Tony Campolo has never seemed to be someone to shy away from controversial issues. It came as no surprise, then, that he dealt with “Hot-Button Issues” like gay rights, abortion, and immigration in his latest book Red Letter Christians: A Citizen’s Guide to Faith and Politics. Campolo’s book comes out along with several other recent publications (see my previous review of Jim Wallis’ The Great Awakening) that deal with faith and politics just in time for Christians to digest before they cast their votes in the 2008 Presidential election.
Campolo argues for a biblical approach to politics that goes deeper than mere party loyalties. He writes, “In reality, conservatives and liberals need each other: Conservatives maintain many lines that should never be crossed, while liberals destroy many lines that should never have existed… On some issues, Red Letter Christians are conservative and on others we are liberal. Neither end of the political spectrum has a corner on the will of God” (36-37). Campolo does not just hope to elevate the dialogue beyond seeing the world through red or blue glasses. He argues that “instead of using power to mold public policies, [Christians] should endeavor to speak with authority to those in power” (37).
Before Campolo argues for a specific understanding of politics, he argues for a particular understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Based on the title of the book, Campolo argues that “red letter Christians” are “committed to living out the things that Jesus taught” (22). In other words, the words spoken by Jesus in the Gospels, which are printed in red letters in many versions of the Bible, are lifted up as of particular importance for those who claim to be followers of Christ. This book, as a result, seeks to craft a particular approach to politics that is always faithful to the teachings of Jesus as revealed in the four Gospels.
This approach leads Campolo to articulate a fresh approach to politics that avoids many of the traps that Christians from the far right and far left have fallen into. In fact, Red Letter Christians articulates an approach to politics that will at times delight conservatives and liberals. Of course, this also means that conservatives and liberals will also be frustrated at times by the recommendations that Campolo makes. Ultimately, Campolo asks us to judge his politics not by how well it fits within a Republican or Democrat platform, but by how faithfully it puts the teachings of Jesus into practice in the realm of politics.
I found myself challenged by this book from the very beginning. Campolo argues that in order for Christians to be respected by non-Christians within the political sphere, they must “first serve the needs of others in sacrificial ways, especially the poor and oppressed” (40). Serving the other sacrificially is in itself a pretty radical concept for the way modern politics works. Whether I was reading the issues Campolo discusses under the “Global Issues,” “The Hot-Button Issues,” “The Economic Issues,” or “The Government Issues” I was challenged to reexamine many of my previously held political convictions in light of the teachings of Jesus. One of the things I really like about Tony Campolo is that he often confuses the stereotypes about evangelical Christians. In one moment he criticizes the current President, but in the next he reminds the reader that the situation is often much more complicated than it is presented in a sixty second television spot. Sometimes imperfect people have to do the best that they can in very difficult situations. This is helpful for me to remember before I judge any politician’s decision without giving adequate consideration to the complexities and real difficulties they faced in coming to the decision they made.
In some ways, I finished the book feeling more confused about the ultimate practical consideration that I brought to this book when I began reading it: Who should I vote for in the upcoming Presidential election? There is not a candidate that we could vote for that would even come close to advocating the “Red Letter Party Platform” in its entirety. Ultimately, I see this book as an important contribution because it sets aside many of the previous assumptions of the religious right that did not seem to be coming from Scripture, and it returns to the teachings of Jesus as found in Scripture. It is to Tony Campolo’s credit that he seeks to be faithful to these teachings above all else — even when it is inconvenient.