A letter to Tony Campolo


Dear Tony:

I saw you on TV last month during President Clinton’s inauguration. That event certainly had a lot of religious content, with leaders of different faiths and denominations bringing together their hopes and prayers for the future. I loved some of what you had to say, but part of your presentation troubled me.

I loved the story about the woman from Haiti trying desperately to give you her baby. As much as one can “love” a heart-rending story, that reminds us of the suffering in the world and of our responsibility to share God’s love.

Also, your reminder that the Lord’s prayer says “give us this day our daily bread,” and that this is prayed in the plural rather than in the singular, was at once easy to remember and profoundly meaningful.


That reminder of our responsibility to each other has been one of your greatest contributions to the Christian community. Your left-leaning views have served a vital role in the right-leaning evangelical community. You challenge our assumptions, force us to reexamine our priorities, and goad us into grappling with serious issues. Some evangelicals have begun ignoring you because they so often disagree with you; ironically, that disagreement is precisely what holds my interest.

But I found myself disagreeing more than usual during your inaugural sermon.

It wasn’t just that you’ve become a shameless shill for the Clinton Administration. After all, plenty of right-wing Christians played a similar role during the Reagan and Bush administrations. And President Clinton’s burning desire to be liked combined with his natural gifts as a politician have given him an eerie power to bend people to his will.

It wasn’t your crack about balancing the budget, although you did make it sound as though budget-balancers are out to starve the poor, when in fact many are trying only to avoid bankrupting our children.

It wasn’t your suggestion that we should end “this accusing and let us move on together,” even though the timing seemed a little convenient. Newt Gingrich has just been fined $300,000 for a minor technical violation that most Americans probably couldn’t even explain, and Bill Clinton has yet to be called to account for an array of alleged wrongdoing, ranging from indecent exposure to putting American foreign policy up for sale to the highest bidder. I’m sure that to you and Bill this seems like a great time to put aside the “politics of bile.” That’s okay. That’s politics.

You condemned “religion that is arrogantly triumphalistic and dares to say if you don’t agree with us we will persecute you.” That could have been a reference to the plight of right-wing organizations suffering politically motivated IRS audits at this administration’s behest, or a dig at secularists trying to wipe every sign of religious faith from public life, but I’m guessing it was a slam at the Christian right. Let me remind you that God assures us He will triumph in the end, and will cast those who don’t agree with Him into a lake of fire — talk about persecuting those who disagree with you! Those character traits you hate in the Christian right are ones we come by honestly. We get them from our Father.

What really troubled me was your discussion of the “dark forces” and the “principalities and powers” we wrestle against. Your list of examples of evil included racism, sexism, homophobia, and pornography.

By “homophobia” I suppose you mean those who treat homosexuality as a sin, rather than as the identifier of a new victim class. That’s troubling.

But even more troubling was your omission of abortion from that list. Tony, you were just feet away from the man who single-handedly shot down a ban on partial-birth abortion last year a man who apparently believes it’s okay to murder viable children after birth, just so long as the head is still inside the mother. It’s a position so horrendous that even some reliably pro-choice votes in Congress defected and voted for the ban. The Pope, Mother Teresa and Billy Graham have all taken Clinton to task for this. And yet in listing evils for the President you come up with homophobia, not abortion.

Tony, if you can’t bring yourself to speak truth to the powerful, what’s the point of hanging out with them?

Doug Trouten is director of the EP News Service, based in Minneapolis.

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