Tony Campolo might rightly be described as one of the founding fathers of the modern day “Christian left.” An ordained baptist minister and son of a union organizer, Campolo gained prominence as a spiritual advisor to President Bill Clinton. He’s the founder of the Evangelical Organization for the Promotion of Education and the namesake for Eastern University’s Campolo School for Social Change. Progressive evangelical Jim Wallis calls Campolo his “favorite evangelist.”
The evangelical leader and author of Red Letter Revolution is known for his tenaciousness and use of hyperbole to make serious points about injustice. According to a 2003 “Christianity Today” profile, Campolo would often begin speeches by saying, “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a sh-t. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said ‘sh-t’ than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”
The rhetorical tactic is undeniably effective, but as “Christianity Today” adds, “The hyperbole and shock are inevitably followed with cogent arguments, along with reams of Scripture.”
At age 78, Campolo is less visibly involved in public advocacy than he once was. But you’ll see, he’s no less opinionated. Here, Campolo discusses his views on a range of today’s most divisive topics, from abortion to gay marriage to Israel.
RNS: You were known in the 1990s for being something of a spiritual advisor to President Bill Clinton. What did he teach you that has stuck with you throughout the years?
TC: What President Clinton made clear was that social change is a strong possibility. And that the church can participate effectively. I’ll give you one particular instance. There’s a group over in the UK that is very evangelical, committed to a kind of Ignatian spirituality and has worked for social justice. The group is called SPEAK. They compiled a great deal of information on the crippling effect which third-world debt has on poor countries.
And at one of our earliest meetings, I passed that on to the president. And that’s one of the things that got him thinking about the cancellation of third-world debts. About a year and a half later, when the G7 nations met at Birmingham, England, about 1,000 young university students showed up at the building. They weren’t carrying signs, they weren’t chanting, and they weren’t shouting slogans. They simply held a prayer vigil.
All day and all night, with the candles lit, the leaders of the G7 nations took note of this and were very impressed. They began to ask what this was all about. And the answer was, “The cancellation of third-world debts.” It was then that Bill Clinton introduced a motion that the rich countries work hard to cancel third-world debts. And it was a very receptive response to that plea. The first nation they worked with was Uganda. And the debts were cancelled with the stipulation that all the money that would have been paid on the debt and on the interest had to be set aside by the government, in a special fund, that would address the AIDS crisis: medicine, counseling, education.
As a result, they were able to turn things around in places like Uganda, so that within just a couple of years the death rate from AIDS had dropped dramatically. The new cases of AIDS was about one-third of what it was a few years earlier. It had tremendous change. And all this was done because the President made a move. It really does show that people who are in power, who have a heart for the poor and oppressed, are able to make structural changes that are essential to bringing an end to poverty.
RNS: During that time, you clashed openly with folks like Gary Bauer, Jerry Falwell and Rush Limbaugh. What is the enduring lesson to be learned from the religious right experiment in your opinion?