Tony Campolo is a Christian pastor, author, and speaker who also happens to be rather liberal when it comes to certain theological points and most political issues. As such, he is concerned that all Evangelicals have been stereotyped as members of the Religious Right, to which he most definitely does not belong. In order to distinguish themselves from the Religious Right, Campolo and other liberal Christians have dubbed themselves "Red Letter Christians," by which they intend to indicate that they are the ones who are taking Jesus’ words — the ones that are printed in red ink in many Bibles — seriously while the Pat Robertsons and James Dobsons of the world are not.
Now Campolo — whom I have met and heard speak on two occasions, and whose faith in Christ I do not doubt for a moment even though I have my disagreements with him on other issues — is at pains to convince the reader of his book, Red Letter Christians, a portion of which was recently reprinted at the Huffington Post, that he does not believe that Christians who disagree with him are disobeying the teachings of Christ. He writes that the Red Letter Christians "did not want to call ourselves u2018progressive Evangelicals,’ because that might imply a value judgment on those who do not share our views." That sounds quite magnanimous, yet the tone of the rest of the piece is such that one can come to no other conclusion but that Campolo is indeed making a value judgment against those who disagree that more and bigger government is the solution to the social ills of the world. In fact, he bluntly states that "Red Letter Christians consider ignoring the necessity of legislation to address such careless disregard [for the environment, but he could fairly well be speaking of poverty or any of the other issues he raises] as more than a disgrace: We call it sinful." Thank goodness he’s not passing value judgments on anyone!
This is not to say that the Red Letter Christians are unique in passing judgment on other Christians who disagree with their politics; try opposing the Iraq war or supporting drug decriminalization in your average Southern Baptist church. It is to say, however, that Campolo is being disingenuous when he suggests that, on the one hand, he can assert that he is following Jesus’ words and others are not while, on the other hand, he claims not to be passing judgment on those who disagree with him.
The fact is that neither the Religious Right nor the Red Letter Christians have a lock on following Christ’s teachings. In many cases they read the same passages but interpret them differently. For example, it is not arguable that Jesus called on His followers to take care of the poor; it is arguable whether He meant that to take place under the auspices of the church or under the auspices of government (or, as some members of the Religious Right would have it, via "faith-based initiatives" whereby government gives money to religious organizations to undertake charitable endeavors).
Even where the two camps seem to be inalterably opposed at a fundamental level, things tend to fall less along theological lines than along partisan ones. Campolo wants "us to examine our attitudes about war," and as a liberal one would expect him to be antiwar. Meanwhile, Jim Wallis, another of the Red Letter Christians, has opposed the Iraq war but supports all kinds of actions against Sudan, including "a no-fly zone over Darfur [presumably enforced by military means] and a possible naval blockade," not to mention "a large and strong multinational peacekeeping force, with the authority to use u2018all necessary means,’ . . . to end the genocide in Darfur." Apparently the attitude we are to have about war, according to the Red Letter folks, is that it’s bad when Republicans engage the U.S. government in it but good when the United Nations engages various governments in it.
"Whereas some leading Evangelical spokespersons focus almost all their attention on preventing gay marriages and overturning past Supreme Court rulings on abortion," writes Campolo, "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."
The question is: How can one promote legislation that "provides help for the poor" without at the same time violating his pledge to promote legislation that offers "hope for the oppressed"? The only way for government to give money or services to the poor is first to take the necessary funds from other citizens, i.e., to steal from them, which surely qualifies as oppression. Furthermore, if Campolo purposes to "promote legislation that turns biblical imperatives into social policy," how can he support laws that blatantly violate Exodus 20:15 ("You shall not steal")?
Apparently the answer lies in stealing from the "right" people. Campolo writes: "We find it significant that in Christ’s story of the rich man and Lazarus, as recorded in Luke 16:19—31, the sin that warrants the rich man’s condemnation is that he u2018feasted sumptuously’ while remaining indifferent to the poor man at his gate. Given such biblical illustrations of God’s concerns, we contend that we have a God-given responsibility to share with the poor and to be a voice for the voiceless oppressed." Amen, Brother Campolo. The problem is that you are making an unwarranted leap of logic from "God commands His followers to share with the poor" to "we must therefore force people to share with the poor, whether they like it or not." Sharing your own money with others is one thing; holding up someone else and giving his money away to others is quite another. Does anyone really think that God would somehow have been more accepting of the rich man in the parable if, say, the king had taxed away 50 percent of the man’s income and given it to Lazarus?
From a biblical perspective, helping the poor is not an end in itself. It is a means of demonstrating God’s love, both to the poor and to others who witness our acts of charity, in the hope that they will come to a saving knowledge of Him. Campolo, however, treats charity as the end; as long as we can get the government to rob from the rich and give to the poor, we have fulfilled our responsibility to help the poor. How many poor people are going to recognize the love of God in a welfare check? How can they when the check is provided not out of love but out of fear? They will view their benefactors with contempt, demanding ever more money with ever less responsibility. Indeed, this has been the universal experience with government anti-poverty programs over the last century, yet Campolo seems to think that we need more of it.
Campolo does not limit his desire for increased legalized theft merely to domestic concerns. He contends that "there is something terribly amiss when our national budget ranks second to last of the 22 industrialized nations for assistance to the world’s poor." Spending "less than four-tenths of 1 percent (0.4%) of [the U.S.] federal budget to address world poverty" is simply unacceptable, as far as he is concerned. Besides being unconstitutional, it is as plain as the nose on Campolo’s face — and Tony would be the first to admit that his proboscis is quite prominent — that foreign aid programs serve only to increase oppression and prolong poverty in Third World countries. Money sent to foreign countries invariably ends up in the hands of the ruling class, who use it to buy both luxuries for their own comfort and weapons with which to keep the ruled class under their thumbs. No country in the world has emerged from poverty via foreign aid; many have emerged via the free market. Besides, sending money abroad means collecting it at home, and that means additional taxation, which brings us right to back to that business about stealing.
Next Campolo describes the myriad problems of Camden, New Jersey: rampant divorce and illegitimacy; lack of emergency rooms; out-of-control crime, including murder; steep incarceration rates for young males; corruption in city government; disastrous public schooling; and high unemployment. Look at that list and name one of those problems that isn’t directly related to government policies. Welfare and the war on drugs have destroyed black families and led to much violent crime and the imprisonment of so many young black men. Government control and regulation of the health care industry have resulted in high prices and shortages of service. Public schools are, of course, wholly owned and operated by the government, the consequences of which are, as Campolo describes them, "inefficiency and corruption," a graduation rate under 50 percent among high school students, and many "functionally illiterate" graduates. High unemployment is largely a symptom of all the other problems but is exacerbated by the exorbitant taxes and numerous regulations that Campolo’s preferred method of ending poverty necessarily entails.
Yet with all this evidence of government failure staring him in the face, Campolo says that "[t]hose who say that the problems of Camden can be resolved in a libertarian fashion — with churches and other voluntary organizations meeting the needs of the city without government programs and dollars — have a hard time convincing people like me." It’s as if the fire department has been trying for years to put out a blaze by pouring gasoline on it, and when someone else comes along and says that maybe water would work better, Campolo is standing there yelling, "No! More unleaded!"
"I strongly believe," continues Campolo, "that while churches and charities have done incredible work to alleviate the suffering of the needy, they cannot provide universal health care or guarantee a minimum wage. These fall under the province of government." Of course, government cannot do those things either. Has Campolo ever noticed that, even with our highly regulated health care system, Canadians routinely cross the border to get health care that their "universal" system has denied them or delayed for years? Does he not know that they are turning to the free market, even when it is of questionable legality, to obtain the care they so desperately need? Has he no inkling of the disasters befalling the British National Health Service? Does he not possess even the most basic grasp of economics that would enable him to recognize that in "guarantee[ing] a minimum wage," government is also guaranteeing unemployment for some of the poorest people, the very ones Campolo claims to want to help by such policies?
Campolo rightly decries the plummeting purchasing power of the dollar owing to inflation, but every one of the anti-poverty programs he proposes is a surefire way to increase inflation. In order to pay for its spending, the government can only tax people so much before they rebel, but it can inflate the currency for much longer. With our government already vastly in debt, every penny spent is either borrowed or made up out of thin air. Either way the poorest people are hit the hardest, while the well-connected wealthy make out like bandits.
He decries the increase in home foreclosures without, again, making the connection that government spending and regulations allegedly designed to help the poor are largely at the root of it.
Being a good statist, Campolo is stunned that some Evangelicals think "that global warming is a myth (or at least grossly exaggerated)." Well, yes, we do, considering that (a) many of the same people who today are telling us we’re going to burn up were, 30 years ago, telling us we were headed for a new ice age, and (b) the global warming proponents’ every solution to the alleged problem is for us all to become more poor and give up more freedom to the government. Maybe global warming is happening, and maybe it isn’t (though I’m inclined to believe the latter). If it is happening, maybe humans are the cause of it, and maybe we aren’t. With so much uncertainty surrounding the whole theory, why are the skeptics the ones who are considered outré rather than those who believe it wholeheartedly despite the lack of conclusive evidence?
Finally, Campolo is outraged that some "Evangelicals argue against environmentalism" and "don’t understand that environmental degradation in the developing world is a major contributor to extreme poverty." I rather think that most Christians would agree with Campolo that God calls us "to be stewards of the natural world, not just for our own sakes, but also for the good of others." The question, again, is how to go about preserving the environment for future generations; and again, Campolo’s answer is more government. Apparently it has not occurred to him that the freest societies on earth also have the cleanest environments. There are two reasons for this. One is that free societies tend to be more prosperous, and more prosperous people have the leisure time to be concerned with preserving the environment, whereas the poor are just concerned with surviving from one day to the next by any means possible. The other is that free societies protect private property, and property rights are the surest way to prevent environmental degradation. No one has the right to pollute another’s property; but if property is largely held by the government or can easily be taken from its rightful owner, then no one really owns it and, thus, no one has any real incentive to keep it clean. This is why government-owned forests tend to be clear-cut when loggers are given the opportunity to harvest trees in them while privately owned forests are maintained for long-term profitability. Most developing countries are in dire poverty and have socialist or communist governments under which property rights are practically nonexistent. It’s not hard to see why environmental concerns rank low on their priority lists. Protect property rights and you’ll see both increasing prosperity and a cleaner environment.
When it comes right down to it, the Religious Right and the Red Letter Christians have much in common. Both believe in the power of government to stamp out evil by spending more money. The Religious Right thinks it can stamp out poverty by spending more money on faith-based initiatives, end promiscuity by spending more money on abstinence programs, and defeat "Islamofascism" by spending more money on killing Muslims. The Red Letter Christians think it can stamp out poverty throughout the world by spending more money, end crime and illegitimacy by spending more money, and stop "global warming" and clean up the environment by spending more money. Neither side seems to care that spending this money requires first taking it from someone by force, the very definition of theft, which is clearly prohibited in the Bible; nor does either side appreciate that Jesus never called for coercing people into following His commands.
Campolo concludes: "We Red Letter Christians consider ignoring the necessity of legislation to address such careless disregard as more than a disgrace: We call it sinful. And if some of those old Hebrew prophets were around today, they would have a lot to say about it." Campolo’s last sentence is correct, but I doubt that he had Psalm 118:9 in mind: "It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes."
Michael Tennant [send him mail] is a software developer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.