spiritual guidance and direction. And I continue to see him with some degree of regularity and talk to him on the telephone, trying to make sure that he lives up to his desire to be a faithful husband and a faithful father.

Would you describe President Clinton as an evangelical?

Yes, I certainly would consider him as an evangelical. I consider him an evangelical in the following way. I have to define what I mean by “evangelical.” An evangelical is somebody who, first of all, has a very high view of Scripture, believes it’s an infallible message from God. He would say, “Yes, I believe that.” Who believes in the doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed. He would say, “Yes, as I go over that list of doctrines that are outlined in the Apostles’ Creed, I believe every one of them.” And the third thing is that an evangelical Christian is somebody who claims to have an intimate personal relationship with Jesus. President Clinton claims to have that kind of relationship with Jesus. It’s not for me to judge whether he’s telling the truth. I judge no one. Jesus says I have to judge no one. I can’t go to a higher authority than that. On a personal level, I have to say I have a real good spiritual fellowship when I’m with the president. And that gives me a great deal of comfort.

Because of his actions, did President Clinton drive evangelicals to President George W. Bush?

His behavior in the context of the Lewinsky scandal didn’t win him any evangelical votes. I think we’d have to say that. But I’ve got to tell you this: long before the Lewinsky scandal, the visceral negativism among evangelicals in general was so great that all the Lewinsky scandal [did] was add fuel to an already hot-burning fire.

Why was that fire burning so hot?

I think it goes back to the fact that the evangelical community often does not have a biblical vision of God. That’s a strong statement. George Bernard Shaw once said that God created us in his image, and we decided to return the favor. I think that’s what happened. Many evangelicals have re-created God in the image of a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Republican. And they end up worshipping a God that is an incarnation of their own values, instead of worshipping a God that emerges out of Scripture when we read it with honesty. The God that emerges out of Scripture, I think, would be angry with both parties. I think that the policies of the biblical Jesus would, in fact, stand in opposition to both the Democrats and the Republicans. The reason why I buy into the Democratic Party more than the Republican Party is because there are over 2,000 verses of Scripture that deal with responding to the needs of the poor. Note: 2,000 verses. On the contrary, when you take the issue of homosexuality, which has become the defining issue among evangelicals, I love to ask this question: What does Jesus say about homosexuality? And they always look at me blankly. And I say, “That’s right. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. What does he say about responding to poor people? A great deal.” Now, the Apostle Paul speaks on the homosexual issue. And there are passages in the Hebrew Bible. But Jesus never puts this on his top-ten list of sins. Neglecting the poor is right at the top of that list. And when it comes to neglecting the poor, I think our government has a lot to answer for. Of the 22 industrialized nations of the world, we’re dead last in per capita giving to poor people. Compare that with Norway, where, for every dollar we give on a per capita giving basis, people of Norway give 70. I think we’ve got some answering to do. So I really would like to see both parties respond to the poor with greater commitment. But I’ve got to tell you, the Democrats, I feel, are doing a better job in that respect than Republicans are.

Some people have said that the evangelicals have enormous, maybe outsized, influence on this administration’s foreign policy. Israel is usually the prime example. Would you agree with that?

I think that President Bush would be a lot more even-handed in Middle East policy, providing more justice for Palestinian people, if it wasn’t for what TIME magazine calls “evangelical Zionists.” There are some evangelicals who buy into these LEFT BEHIND books that are now the rage of the day, that suggest that Jesus can’t return to Earth unless all the Arab peoples are driven out and the temple is rebuilt, which of course has no biblical basis whatsoever. There is no biblical basis for that kind of thing. It comes out of books like LEFT BEHIND and the notes of the Scofield Reference Bible. It’s not in the scriptures. Please make that known. But evangelicals believe it’s in there, that somehow all the Arab peoples have to be driven out of the Holy Land before Christ can return. What a stupid idea! So they end up advocating ethnic cleansing. I contend that Bush would be a lot more moderate if there weren’t some fundamentalists breathing down his neck every time he wants to establish the state of Israel, every time he wants to do justice for the Palestinian people. My theology is such that the God who loves Israel and will not forsake Israel — which is why I want to see Israel have a secure nation with secure borders — also loves the Palestinians. He loves the Palestinians every bit as much as he loves the Israelis. And if it’s just for the Israelis to have a nation of their own, with secure borders, without having to worry that terrorists will blow up their children on the way home from school, I say that the Palestinians are entitled to a land of their own, with secure borders, and that they shouldn’t have to worry that Israeli tanks are going to come in, level their homes, and shoot up the town. I think the time has come for the United States to do even-handed justice. But it seems to me that evangelicals push the president in the direction where he is so Zionist in his commitment that he isn’t doing what’s right for the Palestinian people. I think that in his heart, he wants to do what’s right for the Palestinian people, every bit as much as Clinton did, and recognizes there can be no peace in the Middle East until there is both a Palestinian state and an Israeli state, with secure borders.

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What’s your position on the war in Iraq?

The most important [Bible] verse for our nation, which is on the Liberty Bell, is 2 Chronicles 7:14. In the bicentennial year, we quoted that verse over and over again. It reads something like this, God saying, “If my people who were called by my name will humble themselves and repent, I will restore them and I will make them whole again.” I love that verse. I believe that America should live up to its nationally designated Bible verse. The time has come for America to do what a powerful nation has never done: say we’ve tried to do right; we know we did right in getting rid of Saddam Hussein. But the way we have gone about doing it, without bringing together an international community, without really dealing with this thing in depth, rushing ahead on faulty intelligence, was wrong. We made mistakes, serious mistakes. We are humbling ourselves before the world. We repent. If America is too arrogant, too prideful to repent, it’s not the kind of country that God wants it to be. And in that repentance, we need to say to the peoples of the world, “Inherent in our opposition to Saddam Hussein, we have nurtured an anti-Muslim attitude, which has to be criticized.” When leading evangelicals say terrible things about Islam, evil things about Islam, terrible things about Muhammad, they ought to be ashamed of themselves. I am saying the time has come to repent of all of that and to say, “We want to be brothers and sisters. We may not agree, but we want to be brothers and sisters. And we want to do what’s right.” And what’s right is that the time has come for the United States to withdraw from Iraq and for an international army, sent by the United Nations, to take our place. Our soldiers are being hated more and more every day. It’s time for us to recognize it’s a no-win situation. We’re sorry. We made a mistake. We tried to do what’s right. There’s no question in my mind that President Bush tried to do what’s right. But it didn’t turn out right. Does a great nation continue to pursue stupid policies? Or does it say, “We’ve made a mistake. We repent. We humble ourselves and call upon the rest of the world to send in armed forces that will, in fact, be welcomed by the Iraqi people, instead of being shot at, as our soldiers are”?

How many evangelicals, do you think, agree with you on that?

Not many. I daresay, when you get it down to the bottom line, maybe I could get 20 percent. That’s a generous guess.

Karl Rove said that there were four million evangelicals who didn’t vote in the last election, and he wants them in this election. Other evangelicals we’ve talked to said that this is a watershed, that evangelicals are going to be out in great numbers, with great fervency, for George W. Bush. Do you agree?

I think there’s every evidence that the evangelical community will get people registered to vote and will urge them to vote along Republican lines. The two hot issues are the gay issue and the abortion issue. These are the two defining issues in the evangelical community these days. I’m sure that these hot buttons will be pushed, time and time again.

You don’t think they ought to be the paramount issues?

I think there are other issues that the Democrats could use to rally evangelicals. There are a lot of us, for instance, who believe that the Bible calls us to be environmentally responsible. And this administration has had a very bad record on the environment. They’ve deregulated the automotive industry, for instance, so that we have SUVs that are consuming gasoline at rates that are making us more and more dependent on Middle East oil. We are producing automobiles that are polluting the atmosphere, but the regulations on emissions have been cut. We are cutting into national forests. We’re doing a whole host of things that are detrimental to the environment. I think that if the Democratic Party said, “How about the environment? How about the poor of the Third World? How about medical care?” and the fact that there are elderly people in this country who have to choose between medicine or buying food is an abomination. We have promised every man, woman, and child in Iraq total medical coverage. But I contend that if we’re providing total medical coverage for every man, woman, and child in Iraq, shouldn’t we at least be doing the same thing for every man, woman, and child in the United States? Those issues are biblical issues: to care for the sick, to feed the hungry, to stand up for the oppressed. I contend that if the evangelical community became more biblical, everything would change. For instance, Jesus taught the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the merciful.” Most evangelicals I know are supportive of capital punishment. Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” I contend that it’s impossible to read the Sermon on the Mount and not come out against capital punishment. For that matter, it’s pretty hard to read the Sermon on the Mount and not come out as a pacifist. I lean in that direction, to be perfectly honest.

When you talk about evangelicals, don’t forget that a significant proportion of the evangelical community is African American. And most African Americans — well over 90 percent, thoroughly evangelical, thoroughly biblical — will probably vote Democratic. The black community often feels that when we talk about evangelicalism, they are left out. They are a significant part of the evangelical community, and they are not Republican, and we’d better not forget that.

Would it take something cataclysmic to turn evangelicals from Republicans to Democrats again?

I don’t know that it has to be cataclysmic. I think that the pendulum has a way of swinging. During the Sixties, the pendulum had swung very much to the left. I once said to President Clinton, “What I really would love for this country to have is a truly liberal president, like Richard Nixon.” He gulped. I said, “Who was it that invented affirmative action? Richard Nixon. Who was it that first proposed universal health care? Richard Nixon. Who was it that created OSHA? Richard Nixon. Who entered into public policy and international policy with the People’s Republic of China? Richard Nixon. Who proposed the Model Cities programs for the poor? Richard Nixon.” Sometimes we get so caught up with our political allegiances that we do not really listen to what candidates are doing. I contend that, in spite of all that might be said about Watergate, Richard Nixon was good for the poor people of America. And I said that to President Clinton. And he said, “You know, there is some truth to what you say.” We’ve got to go beyond party labels. We’ve got to go beyond the hot buttons. And we’ve got to ask ourselves some very serious questions as to whether or not certain religious leaders, in terms of raising money — I hate to bring this up — are pushing hot buttons. I mean, how many guys do you see on the air saying, “Send us your money and we will lead a crusade against gays. Send us your money and we will lead it, please.” God doesn’t need money; he needs voices of righteousness to speak to this nation.

The real problem that I think those of us who are evangelicals and Democrats have to face up to is that the political right controls the religious media. When you listen to Christian radio stations — and there are thousands of them now in the United States — and when you listen to Christian television networks — and there are thousands of Christian television shows across the country — they are all politically right. They control the media. Consequently, you’re probably right: it would take something cataclysmic to move them away, because the political right in the evangelical community controls the microphones.

What about evangelical attitudes toward social issues like poverty?

When it comes to taking care of the poor, the evangelicals have a very good record on the micro- level. They are establishing more homes for the homeless than any other groups. They are out there on the streets giving food to the hungry, clothing the naked, ministering to the sick. They are doing wonderful things on the micro- level. But let me say this. Bishop Romero said, “When I take care of poor people, they call me a saint. When I ask why the people are poor, they call me a communist.” What evangelicals are willing to do is to help poor people on the micro- level, face to face, person to person. They are brilliant at this. They are doing more about this than anybody else. But when it comes to addressing the structural problems that create poverty — the role of large corporations, the role of the world economy — they are not about to take a stand on those issues. We all want to buy sneakers at bargain prices at WalMart. Children have to be exploited in factories in Thailand to produce them. If we want to stop that over in Thailand, we’ve got to be able to pay a price here in the United States. I’m afraid that most evangelicals don’t want to deal with this, in this manner. In short, they don’t want to change the system. I always say about evangelicals, we are great as God’s ambulance squad. Whenever there are casualties of the system, we run out there and patch up their wounds and try to put them back in the system. But down deep underneath, we know that, for every casualty of the system that we patch up and send back into the system in one piece, the system produces five to ten more to take his place. At some particular point, we have to say, “Let’s change the system.” That’s where the evangelical community gets angry. They don’t want to change the system. Let me put it this way. We’re Good Samaritans. You know the story of the Good Samaritan. The guy going from Jericho to Jerusalem gets mugged and left for dead. And the Good Samaritan comes along and rescues him. That’s what we’re good at. But if somebody gets mugged the next day, and two people get mugged the day after that, and five the day after that, there comes a point at which we have to say, “Maybe, instead of just picking up the casualties, we need to put in a lighting system and we need to have police patrolling this road. We need to change the system so that people don’t get mugged anymore.” We’re good at picking up the victims of mugging. We’re not good at changing the system that produces mugging.

President Bush did an excellent job as he talked about being a “compassionate conservative,” because most evangelicals I know are that. They are compassionate conservatives. They want to help poor people. And he talked about these faith-based initiatives that he was going to introduce. He was going to help the churches to help poor people. Christian groups drooled at the mouth about all the money they were going to get. I head up programs in nine different cities of the United States. We haven’t gotten a dime. And we’ve applied. I don’t know what that means. I guess it means a lot of things to a lot of different people. But, be that as it may, there is money going out to faith-based organizations. The question that John DiIulio [first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives] raised is: Is this becoming a political instrument rather than the good thing that we thought it was going to be? But he created that image. Even if he did that, let me point out the following. In order to finance this tax cut that just was put into place for rich people — and it is a tax cut primarily for rich people — 500,000 children lost after-school tutoring programs. … The talk is good. And there are faith-based initiatives that have benefited from the Bush efforts. But on the larger scale, it hasn’t happened. It hasn’t happened at all.

Let me just put it this way. I’ve been on the international board of Habitat for Humanity from the very beginning. When it comes to building houses for the poor, evangelicals are right there with their hammers. When it comes to changing housing policies at HUD, evangelicals are not interested. We’ve got to do both. We’ve got to build houses on the micro- level. We’ve got to change housing policies coming out of Washington.

Do evangelicals vote Republican mostly for moral reasons?

The real change came when Jimmy Carter got elected, interestingly enough. Jerry Falwell declared verbal war on Jimmy Carter, as did Pat Robertson. A lot of evangelicals said, “Oh, these people don’t control influence.” Yes, they do. They are very powerful influences. And here’s the reason why Jerry Falwell got so upset with Jimmy Carter. Shortly after being elected, Carter called a White House Conference on the Family. It was to live up to a promise. The promise was: “If elected, I’m going to do all that I can to restore the family, the basic institution of society.” Well, he called this White House conference and people came to talk about the family. Lo and behold, they couldn’t even define a family! Was a gay couple with children a family? Was the single parent with children a family? What about abortion? All of these family issues came up. And nothing good came out of that conference except for this: it was an incendiary conference that blew the lid off. From that point on, the religious right said, “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! This government does not concern itself with family issues.” And they came down strong.

I would have to say, there was a virtue in that position. The problem is, if you get the voting guide to the Christian Coalition — and they will be out again this year with their voting guide — there is nothing said about poor people. There is nothing said about the environment. There is nothing said about medicine. And I want to tell you, caring for the elderly is a family issue, providing housing for poor people is a family issue, providing decent education for inner-city kids is a family issue. I live in Radnor Township, just outside of Philadelphia. If you live in Radnor Township, they spend $16,000 a year on a child’s education. If you live in Philadelphia, they spend $7,000 a year on a child’s education. Extrapolate that to a class of 30 and see how much more money is spent on educating a class of kids in the suburbs, as opposed to educating a class of kids in the city. I believe that the government needs to correct that and set that right. And giving out vouchers and setting up charter schools is not the way to make the public school system really work. That’s where I am.

One evangelical congressman I spoke with said that, when it comes to being a conservative and a Christian, George W. Bush is closer to that than any president in history. Would you agree with that?

I believe that George Bush is a good man and I believe he is a Christian. I believe he lives a decent life. But I’ve got to say that presidents should be evaluated not just on their personal behavior but on their social policies. I daresay that if Jesus was President of the United States, his social policies would likely be different than those of this administration. I’m not sure that they wouldn’t also be different than the policies of a Democratic administration. But depending on how you feel about poor people is how you would answer those questions that were raised by this conservative. George Bush took a Democratic Congressman, Tony Hall, and appointed him as special ambassador to address the issue of poverty around the world. Here’s a Democratic Congressman who has now become an ambassador in a Republican administration. In that respect, my hat’s off to George W. Bush. He recognizes that caring for the poor transcends party allegiance. And I bless him for that. George W. Bush calling for $15 billion to be spent on the AIDS crisis in Africa is doing what I believe a president should do. I believe that’s according to the will of God. I don’t want to sanctify any president, nor do I want to demonize any president. I simply want to look at policies.