Review: Concerns About "Red Letter Christians" by Tony Campolo

Tony Campolo's Red Letter Christians (hereafter, RLC) has been out a bit over a year now, and the recent election results leave little doubt that it helped make waves. Not written to be a hefty theological lesson, RLC focuses on the role Christians should play in politics, citing several texts to support its admonitions. With a steady flow of thought, simple but fairly precise and amiable language, Campolo produces a fine work to champion his position.

That said, I have a few concerns about how this book answers the question of whether politics should become an extension of the church's mission. Primarily, my concerns come down to how RLC interprets Scripture and presents the red letters of the Bible in order to answer this question. These concerns appear below.

First, readers concerned about how politically involved Christians have become should also be concerned about this book.
Asking students at an Ivy League university to define Evangelicals, Campolo received no "indication that they defined Evangelicals by their theological convictions" but instead received a laundry list of politically conservative positions (15). I have no doubt that this sad report is true, as Evangelicalism has become seemingly inseparable from politics. After the 2004 election, the consensus among the media and a large number of Christians was condemnatory of the political involvement of churches and ministries. The union is not proper, of course, and the nation has come to define Evangelicals as those right-wing fanatics who hate gay marriage and abortion.

Yet, those decrying the union must remember that American politics are by the people, and people are not robots that can shut down religious programming or moral directives upon entering polling centers. Campolo quotes Gandhi as saying "Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is," and goes on to give the example of William Wilberforce's conviction of abolitionism (24). It is the consistent person who votes for policies that seem to fit the tenants of his religion; the inconsistent person affirms belief in one thing on Sunday morning and votes in a contrary manner on Tuesday.

Indeed, Campolo pleas with Christians to be prompted by the love of Christ when voting for issues that will affect the people around us. While I disagree with him on many of the political positions he suggests meets that goal, we can have common ground in the belief that our convictions should guide our choices.

The message we as Christians are sending, however, should not be that we need to wed to a political party to advance our social agenda. RLC is not arguing for the freedom of Evangelicalism from political activism. While Campolo claims the goal of RLC should be not to make Jesus a Republican or a Democrat (17), it argues for a Jesus who is decidedly left of the center. Campolo is, himself, a Democrat, and his political leanings betray the bipartisan Christianity he wants to present.

For instance, consider the cloudy position on abortion in RLC. On page 120, Campolo states "Red Letter Christians are overwhelmingly pro-life" (121), a statement seeming to encapsulate the movement. He then begins to adjust that statement for "other points of view" with this enigmatic sentence: "Some Red Letter Christians are pro-life but nevertheless hold that abortions should be allowed in special cases, such as rape and incest" (123). He then records that some believe a "vote against abortion is... a vote against the right of women to make decisions that determine their own biological destinies" (124). His indefinite conclusion is that "there are Christians on both sides of the debate," so "we must show grace" (126). Thus, Red Letter Christians need to look elsewhere to form their convictions about abortion, as this book remains indecisive on the issue.

However, he is unequivocal when in comes to the environment: "Yes, the environment is a justice issue" (28). Thus, the appearent message is that while God hasn't made it clear whether the slaughter of thousands of infants in utero every year is something which should occupy the attention of Red Letter Christians, He has deemed the chopping down of trees "sinful" (29).

Campolo is not arguing for Christians to have less involvement in politics, but left involvement. It is clear that he is only being honest and consistent to his beliefs; he would not be a Democrat unless he believed Jesus would support more left policies than right. Where Campolo falls short is in getting Christians back on the correct path with RLC, as replacing a Republican Jesus with a Democratic one is not going to solve the root of Evangelicalism's problem.

Second, readers concerned about interpreting Scripture should be concerned about this book.
The fancy word is hermeneutics, a concise way of saying "the science of interpreting Scripture." Some may be surprised to see the word "science" associated with Bible reading, but there are tools Bible teachers utilize in order to make certain they have understood a verse before presenting it to an audience of some sort.

I am concerned about the toolbox RLC utilizes. Many verses appear throughout the book with odd political commentary leaving readers scratching their heads. For instance, Campolo cites this promise about the coming kingdom of Christ: "They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain" (Isaiah 65:25). He then says environmentalists can have assurance "that a time will come when people will not 'hurt or destroy' the earth anymore'" (33). This improbable interpretation may be the inclusive result of the verse, but I doubt that the battle-weary people to whom it was written would find the comfort they needed in that interpretation.

Things get worse when Campolo examines Ephesians 1:21-23. Based on that passage, Campolo believes "[t]he Church... is the chosen means through which God will change the world" and "God has chosen to use the Church to usher in the fullness of His presence in history" (34). It is odd that he missed the "in Christ" of verse 20 when quoting verse 21. I simply cannot figure out how to make these verses say what Campolo claims they say, but they are only stating that the Christ who is over all is the head of the church.

There are numerous other examples that leave the reader wondering if Campolo used a different translation from which he drew his conclusions than the one he cites in the book. While RLC does not teach Red Letter Christians how to read their Bibles to discern upcoming candidates, it gives several examples of how not to approach Scripture: with a political bent.

Third, readers concerned about Jesus' prime message should be concerned about this book.
Campolo reduces the message of Christ to this soundbite: "I have come to declare that the Kingdom of God is at hand" (31). Readers may comment that this was more of John the Baptist's response to the inquisitive reporters (cf. Matt 3:2-3; John 1:22-23) than Christ's, but, to Campolo's credit, Jesus did preach similarly (4:17). Yet, this message is a subtle departure from Christ's precise message.

There is a similar statement we should consider in Luke 4:23, where Jesus says He was sent to preach the "good news of the kingdom." This was after delivering a different purpose statement in verses 18 and 19:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
Christ's purpose was to deliver (and, of course, be) the "good news." As such, Jesus was appropriating this quote to Himself from Isaiah 61:1-2, where He left out the part that said "to proclaim... the day of vengeance of our God." I guess it wouldn't have sounded like good news if He said that. Indeed, Jesus says "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:17).

Was the good news of Christ's message, "The kingdom is at hand, so live better: work union?" While there are practical ramifications to the kingdom Christ will usher in, the real good news is this: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (3:16). That is the message of the red letters.

Yet, RLC presents a slightly different message. "When [Jesus] taught His disciples to pray," writes Campolo, "He taught them to ask the Father for this new social order to come 'on the earth as it is in heaven' (Matt. 6:10)" (31). Campolo is not necessarily suggesting there is HillaryCare beyond the golden gates, but he is suggesting that universal healthcare will somehow help Christ's kingdom come to earth. (One may also ask why Campolo reduces the Kingdom promises to Israel to a mere "new social order," but that is a topic left for another time.)

What is the message of Christ according to RLC? Consider Campolo's testimonial found on page 34:
One of the main reasons I became a Christian was that I was told I would be joining and army that was doing battle with evil forces, powers that were all too evident and often in control of the world around me. I was told that I would be joining with other Christians and participating with God in revolutionizing society. Such a calling whetted my appetite to do something heroic in my life!
Rather than fellowship with the Creator of the universe, the new convert who goes glove-to-glove with world hunger has fully embraced the Christian message. Rather than Christ being exalted, people become the heroes of the Kingdom.

Please do not misunderstand me. This critique is of RLC, not of Tony Campolo's faith. He seems to have more than adequate knowledge to be a genuine Christian, and I prefer to believe he is one, especially considering his dedication to the poor and generosity. He says, "[R]epentance is the first thing required of the sinner" (143), a vital understanding for all true converts.

Yet, even this statment, chapters later in the book, appears as a plea for adjusting our criminal justice system, not as dogma for all Red Letter Christians who are true. RLC focuses on social order, not on Christ's Gospel message. To define a group of "Christians" outside of this message is fallicious and possibly dangerous. RLC fails to present the correct Christian message, and should have been entitled something else than it was.

Campolo asks interesting questions as to the political allegiances we hold as Evangelicals. Some of the points he brings up deserves a closer look, and I plan to have future posts based on this book. I would recommend the book on the sole basis of its probing nature, if you as a reader can interact with the sometimes edgy, sometimes insane political commentary without blowing a fuse.

However, as stated, these questions are not based on sound hermeneutics or theology. Christians need to look elsewhere if they wish to know what the Bible has to say about their interaction with politics. As such, the title seems to fail, and I would not recommend it to anyone wishing to understand the "faith" in "A Citizen's Guide to Faith & Politics."

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